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?


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?