Get Things Done

Sharpen your axe

I was going through my notes from a seminar with Steve Schiffman called “Always be closing.” One thing Steve mentioned was “You must sharpen your axe!” which lead me to search for the story that goes with that phrase. I found two different ones.

John, a woodcutter, worked for a Company for five years but never got a raise. The Company hired Bill and within a year he got a promotion. This caused resentment in John and he went to his Boss to talk about it. The Boss said, “You are still cutting the same number of trees you were cutting five years ago. We are a result-oriented company and would be happy to give you a raise if your productivity goes up.”

John went back started hitting harder and putting in longer hours but he still wasn’t able to cut more trees. He went back to his Boss and told him his dilemma. The Boss asked John to go and talk to Bill. “Maybe there is something Bill knows that you and I don’t.”

John asked Bill how he managed to cut more trees. Bill answered, “After every tree I cut, I take a break for two minutes and ‘sharpen my axe’. When was the last time you sharpened your axe?” This question hit like a bullet and John got his answer.

Source: Sharpen your axe

Once upon a time a very strong woodcutter asked for a job with a timber merchant, and he got it. The salary was really good and so were the work conditions. For that reason, the woodcutter was determined to do his best. His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he was supposed to work.

The first day, the woodcutter brought 18 trees. “Congratulations,” the boss said. “Go on that way!”

Very motivated by the boss’ words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but could bring 15 trees only.

The third day he tried even harder, but could bring 10 trees only. Day after day he was bringing less and less trees.

“I must be losing my strength”, the woodcutter thought. He went to the boss and apologized, saying that he could not understand what was going on.

“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?” the boss asked.

“Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been very busy trying to cut trees…”

Source: The Axe Story

Moral of the story: Working hard is not enough. You must continuously sharpen your axe of knowledge, skill and expertise.

Tick Tock Timer

Tick Tock Timer is a very nice online timer. It runs in your web browser, if you can live with that it’s a really useful timer.

It’s useful whether you use the Pomodoro Technique or not. Set the Tick Tock Timer and then focus on one thing. Read your email, read news, write a blog post or what else you need to do. The timer will tell you when time is out.

LESS – Accomplishing More by Doing Less

I got a copy of LESS – Accomplishing More by Doing Less by Marc Lesser at Øredev 2009. The book is described like this:

Discusses the benefits of doing less in a world that has increasingly embraced more – more desire, more activity, more things, more exhaustion. This book is about stopping, as well as the possibility of finding composure in the midst of activity. It is also about the power of accomplishing more by doing less.

I like this book, it is well written and it’s summed up nicely in the epilogue:

This book is a collection of tools as well as a manual for doing more of what is important and less of what isn’t.

Another quote from the book that descibes what it’s about:

You will accomplish more of what matters to you. Doing less and accomplishing more is about aligning your actions with your values and your particular passions.

The book is about the Less Manifesto and has chapters on its five categories:
• fear
• assumptions
• distractions
• resistance
• busyness

I like the way Marc writes about these categories, I found inspiration and tools to work with. Marc brings up meditation and mindfulness as useful tools. The book also has some interesting exercises, questions to work with. Under busyness Marc writes that:

A life of busyness is often the result of trying to escape facing our fears.

One part of the book that stuck with me is about paradoxes, like Marc’s own example “I am shy and solitary, and I love speaking in front of people.” It’s an interesting way of seeing that it’s not either-or, we can be both without conflicts.

Embrace paradox and you increase self-acceptance, tolerance of others and your own possibilities.

A question from the book that’s worth thinking about:

What is one change you could make in your life today that would have an impact on the quality of your day?

Read more:
An 18 Minute Plan That Keeps You Focused
The jar of life – stones, pebbles and sand
Start Managing Your Attention

Stop Being Productive and Enjoy Yourself

Leo Babauta has another great post over at Zen Habits, Get Less Done: Stop Being Productive and Enjoy Yourself.

There’s too much emphasis these days on productivity, on hyperefficiency, on squeezing the most production out of every last minute. People have forgotten how to relax. How to be lazy. How to enjoy life.

