Jan 132017
 

Few disagree that time is one of our most precious and fleeting resources. Yet, when I ask, I find that few people manage and more importantly optimize their time by using a better-than-average system. It is hard to be a great carpenter if you don’t use good tools and techniques.

First, time management is a strange phrase: we really can’t manage time, as it flows by no matter what we do. What we can do is decide how we use the time that we are given, which makes the challenge one of planning and decision making. That reality invariably leads to several important questions: what are your goals (and why), what is your foremost priority now, and what are other crucial and urgent tasks that are important to you. If you have no goals, your task management will often adopt someone else’s priorities.

What is the average system?

In a word, lists. The good news about written lists is that they outperform the average memory, but most people just jot things down, then look them over from time to time.

What’s above average?

While we are still working with two dimensional lists, I usually see four improvements:

  1. Lists are organized by project.
  2. Due dates are added to certain tasks, and alerts are triggered to remind the person to get things done at the right time.
  3. The user adopts the idea of writing everything (that he or she ‘accepts’ as a task) down, not just some tasks — this is very useful because it relieves one’s brain from periodically churning and worrying about forgetting key tasks.
  4. Your task / list system is available for you no matter where you are (which means available on smartphone and desktop for nearly all of us).

What if you want to be top 20%?

Four concepts must be added to your system (and your actual system must make these easy-to-do on an ongoing basis):

  1. Planning ahead is crucial, so that you know what is on your personal agenda for this month, this week, and this day.
  2. Tasks must be distilled to individual, actionable, next steps, so that when you decide to work on a task, you are empowered to take action without a new round of thinking and distilling.
  3. The one truly “next” task needs to be identified by project.
  4. You must have scheduled reviews to keep your system fresh and re-prioritized, with minimal effort.

In essence, you have the ability to view your tasks by various dimensions — not just by project and date. As your system becomes more sophisticated, you can view projects by priority, by next step, by status (for example, waiting on someone to get back to you), or by delegate.

What if you want to be top 10% in your time management?

Filters and blocks of time:

  1. The core idea is — assuming that you pre-plan every task — you can use filters so that you only see the tasks for today, or tomorrow, or this week, which helps with your focus and stress reduction.
  2. Filters should accommodate ‘context’ so that you only see the tasks that can be done given based on where you are (for example, you can’t mow the lawn or throw the baseball with Jimmy while at the airport, so why add stress by seeing those tasks out of context).
  3. Use calendar appointments to block your time for strategic progress bursts. Most people struggle with turning off the ever-present distractions but that is exactly what is needed. (See pomodoro technique)
  4. A bonus feature is if your system makes it easy to log how you spent your time so that you get feedback and become smarter in your approach over time.

How do you become a top 1%er?

To be a top one-percent time management black-belt, one must transcend just having a great system, learning the habit of aligning daily effort to short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals, blocking considerable daily time to the pursuit of what is truly important and strategic. This leads to saying “no” often, without losing valuable personal relationships, which is a difficult balance.  It also means habitually disconnecting from distractions, such as email and text messages, by setting the expectations of those who send you those frequent messages.

What system do you use now?

How does your system stack up compared to this best practices checklist? As you start this new year full of optimism, perhaps it is time to move to a better system. The system itself won’t do it alone — you need the crucial habits of pre-planning, breaking into actionable steps, writing everything down, filtration, calendaring — but never bring a knife to a gun fight either.

I.M. OptimismMan

Jan 242016
 

Time is very valuable. How we invest it, matters. Time is scarce and fleeting, our most precious resource. Unfortunately, most of us choose not to manage our time well.

By the very nature of our hectic existence, each of us has very little “prime” time in our daily life. By prime time I mean time where we are at peace but alert, focused, our senses heightened, our thoughts clear and distraction free. In this state, a person is able to create new things, distill true meaning, plan with clarity, and make important progress on strategic projects.

