Breaking Through the Clouds

April 28, 2011

When I walked out my door this morning heading to work, I understood what Noah must have felt like after the flood.  The sight of dry land and the sun breaking through the clouds was a most welcome change after days upon days (what seemed like an etenity) of gray skies, thunderstorms, and even tornados.  As this video depicts, one of the most peaceful spots in Memphis, the Greenline, was literally underwater. 

Thousands of people across the South (including my parents) are still without power.  And to make matters worse, our neighbors to the southeast in Tuscaloosa, Alabama suffered unspeakable losses at the hands of turbulent weather earlier this week.  It’s really pretty depressing.

I know, I know, not the most upbeat opening for a blog post.  But my point is that all of these gray clouds and bad news have made it very difficult for me to stay motivated and be productive recently.  It’s been very tempting to just crawl under the covers in my pajamas and try to forget about the copious amounts of schoolwork that must get done in the next week and a half before I graduate.  And the responsibilities that await me as a new homeowner.  And our upcoming vacation for which I’ve made basically no plans. 

Then again, maybe it’s just me.  Contradicting conventional wisdom, a 2008 study by researchers in Germany showed that there may not be a scientific link between weather and mood.  The study found that day-to-day changes in the weather like temperature, wind, sunlight, and preciptation do not have a signficant effect on positive mood.  (That is not to say, however, that mood disorders like seasonal affective disorder do not exist.  I don’t want to get in trouble with my husband, the psychologist.)

But fear not, friends.  Brain and Body writer Rich Maloof stresses (no pun intended) that most of us are not powerless against the weather and can take proactive steps to break through the emotional clouds that prevent us from being productive:

  • Do things that make you feel good, like listening to uplifting music
  • Relax your body by meditating or through exercise
  • Take advantage of the sunny days to help you recharge your emotional batteries

Good thing it was sunny and beautiful today in Memphis because my batteries need serious recharging if I am going to make it to the grad school finish line.

Do you ever get in a weather-related productivity funk?  How do you snap yourself out of it?


Old-school Time Management

April 18, 2011
Esther Katz

Esther Katz

Several months ago, I noticed that Esther Katz, who I know through our mutual involvement in the Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis, created a Facebook page for a new life coaching and consulting business.  When I launched my beat blog on time management, I figured she would be the perfect person to interview

Esther is one of the busiest and most productive people I know.  By day she serves as practice manager for the busy pathology group that handles lab work for The Med.  She regularly volunteers at the Margolin Hebrew Academy, from which her children all graduated and where her grandchildren now attend school.  This year Esther co-chaired the school’s fundraising auction.  She also volunteers at her synagogue, Young Israel of Memphis, where she helps to coordinate the efforts of the Kosher Food Pantry.

Esther knows a little bit about the struggles of balancing life responsibilities with the pressures of graduate school since her husband Allan Katz has gone back to pursue a master’s degree after more than 25 years in the working world.

I recently sat down with Esther to learn some of her tools of the trade.  I was quite surprised by her answers, and I suspect that you will be, too.

How is your motivational consulting business going?
Oh, I’m not doing it anymore.  I had someone help me set up a Facebook page and a blog to help me market my services.  I tried blogging and realized it was not the way I wanted to build a business.  I found it to be very inpersonal and very time consuming.

So social networking isn’t your thing?
In my opinion, Facebook is a really big time waster.  I get so much done because I don’t spend my time finding out details about people that I really do not need to know.  I’m not much of a technology person in general.  I am not impressed by all the new technology that is supposed to save us time, yet it is used primarily as a time waster.  I just got an iPad for free and I haven’t even played around with it yet.  My children and their spouses are already fighting over it.

Where did you learn about time management? 
A lot of it is innate.  It’s related to being organized.  I’m an organized person to begin with, so for me time management is not that difficult.  We have shelves full of books on leadership and time management in my house.  My husband has read all of them and I’ve not read one.  Maybe you should have interviewed him instead. 

So you don’t subscribe to the teachings of any time management experts?
The time management expert I most admire is my mother.  She was extremely organized.  The way she ran our house, everything was just so efficient.  She starting making charts for us when we were little kids, long before the gurus recommended it.  She was definitely before her time.  She could have written a book and made millions.  My father was also very organized, which helped him run a very successful business. 

