Category Archives: productivity

Where does my time go?

There are times when I start doing something, and the next thing I know it is time for the next meeting. This often happens at home, when I sit down to relax for a few minutes and then suddenly my wife is wondering why I’m not ready to leave. I will have gotten lost in a book, a show, a conversation, or another project. Very few of us are good estimators at our time usage.

When I started this project last summer, I downloaded the free version of toggl in order to quickly track what I was doing both personally and professionally. I could do it on my phone or in a browser, so it was easy to work with. I didn’t go crazy with categories and 15 minute increments, but simply tracked some key areas:

  • Personal: Eating
  • Personal: Reading
  • Personal: Devotional Time
  • Personal: Email, blogs
  • Personal: Social Media
  • Personal: TV
  • Personal: Mentoring
  • Personal: Out with friends
  • Personal: Chill/Nap (this is important!)
  • Work: 1:1
  • Work: Team Meetings
  • Work: Mentoring
  • Work: Email/Slack
  • Work: Project A
  • Work: Project B

So what did I learn? It made me more intentional with what I did. Personally, I became overly cognizant of how much time got spent on social media, and this has led to a significant reduction in time on these platforms overall. At work, I started to become aware of going to email instead of using some downtime to finish up a task. I also was more careful of sitting in meetings and doing email instead of paying attention. I also started to shut down at an appropriate time and not keep working at the expense of my personal life.

Try it for a couple of weeks and see how it works for you. See what lessons you can learn about how you spend your time. There is no answer that will satisfy everybody in terms of how your time is spent. That is up to you, your family, your work.

Once you have done that, maybe you need to switch something up. I am a person of routine anyways, so this can be hard. My morning consists of reading blogs, personal Bible reading and prayer, shower and dressed, and making a cup of chai to begin the day. At lunch I try to get a couple miles of walking in or a nap if it is ugly outside. During this time I stopped playing Words with Friends, which I found was becoming more of a distraction than a chance to challenge my brain.

Another great personal example that I have heard others do is set a timer. They don’t want to give up video games, but they recognize the need to reduce the time spent on them.

For work, I committed to more walking meetings. When I have a 1:1 or another meeting for which I don’t have to be in front of the computer, I walk while on the call. It keeps me from being distracted by email or Slack. I have also tried to regroup my to-do list so that I focus on the important items when I have some downtime during the day.

Some may question having chill/nap time on this. Doesn’t that mean you aren’t being productive?! I have always found that I can become more productive if I can get a short nap in at lunch, or after going out fishing, or reading something unrelated to work. It was great to see this backed up in an episode of Art of Manliness called A change is a rest . Sometimes walking away from a complex problem will help you to recenter your brain and your creativity.

So spend some hard time doing the analysis of how your time is spent. It might be good to share it with your partner, friend, or a mentor to look at it closer and get some objective feedback. And then make some small changes to see how it changes your productivity.

Schedule Blocking and Meetings

Happy New Year! I want to continue learning with you how to be more productive!

If you read any of the time management gurus, they talk about scheduling four hour blocks daily with yourself to be productive, and then other blocks to review your to-do list and goals. But that has never been an option for me. This has been a frustration for me in my journey.

I have been in IT for my entire career. I used to have a 7AM call to review ticket queues and major incidents, meaning I had to be online at 6:15AM to be review the data from my overnight team and be ready to speak to it. The day would then go until 6PM or later with a packed calendar of meetings, and at least once a week an overnight major incident for which I would have to lead the call. I had to do something different.

I have usually been pretty good at to-do lists. I am one of those who finds great satisfaction in being able to check off completed items. But, when I am in meetings the majority of the day, as new tasks are added and email and messaging tools light up with things to read and know and do, I find that I end a day without having looked at the carefully prepared to-do list and questioning if I was so focused on the urgent that I lost the opportunity to complete the important (see Stephen Covey 7 Habits for a discussion on this).

So here are three of the things I have been working on.

Scheduling Work

In the last blog I encouraged you to block out some lunch times on your work calendar. That was in preparation for the next big ask.

Look at your to-do list and put the IMPORTANT tasks on your calendar. You are going to make a meeting with yourself to get them done. Maybe 15 minutes in that open slot to review the report that your team is ready to send out. Maybe 2 hours to work on that deck to present to the client. Then when you get to that meeting with yourself, turn off email, messaging, and JUST DO IT! And if somebody wants to schedule on top of it, the priority should be higher than your task, and you will need to move your task to another slot. If you cannot do that, question if you need that meeting.

As an advanced method, as you go through the calendar for the next month, maybe you find some hours that are open now that you just want to block. If you look at my calendar, you will find “BLOCK – CLOSE OUT DAY” for the last hour of each day. I often take that and make it longer, particularly on Fridays, and that is where I will drop in some of those tasks. I guard those pretty closely. I may allow a 1:1 to slip in on it, but other meetings get pushed out.