The world around us conspires to grab a person’s prime time hours for use on other people’s urgencies and agendas — I call it the great Urgency Conspiracy. Many people deny that they are firmly in the grip of the Urgency Conspiracy but most people are infected. Although some people won’t make the effort, I recommend that you track how you use your time over the next two weeks and dutifully record what happens, half hour by half hour. If you complete this experiment, I believe you will come to the following conclusions:

  1. Few events are pre-planned unless it is a meeting with other people.
  2. You spend your best prime time hours on other people’s agendas right now.
  3. You spend very little time – if any – thinking strategically.
  4. You use very little time – if any – improving yourself and your capabilities and knowledge.
  5. You invest very little time – if any – making progress on something that remotely could be considered an important longer-term goal or mission.
  6. You tend to over-promise and over-commit to the point of capacity. When something goes wrong – and something often does – you sacrifice any personal time you have to make up for the shortfall in available hours.

We are surrounded by a multitude of outside influences. This is not new, as people were surrounded back in the 60’s 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s too. However, in the last decade, there has been a massive, unhealthy shift in people’s expectations of real-time / right-now urgency and immediate response on all matters, many of which are not urgent at all. The acceleration started with overnight Federal Express and fax, then came voice mail and paging, then e-mail, then instant messaging, and now instant Twitter and Facebook and especially SMS texting have changed everyone’s real-time expectations. The more one participates in the real-time world, the more it accelerates. The urgency conspiracy is spreading like a contagious airborne virus. It truly infects those who are proud of their multi-tasking abilities. The word of the day, every day, is busy.

Sadly, when we occasionally receive a gift of unexpected free prime time, we are usually not ready to do something good with it. Instead, we grab the smartphone and log-on to check e-mails, surf websites, check out Facebook to see what our buddies are doing or eating, or read newsfeeds. When was the last time you saw a news story, or a tweet, or a Facebook entry that actually changed your life and mattered 3 weeks later? When was the last time you read a text message that mattered 3 weeks later? We have become junkies for real-time but mostly useless information.

Our fast-paced lives can be compared to professional sports. When you have the ball, the defense is right on top of you, giving you no time to think, no time to look up, no time to make a good pass. The best pros, the select few with long all-star careers, are the ones that find tricks that can create some time and space to set up the creative play that winds up scoring and winning the game at the critical juncture.

You must reclaim your prime time in your daily life and invest it wisely. Most of us will never have more than a couple of hours each day of prime time. But if you make space to think, if you set appointments on your calendar to not get interrupted while you work on the important project that matters to you, you will find that you will accomplish your strategic goals and create things of lasting value, instead of just staying busy on faux urgent matters.

Building a good habit takes 12 sincere weeks. Start small — reclaim 30 minutes of prime time each day by making an appointment with yourself — 30 minutes is surely not too much to ask. Plan those 30 minutes at a time (mid-morning?) when you are typically fresh, alert, and attentive. Pre-plan what you will work on during that 30 minutes of prime time and focus on this one objective. Put the smartphone on silent for that 30 minutes. Disconnect from all your usual sources and feeds. Leave the office if you have to, or at least close your door. If you follow this habit for one month, you will discover pre-planned prime time is not only possible, but critical. Then step up to two 30 minute appointments, pre-planned each day, for the next month. See how far investing time wisely can take you.

A person that reserves and invests just one hour of prime time each day will complete a novel in less than a year; or create a great new web site; or develop a new app while learning javascript; or build a pretty little gazebo in your backyard; or learn to fly a plane; or record a video blog for your kids when they are grown and you are gone; or begin to speak French. What can you create or accomplish, of lasting long-term value, if you stop living exclusively to the busy busy drumbeat of other people’s urgencies?

I.M. Optimism Man

PS. If you enjoyed this article, please read my related Red Pill Clarity post from early 2011.