How do you use time management in your current job?
I am responsible for managing other people’s time.  I manage the schedule for the lab and make sure that the day flows smoothly.  My job is to foresee our workload for the day and say what exactly needs to be accomplished in what amount of time to ensure that everything gets done.  If I just leave my colleagues to their own devices, they don’t manage their time well.  One of my strengths is that I can easily make adjustments to the workflow without getting harried or flustered, which is important to managing your time efficiently. 

If you were to read blogs about time management, what kind of content would you like to see?
I would like to learn more about calendars, especially technology tools that could help me with scheduling and time management in a group setting.

What tips can you offer those looking to better manage their time and become more productive?
Don’t feel the need to answer e-mail the second it comes in.  If you interrupt your work pattern to look at every e-mail that pops up, you’ll never finish what you’re doing and you’ll be totally inefficient.  The same holds true for checking voicemail.  Carve out time every hour or so during your workday to check your messages.   

It’s also good not to need too much sleep.  That definitely helps.

*  *  *

I think I expected Esther to have some more scientific insights on time management, but the more I reflected on our interview, the more I found her old-school approach strangely refreshingSometimes good productivity is as simple as hunkering down and doing what needs to be done, even if that means burning some midnight oil

The problem with this philosophy is that we don’t all have the focus and drive needed to make that work every time we are behind the eight ball.  The science of time management was developed to help us mere mortals who, unlike Esther, do get flustered when things don’t go according to plan.  Those of us who don’t have the self-control not to be distracted by the e-mail alert icon at the bottom of the screen and the flashing light on the BlackBerry—we are the ones who need the gurus.

I definitely commiserate with Esther’s frustration about blogging and social media, especially how time-consuming it can be.  Keeping up with two blogs this semester (this one and my social media reflection blog) has at times felt like a full-time job, even though I already have one of those.  And like Esther, I’ve had to do without a lot of sleep in order to keep both up-to-date every week.  But with the finish line of the semester within sight, I now have a few months of blogging experience under my belt and know that it is doable.  I hope that Esther will one day give blogging another chance.

What do you think of Esther’s approach to time management?  Is her level of focus and resolve attainable for everyone?

Why Extreme Couponing Isn’t For Extremely Busy People

April 9, 2011

In my first post on this blog, I (only sort of) joked about wanting to grow up and be the superwoman who can use enough coupons to get $100 for $1.75.  This week I learned why that might not be something for which I should strive.

On Wednesday, The Learning Channel (TLC) cable network launched a new series called Extreme Couponing.”  

Each half-hour episode highlights two shoppers who have taken more than just coupon clipping to the extreme.  In the two episodes that aired this week, the shoppers’ trips to the grocery store yielded purchases with retail values ranging from $550 to more than $1900.  One woman purchased 70(!) bottles of mustard simply because she had that many coupons for the product and was able to get each for just 39 cents.  Another who was featured in the one-hour “Extreme Couponing” special that inspired the new series went dumpster diving with her young son and pregnant friend to rescue coupon inserts from among the Sunday newspapers at her town’s recycling center (watch for yourself here).  And each extreme couponer proudly showed off to the cameras his/her home stockpile of groceries, including lifetime supplies (and then some) of everything from laundry detergent to toilet paper to cereal.  And clearly, mustard.  Lots and lots of mustard.

I will confess to being a bit of a coupon junkie myself.  I clip the coupons from my Sunday paper each week and print out lots more from the Internet.  Coupons often entice me to try new products, and in some cases even sway me to give up my brand loyalties.  I can totally relate to the “high” of scoring a great deal on something using a coupon.  Or better yet, stacking a manufacturer coupon with a store coupon where permissible, and possibly combining it with a mail-in-rebate so that I end up making money on the deal.      