Productivity is not good in itself, it’s very important to decide what we do. We need to manage our attention and our priorities.

It’s possible we’re trying to get more done because we love doing it — and if that’s the case, that’s wonderful. But even then, working long hours and neglecting the rest of life isn’t always the best idea. Sometimes it’s good to Get Less Done, to relax, to breathe.

We do need to relax and breathe. No one runs their car engine on full throttle all the time, why do it with yourself?

Leo lists some useful tips on how to relax and ends the post like this:

Step by step, learn to relax. Learn that productivity isn’t everything. Creating is great, but you don’t need to fill every second with work. When you do work, get excited, pour yourself into it, work on important, high-impact tasks … and then relax.

Now I’ll do what I do on a regular basis, it’s also in Leo’s list of tips, I’ll go for a walk.

Read more:
Start Managing Your Attention
An 18 Minute Plan That Keeps You Focused
Which Time Horizons Do You Use?
The jar of life – stones, pebbles and sand

This was originally posted at Forty Plus Two, another blog of mine.

What’s in your Personality Zoo?

Alex Fayle has a really interesting post today, Taming the Voices in the Personality Zoo. It describes a fun and really useful way to sort out what stops us from achieving what we want.

By assigning each piece of resistance a personality, I can diffuse the internal argument by recognizing the emotion attached to the thought and therefore come up with effective ways to work around or dismantle the particular excuse for not continuing. (It’s also a whole lot of fun!)

Alex links to his own zoo and the Lab Rats (Cat, Jim and Brett) list theirs. It’s an interesting read and I started to list my own voices.

My own voices.

My list include the good ones as well as the not so good ones.

  • Zen Bengt is always around, calm and centered.
  • Optimistic Bengt is almost always there too, thinks that everything will work out and it all just gets better and better.
  • Confident Bengt is also mostly there, he knows that it will work out in the end, even if it’s unchartered territory part of the way.
  • Tugboat Bengt is doing most of the work, moving stuff and get the ball rolling.
  • Lazy Bengt pops up now and then, thinks that we have worked a lot and deserve a break, we can start again later or even later…
  • Distraction Bengt is looming in the background. He comes in sometimes and talks about nice things like walks, reading and Twitter. Could we not do that, just for a while?
  • Impatient Bengt is also looming in the background. He thinks that we could have been there already if we only had focused on what we should do.
  • Procrastination Bengt is luckily a rather rare visitor, he tries to team up with Lazy Bengt in order to get more influence.
  • Frustrated Bengt is a strange companion to Zen Bengt. He comes in to clear out the disturbing voices in order to get back to work and focus.

What’s in your Personality Zoo?

Credit image: Sign @ Africa Alive, Suffolk at Flickr

This was originally posted at Forty Plus Two, another blog of mine.

The jar of life – stones, pebbles and sand

This is a classic story which unfortunately mentions time management. But time management is a misnomer since time can not be managed. We can only manage ourselves, our attention and our priorities.

One day, an old professor of the School of Public Management in France, was invited to lecture on the topic of “Efficient Time Management” in front of a group of 15 executive managers representing the largest, most successful companies in America. The lecture was one in a series of five lectures conducted in one day, and the old professor was given one hour to lecture.

Standing in front of this group of elite managers—who were willing to write down every word that would come out of the famous professor’s mouth—the professor slowly met eyes with each manager, one by one, and finally said, ‘we are going to conduct an experiment’.

From under the table that stood between the professor and the listeners, the professor pulled out a big glass jar and gently placed it in front of him. Next, he pulled out from under the table a bag of stones, each the size of a tennis ball, and placed the stones one by one in the jar. He did so until there was no room to add another stone in the jar. Lifting his gaze to the managers, the professor asked, ‘Is the jar full?’ The managers replied, ‘Yes’.

The professor paused for a moment, and replied, ‘Really?’ Then once again, he reached under the table and pulled out a bag full of pebbles. Carefully, the professor poured the pebbles in and slightly rattled the jar, allowing the pebbles to slip through the larger stones, until they settled at the bottom. Again, the professor lifted his gaze to his audience and asked, ‘is the jar full?’

