Staying Organized with my “digital brain”.

Hello All, so as you probably noticed, I’m trying to do more posts, and trying to cover a wide range of topics. So for this talk, I thought I’d take time to talk about how I stay organized and stay on top of my day.

Productivity methods are a dime a dozen, and honestly everyone has their own flavor of an amalgamation of several methods to keep control of the chaos. For me, I went through a lot of iterations, and then finally settle on the system I describe here to keep myself on top of everything in my life.

Now for all the different variations out there, I know lots of people are still exploring options, which is why I decided to document mine here in hopes that it might help someone else.

So let’s start with tools, for me I use Microsoft To-Do, and its not just cause of where I work, but ultimately I use this tool because I was using Wunderlist, but ended up switching because they ended support of Wunderlist, replacing it with To-Do. So that was the driver, but I also did it, because it supports tags in the text of the items, which helps me to organize them.

So first, I break out my tasks into categories with a tag to start, the categories I use are:

  • Action: These are items that require me to take some small action, like send an email, make a phone call, reply to something, or answer a question. I try to keep these as small items.
  • Investigate: These are items that I need to research or look into, things that require me to do some digging to find an answer.
  • Discuss: These are items that I’ve made a note to get in touch with someone else and discuss a topic.
  • Build: These are my favorite kind of items, this is me taking coding action of some kind, and building something, or working out an idea. Where I am focused on the act of creating something.
  • Learn: These are items that involve my learning goals, to push myself to learn something new and keep it tactical.

Now each day, To-Do has this concept of “My Day” where you take tasks from your task list and indicate that they are going to be part of your day. Now I sort my day alphabetically so that the above items are organized in a way that lines up with how I approach them.

For me I usually tackle as many actions as I can right away and get them out of the way for the first hour of my day, and then spend the next 6 hours as a mix of new actions, and build / investigate actions.  Finally I have a set section of my week that is spent of learning activities.  The idea being to quote Bobby Axelrod, “The successful figure out how to both, handle the immediate while securing the future.”

Finally I maintain a separate list called #Waiting(…). When I am awaiting a response from someone, I change the category (like #Action) to #Waiting(name of person) and move it to the waiting list and take it off “My Day”. This let’s me put it out of my mind without losing track of the item.

After the category, I add the group, these are customer names for work, or a designation to describe the sub category of the work.  Like for example this is a monthly recurring task:

#Action – #Financial – Pay Monthly Bill’s

This allows me to quickly group the category or all “Financial” tasks if I need a big picture.  

I have been using this system for the past year and it’s done a lot to help me stay organized and measure my impact not activity.

I’ve talked previously about how import impact is over activity. And one of the downsides of many of these kinds of systems is that people tend to focus their energy on the “checking off items” and not on the overall impact of those items. I find by using this kind of grouping on the front I am able to focus energy on tasks that are high impact not low impact.

At the end of the day productivity itself is a lie and I believe that completely the idea is not to produce more, but to make every action have a return on investment.

Another book, Essentialism by Greg McKeown calls out this difference in basically saying that the key is to make the distinction of saying “what can I go big on?” or its either a “Hell Yes” or an “Absolute No”. So I find this system assists me by allowing me to make sure that I am focusing on tasks that will return dividends and not on topics that are smaller activity just to drive “checked” items.

Goals and Grit

Hello All, I wanted to shake things up a little bit and talk about a book I have been working my way through and goals. So its officially January, and a lot of us are looking at the great new year like a blank canvas, waiting to be painted. I have to be honest, I’ve always been a fan of New Years, not the holiday or New Years Eve, although everyone loves a good party night. But every year I enjoy the act of self-reflection and planning that goes into the new year, and the chance to grow and improve.

But the one thing I hate about this process is during the self-reflection, admitting where you came up short. Where did you stumble or fail, what went wrong? Now if I’m being honest I’m a DevOps guy and as a result am big on admitting failure. But if we look at this from a DevOps perspective, teams grow when they fail fast, and on some level this yearly retrospective ritual flies in the face of that.

Lately I’ve been reading a great book call Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. And it really is an amazing book that will change the way you look as success on the whole. Really it promotes this concept that success is not built on talent, but rather on the determination and passion of the person.

In the beginning of the book she calls out West Point. West Point has one of the most rigorous recruiting processes in history, and they only take the best and brightest into their program. But despite that, they were seeing a very high drop out rate, and couldn’t figure out why. The short version is because the people who are most talented are rarely tested, and if you’ve never had to overcome obstacles before, then you are likely to back down when faced with your first wall.

The book also gives an interesting take on goal planning that I had never done before, and its one that to me makes a lot of sense, and I’m giving it a try this year. So I will have to update the blog here with the results. But the one method she talks about was discussed by Warren Buffet, arguably one of the most successful business men of our time. In the book, he describes a planning process he does, which is to write down 25 goals, 25 things you’d like to accomplish this year. This sounds like a lot, but if you start writing goals, you’ll find its not hard. I hit 30 without breaking a sweat. And then pick from that list the top 5, and put those in the “MUST DO” category.

And take the rest…and put them in the “NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES” category. The idea is this, your time is your most valuable resource, and multi-tasking is an illusion. So you should focus your attention on these 5, and the other 20 are a distraction. The focus being that being successful isn’t about saying “Yes”, its about saying “No”.

For me this resonates, as if I pour all my attention and time into 5 specific goals, I am way more likely to accomplish them with greater impact. And this also works well with another planning approach that I’ve leveraged before, which is described by Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

In his book, he describes the idea that if you think of your day as a bucket, and I tell you to fit big rocks, little rocks, and sand into the bucket. What is the most logical way to fill it? Big Rocks, then little, then Sand, and if we are being honest we should approach our goals the same way. But most times we don’t, we avoid the big tasks, and small tasks, and fill our day with emails first.

So he recommends breaking things into the following matrix (called the Eisenhower Decision Matrix):

Important / Urgent Important / Not Urgent
Not important / Urgent Not Important / Not Urgent

In this matrix, the idea is that “Important” means that it lines up with your goals, which I would argue are the five goals provided above. From there we can look at what’s urgent and aligns to our goals as where our time should be spent.

  • Q1 of the above box, is for things that are urgent and related to your goals, like deadlines, crisis, opportunities that are time sensitive.
  • Q2 of the above are items that don’t have a pressing deadline but focus on your goal, this should be next on your priority list.
  • Q3 are items that require immediate attention but don’t move us forward. Which should try to minimize these tasks as much as possible. Things like phone calls, emails, etc.
  • Q4 are items which aren’t urgent or important and are basically time wasters, eliminate at all costs.

So leveraging the above matrix, makes it very easy to keep our focus where it should be on our 5 goals, and avoiding the distractions that undermine our success.