Being the natural overachiever that I am, I’ve often wondered what more I would need to do to get better results than the 10-30% percent I typically get using coupons at the grocery store.  Watching “Extreme Couponing,” I learned what I’ve been doing “wrong”: spending time on anything other than coupon-clipping, stockpiling, and list-making

The extreme couponers featured on TLC have clearly made an occupation of saving money and organizing their huge grocery hauls.  One said she spends 4-6 hours strategizing about and preparing for each trip to the store.  (I can only imagine how long it takes to put away and organize $1900 worth of groceries.)  Several acknowledged that they turned to extreme couponing out of financial necessity due to a recession-related job loss in the family and have made couponing their full-time jobs.  While I do enjoy a good deal as much as the next person, I am grateful to be able to afford groceries for my family without devoting my entire life to couponing

A woman featured on Wednesday night’s show estimated that she has saved about $40,000 since she started couponing.  Given her extreme level of expertise, I have to assume that she has been doing this for more than a year.  If you are among those who can make more than $40,000 a year pursuing a job that brings you meaning and allows you to exercise your talents, then extreme couponing might not be the best use of your time.  Between my responsibilities related to work, school, my family, and other obligations, I most certainly do not have the time to manage a stockpile with enough supplies to last my husband and I until the year 2016.  Plus I draw the line at dumpster diving.  And happily, in other lines of work, you don’t have to use the space under your child’s bed to store 1,400 rolls of toilet paper, like one extreme couponer featured in the show.  Or buy enough mustard to last you until the apocalypse.   

My comments are in no way meant to hurt or discourage those who have chosen a more extreme way of couponing than I, but rather to suggest that getting hundreds of dollars worth of groceries for just pennies is probably not a realistic goal for those already struggling to balance everything in their busy lives.  However, even those who are strapped for time can take a few small steps toward saving money on their grocery bills.  Here are some time-saving pointers I’ve picked up from my own couponing experience:

  • Don’t leave home without them: Keep all of your coupons in an envelope (or better yet, in an organizer that allows you to categorize your coupons by product category, retail store, or expiration date) in your purse/briefcase/laptop bag so that you never find yourself in the store empty-handed.  You never know when you may make an unexpected shopping trip, and you won’t always have the time to stop at home to retrieve your coupons in the middle of a hectic day.
  • Plan ahead: Before you head to the store, make a shopping list and pull out any coupons you may have for items on your list.  Also search for your list items on coupon databases like Southern Savers and Kosher on a Budget to find printable coupons for products you will soon be purchasing.  A little organization on the front end can make your shopping trips faster and less costly. 
  • Declutter: Most coupons expire within 30-90 days.  Take a few minutes at least once a month to remove all of your expired coupons from your envelope/organizer so that you don’t waste any more time flipping through ones you can’t even use anymore.  (Rather than just discarding expired coupons, see Becky’s great suggestion about mailing them to U.S. military bases to help families there.)
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel: Countless bloggers take the time to find great coupon deals so that you don’t have to!  Many even match up the weekly sales at large retailers like Target, Kroger, and Walgreens with coupons currently in circulation to help maximize your time and your savings.  My two personal favorites are the two I mentioned earlier, Mara of Kosher on a Budget (a great resource whether or not you observe the kosher dietary laws) and Jenny of Southern Savers (northerns might learn a thing or two here as well).  Some other good ones include Budget Savvy Diva, Hip2Save, and Cuckoo for Coupon Deals.  Follow these and other coupon bloggers on Facebook and/or Twitter so that their updates automatically appear in your news feed.  That way, you won’t have to take the time to visit each of their sites, which makes extremely good sense.

What do you think of “Extreme Couponing”?  And what are your best tips for saving time and money at the grocery store?

Thanks to Flickr user sado27 for sharing the above image.

Around the World of Time Management

April 3, 2011

Since embarking on this blog journey just a couple of months ago, I have discovered a number of other bloggers who are far wiser than I.  Here is a brief tour of some of my favorite time management experts in the blogosphere:

South Florida-based writer Cindy Krischer Goodman maintains the Work/Life Balancing Act blog for the Miami Herald.  Her primary target audience is moms who work outside the home, but Cindy has a lot to teach readers of both genders and in all stages of life about everything from organizing your desk to using social media at work.  Her blog incorporates some of her well-researched articles for the print edition of the Herald.