I have become a bit brutal with meetings on my calendar. Meetings that could have been a simple email. Meetings that I wonder why I am in. Sometimes meetings that I find out about that I think I should have been in.

Recently I had a project manager insist that I be in a meeting to build a plan for pre-deployment on a project. There were two concerns with this. One was that my team and I had already reviewed the tasks needed for this, and I was pretty confident that it was 90% complete. The second concern is that one of my team is the lead on this project. I attended the two hour meeting and added very little input. It was more of a distraction than value add.

There are many who have written extensively on this topic, but here are some of my thoughts.

Agenda – be clear on the meeting purpose and the topics to be discussed prior to attending. If there is no agenda, don’t accept the meeting. If it is a recurring meeting, cancel it if not needed.

Participants – the fewer the better. Key working members and decision makers. And even the decision makers, ask if they need to attend or can they finalize a decision later?

Meeting notes with decisions and action items – assign somebody to take notes of the discussion, summarize the decisions, and clearly articulate the action items. 

In the example above, because of my confidence in the project lead from my team, it could have been a quick working meeting without me. I could have reviewed the notes and followed up with questions or concerns.

Turning off email and messaging

If you want to get something done, get rid of the distractions. This is hard if you are like me and have a “fear of missing out” (FOMO). Even in a support position as I have been in, I have found that I can get away with not reading email as it comes in for a few hours. I worked with one person who put in his signature when he would read email, so that the sender did not expect an immediate response. Today, if my boss really needs me on a call, I will generally get a text, and I can catch up then. Let your team know what you are doing and why.

Experiment with some of these items and measure your output. See which ones work for you.

Personal Goals

It is the end of the year, and people will talk about what their resolutions are for the next year. The reality is that most of these resolutions will be abandoned within the next month, if not within a few days. I know very few who write them down.

In previous blogs I’ve challenged you to get uncomfortable. This exercise might help you to think about how to get uncomfortable in the next year. Set aside your experiences of SMART goals at work, though you need to put some feet to each of these. Set aside a couple of hours, and using this template as a guide, write down your thoughts. If you don’t like a section, skip it. If you have another section you want to add, add it. Full disclosure – I am sure I stole parts of this from others over the years, but as I have been using a similar template since 2012, I can’t give any credit there.

Once you complete this, have it some place that you can look at regularly, weekly if possible. It keeps your eyes on what you want to do, which helps you focus on being efficient so that you can do what you truly love. If you find you are not progressing in March, start over. If you realize that your passion for one of the goals fades due to life changes, adjust. And very importantly, don’t go from 0-60 immediately. If you never read, don’t aim for 52 books, try for 4. If you don’t exercise, don’t start out with 7 days a week, maybe just walk 3 days a week. This is for you to grow, not become frustrated.

Here are some thoughts on the sections:

Overall: I like to come up with a theme for the year. This can be a Scripture that I want to memorize or live out. It could be a quote that has been overly meaningful. If you like to assign a single word to your year to live out, put that down and why.

Professionally: This is different from your goals at work itself. This may be networking, finding a speaking opportunity, going back to school, refreshing your resume, finding a mentor.

Personal Spiritual Growth: I talk with people who never think about their personal spiritual growth, but want to improve it. Depending on your faith, this could be memorization, intentional meditation time, scheduling a retreat, regular attendance at your place of worship.

Family: I list out members of my family and how I want to engage with them during the next year. This could be planning a vacation or putting down specific activities to do with them.

Physically: I put down health goals, whether losing weight, going to the gym with a friend 2x a week, cooking at home so that I eat out less.

Personal Growth: I’m a reader, so I track what I read. I have put some ideas if you want to set goals to stretch yourself out of what you normally read. Maybe you just set a goal of reading two books on productivity and putting those down here. This might be a good place to say that you are going to spend less than 30 minutes a day on social media and how you want to track that usage.

Organization: Just an idea if this is something you want to get done. It can be your honey-do list.

Hobby: Whether fishing, photography, bird-watching, hiking, put down some ideas or challenges that you want to do this year. Maybe joining a club, maybe doing a 30-day challenge.

There are two other pieces for each section that I add. One is Ideas, which is something that I want to put on paper, but don’t know how to put it down as a goal. The other is Summary, which I fill out at the end of the year as I prepare my goals for the next year.

So think about what you want to do in 2021. Write it down. When I come back in 2021 I am going to talk about how I block my schedule in a job where I don’t get 4 hour blocks. Happy New Year!

Books on productivity and life

I am an avid reader. I wanted to share some of the books that that have impacted me most greatly and a few of the key insights that I got from them.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (book | website) is one of the books whose principles define many of the books below. While I was a goal setter prior to reading this, I started to understand SMART goals better, becoming less scattershot.

  • Beginning with the end in mind made me define my roles and create a mission statement.
  • The circle of influence helped me to think about where to focus my attention.
  • The Urgent vs Important quadrant made me think about my tasks within my circle of influence to know which ones I should be doing.

