While I have a considerable freedom in working remotely, I realized that I don’t take nearly as much advantage of that gift as I should. Specifically, even though I’m able to get a considerable amount of work done in a brief period of time (since I don’t have nearly as many meetings or interruptions as I did when I was in the office, and since I’m a “sprinter” by nature), I fill up the time savings in extremely unproductive and stupid ways – reading Digg, playing video games on the XBox, batting at a ball of yarn, etc. The result is that though I have a ton of flexibility in how I structure my life, I have little to show for it other than a high ranking in NBA live and a very comprehensive knowledge of all things Ron Paul related.
It’s something I’ve tried to remedy in the last year, and I’m pleased to say that today I feel much more effective, much more balanced, than I ever have. What follows are the best strategies and tactics that have helped me get there – your mileage may vary, but for me this stuff has represented the best of what I’ve read and tried given my disposition, station in life, etc.
Start with values
Part of my problem historically was that I spent considerable time on things that weren’t really that important to me. I’d get stuff done, but it wasn’t stuff that I was proud of, didn’t advance my goals, and didn’t represent what I value in life. So I wrote out what my most important values were. These were more than goals – they were the aspects or values in my life that were important to me, and for which my goals (subconsciously) were trying to facilitate.
I pick between 3-5 and focus on those for 3 months. The idea is that after 90 days I would have done a lot in a few areas, and developed new habits that would then be ingrained into my life, even as I moved on to addressing other values.
Translate values into goals
Each week I tried to make at least goal related to each value. It could a reminder to call someone, or read something, or call for information, etc. As I made these goals, I’d try to schedule them in my calendar. This kept me from having them be vague goals that I wouldn’t get around to. They become appointments that I wanted to keep.
What’s most important today?
Each morning I try to think about the most important thing I need to get done that day. I ask myself “If this is the only thing I accomplish, will I feel good about how I spent my day?”
Eliminate switching costs
Every time I get interrupted with a phone call or an email, or particularly an instant message, it distracts me from what I’m working on. The time it takes to get re-focused on what I was doing is lost, useless time. So I’ve made a strong effort to eliminate those distractions. When I’m working on something that needs my concentration for a few hours, I turn off IM, I put my phone on silent, and I close my email. When you remove the things that create the distractions, the distractions don’t happen nearly as much.
That one took a little bit of risk on my part, since there was a risk that people would think I wasn’t doing anything, or was trying to avoid them. But the reverse actually happens – focus leads to increased output, and since a big chunk of what I do is very tangible people think I’m actually working more.
Focus on one thing at at time
I’ve found that the switching cost thing impacts many areas of my life – talking to my wife while I’m working means I don’t focus on either and both suffer. So as much as possible, I try to focus on one thing at a time and be fully present. Fully engaged on the phone, fully participating in conversation, fully tuned in to my work, etc.
Use tools that work for you
In college I dabbled with a PDA, but just ended up playing that snake game with it. I also bought Franklin Covey planners, but found I never used them because they were too bulky. Even having a small moleskine didn’t work because I didn’t want to take it with me everywhere. As a result, I never had a system that worked for me.
That was until the brilliant combination of the iPhone, Omnifocus and Evernote came into my life. I now have a reliable, elegant system for capturing notes, info and things to do wherever I am, without having a bulky planner (or anything other than my phone) at my disposal. Everything syncs up in the cloud so I can access it from wherever I am.
The point is less about the technology though, and more about the tools that work for me. Many people prefer paper – my wife loves being able to create a list by hand and have the satisfaction of crossing things off as she tackles them. I don’t think she should force herself to use a different system – it works for her.
Taking a cue from Tim Ferris, Merlin Mann and others, I became obsessive about batching email – I schedule an appointment with myself twice a day where I go through all the emails in my inbox. The goal is to have an empty inbox with everything being read and processed one time. That means replying to emails that I need to reply to, deleting junk, archiving stuff I might need later, and moving stuff I need to do into Omnifocus.
Having an empty inbox leaves you with a sense that you’re on top of things. And batching it reduces the switching costs I mentioned earlier – you can get a lot more done when you’re doing email and only email vs. email and talking on the phone and working on a design concept.
Schedule recurring talking appointments
I used to routinely kick myself for not calling my friends as much as I’d like. And while I’m still working on that, one thing that has helped me is to schedule appointments on my calendar to talk with them. I make them recurring, which means that I don’t have to remind myself that I haven’t talked to someone in a while. My system does it for me.
Make appointments with yourself
There are some goals that I’ve always had a hard time with, most notably to read the Bible more and work out regularly. I’m still pretty mediocre at both, but I have found some success by scheduling appointments with myself. Again, if it’s in the calendar it becomes more real to me, and I’ve found it’s much more likely that I’ll do it.
Even better is to make appointments where you’re on the hook with someone else – a good example is my basketball league. I’ve never been able to keep up a workout regimen for more than a few weeks, but for a year I played in every single game unless I had to be out of town. When you’re accountable to others you don’t miss it nearly as much.
Delegate everything you can
This one has been one of the hardest for me to learn, but it’s been extremely helpful. I have a very arrogant and misguided perception that I’m always the person most qualified to do something, and that has gotten me into a ton of trouble. But even if it were true, that doesn’t mean that I should be the one to do it. The fact is that most things don’t need me to do them at all – someone else can do them for me. And either they’ll do them better than I would, or they’ll do them worse and give me an opportunity to teach them how to be better, which makes their lives an career better as well.
I’ve become much better about delegating stuff at work, and even have started delegating personal stuff as well. A few months ago we started dabbling with an outsourced personal assistant, and it’s been awesome. We don’t use her a ton yet, but we have been able to have her tackle projects that we’ve wanted to do for a long time but never seem to get around to. And for $6 an hour, it’s been completely worth it.
What about you? Do you use any tricks or strategies to be more effective on things that matter to you?
Additional resources for managing your time
Getting Things Done was the book that started me down my path of time management enlightenment. It’s fairly complicated to get set up, but the benefits of “next action thinking” and the weekly review have been immensely valuable for me.
The Power of Less is simple and to the point. I got particular value from his conversation on focusing on one thing at a time. It seems intuitive, but I found myself constantly struggling to maintain focus. The upside of forcing yourself to eliminate distractions is immense.
The Four Hour Workweek isn’t just about time management, but it does go into detail about how to eliminate 90% of the “stuff” that you do that’s unnecessary. Batching email came from here, as did my dabbling with a personal assistant.