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?


Killing Two Birds with One (Digital) Stone

March 28, 2011

For more great images, see cartoonstock.com

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?

The Wisdom of the Twitter-sphere

February 27, 2011
Twitter chat, courtesy of Guy Kawasaki

Image courtesy of Guy Kawasaki

As I’ve been describing on my social media reflection blog, I recently discovered live Twitter chats.  As explained by blogger Lisa Barone,

a Twitter chat is a guided conversation where users interested in a particular topic hop onto the service to chat. The chat is given a hashtag, which makes it easy for anyone looking in to identify the chat and participate. It’s similar to a chat room in that it’s a topic-driven conversation happening in real time; it just happens to be housed on Twitter.

Twitter chats are a wonderful way to engage directly with experts on any topic under the sun right from your desktop.  It moves quickly, but it’s a wild and enjoyable ride–and a unique learning experience.

I recently caught a Twitter chat on time management for freelance writers under the hashtag #wclw, coordinated by Michelle Rafter of the WordCount blog.  I reasoned that I could learn a lot from this crowd because freelancers have perhaps the toughest time management challenge of all: being their own bosses.

Here is some of the great time management advice I picked up along the way:

  • Don’t get caught up with online distractions: Delete irrelevant e-mail without even reading it.  Limit the amount of time you spend on social networking and aimlessly surfing the Web, especially when you’re trying to meet a deadline.  And don’t leave your e-mail open all day.
  • Set specific time goals: Aim to get a particular task completed in a set amount of time and work your hardest to meet that goal.  Use a timer to help you reach your target time frame.  (It can also help freelancers keep track of billable hours.)
  • Stick to a to-do list: You may not be able to accomplish everything on your list, but it can be helpful to chart out your most important tasks for the day.  Be sure to celebrate the small victories by crossing things off the list as you complete them.  And there’s no shame in adding something to your list just for the satisfaction of crossing it off.  This will boost your confidence and help drive you toward meeting your other goals.
  • Tackle the tough stuff first: Instead of dreading those particularly challenging tasks all day, get them done and over with early.  They’ll go more smoothly with a (good) night of sleep and a cup of morning joe on your side.  Plus you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, you’ll be less stressed, and you’re more likely to be productive the rest of the day.
  • It’s ok to ask for help: One chat participant hired a virtual assistant a few hours a month to cover her administrative tasks.  This support frees her up to focus on her writing.

As a self-professed overachiever and control freak, that last one is probably the hardest one for me.  But I’m working on getting better at delegating things to other people.  I recently requested an intern for my department at work because I was feeling so overwhelmed.  My fellow graduate student Rachelle Pavelko has been a very valuable addition to our communications team.  Having her in the office 12 hours a week has helped me focus on urgent communication needs while she tackles those items that are important but don’t always make the top priority list.  This experience has also given me my first run as a supervisor.  It may be to find good help, but thankfully I did.

So whether it’s a housekeeper, a co-worker, a friend or family member, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  I am working on accepting the fact that there is no shame in admitting you can’t do everything by yourself.

What time management advice would you add to the list above?

Special thanks to the #wclw chat participants for sharing your insights and experience.  Follow these wise writers on Twitter: @michellerafter, @leslieajoy, @urbanmusewriter, @nancygoll, @saralancaster, @nicoleindenver. @lowrha, @jenwillis, @susie, @lvanderkam, @thoughtshappen, @susanweiner, @sakurachica, and @ajdigitalfocus.

Chat coordinator Michelle Rafter wrote an excellent and very thorough summary of the discussion on her blog.

Above image courtesy of Guy Kawasaki

The Dreaded Smartphone

February 21, 2011

I have resisted getting a smartphone for a long time.  I know that I’m in the minority of my generation, but I’ve always considered time away from my computer to be a welcome respite from the demands of my nagging, overloaded e-mail inbox(es).  My doesn’t-do-anything-but-call-and-text cell phone has served me very well for a number of years.

Enter: the BlackBerry.  (I’d take a picture of it for you, but the camera is inside the device.  Not sure how that would work.  It looks a lot like this one.)  My employer recently gave me a company-issued BlackBerry so that I could monitor and respond to urgent communication and PR situations.  Unfortunately our director of corporate communications is out on medical leave for a while, so I recognize the business need for a backup emergency contact, but that doesn’t make me any happier about my new toy.

I’ve had good reason to resist jumping on the smartphone bandwagon.  In her study on technology, sociology professor Noelle Chesley found that frequent computer, Internet and cell phone use leads to feelings of increased work load and an accelerated pace of life.  As the wise man Ferris Bueller taught us, life moved pretty fast way back in 1986, before we were all weighed down with mobile devices.  Why would I want to make my life move even faster still?

Technology consultant Dr. Sam Ladner discovered through her study of interactive agency workers that devices like BlackBerries have created a “new norm of continuous availability” and the “expectation of hyper-responsivity to work. . . . Mobile technologies complicate the ability of workers to act as autonomous selves in their private lives.”  (Cue the Carrie Bradshaw voiceover) I couldn’t help but wonder: Between work, school, and personal obligations, wasn’t my life complicated enough without technology invading every single moment of my private existence?

A friend of mine once referred to her BlackBerry as a wireless dog leash.  Sometimes the flashing red light on the front of my BlackBerry, which indicates that I have a new message in my inbox, feels like something tugging on my neck, pulling me away from whatever else I’m engaged in. 

Andrew Flanagin, Katy Pearce, and Beverly Bondad-Brown examined the dangers of communication technology use, including the downside of technology distractions.  They cited findings that:

  • 70 percent of all e-mails are answered with 6 seconds
  • 81 percent of people have their e-mail open at all times during the workday
  • 55 percent of people open new messages immediately, regardless of what they are working on
  • People lose as much as 20 percent of their workday dealing with distractions like incoming e-mail 

I practice a number of these unproductive habits too (being an overachiever by nature, my tendency is to want to respond to e-mail as quickly as possible), but I certainly can’t afford to lose one-fifth of my worktime to disruptive technology distractions.  Here are some helpful tips (some of which are adapted from the work of Pervin Shaikh) for not letting your mobile device run your life:

  • Carve out a set amount of time for checking and responding to e-mail.  Be sure to distinguish what’s urgent from what’s important.
  • Resist the urge to respond to e-mails immediately on your personal time unless there is a real emergency
  • Don’t check your e-mail right before you go to sleep, especially on the weekend.  This could interfere with your ability to achieve restful sleep.
  • Take some time each day away from your mobile device, whether that means turning it off for a little while or leaving it in the other room while you spend time with family and friends.
  • And seriously, take a break from texting and e-mail while driving!  It’s common sense, but it might just save a life.  And that’s way more important than anything you might find in your inbox.

Smartphone users: How do you balance the expectation of an immediate response with your need for time away from technology?

(Special thanks to Dr. Kris Markman of the University of Memphis communications department for introducing me to the three studies referenced above.)