Do You Control Your Time or Does It Control You?

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-high Cick-sent-mee-high) is one of the most famous psychologists studying the basis for happiness.  His break through work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, draws from the works of Carl Jung, Epictitus, Viktor Frankl and other great thinkers who have pondered what aspects of our psyche control our thoughts.  A major determinant of “flow” is taking on challenges that are “just right”–neither too complex and potentially demoralizing, nor too easy and likely to be boring.  Of course, as we master just right tasks we can increase the complexity and grow in our mastery.  Managing our time is a major factor in taking on these exercises in flow. In the current state of the world, most of us spend an awful lot of time feeling like we are trapped in a batting cage with tasks coming at us as if they are being delivered by a major-league pitcher.  We must fight our initial resistance to managing these inputs in a reactive way and instead set up some system that allows us to break down the tasks into their most basic components, prioritizing and tackling our commitments to free up blocks of time where we can get into flow.

A system I have advocated for decades is taking the time to break tasks down into meaningful but manageable “chunks.” This is a time-honored technique for tackling tasks…particularly those that are too complex and overwhelming.  If you find that you are easily overwhelmed, it is very likely that you are not breaking a project down into small enough chunks.  Try it! Faced with a job search? Go micro – commit to getting just the paper for your resume, then design the header. Leave it for a day and go on to other things. Come back to it and chunk a bit more, maybe you can do your education bullets or accomplishments from your first job. Additionally it helps to think in terms of categories of tasks you need to tackle regularly: computer-based work, phone calls, tidying, spreadsheet updates.  To get more things done without a feeling of overwhelm, pick an item from each category and get it done rather than trying to work on multiple items from one category. The variety will alleviate your feelings of oppression at the magnitude of the work. And again, if you have a sense of fear or foreboding, your tasks are probably a compilation of too many steps and you need to “chunk” these tasks into smaller more achievable components.

Fielding incoming to dos, analyzing what needs to be done, and then calendaring your commitments is the bedrock of productivity. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, offers one of the better systems out there for freeing yourself from reactivity and owning your time as you pursue your projects. There are many summaries of his work, but the biggest takeaways I find are:

1) stress comes from knowing what to do but breaking that commitment to yourself and others; stress rarely comes from a lack of actual time.

2) Filing each and every to do in an accessible  system that you review at the appropriate moment is a critical component of managing your work and life.

3) Items that are not in a place where you can access them effectively and have no next action decided AND attached to them will weigh on your mind.

3)Deciding on and then noting down the next step you must take for each to do will alleviate ruminating and significantly reduce your angst.

4) Take each to do through a decision-tree process: upon receipt if it takes less than 2 minutes to complete, do it immediately. Otherwise, decide: does it get delegated or deferred? If it gets deferred, either calendar it if it has a specific do date OR place it on a list of to dos with a specific next step written next to it.

4)Make a regular time to review your lists daily and commit to stop breaking your commitments: make a time to do those things that are due.

When you free time up for flow by establishing tasks in chunks that are manageable to complete and then field and file future to dos in a calendar system that works for you, you will free yourself from much of the worry associated with managing your time. At that point YOU will control your time — it will cease to control you.

 

 

 

Managing Your Networking Contacts

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

 

A system – a spread sheet, post it notes, note cards, a note book…systems only work if they appeal to you.  Some people are techie and like everything on the computer or smart phone. Others need visual appeal and like hand written lists in colored pens, or even post it notes. My favorite way of working is on my phone – I type letters, documents, emails, notes to myself using my phone. That said, spreadsheets end up so tiny that I find them hard to use on the phone screen. I prefer an agenda style calendar and note cards that I can take with me since I spend a big chunk of my day in the car. A bulky laptop doesn’t work well when I am pulled over on the side of the road.

Knowing yourself and your style is the first step–use what you really enjoy. Then, capturing data that will help with follow through is the next most important step. If you make a contact, call them or email them to follow up and say you are glad to have met -do this immediately.  Follow through by email, but commit to trying to connect by phone. If you reach voice mail, many sales systems recommend a weekly call thereafter for a few weeks, with the hope of reaching the person live.  If messages and calls yield nothing then go to once a month, finally warehousing the contact after 6 months and trying back again on the anniversary of meeting them.

