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?