Time Management versus Detail Management

Time Management

For several years I had a relatively easy method of tracking my efforts because my job required me to do specific things at specific times of the day, every day. I simply created a checklist to manage the items I absolutely needed to get done. There were some things that could get done at any time of the day, and other items on the list that had to be completed at specific times. This is time management.

My job also required a mastery of “multi-tasking,” a concept that many people are currently writing negatively about. Their contention is that multi-tasking is A) impossible because no one can do more than one thing at a time, and B) even if it were possible it would probably do more harm than good to one’s productivity… I agree with both of those views, but I think both are also misplaced.

There’s really no such thing as multi-tasking in the purest sense of the word, but my experiences taught me that what we refer to as multi-tasking has a place in the work force that is valuable in some positions, though not for all positions. I would also define it as constantly prioritizing a rapidly changing task list to make sure the most important items remain at the top of the list.

In addition to my static list of daily to-do items “fires” would spring up that I had to put out – constant interruptions that forced repeatedly prioritizing the list. There may be 10 things on the static list, and as I worked through them any number of other things could happen; “hot” requests from a state government agency or a boss, computer or network malfunctions, co-workers asking for help, meetings, processes that broke and needed fixing, more meetings, distractions from other departments and people, fire alarm drills, even more meetings, tornado drills, etc…

In this environment I made sure the boxes on my checklist were getting checked off and those things that absolutely must be done at a particular time were getting done on time. I’m not a perfectionist or obsessive-compulsive, but I do watch the details and I sweat the little things. That’s why I was good at the job. In the end, my job description, what I was hired to do, only took up around 30 minutes of my day. The rest of my time could be used for special projects thanks to effective time management.

Detail Management

My current job is very different and requires documenting and managing nearly countless details for hundreds of requests and small projects. When I was promoted to this position I inherited a list of items on four different spreadsheets that had been passed around the company for over a year. It was my job to drive these requests forward to completion. They may be as simple as finding the answer to a question, or as complicated as documenting a large software enhancement and working with the developers to implement it. It was and still is overwhelming in many ways due to the sheer number of the requests (100 when I was given the list, 175 at this time). I had to learn new systems at least at a conversational level, processes in parts of the company with which I was completely unfamiliar, the people who managed these systems and processes, the people who managed the hardware that drove the software, etc. This is detail management.

I went from tracking a list of to-do’s on an hourly basis to tracking different items on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I still track everything that I do daily, but I’m organizing my days and tracking both what I want to accomplish and also what gets done, as well as setting goals on a monthly and weekly basis (see my previous post for an example).

I do it this way for two primary reasons. First, it’s simple productivity tracking. I can keep my days more organized ahead of time. I’ve learned that I also need to give myself deadlines on the requests on my task list. That helps keep me focused. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by 175 requests and projects that have to be organized and completed, which is the second reason I organize my days like this… I don’t like the feeling of being overwhelmed. This system helps me keep things in perspective.

To track the details of each of the 175 requests on my list I use Microsoft OneNote. I have a page for each request, and another one for tracking my time on a monthly/weekly/daily basis. I break it down that way to keep the big picture in view, in addition to tracking all those details. Of course, I also have a spreadsheet that acts as an index for all of those requests and I keep that updated as well so I can see the overall status of each item in a summary view.

By doing it this way I can keep my boss and all the other stakeholders updated as to the progress I’m making on these items.

Conclusion

Each person has to justify his or her position in a company. It’s just a fact of life in today’s work force. In larger corporations it is increasingly important to distinguish one’s self from co-workers as a dependable, reliable employee to not only sustain employment, but also to earn higher pay, to be rewarded with higher bonuses, promotions, etc. Determine if your job requires time management or detail management and build a system to track it all for yourself. Yes, it actually takes time to do it that you feel you don’t have, but by organizing properly it will free up even more time than tracking it will use. Work smart! And good luck!

Time Management versus Detail Management

Book Review: Eat That Frog!

Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. By Brian Tracy. (Second edition)

In mid-2015 I set a goal for myself. It was one of the first goals that I created for myself in my pursuit to become a better, smarter, higher paid, and happier employee. My goal was to read 25 books within a year that were related to productivity, procrastination, time management, management, or anything else that could help me evolve into a better employee and person. “Eat That Frog” was one of the first books I read on my journey.

It’s a simple read. Brian Tracy doesn’t waste time on flowery language and doesn’t spend five pages writing about something that can be covered in one. He gets to the point quickly and moves on. Other books have helped me improve in many ways, but I think it’s one of the best books available to help get organized and be more productive.