At this point, the managers began to understand his intentions. One replied, ‘apparently not!’

‘Correct’, replied the old professor, now pulling out a bag of sand from under the table. Cautiously, the professor poured the sand into the jar. The sand filled up the spaces between the stones and the pebbles. Yet again, the professor asked, ‘is the jar full?’ Without hesitation, the entire group of students replied in unison, ‘No!’

‘Correct’, replied the professor. And as was expected by the students, the professor reached for the pitcher of water that was on the table, and poured water in the jar until it was absolutely full. The professor now lifted his gaze once again and asked, ‘What great truth can we surmise from this experiment?’

With his thoughts on the lecture topic, one manager quickly replied, ‘We learn that as full as our schedules may appear, if we only increase our effort, it is always possible to add more meetings and tasks.’ ‘No’, replied the professor.

‘The great truth that we can conclude from this experiment is: If we don’t put all the larger stones in the jar first, we will never be able to fit all of them later.’

In other words – make room for what is most important first, those are your stones. Other things can then be fitted around the stones.

This was originally posted at Forty Plus Two, another blog of mine.

Zen To Done

I have posted about Task management my way – pen and paper which gives me the basic tools and a simple system. What I needed in order to achieve my own goals was a philosophy that works for me. I have tried GTD but found it too complex for my needs. Then I came across ‘Zen To Done: The Simple Productivity E-Book!‘ written by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and that e-book suits me perfect.

Zen To Done takes some of the best aspects of a few popular productivity systems (GTD, Stephen Covey and others) and combines them with the mandate of simplicity. It makes things as simple as possible, and no more.

As simple as possible is what I was looking for. Zen To Done (ZTD) has a focus on doing, here and now, more than on planning or on the system. ZTD focuses on simplifying which is in line with my pen and paper solution.

Zen To Done is a set of ten habits that will help you get organized, simplify your life, get things under control and, last but not least, actually get things done. You can pick those habits out of the ten that will work for you. To really master a new habit, and to make it stick, focus on few (1-3) at a time and work on them for a month.

Each of the ten habits has its own chapter in the e-book, here is just a brief list.

  1. Collect tasks, ideas, projects etc. Write them down and later add them to your to-do lists.
  2. Process your inboxes. I need to work on that.
  3. Plan for a week ahead, focus on MIT (Most Important Tasks) or “Big Rocks”.
  4. Do, one task at a time. Finish them!
  5. Simple trusted system. No complicated system and do not keep on trying out new tools.
  6. Organize, have a place for everything. And put it there right away!
  7. Review your system and goals weekly.
  8. Simplify and eliminate. Reduce your goals and tasks to the essentials.
  9. Routine, set and keep routines.
  10. Find your passion. Seek work for which you are passionate, passion gives energy.

I already worked on habit one, three, four, five and seven before I came across ZTD. And I have touched on habit eight, Turning 2008 into 80-20. Now I have to set those habits which take me about halfways in the ZTD and then start working on the other habits.

If ten new habits sounds far too much there is a minimalist version of ZTD, the first four habits. Set those and you have achieved a lot.

This was originally posted at another (now extinct) blog of mine.

Task management my way – pen and paper

Previous posts in this mini-series are Be productive using pen and paper and The back-to-paper movement.

My old concept was using several to-do-lists, kept at home, and small notes. It has worked for me for many years, simple yet good enough. I have used emails to/from work to keep track of things to do or what has been done. Before I basically had two main areas to keep track off, work and private.

During the coaching course I got the need to manage my coaching clients, preparing and keeping track of notes. And since I started blogging more seriously I got more things to keep track of. It made me realize that keeping my lists at home was not always the best way for me to be as effective as possible.

Now and then I have tried computerized ways of working but I always fell back to my trusted pen and paper. And I have tried several time management calendar systems but none of them worked for me. That leaves me with the option of creating my own system.

As you can see in my previous posts I have been doing research. Then I started being creative and have created a system of my own. It is simple, based on pen and paper, and flexible since there are no sheets to buy or print, I use standard notepads.

My new solution is three parts that work together.