Oct 272015
 

I have often talked about the importance of planning your day — it is far too easy to give in to other people’s urgencies. Here are two articles that outline my thoughts on the topic:
First Cup of Coffee
Urgency Conspiracy

Today, I simply want to point out that checking your email first thing in the morning is pretty much the worst thing that you can do to torpedo your day. Imagine if you changed your habits to avoid your email until 10 am, or better yet, 11 am. What would happen? Imagine if you actually worked on your single most important “strategic big rock task” every morning — the item that you wanted to do, on your own agenda, first — and only then turned your attention to all the issues that other people will upon you, via email. I’m betting that the stuff that comes in on email would still get done, and you would ultimately be far better off.

Did any of the greats — Herb Kelleher for example — work on the agenda other people emailed to them, or did they decide what was most important to them, and work on that?

herb kelleher southwest airlines

Are you willing to take control of your own destiny? It is not as hard as you think. It only requires better habits and a little bit of will power.

I.M. Optimism Man

 

Jul 182015
 

A few weeks ago, I discussed the need for whole-hearted commitment and the will power that results as its by-product. Today, I’m compelled to mention the obvious: There is no substitute for working hard on your pursuit. If you don’t invest the hours, the sweat, the blood, your chances of seeing your finish line diminish greatly.

Consider these observations:

Hard work has made it easy. That is my secret. That is why I win.

— Nadia Comaneci

nadia_comaneci

The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.

— Vince Lombardi

You aren’t going to find anybody that’s going to be successful without making a sacrifice and without perseverance.

— Lou Holtz

Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognize them.

— Ann Landers

The biggest trick in life is finishing what you start, and the number one ingredient is the will power to do the hard work, the unexpected work, without hesitation.

— Bob Sakalas

There is no substitute for hard work.

— Thomas Edison

colin-powell-flag

There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.

— Colin Powell

Would you rather suffer the pain of hard work or the pain of regret? If you are optimistic, I think the answer is clear.

I.M. Optimism Man

May 142015
 

What would a near perfect workday look like for you?

What would a perfect weekend day look like?

What about the perfect vacation day?

Let’s say you could design exactly how you would like to invest and spend your time tomorrow, and also pre-plan how things would turn out. Based on your current situation, write down your perfect workday. Lay out exactly what you would do and what would happen from 6 am – 10 pm. Be specific.

What would be the result of your efforts? What would you accomplish to go to bed happy and content after one great day.

Sailing_Catamarans

Here’s the reality: you can either set sail, compass in one hand and rudder in the other and have great influence on tomorrow’s play-by-play and end of day results, or you can let the winds and the ocean currents push you off course and frustrate you.

moleskine-good-idea

It starts with ink on paper — having a plan is like having a compass. Then, it simply takes a mix of will power, optimism, and the occasional “no, I can’t right now” to prevent other people’s agendas from overwriting your own.

Make your plan tonight, execute your plan tomorrow. I promise even if you miss 100% of your milestones, you will achieve 90% — which is probably 100% better than the average day without a plan.

Try the same for this Saturday. Better result?

If you believe, if you envision, you will surprise yourself.

The real payday is when you build pre-planning and visualization into a habit.

I.M. Optimism Man

May 022015
 

Here’s a short thought to consider:

Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle from the time he was 13 until he was 16 (yes, that is an education in 4 short years). He then conquered and assembled one of the greatest empires – ever – before he died at the ripe old age of 32 in Babylon. His military tactics are still taught today. That was a heck of a 16 year run.

Alexander-the-Great

Read the wikipedia on Alexander the Great — its worth the 10 minute investment of time.

alexander-empire-map

So my question is simple… what should you be able to conquer this year? What should you conquer in the next 16 years?

I believe we are preconditioned to not get much done in a hurry because most people don’t. We have a lot of upside. We must change our internal expectations of excellence, pace, milestones, and goals.