Getting Things Done by David Allen (book | website) is my favorite productivity book, and was my next step beyond the Franklin-Covey tools. One of the key points is the need to “empty your mind,” which means actually getting everything that you need to do in a system. By doing that, I was able to collect everything that needs done by a category or project. This reminded me of my project management training and breaking the larger projects down into smaller tasks. This even involved the routine of task review becoming more detailed, involving not just work tasks but what I wanted to do personally.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown (book | website | podcast) was recommended by several leaders I read or listened to (Michael Hyatt and Seth Godin being two of them) which drove me to pick it up. I was enamored from the time I heard his story of why he wrote it. “Essentialism isn’t about doing more things, it’s about doing more of the right things.” One of my favorite podcasts right now. It has me asking questions about my goal setting, dreaming, and best yeses.

The One Thing by Gary Keller (book | website | podcast) I found out about from The Essentialism podcast. He has a key focusing question to make sure our purpose and priority are in line: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by oing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary.” Still working through a part of this as I finalize my 2021 goals, so more to come here. It is helping me to refine my mission statement and is bringing it into one solid focus.

Linchpin by Seth Godin (book | blog | podcast) is my favorite of his books. I read his blog regularly, short and to the point, and his podcast will make you think. Early in my career I would keep my head down and hope that things would pass by me. I was challenged to become critical to the organization I was in, to stand up and be noticed. This has put my career on a very different trajectory by not staying in the shadows.

Two books that I have read this year that have made an impact are Conscious Business by Fred Kofman (book | website) and Start with Why by Simon Sinek (book | website). Both books can be read from both a business perspective as well as from a leadership perspective. They encourage some of the same things in having a clear mission that is centered around values that YOU have defined for yourself.

Have any of these books struck a chord with you? What insights did you gain? Any books that you would add to this list?

Let’s get uncomfortable

My journey in trying to be productive started with trying to find the perfect tool, the perfect process, the “10 steps to productivity” if you will. Some of this was pre-internet, so I read books and magazine articles on the subject. As the internet exploded, I did searches for the best blogs and productivity experts. I had my Franklin Planner, I integrated the Franklin-Covey methodology, I had software to manage my to-do list and print it out and keep it with my schedule. I built my mission statement and did my goal setting. As the electronics came up to speed, I had my Palm Pilot and my Blackberry, an Android and then an iPhone. I played with Microsoft Outlook Tasks, Google Tasks, Things, Nozbe, and others.

But my mission statement wasn’t complete. I thought through my roles (husband, dad, son, friend, co-worker, manager…) but there were two issues. One was that I had not gotten completely honest with parts of myself. The second was that I was not being consistent in that mission in all aspects of my life.

For the first issue, while my wife was helping me learn to say “No”, it took a bit longer to be able to understand that I was a people pleaser, and it was destroying me. In 2000, I spent some time with a life coach who helped me understand the people pleasing part of myself. This helped me to better voice my wants and desires to others, as well as do better at saying “No” to those things that I wanted to do but drove my productivity down. Aaron Rubel commented on my previous post about effectiveness vs efficiency, and I had to learn that.

It took until 2015 when I almost had a mental and emotional breakdown to understand that while at the time I was being very efficient in managing a staff of people and processing 500+ emails a day, my effectiveness was at a low point. I was putting in too many hours, the self-care was lost, and my perfectionism and procrastination was taking its toll at work, while I was not enjoying the rest and relaxation that I needed.

I had to get uncomfortable. I had to look at myself even deeper. I had to make some hard decisions about my career. I had to be ok with failing and disappointing people at the right times.

And I did. I chose to work less hours and be ok with things being undone. I was let go from my position during some restructuring, and I was ok with it. I took a new position that was very different a few months later with a lower pay, and I was excited about it. I joined the Hobie Fishing Kayak Team, which was a stretch in some ways, but a joy in so many others. All of these led to some amazing growth opportunities.

For the second issue on consistency across all aspects of life, we’ll get into with future blogs.

Next week I want to look at some of the books that have made an impact on me, and why. But until then, what about you? Have you been ok with being uncomfortable, or do you need to dive into that further? Here are a few thought starters and potential actions to get uncomfortable:

  • Fear of missing out (set a time limit on social media; don’t finish that book that you are not enjoying; cancel a podcast subscription that is no longer serving its purpose)
  • Lack of trusting others, which may mean unwillingness to delegate (identify something you are doing that somebody else could do)
  • Perfectionism, either spending too much time and never being good enough or overwhelmed and unable to start (launch it!; put pen to paper)
  • Procrastination, maybe due to a proliferation of hobbies or it could be caused by your perfectionism (either schedule time to do it or set a hobby aside for a time)
  • Fear of failure (ask somebody to have a conversation; try something new)
  • Saying “Yes” too often, even to good things (next person who asks you to do something, tell them you need to think about it)
  • Trying to please everybody (list out the important people in your life)
  • Lack of self-care (identify one thing you can do differently: health, exercise, eating, emotional imbalance)

Who can you talk to about these further?