Posts filed under ‘Life Balance’

At the Heart of Time Management

Is reading this article the best use of your time right now?

If you can extract the core lesson contained in the above question, then not only don’t you need to read this article, but you never have to attend a course on time management. You’ve just saved a lot of time and money. You can go about your business. Good-bye.

What? You’re still reading? You mean I have to finish this article? I was just about to take a break you know. Okay. Okay. Just for you, I’ll continue, but I have a cold beer waiting on the deck, so hurry up and finish reading… I have better things to do right now.

Time Management isn’t a overly complex topic. When you get right down to it, a good time manager really only needs two sets of information.

1) Which of all the tasks we have to complete, is the most important?
And please, don’t adopt the strategy used by some psychotic managers… Everything is Priority #1!

Making everything Priority #1 isn’t possible. When everything on your plate is Priority #1, then the reality is that nothing is Priority #1.

2) How much time do you have available to do the tasks on your plate? If you have time aplenty for everything, then you don’t have a time management problem.  Please stop reading so I can leave, that beer is getting warm.

What! Still here? I can see how this is going to play out. Sigh. Okay. On we go.

Since you’re still reading, I can only assume you don’t have enough time to do everything you’ve been tasked to do. (but you have the time to read this article… weird) I won’t ask why you took on more than you can handle, that would be rude.

With more work, than time, we’re faced with a problem. We can’t do everything.

This is perhaps the most important thing to know about time management. Time Management is not about doing everything on our plate, it’s all about deciding what to do, and most importantly, what not to do.

This is where Time Management gets difficult. Prioritizing our tasks is fairly easy, some things are obviously more important than others. Identifying how much time we have, is also relatively easy, since we can start with 24 hours a day and work our way down to a more reasonable/realistic number.

Where we all have a problem is coming to the conclusion that task ‘X’ won’t be done this week, because we don’t have time for it.

Of course, to get to that point, we do need to become proficient at allocating time to the tasks we’re choosing to complete and then focusing our attention on those tasks until they are complete

The most basic tool to assist us in this, is the ‘to do’ list. We all know how that works. List the stuff we must do on top in order of priority, then the stuff we should do if we have time for them, and then at the bottom the stuff we’re unlikely to ever get done (like that rapidly warming beer on the deck).

The mechanics of the TD list aside, there’s an aspect of the TD list that’s rarely mentioned. Part of the problem we have managing ourtime is the overwhelming sense of chaos that swirls around our heads. There’s little more demotivating than the certain knowledge that we’re disorganized, that we’ll never get it all done no matter how hard we work.

This sense of constant chaos cheats us of any sense of progress towards a goal. A daily ‘To Do’ list, compiled during those few calm moments before the day starts with a rushing vengeance, is the perfect solution to our all too common panic attack.

Writing down what we have to do, immediately removes the certainty that we’ve forgotten something. It stops the constant mind juggling necessary to keep everything in memory and allows us to focus on a single task.

Time Management becomes an exhilarating experience as we strike a task off the list with a swooping flourish of a lurid purple marker (am I disclosing too much?). This is such a pleasure, that you’ll find yourself putting things on the list, just so that you can strike them off the list.

The sense of progress we didn’t have before, is now there for all to see as a flurry of purple strokes across the page.

The truth about the heart of Time Management is contained in the opening question. We can’t answer it until we know what we should be doing right now, and how much time we have available. Simple, if not easy. Now, the next thing on my list is that beer. See you later… maybe… if I have nothing better to do. I’m not kidding.

July 8, 2008 at 11:48 am Leave a comment

Out! Out! Damn Pebble!

It requires no great skill to opine on what’s wrong with the world. All we need do is go about our lives, and pay attention to all that annoys and peeves us. Like a sharp pebble caught in a sandal, wrongness is self evident at every step. Flaws aren’t silent; they whisper their presence at every turn and plead for our attention.