Networking requires diligence and organization. Follow through is key. Noting these contacts in a calendar or on a daily list of to dos will mean you actually work your contact list effectively. The likelihood of having the contact yield a new introduction or best case a lead to an actual job will go up significantly.  Job networking is a numbers game. It’s worth it. Over 70% of jobs are the result of networking. Don’t stop applying online too – 30% of jobs come in that way. But, reach out to as many people as you can and have a system to touch base regularly. Many of us just do not or can not follow these systems and fall behind, leaving valuable contacts hanging.  Make good on your list. Organize actions and follow up and really do what you say you will do. The results will amaze you.

 

Meeting Etiquette in the Online Era: A Program Manager’s Plea!

board room
Photo by Benjamin Child.

I caught up recently with a tech industry Program Manager, Jennifer Westberg, who spends an awful lot of her time setting up and facilitating meetings at her company in suburban Boston.  I was hoping to get a handle on meeting etiquette, particularly for people using Outlook or other online group calendaring solutions, and she walked me through the basics. So, listen up because as she said,

“Here are the basic rules of being a meeting invitee, people:
1. You have just a few options when a meeting request comes in electronically: accept, accept tentatively, or decline. Don’t have your calendar set up so that it just appears and you are not making a decision at all: it’s a) lazy and b) inconsiderate of the meeting organizer. I will add in the “why” behind this:  The organizer can’t set an agenda if they have no idea who’s attending. That means they also can’t get a room booked – they don’t know what size; they can’t order the right number of snacks, drinks or a meal – and we all love meetings with snacks/a meal; they can’t properly invite others-and when we say others, remember these others might be people who can fast-track your project or take work off your hands – the guest list can be very important to your success.  Help your meeting organizer maximize efficiency and effectiveness, it will help you in your job.

2. Send your acceptance / declination within a reasonable period of receiving the invitation (say, a day or so). Don’t wait until just before the meeting. If you do, the implication is that you’re waiting to see if something better comes along.  Or I as a head hunter will add that you just appear sloppy – and no one likes a sloppy co-worker. Trust me on this one.  “Sloppy” is never an adjective I wanted to hear in a reference check!

3. If you would like a meeting to be rescheduled – maybe because you’ll be busy for the next week or so – don’t wait until *the morning of* the meeting to request it. Request the change as soon as you know you’ll be busy. Your schedule is not the only one affected and it’s a major hassle for the organizer. Note:  also check your personal calendar.  I just did this very thing and missed a meeting because I forgot that it would be school vacation week when I booked the appointment:  My bad!  and many mea culpas and a hassle for my colleague.  So, we all do it, but try not to inconvenience others.

4. If you *do* request a change, don’t complain when the meeting is rescheduled to lunch (or early in the morning or late in the day); it’s often the only time left.

5. If you’re going out on vacation a) block off your calendar (if you don’t know how to do this, get someone to show you) and b) decline any meetings to which you’ve been invited. Again, it’s a courtesy. Jennifer says she can’t tell you how many meetings she has organized where a person key to the agenda didn’t decline the meeting but was out on vacation – Again, as a headhunter, I have been there and it is a waste…of…time… very frustrating for those in the room when the news comes in that the knowledge-holder won’t be in attendance.

6. Be on time. Being late sends the message that you think your time is more valuable than everyone else’s in the meeting. There are valid reasons to be late but ‘I’m just always late’ isn’t one of them. And, with 20-years as a consultant working regularly offsite in conference rooms and corporate lobbies, I’ll piggy back on this to say that with tablets, laptops, cell phones etc. getting to a meeting early isn’t a waste of your time anymore as you can be working up until the moment that meeting commences.  Or, even better you can be chatting with the other attendees and forming personal connections – something that is sorely lacking in many offices these days.

 

Thanks again to Jennifer for sharing her thoughts on Meeting Etiquette.