  1. At home I created a binder for my own projects, to-do-lists, ideas and notes. That is my backbone for what to do.
    Update. I have skipped the binder and use folders instead. Having each project in its own folder means it’s easier to single-task, I only get the things I need for that project.
  2. As usual I have my calendar to keep track of appointments and meetings, that says when to do things.
  3. To tie these two together I created a new “action list calendar” which is done using a standard notepad.

Each Sunday I shall create a set of pages for the coming week. First I write a page with things to do during the week that are not tied to a specific day. This list will be short, what is left after the workweek has to be done during the next weekend. Then I create one page for each day of the week apart from Saturday and Sunday that share one page.

On the daily pages I have two lists, things to do daytime begin from the top of the page, things to do after work start from the bottom of the page going upwards. I can easily see when I need to do things.

Each evening I check status for the current day. Items that are not finished are either moved to another day or dropped, nothing shall be left open at the end of the day.

I think this system will work for me, simple and flexible yet complex enough to cover several areas and interests. My game plan is to test it during 3-4 weeks. The good thing is that it is low cost, just ordinary A5 notepads (handy in size) and a binder I already had.

This was originally posted at Forty Plus Two, another blog of mine.

The back-to-paper movement

Part one in this mini-series is Be productive using pen and paper.

I continued my reading and went to Why techies are leading the back-to-paper movement. This is an excellent article by Douglas Johnston of DIY Planner. Since I already am using pen and paper I am not really part of the back-to-paper movement but it is nice to know others are heading that way. I see no need to rewrite what is well written from the beginning so here are some quotes from that article:

Not only does using paper planners, storyboards, index cards, whiteboards and flip charts allow us to see and experience things from entirely new vantage points, they force us to re-examine the execution and importance of the task at hand. It’s the break from the worn-out tech-centred paradigm, with no restrictions to hinder you, not even battery life.

While we’re on the topic of focus, paper does help slow down the world, if only for a mere moment, and collect your thoughts.

Throw off your shackles, take up the torch, grab yourself a nice little organiser (you can make your own customised D*I*Y Planner, if you wish) and a Pilot G2 pen, and try an analog productivity system for a full week. Use it to manage your tasks, keep track of your appointments, take notes during meetings, brainstorm, and even doodle aimlessly in the pursuit of inspiration.

Bill Westerman writes about gsd (getting sh-t done) and has pictures at Flickr, Time-management software — offline version. I really like his solution with a task list and a time bar.

I also found Mike Rodhe who writes about Back to Paper: Should I Ditch My PDA? and Creating a Custom Moleskine Planner. Mike also has pictures at Flickr, Mike Rohde’s Custom Moleskine Planner, which makes it really easy to see how his solution works.

To those that prefer layouts to empty pages there is the D*I*Y Planner. I love the introduction:

We are a community of people who see the value of paper as a medium for planning, productivity, creative expression, and exploring ideas.

Moleskine and Miquelrius are mentioned frequently. Many seem to pick notebooks from one of these companies for their selfmade task managers and planners.

This was originally posted at Forty Plus Two, another blog of mine.

Be productive using pen and paper

Even though I have worked with computers for 35+ years I still prefer to manage my own tasks using pen and paper. I have a paper calendar, not any high tech solution and when it comes to my to-do-lists I am writing lists – by hand. At work I use the calendar in Outlook for reminders, I wear no watch, but the paper calendar is my backbone since it covers all my bookings.

Today I came across a post at Success from the Nest titled How I Gained an Hour a Day by Ditching My Productivity Tools. I like this one, it goes in line with my own way of working. The post ends like this:

I never thought I’d be a productivity minimalist, but it works for me. Just by simplifying how I track my work I’ve saved on average an hour a day.

Through a link in the article above I arrived at “To Do” Gone Wild. This is a long but interesting post. I am not keen on the full solution but I intend to pick pieces from there. One simple but nifty trick is this one:

On the left hand side of each day’s entry pages, I have two lists, one beginning at the top and one working its way from the bottom up. The top list is for work tasks, the bottom is for personal.

I like that one, keeping work and private things apart in an easy way but still having all within the same view.

This was originally posted at Forty Plus Two, another blog of mine.