Only one thing takes less skill than noticing errors and that’s whining and moaning about them, that and looking to someone else, anyone else but ourselves, to make things right. It’s a habit picked we up in childhood when we lived under the protection of loving parents. It was best forgotten as we aged.

Nor is there any great intelligence necessary to imagine we know what needs doing. Even the naïve child we once were, suspected that sandals, free of pebbles, tread softer.

There are great gaps though, between seeing what’s wrong, knowing what’s right, and stepping from certain pain to possible relief. If the worried world around us is any evidence of our ability to cross them, these are insurmountable gaps. Huge gaps only ancient heroes and leaders can bridge. That is, if we believe that heroes and leaders are a thing of the past. Or worse, that no heroes or leaders lie sleeping within us.

These gaps are kept alive through no base lack of knowledge about either the problems or possible solutions. Nor is there, if our whining is any meaningful measure, a lack of desire for a world free from stony pebbles.

Yet the pebbles persist, despite our earnest wishes. Perhaps they exist because all we do is wish and pray for better times?

Removing even a pathetic pebble from a sandal requires us to do a lot more than wishing it away… we have to care enough, even for a tiny pebble, to bend down and act.

There are no guarantees here. No parents to ensure we won’t stick our hands in too fierce a fire. No warranty on the correctness of our solutions. No protection that we won’t make things worse through our actions. Never the less, action is all we have, without it, even that teeny pebble will eventually wear us down. The pebbles exist, that we have no control over. What we decide to do once the pebble gets our attention is entirely under our control.

Admittedly the real world is more complicated than mere a pebble in a sandal, but problems are still like pebbles in that they make their presence known by annoying us. And because of this, real world problems are at a distinct disadvantage… the bigger they are, the more people they annoy. And even problems the size of mountains can be shifted, one person, one pebble at a time.

The eyes that see a wrong, can see the hands to fix it.

July 4, 2008 at 2:37 pm Leave a comment

Simple Wisdoms… Difficult Lessons?

We call them many things, from adages and aphorisms, to maxims, proverbs, old sayings and memorable quotations, but regardless of how we’ve labeled these sage old saws, they all deliver exactly the same thing. They are all, snippets of wisdom, lessons learnt, sometimes at great expense through hard won life experience. Together they provide a large library of life lessons, all neatly encapsulated into pithy phrases. Sometimes they’re repeated so often, they lose meaning through excessive exposure.

Somewhere along the line we arrived at a point where we shun the simple in favour of the complex.

We’d rather take a long, expensive University course on Ethics, than adhere to the ancient Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

We’d rather invest in extensive quality programmes, than follow the advice of an old carpenter, “Measure twice, cut once.” And we need to be beaten into submission before taking regular backups, rather than remembering, “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.”

Despite our proven reluctance to follow these inherently simple bits of advice, all of them demonstrate a remarkable ability to survive in our global consciousness. Every country, every culture has a variation on, “Look before you leap!”, “A stitch in time saves nine” and “Slow and steady wins the race.” They persist from one generation to another because, even though we don’t always pay them any heed, we offer them as our best possible advice. We practice a bizarre contradiction, we know these sayings contain deep truths, but we choose to ignore both our own knowledge and the wisdom of the past.

While there are many management (and personal) challenges, the most important of them all, and perhaps the most intractable, is the answer to the question, “Why don’t we do, what we know we should do?

While I don’t think there’s a simple answer to the question as to why we ignore what we know, I do believe there’s a proven strategy to overcome this human flaw. Pay conscious attention to what we’re doing, and compare what we’re doing, to what we know we should be doing.

That’s so obviously true that it’s almost one of the maxims we’re discussing. In a sense it’s nothing more than a verbose variation of “Look before you leap!” or even “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.” Is it any less true because of that similarity?

One could examine our organizations and identify problems solvable and avoidable if only we consistently followed a set of simple maxims, but that could get awfully complicated faster than we could blink. Imagine having a “Department of Aphorism Audits & Accounting”, or an “Administration of Adept Adages”? The mind boggles and things just get silly.

