Thursday, August 20

Rambling on Productivity and Email (Part Three)

The Calendar
The essential part of any productivity system is the calendar. Managing your time for your projects is probably one of the most vital portions to getting anything done. Without disruptions, without the cruft of the day, you can focus on your problem.

The essential problem with any environment is poorly set expectations. If you think you are going to be able to have your coworkers and boss read your mind, you are grossly mistaken. They don't know that you may be behind on a certain project, they don't know that you may need more time with whatever it is you are working on. They know what you tell them. In most big corporate environments, one of the ways they can find this out is by looking at your calendar.

I use Google calendar for my organizational skills, because that's what I have integrated into my system, its what our company uses, and it works. However, these ideas should work perfectly for your Microsoft Exchange calendaring system (or whatever calendaring system you happen to use).

Set aside some time

Begin by setting aside some time, usually Monday and Friday, to yourself. This is your time to be able to get things in the proper order and organize your thoughts into a coherent structure. I like Monday and Friday because Monday allows me to plan for the week, Friday allows me to review any last minute details that MUST be done this week, cannot wait for Monday, and gives me time to knock them out.

Obviously the times to do this on Monday are first thing in the morning. On Friday I like to set aside the hour of 3-4. I call this "Review Time". There are no meetings scheduled during this time. This is your sacred time to balance your thoughts. As David Allen says in his seminars on GTD, anything that goes on your calendar is a contract, a hard bet, a commitment. The calendar is sacred. Don't put things on your calendar you "might" do. Put things on your calendar that you are going to do. If you aren't going to do it, make it a "Todo", file it under "someday", and take a look at it in your daily review time.

Right now, go to your calendar on Monday and Friday and block off an hour to yourself, go ahead, we'll wait here.

During this time on those days, you do exactly what I stated above, and see if it helps. I find it useful to set aside, just a half hour, right after lunch to see where I was at for the day, review my To-do list, and then accomplish everything that needed to be accomplished for that day.

Do your best to schedule

You will be surprised how well this works. I ask people, even my wife, to her greater annoyance, anything that I need to be at or participate in, needs to go on my calendar. I need to remember it, and I need to be there. My calendar is how I schedule things and is my organizational tool. My Google Calendar is synced between my desktop and my iPhone, and the web (so my wife can get it). If it's not on my calendar, either I don't know about it, or I can't be there (I've declined). Make sure it's on my calendar and we'll be good. Force your coworkers to be the same way. Stick to the time limits.

Scenario: Some guy comes to your desk.

Them: "Hey Bob -(you)-, Do you have a few minutes to talk about project x?"

You: "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm in the middle of something right now, let's set aside a few minutes to talk about that this afternoon (tomorrow, friday). Can you send me an invite for that at 3?"

Bam. Interruption gone, scheduled time to talk about project x, and you move on with what you were talking about. This isn't perfect. Sometimes you'll have to deal with little interruptions.

Wow. Talk about a perfect example. Seriously. Right after I finished the previous paragraph I received a phone call. Wanting to schedule a furniture delivery. Now, had I not answered the phone, it would have went to voicemail and I then I could have called them back at my convenience, scheduling the furniture delivery time at on my terms.

However, when it comes to furniture delivery, the sooner you book the delivery date, the faster you will get your stuff. So I took the call. I sat down in front of my Google calendar, blocked off the date that my furniture will be delivered. They say they are going to call the day before with the exact 3-hour window of delivery time, which is slightly annoying, but I'll deal with it. Now I know on that furniture delivery day, I will be available.

Back on topic, even though that really wasn't a deviation. Wife just called. Of course I had to take that call.

Scheduling YOUR time is on YOUR terms. Sometimes you can't help it and you have to work around other people's schedules, so you have to be flexible. But don't be flexible once you put things on the calendar. People are expecting to meet with you, you are important enough to have a meeting with and talk about a dedicated subject. Don't disrespect another persons time by saying you'll be at a meeting and then not showing up. If you have a conflict, decline the meeting.

The tricky part is the "maybe" response to a meeting invite. If have to respond with Maybe, and I try very hard not to, I write an email and explain why I replied with maybe. If the person can possibly reschedule for a more convenient time for both parties, then that is fine, however, give the person you are responding to the common courtesy o understand why you replied with Maybe. Then, maybe, then can move the meeting to a mutually beneficial time.

Example: I have a meeting at 1pm that usually runs over. If you send me a meeting invite at 2pm, I'll respond with "Maybe" -- by the way, Outlook calls this "Tentative". Then I'll write you an email saying something like this:

"Dear Bob,

I apologize for having to respond to your meeting invite with "Maybe". I have a meeting at 1pm that sometimes runs over time. If there is another time you'd like to push the meeting to, say, 2:30 or 3pm that same day, that would be good with me as well. I have an opening on my calendar at that time.

Thanks in advance,


Meetings that run over time are evil. If the time is going to run over, schedule a followup. Or ask the meeting attendees if they can stay, or need to go. If anyone needs to go, let them go. Don't disrespect their time. They didn't disrespect yours by attending your meeting.

Out of Office

I personally am not a fan of the "Out of Office" message. It's a bad security practice. Especially for the security and network personnel. It allows someone sending you an email to know that you are not in the office right now, and right now would be an excellent time to attack the network. Instead, I like to use the calendar for this. Block the time you are going to be Out of the Office out as "Out of Office". I believe in Outlook, they color the "Out of Office" time differently, purple I think. Of course this only works for people in your domain, (exchange wise), or people that have access to your calendar, (say, Google Calendar). But, I believe this to be a more secure and more polite way of handling your Out of Office. If it's important, someone will schedule a call, talk, or meeting, but you have to train your coworkers to do this. If it's not important, you'll get back to the email when you get back. Besides, if it's THAT important, they should just pick up the phone and call you.

I write these articles to give you a broad overview of what works and how to structure it. You have to apply it to your own life and situation. This method doesn't work for everyone, but it sure does work for me.

I just want to echo something that Merlin Mann has said. I hate that the default meeting time in an hour. I wish you could change that in some way. In Google Calendar, iCal, and in Outlook, the default meeting time is an hour long. I want to be able to say the default meeting time is 30 minutes. If I want to expand it, I can. But blocking a whole hour of my time? Working approx 8 hours a day, that's not very much time. Anyway, sorry, pet peeve.

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