Follow Cindy on Twitter at @balancegal.

Time management consultant Francis Wade of Kingston, Jamaica dedicates his blog, 2Time, to sharing “edgy, new ideas for getting yourself unstuck from a time management rut.”  His posts are always insightful and offer great food-for-thought on how to better manage your time.  The 2Time site also features some wonderful podcasts and video interviews that are worth checking out.

Follow Francis on Twitter at @fwade.

Like me, Mike Arieh Medina of Mati City, Philipines is a busy graduate student trying to juggle multiple priorities.  He chronicles his journey on his blog, Grad School Jungle.  Mike covers many facets of the graduate school experience, but it’s clear from posts like “5 Time Saving Tips” and “Top 10 Time Wasters” how essential good time management is to his success as a student.

Grad School Jungle is also on Facebook.

Author and project management expert Dr. Mike Clayton of Southampton, U.K. (isn’t that where the Titanic departed from?) recently released his fourth book, Brilliant Time Management and has developed a nice blog on the same subject.  There, he offers readers easy-to-follow practical techniques for overcoming challenges like procrastination and multi-tasking.

Follow Mike on Twitter at @mikeclayton01.

With 17 books under his belt, Harold Taylor is one of Canada’s most renowned time management experts.  His Taylor Time Blog focuses primarily on the importance of prioritizing, managing stress, and maintaining a healthy work/life balance.  Based on the bio posted on his site, it sounds like he learned those lessons the hard way.   

Follow Harold on Twitter at @haroldtaylor.

And then there’s little old me in Memphis, Tennessee, “green” with envy that these wise people have mastered the skill of time management, and at the same time grateful that they are willing to share their hard-earned wisdom with me on their blogs.

I’ve started a Twitter list of time management gurus and am always looking for more people to add.  So please let me know: Where in the world are your favorite time management bloggers?

Thanks to Grant Smith for guiding me through the process of embedding a Google Map into my blog.

Killing Two Birds with One (Digital) Stone

March 28, 2011

For more great images, see

In doing the reading for my social media class this week, I came across the perfect material for my next time management blog post.  Thanks, Mark Briggs, for doing double-duty for me this week with chapter 9 of Journalism Next.  In addition to discussing data-driven journalism (see my social media blog for more on that topic), Briggs addresses how to improve your productivity by digitizing your life

Briggs takes as his inspiration David Allen, author of the time management classic Getting Things Done.  Allen’s approach is much more old-school than that of Briggs (Allen advocates for writing everything down and filing it in an appropriately labeled folder), but the core principles he set forth remain the same: identify, capture, and organize.

Below are just a few of Briggs’ suggestions for applying technology to Allen’s foundations.

Organize your e-mail:

  • Use tools like filters and folders to restore a semblance of order to otherwise chaos. 
  • Limit the time your e-mail program is open to avoid constant distractions.  If you can reply to an e-mail in less than two minutes, do it; otherwise, file it. 
  • Aim for “Inbox Zero” – no messages in your mailbox at the end of each e-mail session (I learned recently that my very efficient coworker Joe Labetti subscribes to this approach).

Find the right productivity tools to meet your needs:

  • Find as few multitasking solutions as possible to achieve as many things as possible.  This will help you streamline things and prevent you from having to log in to too many websites to get things done.  (You’ll also exhaust less mental energy remembering passwords.)
  • Putting your documents, lists, and calendar online makes them easier to search, easier to share, and always accessible.  Plus, you’ll have a backup copy in case anything happens to your hard drive–just be sure to save an up-to-date copy in both places.
  • Think of your personal productivity as an equation = what you need to manage + the right tools to manage it.   The things you need to manage like include many of the following: e-mail, contacts, to-do lists, calendars, notes, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, images, databases, project management, Web/graphic design, and collaboration with colleagues.  When considering the right tools for your various tasks, consider how much you are willing to pay, whether you need to integrate with other systems/devices, and whether you need an offline solution
  • Look into comprehensive solutions like a Google account (docs, Gmail, calendar, etc.), Microsoft Office Live (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), and Zoho (many of the aforementioned features, plus project management and customer relationship management tools).  If your needs are more particular, there are countless specialized solutions available on the Web.  Check out sites like Remember the Milk, Jott, Backpack, and Evernote to help you stay organized and on your toes.