A simpler approach, (and that’s the goal… right?) is to adopt a personal motto and measure all our actions against its succinct guidance. No, my personal motto isn’t, “Keep it Simple Stupid” (although it could be as evidenced by this article), mine is a little more suited to the world’s laziest man, “Never do today, what you can put off until tomorrow!” (Consider this advice carefully, it doesn’t necessarily mean what most people take it to mean. As an exercise for the reader, think of it in terms of Pareto’s 80/20 Principle and a rationally prioritized to-do list.)

The obstacle to all of this sage advice (the traditional proverbs and maxims, not my ramblings) is still the point identified in the second paragraph; we shun the simple, and insist on elevating the importance of the complicated, and costly. The phrase, “This can’t work, it’s too simple” is heard frequently in most organizations, along with another thought, “If it costs more, it must be better.” (The retailers of the world salute this thought process.)

So? If all the accumulated wisdom of the world is to have any value, we have to pay attention to at least one small snippet of it. What truth will you make your own? What one bit of advice will you measure all your actions against?

If you get comfortable enough with that concept, what one truth would you select as the foundation of how your team, department or organization operates? Start with just one, and if that becomes second nature, then add another one, move slow and steady and win the race. Remember big trees fall under small strokes. Aw heck… you get the idea.

July 2, 2008 at 10:48 am 1 comment

Why do we GO to work?

One of our local newspapers recently ran a series of articles on the phenomenon of ‘commuting’ and how some people spend 3-5 hours of their day travelling to and from ‘work’. While the focus of the series was mostly the ‘human interest’ angle the question that kept intruding into my thoughts was ‘Why?’… Why are we still flowing into small geographical areas in the morning and then flowing out to find our beds in the evening? An alien looking down from on high would be very curious as to the our reasons for the daily migration

Thankfully, I no longer work in a corporate cubical, but I have taken the time to reflect on what I used to do day in and day out, and as a white collar worker there was VERY little I did, that I could not do from a desk located on the other side of the city – if not the other side of the world. This was true as a regular grunt in the organization and as a high mucky muck.

As a white collar worker – I moved nothing from one location to another, I did not physically manipulate the world, I really had no good, persistent reason to physically travel from my home to the ‘office’ on a daily basis.

This is driven home today where my reality is that as long as there is electrical power and internet access, my office is wherever I, and my trusty laptop, are ensconced.

While I’m a card carrying techno geek, I’m not one of those who believe that all meetings are replaceable by ‘virtual meetings’ – that wouldn’t be much fun – I speak for a living – there is something about sitting across the table from someone that pixels on a screen cannot replace. More is communicated in a handshake (or a hug) than is possible to transmit on a 50gb optical cable. That said, It is possible to shift all those types of meetings to a single day each week, allowing most people to remain at home, in a properly equipped office, most of the time.

As I’ve discussed the topic of telecommuting with people over the years, the #1 objection/fear that I’ve heard (the one that is the real reason IMO that Telecommuting hasn’t taken off) is that we don’t trust our employees to produce if we aren’t looking over their shoulders all the time. That’s it in a nutshell. We don’t trust either our employees to produce at a distance OR we don’t believe our managers are competent enough to manage remotely.

There’s an irony here – and that is that management usually lets people work entirely on their own for weeks at a time. All too often managers have admitted to me that they don’t have regular 1-on-1 meetings with their staff… in fact they rarely meet with their staff.

Sometimes other reasons for not moving into telecommuting are raised, cost, security, privacy, etc. but there are more ‘excuses’ than they are legitimate objections. Many of these, possibly all of these, are solved via technology.

And then there’s another irony in the resistance towards telecommuting… any time we ‘outsource’ something – not to mention ‘offshore outsourcing’ then we are making a decision to do the work generated at this location in a remote location… ‘outsourcing’ is nothing but telecommuting on a grand scale.