Of the 21 ways he writes about getting more done, the ideas that made the most important impact on me were A) getting organized (planning, prioritizing, focusing on the most important tasks), B) determining my most important skills and improving them, C) scheduling my work time to block out times for productivity (and also for breaks), and D) NOT becoming a slave to technology and/or social media. Two years later I still feel like these are just as important, if not more.

The one thing that made the most significant impact though was mentioned in my previous post. I keep a list of tasks to keep me focused. The book mentions having separate lists for daily/weekly/monthly tasks and keeping them updated all the time, but that system didn’t work well for me. I didn’t like multiple lists that all needed attention so I combined everything into one basic list. I still use it constantly, all day, every day, and not only did I stop forgetting to do things, I learned to set and track goals and deadlines and my bosses saw an immediate improvement in my work.

Two years later I’m in a very different position than when I started using task lists and I have very different duties, but I still use my tracker. It has evolved significantly since I started using a list at all, and now it is indispensable.

Below is a week of my current daily/weekly/monthly planner and checklist for December, 2017 in Microsoft OneNote 2016. I put the monthly goals at the top, above the calendar, then separate the month into weekly chunks with their own goals based on the monthly goals, and finally the daily goals based on the weekly goals. Though I show only three goals in each section below, I actually have many more in my working list.

 

tasklist

 

This system has helped my productivity and organization reach new levels that I never thought possible for me. I’m now tracking the daily chores related to 150+ requests and projects simultaneously.

As the book says, there are 21 ways suggested to stop procrastinating and get more done in less time. I suggest everyone read the book (it will take very little time) and adopt a few recommendations and see if they help. I’m sure everyone can find at least one or two items in the book that will help them evolve into a better, more productive, and happier person and employee.

Book Review: Eat That Frog!

Learning To Set Goals

Setting a goal sounds like such a simple thing to do. Reaching a goal was something more involved. Until I started my current job I had no idea what goal-setting really was. When a recruiter in an interview or HR person or a boss asked me a question like, “Where do you want to be in 3 years?” I had no idea what to say. I looked at my feet, or at the ceiling, or coughed, or choked nervously and said something like, “To be gainfully employed?” It’s what my history had conditioned me to say. I lost many jobs over 20 years due to layoffs. Setting goals, or planning for the future, wasn’t something I had learned. Much of my career has been focused on adapting to situations; surviving rather than thriving.

What I’ve only recently learned was that even though the future is uncertain I had to have a goal to help create stability for myself. I learned this from a particular boss at the company where I currently work. He taught me to break down daily information and track it over time. Most importantly, make it simple. Just get started tracking the information you need to have a big-picture view of the situation. If it happens to be numbers, put it in a spreadsheet and after a month or two, you’ll have a baseline and you can plan for progress or improvement. Most importantly, make sure you do it every day.

What I learned from reading books on productivity, procrastination, and organization was how to put structure my day to make sure I remembered each task that had to be completed. I started working with Excel, then moved to Evernote, and over time I evolved toward Microsoft OneNote. I just like the way OneNote organizes things. It’s almost three-dimensional in its structure. I also like the keyboard shortcuts in OneNote because time-saving with keyboard shortcuts is what I cut my tech teeth on. Most of my career has been built on a daily routine which involved doing the same set of processes every day. Evernote was good at that, but OneNote takes it further thanks to better keyboard shortcuts.

As an example I might want a checkbox for something that needs to be done that day in a list of items. In Evernote I would type a “[” and “]” and “space” and it would make a checkbox. In OneNote I can type CTRL + 1 and it adds a checkbox at the left margin regardless of where the cursor is. It’s a small difference, but when you do this 25 times a day (or more) it adds up to real time savings each day.

Getting back to the big picture, setting goals didn’t come naturally or easily to me. Once I admitted to myself that it was a skill that needed to be developed, I took a large step forward. There are no secrets here, no arcane knowledge, no innate ability that you have to be born with. Just write down what you want to achieve and when you want to achieve it. It’s important to put a date on it to make it more urgent. Next, write down the steps you know that will get you there (along with a date) and put a checkbox in front of each one. More steps may need to be added as you start working through them, but you can do that later. Just get your initial plan on paper to get started (or in an app if you prefer that to paper).

I have a list of projects that I work on every day and I use this technique to track steps for each one. I have a monthly calendar that is broken down by week and day. At the top I write down what goals I want to accomplish for that month. For each week (written between Saturday and Sunday) I write my weekly goals. For each day of that week I write down what I want to get done that day. I often have to move things from one day to another, and that’s fine because unexpected requests or issues can arise to derail any single day. Be adaptable. Evolve with the situation.