Manage your contacts:

  • Rolodexes are so last century.  Your contacts will be “more sortable, more flexible and more useful if you store them electronically” — whether in a spreadsheet, a database, or a contact management system (Briggs, p. 251).
  • Keep everyone’s contact information in one place.  Add the name of every single contact you make, along with as much contact information as you have; you never know when it may come in handy down the road, and you won’t want to waste time looking for that cocktail napkin he/she scrawled it on back in 1999.

Bring order to your work:

For more on making the most of digitizing your life, check out these great resources:

How are you using technology to manage your time effectively?

Getting My Priorities Straight

March 20, 2011

Visit the artist’s website for more of his great illustrations

Last night and today I joined Jews around the world in celebrating the holiday of Purim.  Among other customs, on this special day Jews gather to hear the Biblical book of Esther publicly chanted in Hebrew in a particular sing-songy tone.  To properly fulfill the rabbinic commandment of listening to the recitation of Esther on Purim, one should hear each and every word without interruption

As I sat down in synagogue last night, trying to get myself in the mindset of the day, I thought about the rarity of what was about to occur.  For the next 45 minutes or so, there would be no conversations, no phone calls, no checking e-mail or the latest news on my BlackBerry.  It would be time devoted to nothing else aside from listening to the beautiful and rhythmic melody of an ancient text and reflecting on the miraculous salvation of my people thousands of years ago. 

In addition to hearing the public recitation of Esther, the other three obligations of Purim are to give charity to the needy, to send gifts of food to one’s friends, and to enjoy a festive holiday meal with others.  One unifying factor in all four of these actions is the notion of fostering connections with other people.     

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about priorities.  After the very enlightening conversations I had last week with my co-workers about productivity and time management, I was struck by how they all struggled with balancing work commitments with family, hobbies, faith, and other things about which they are passionate.  Additionally, my husband and I put in an offer to purchase a home, which has sparked a whole series of discussions about financial priorities.  In an effort to counteract the craziness that comes with working full-time, being in school, and buying a house, we have been trying to have weekly date nights to ensure that we take the time to have a real conversation and enjoy each other’s company every so often.

For me, Purim this year was a bit of a jolt back to reality.  Between escalating responsibilities at work, a very hectic semester of school, the sudden stress of home inspections and mortgage approvals, and a host of other distractions, I’ve largely been operating on hyperdrive for several weeks now.  But for one day, I was forced to push other thoughts out of my head and just reflect on what’s really important to me.  My marriage.  My family.  My dear friends.  Being part of a supportive religious community.  Being happy.  (A recent article on happiness in the New York Times seems to imply that the aforementioned items are heavily intertwined.)

Purim is a notoriously festive day on which people traditionally dress in costume and celebrate with one another.  This year the three Orthodox synagogues in Memphis – Baron Hirsch Congregation, Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth, and Young Israel of Memphis – put their differences aside for one day and held a joint Purim event, which in my eyes is reason for celebration indeed.  Some great photos of the event and the wonderfully creative costumes people came up with this year can be found here.  Below is a video I took at the event, which shows individuals of all ages joining together to enjoy some Hebrew music and Israeli dancing in honor of the occasion.  (You will notice that the men and women are separated by a partition for dancing, as is traditionally the case.)

So now that Purim 2011 has come and gone, here are some big ideas on time management that I came away with:

  • Making time for the things that are really important. 
  • Savoring the moments of peace and quiet, rather than stressing about all of the other things you could be doing during that time.
  • Connecting with other people and engaging with my community.
  • Being happy.  (Remember this guy?)
  • Getting my priorities straight. 