So? Why the post? I’d like to ask two sets of questions…

1) What is it that you do at the office that you cannot do at home? Assume you have access to power, internet and a phone at home.
What % of your time in the office are you engaged in that activity?

2) Has your organization even considered the possibility of telecommuting?
If you have… what’s the status of that thinking?

Contribute if you wish, either in the comments (preferred) or off line (happy to start a few conversations –

I’ll assume that the benefits of Telecommuting are well known… let me know if listing a few would add value to the conversation.

January 8, 2008 at 12:46 pm 5 comments

Expanding Cogito Ergo Sum

With “Cogito Ergo Sum” (I think, therefore I am) Descartes was attempting to tackle the largest philosophical questions of his time. He wanted to rebuild Philosophy by going back to the beginning, to the only thing he knew for certain. He knew that “He thought”, and from that irrefutable starting point, he had no choice but to conclude that he therefore existed. All of that in three little words, an impressively efficient way to start attacking the existing labyrinth of philosophical thought surrounding him in his time.

With my girdle of presumption firmly in place, and tongue almost in cheek, I’d like to both expand and explore some other revelations hidden inside Descartes’ gem of philosophical brevity.

I don’t think (no pun intended) that anyone, including René, would object to a trivial expansion of his thought, “I think for myself, therefore I am”, since his whole point was that it was he who was doing the thinking in the first place.

There should also be no objection to rolling back the quote to closer match the original Latin. “I think for myself, therefore I exist.”

What this expansion loses in brevity, it more than recaptures in implication. Thinking for ourselves is what enables us to make our mark on the world. It’s what distinguishes us from the milling crowd. It’s what defines us as individuals and makes all art possible by enabling it to be unique. The ability to think for ourselves is our most important possession, and when we give it up, we give up that which makes us who we are. We give up our identity, and therefore in turn, we give up our existence. We become a zero.

Hand in hand with “Thinking for ourselves”, and almost inseparable from the concept of thought, is “Deciding for ourselves”. If we don’t think for ourselves, then we certainly can’t decide anything. If we let others decide for us, then we might as well not have the ability to think. Without deciding for ourselves what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, right or wrong, we have no legitimate claim to an identity. We become nothing but an echo chamber for the thoughts of others.

These aren’t mere philosophical mumblings; we encounter the implications of “If I don’t think for myself, I cease to exist” everyday. This is especially true if we work in any sizable organization. “Do it because I said so!” is a direct assault on personal thought and the individual decision making process. To do something just because we are directed to do so transforms us into nothing more than a resource to be deployed by others. We are more than that, or at least we can be… if we choose to be.

When contemplating a possible change, our preferred mode of action is always to understand (think and decide for ourselves) why a change is necessary before we implement it. “do it, because I said so!” not only ignores that preferred mode, but attempts to negates it. In six little words, it eloquently states that we don’t have the right to ask why, to understand, or even think about the matter. We only have one option, and that’s to do it. Regardless of what “it” is. Whispering in the dark behind these words is the echo, “I was only following orders.”

The management style represented by, “Do it because I said so!” elicits an immediate gut response, to resist, to push back, to oppose. In short, our unconscious thought process is this… I think for myself, that creates my identity, if someone takes my thoughts away from me, they’re causing me to cease to exist… therefore I will resist their actions.

Or, in honour of Descartes, Cogito Ergo Resisto… or I think, therefore I resist. I stand my ground, until I have reason to move. Or until I understand, and accept, their reasoning for movement.

October 2, 2007 at 11:53 am Leave a comment

Just Mark the Line

It’s Friday, what better day to touch on the topic of taking time for yourself?

Fact… North American workers take, and are allowed, far less vacation time than the vast majority of other countries. Face it, we’re nearly all workaholics. And when we do take time away from work, we bring it with us. We’ve allowed ‘work’ to invade every corner of our lives.

September 7, 2007 at 9:21 am Leave a comment

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