In regards to long-term goal-setting, the approach I’ve settled on is to have a 90 day goal, a one year goal, and a three year goal. I review each of these goals every 30 days or so to make sure I’m on track. If not, I follow the words of Confucius, “When it’s obvious the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”

I’m a late starter in the goal-setting department, but I also like what Tolstoy wrote about goals, “Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for every minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater.”

I haven’t attained Tolstoy’s level of commitment to goal-setting yet, but after a couple of years of setting and tracking my goals I’ve seen the power of writing them down and tracking them daily. I have evolved into a much better employee, and a more focused individual.

One last critical thing I had to learn is that I had to make this happen for myself. No one else was going to make sure I achieved my goals. This is why I used to feel like I had been overlooked so often. I worked hard, but could never articulate very well what I had accomplished or what I had worked on even the day before. That’s all different with my current approach to goal-setting. I can show someone exactly what I’ve been doing, and it has the added benefit at the end of the year of getting me a nice bonus. And that makes my wife happy. 😉

Learning To Set Goals

Mevolution

In early 2012 I started working at an energy company that was large and growing fast. The company served residential electricity and natural gas to homes throughout Texas and the northeast portion of the United States, as well as portions of Canada. Since then the company has been acquired by another energy company based in England and can be considered by all rights a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate with a very heavy corporate identity.

As an employee I worked hard and actually enjoyed working for this mega-corporation. My experiences weren’t as good with previous large corporations for which I’d worked, but this one was different somehow. Thinking back about it, the primary reason I liked it so much would have to be the people. That sounds trite and predictable, but it’s the truth. For whatever reason the people at this company didn’t have attitude problems of the sort I’d seen in other companies. I knew there was friction between people, but I wasn’t experiencing it as I had at other companies. I liked it here.

That’s not to say I didn’t have difficulties with people. I certainly did, and I had to work through those moments of tribulation if I wanted to remain long-term with what I considered to be a good company to work for. Plus I was 50. I didn’t want to start all over at another company yet again. I wanted to stay with this one.

My first “annual review” took place in early 2014 because I had become a full-time employee in late 2013 after nearly 18 months as a temp. That first review was a cold and impersonal experience in corporate policy from a new manager who I felt might have been a better kindergarten teacher. I was told I “met expectations.” I knew I had worked too hard over the previous couple of years to simply meet expectations so I challenged the review. The result was a second cold, clammy, unfeeling, textbook response and I knew immediately that nothing would change.

My next review, in early 2015 for the work I’d done in 2014, was basically the same result, I “met expectations.” However the meeting was conducted with my boss’s boss due to circumstances outside my boss’s control. While she was out on leave, her boss simply told me that I did a lot of work and I did good work, but he knew I could do a lot more and that’s all he’s looking for from me. I left that meeting understanding what he meant and that I could indeed do more. I also knew that I had to make a change so I didn’t get yet another “meets expectations” review ever again.

Through 2015 I kept a daily journal and documented everything I did. After making any improvement to one of my processes I calculated how much time it saved me, and then converted it to dollars. I was meticulous. I began to read books like “Crucial Conversations,” “Getting Things Done,” “The Productivity Project,” and “Essentialism” to name but a few. I opened an account at Lynda.com and took numerous courses on Excel. I requested extra work to get additional experience outside my normal routine. The people above me started to notice my efforts. Around mid-year I was made the lead on a team with three other people to help out a different part of the company for a few months. That happened twice in 2015 and again in 2016. The result was a large bonus for my efforts and a better than average pay raise in my review.

And in 2017 I finally get the promotion I’d been working toward. I can’t be any happier, but the reward also comes with increased responsibility. I find myself struggling at times because where I had felt like I was a major contributor I now feel like a student who is learning and not contributing as much. It’s an uneasy feeling, but I know it will change as I become familiar with my new duties and responsibilities.

The lesson learned? Don’t wait for someone above you to see your hard work. Document it yourself and make sure they know what you’ve done. One manager admitted to me that I was going about it the right way. He said, “Hell, I have 40 people on my team. I can’t remember what most of them did yesterday, let alone what they all did over the last year.”

The take away? You have to take it upon yourself to put in the extra effort, get the training and education to reach the next level, spend some of your own time on developing yourself, and it’s up to you to make sure your boss knows everything you’ve done in dollars and cents.

 

Mevolution