I Get By With a Little Help From My Colleagues

March 13, 2011
For this week’s dose of time management wisdom, I decided to do some offline crowdsourcing and turned to some of the most productive people I know: my talented colleagues at Sedgwick CMS.  They were kind enough to share their insights and tactics for staying organized and on deadline.  Meet…

Lu Crowder

Lu Crowder, a strategic project manager who oversees a number of company initiatives.  She travels a lot for business and pleasure and stays busy keeping up with her four active grandchildren.  Lu recommends to:
  • Protect your time: I’ve learned so much from working closely with Lu, but perhaps my all-time favorite is that “inefficiency on your part does not consistute an emergency on mine.”  Don’t let others who are less organized than you monopolize your time.
  • Leverage technology: She is a heavy user of folders and sub-folders in her Outlook inbox and electronic documents, which helps her spend less time searching for things.  Lu also uses e-mail discussions to minimize the need for timely face-to-face meetings and long conference calls.
  • Delegate: This can be tough to accomplish without being bossy, she says, but it allows others to learn and grow and frees her up to focus on other things. 

Jason Hood

Chief Legal Officer Jason Hood has a lot on his plate, including managing our active legal department and spending time with his wife and two children.  He uses tools like Franklin Covey’s day timer and desk file sorter to stay organized.  He also suggests:

  • Set goals: Jason’s refreshing management style includes asking his employees to carve out one big professional goal and one big personal goal each year.  He then works to support them in both areas.  You can focus on maybe 3 or 4 goals at a time, Jason says, but not 12.
  • Be flexible: Accept that your best-laid plans will go often astray.  When interruptions do arise, address them and then get back to your original goal, or replace it with a new one.
  • Discipline: Schedule time for the things you really don’t want to do.  Power through to get them done, rather than procrastinating by accomplishing five smaller and less important tasks.
  • Write things down: Jason puts his task list to paper so that it’s not constantly scrolling through his head.  He also tries to journal what he achieves each day to give himself a sense of accomplishment and clear his focus for tomorrow’s tasks.
Joe Labetti

Joe Labetti is a regional account executive who is notorious for having the cleanest desk in the office.  His secret: never touch a piece of paper twice.  It’s a mantra he learned from an old boss that remains central to his approach to work.  For example, the only papers on his desk at any given time are those he is acting on that day.  After something has been handled, it either gets filed or thrown away.  The same holds true for his e-mails–messages stay in his inbox for no more than a day.  The rest are sorted into folders.  Joe warns against falling into the trap of moving piles of paper around (a.k.a. story of my life), as he finds clutter very distracting.  How does he keep up with it all so efficiently?  Structure and organization, he says. 

Melisa Spencer

Attorney Melisa Spencer is a busy working mom of two young children.  Her biggest challenge is the work/family balance that so many of us struggle with.  Her tips for staying afloat include:

  • Find stable childcare: “I’m not functional if my kids aren’t taken care of,” Melisa says.  Knowing that her children are in good hands gives her the peace of mind she needs to focus on work.
  • Schedule what’s important: Keeping an up-to-date calendar in Outlook helps her prioritize and manage her time each day.
  • Work on yourself, not just work: Meeting personal goals can be even tougher than succeeding at work, but it’s important to remember that you are a person too.
  • Master the art of delegating: It’s ok to admit that you can’t do it all by yourself.  Enlist help where you can.

Tom Pfingstag

Tom Pfingstag, director of program management, is without a doubt the most cheerful person in the office, so he must be doing something right in the area of work/life balance.  Tom recommends:

  • See the big picture: With so many distractions from phone calls and e-mails, we end up taking care of a lot of small tasks that don’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things.  Stay focused on what really matters.  Don’t confuse what you want to get done with what really needs to get done.  Think to yourself: What’s the most important thing I could be doing at this very minute?
  • Decompress: No one can work 24/7.  We all need to relax once in a while to sharpen our focus.
  • Know how you work: By trial and error, learn what motivates you and what makes you more efficient. 

Like Tom Pfingstag said, no one time management model works for everyone.  Chances are that, like me, you work with some really smart people who have different time management styles.  I learned so much from my conversations with these five individuals and highly recommend that you do a little crowdsourcing of your own.  Get up the courage to ask your colleagues about their time management secrets, and then try them on for size.  Some will work for you, others will not, and that’s ok.  You can learn from the experience of others and make it your own.  As Jason Hood said, no matter how good you already are at something, there is always room for improvement.

What have you learned about time management from the successful people in your life?