As an independent advisor and consultant to CEOs of growing companies, my days are very different from the software executive game I played for over 25 years. In addition to client meetings, advisory calls and running my business, I’m working on a book, blogging weekly and helping a few worthy causes.
There is a lot to juggle and I love it, but it has taken some time to develop a new system for managing my time, tasks, calls, projects, writing, speaking, research, networking, administration, travel and more. I enjoy the process of designing new techniques and habits to make the most of my precious time and creative capacity.
I’ve always been a student of time management, organization tools and productivity methodologies. A few years back, I spoke at a TED-like event about a productivity approach called the Pomodoro Technique, which is a simple system I still practice today. See the 5-minute video of my talk here.
Here are my three favorite new productivity habits that help me be most effective in my new situation.
1) Manage my day in blocks of time
I still use a calendar and to-do list every day, but those aren’t sufficient for me to stay on track with deeper creative tasks like writing, researching and project work. My default habit is go-go-go, so “slowing down” to think, write and research was easily disrupted. My book wouldn’t get written unless I changed something.
I discovered that most writers and bloggers have overcome the same challenge by blocking out time for writing as a primary part of their day and working everything around that. Time blocking is about getting our butts in our seats every day for the deep work, rather than achieving specific goals each time (or procrastinating). This “Do Not Disturb” time took me a while to figure out, but it’s what I really needed to develop and protect.
Now I schedule my early mornings for writing and I do nothing else until I’ve put in a few hours (on most days). No email distractions, no social media, no client calls, no personal errands. I also track my days in 30-minute time blocks in a Google spreadsheet to help me see how much time I really spent on types of activities – writing, networking, research, projects, travel, etc. This is always useful and humbling.
2) Capture and “compost” ideas
I struggled to capture all the ideas, articles, questions, conversations and stories that I came across or thought up. This stream of ideas and facts contains a few gems that can become content for my book, blogs, speeches or mentoring advice.
Writing long notes using Evernote became cumbersome, so I stopped doing it. That great idea I had driving across town? Gone. If I didn’t write it down, it never happened.
- Spend 25 minutes (one “Pomodoro“) every few days to write out a random list of thoughts, stories, questions and ideas on blank sheet of paper.
- Dictate a quick idea using Siri on my iPhone with the Notes app. This works great when I’m driving or moving around.
- Write lists in Evernote when I have a specific topic to develop.
- Capture articles to read later using Instapaper.
I don’t worry about anything other than capturing the ideas so I can remember them later. I have stacks of note cards and folders full of scribbled pages. I take some time every few weeks to quickly “compost” this pile of thoughts with a quick read to see what is worth keeping or developing. Where did this all these ideas go before? Most were lost.
3) I don’t do lunch or coffee
I get requests almost every day to “have coffee or lunch” from all kinds of great people who want to connect with me. I’m an extrovert and I love to help others, so I could easily spend most of my days meeting people and driving all over town. I just wouldn’t get any real work done.
Instead of coffee, I simply suggest we connect for a 30-minute phone call. I block out time from 4:00-6:00 on most days for these calls. I can have meaningful conversations with 10-15 people a week without disrupting my important writing or client work.
That’s up to 500 people a year: potential client introductions, mentor calls, introductions, references, talented job searchers, students looking for advice or whatever. I connect with lots of people in my late afternoon “downtime” when I’m not much use for anything else.
My secret to this is Calendly, a scheduling app that is connected to my Google Calendar. I reply to qualified meeting requests with a simple email to “check my schedule on Calendly and find a 30-minute time slot that works for you.” They click the link, find a time and schedule the meeting. With no other effort than a reply to their email, I check my calendar at 4:00 and make the calls. There is NO manual back and forth to schedule all these calls, which is just amazing.
I wasn’t born this way
It takes me a few months to diagnose a new productivity challenge, learn how others deal with it, try a few methods and habituate a useful approach. I’ve learned to enjoy this process, but it’s not easy and I’m not perfect in my execution. That’s OK.
I had tried and failed over the years to “blog more” or “blog 2 times a week” with lots of angst and disappointment. With these new habits, I’m mostly just showing up and running my system on autopilot. I’m not kicking my distracted brain each time to “just do it!” Seems to be working.
Many people think I’m just naturally systematic and organized. There may be a little of that, but mostly I just hate to run around in circles, waste time and not accomplish my most important goals. I get just as distracted as anyone by social media, email inboxes, interesting videos, blogs, books or news. I am methodical to keep my wandering brain on track.
I am confident that any recurring productivity trap in my workday can be fixed with a simple system or habit shift. This allows me to actually free my mind to do more interesting things, like connecting with people and creating great work.
My time is my most scarce resource, so I try hard to make the most of it.
What’s your most useful productivity “hack?”