I.M. Optimism Man

PS. Here is an interesting quote to think about from a man who clearly knew a thing or two about leadership. I wonder if we don’t focus on leadership enough. I wonder (out-loud here (I don’t know the answer, yet)) if companies with five star leaders tend to outperform the S&P 500.

quote-Alexander-the-Great-i-am-not-afraid

 

Aug 252014
 

A lot of people think that I’m a true “morning person” but unfortunately, that is not the case. Being a morning person implies that you jump out of bed, fully awake and ready to go, naturally, almost magically. Maybe some people are that fortunate but I’m not one of them. I burn the candle at both ends far too often, working hard and working out, daily. Jumping out of bed is not in the cards for me — my wife can attest that watching me get up is akin to a time-lapse photography sequence.

Yet, I decided years ago to transform myself into a morning person of sorts. What I really am is a rhythm and habits person, who believes in will power and forethought.

Just because I’m up at 5 am daily does not mean that it is easy. In fact, this graphic sums up mornings perfectly, from my perspective:

not-a-morning-person

After years of experimentation and observation, I believe that getting a good, early start in the morning produces killer benefits for the rest of the day.

A good start must be defined, because I believe it is not plunging headlong into the rat race sooner than most everyone else.

  • A good start involves reading a bit to kickstart fresh ideas.
  • It definitely includes pre-planning your day and your top “big rock” priority.
  • A good start must include forward thinking, as well as a bit of reflection.
  • It also should include comprehensive stretching, which works wonders physically.
  • If you are a believer, saying a short prayer or two helps orient yourself to your higher calling.
  • Finally, when the weather cooperates, it also includes stopping, watching, and appreciating the sun rise.

It takes 6 – 12 weeks to build or break a habit. But once you get past the habit barrier, I believe that there are great benefits to the choice of becoming a “morning person” — at least my kind of coffee-sparked morning person. The 10 reasons to become a morning person include:

1. Peace
When you get up early, you find moments of peace and solitude in an otherwise crowded, busy, loud-as-heck, full-of-distractions world. Peace and solitude is great for the soul. I’m not exactly meditating on my patio, but I get it.

2. Reflection
Early mornings are great for reflection, especially as you move to cup of coffee #2. One of the things I started a few years ago is keeping a smartphone based journal. I find, in the peace of the early morn, reading over my recent entries helps generate more ideas.

3. Self-Determination
You an either set your own priorities or others will set them for you. Early mornings give you time to think about whats important to you. It helps fight the urgency conspiracy driven by other people. Get up early to find the time to set your own agenda, your own priorities.

4. Magic
The sunrise is in fact magical. Try it for one week. Then, tell me I’m wrong.

5. Avoiding Some Stress
If you have to go somewhere, you will avoid 90% of the stress of traffic, while saving a lot of time as well. Most cities are busy but not jammed before 7 am. If you go in early, you will avoid that stress that every 8 am commuter feels.

dawn-runner

6. Sharpness
If you get up early and go for a workout, your mind and body are running at full speed by the time others start arriving, sleepy and groggy. Being the sharpest person in the room is a fantastic feeling and it doesn’t hurt your chances of accelerated promotion.

7. Balance
By getting up early, you get more balance in your life. When you take time to plan your day, you tend to be more thoughtful about it, which in turn leads to prioritizing your tasks and plans, both at work and in other pursuits.

8. Special Projects
When you finally forge yourself into a morning person, you will find that you have the capability of getting special project started and completed. I wrote my book, Seizing Share, using the early morning system. Interruptions don’t wake up and start interrupting until 7:30 or 8 am.

9. Improved Optimism
The more mornings you enjoy with a good start, the more often you will have the right, positive attitude all day. Optimism is a crucial ingredient toward success, so with improved optimism, you will often see more success. It becomes a self-sustaining upward spiral.

10. Better Sleep
A lot of people struggle to fall asleep. However, if you get up early, you are more worn by the time bedtime arrives. As a result, you fall asleep quickly and sleep more soundly all night. Our bodies like rhythms. The trick is to keep to the schedule. Once you have a great schedule, you will find that you sleep better, feel more fit, and ultimately become healthier too.

Consider becoming a morning person. I’m living proof that it can be done, even if you are a night owl today.

I.M. Optimism Man

Jun 102013
 

My readers are quite familiar with my belief that time is a limited resource and that it must be invested wisely. I believe that strategic progress should be made on a daily basis: a person who decides to get one strategic “big rock” task accomplished each day will flourish. 

How do you determine if a task is strategic? When considering a task, simply ask yourself if finishing this task will matter next month. Will this step build toward something bigger and more important? If it will not, the task fails the test and is not strategic. If you have not read my base articles about strategic big rock progress, here is one article that summarizes this important mantra.

The problem is that life and the tornado of other people’s urgencies rarely cooperate by giving you pristine blocks of time to make big rock progress. Everybody seems to want something now. In this always-connected smartphone age, everyone feels that he or she has the right to interrupt whatever you are doing and expect real-time instant responses. It is far too easy to taking your eye off your goals and simply stay busy while ignoring your own true agenda. Even those who have adopted the discipline of scheduling significant blocks of time — hard and fast appointments on one’s personal calendar — to accomplish at least one big rock each day, find that they slip up on this habit-of-excellence and sometimes go days, weeks, and even months immersed in the busy-busy of daily life’s activities.

What life does give you is gaps — little gifts of time, in small little blocks — that are difficult to use well because they are unexpected. Most people shrug their shoulders and let these gaps of time flow under the bridge and out of sight unused. Others grow frustrated, realizing that these gaps offered potential that was used poorly. There is a simple solution.

A bit of advance planning in anticipation of life’s gaps is the answer. With a little bit of forethought, a person becomes prepared to take advantage of the next time a gap of time appears, like when your wife wants to detour and “just run into the supermarket for just a few minutes” — an event that invariable results in waiting 20 – 25 minutes in your idling SUV.

Create five lists in advance on your smartphone and keep them fresh and up-to-date. The five lists are task ideas that you can accomplish in 10 minutes or less, planned for whenever life gifts you a gap of time. Ideas for the gap lists include:

  1. In car waiting (gap queue)
  2. In waiting area (gap queue)
  3. At computer with network (gap queue)
  4. At home (gap queue)
  5. At work (gap queue)

On each of these lists, create a number of tasks that you can make progress on during a gap. Distill these tasks to their essence, so that each is a simple, immediately actionable item that would normally take just five or ten minutes to knock out. For example, “plan customer appreciation event” is far too broad and vague for such a list, while “call BellaFlora florist at 972-555-1234 to get the pricing on 24 bouquets for the event” is distilled and ready for action.

Now you are ready. The next time you have to unexpectedly wait, you will be able to look at your pre-planned list of good things to do and jump into action. You will suddenly see the unexpected small block of time as a gift, avoiding the frustration that comes with cooling your jets sitting curbside while your wife is carefully reading the nutritional content on a Chobani yogurt inside the store.

You might not make strategic big rock progress every time during the gaps, but your optimism and peaceful state of mind will get a great boost, if you learn to take advantage of life’s little gap opportunities.

I.M. Optimism Man

 

May 182013
 

I often make observations regarding long-term issues, goals, and visions. While it is important to be acutely aware of your long-term goals and vision, what really matters today is in fact, today.

Four ingredients will determine if today turns out to be fantastic or frustrating. These four ingredients must be combined and baked within your mind, before you finish that first critical cup of coffee. You can determine if your day will go well before 8 am.

First, decide your attitude. Decide that you will be full of optimism and energy today, before you finish that steaming mug. Zig was right — It really helps to say to yourself “today is going to be a great day.”

Second, choose your top priority mission for this day, without overloading yourself. Pick one strategically important thing to get done, one valuable task that when completed, will result in a really good day. Then specify two other “bonus” items of importance that you would like to finish. Write these three items on your calendar, blocking out the needed time for your top mission.

Third, decide to be a person of decisive, committed action for today. Anticipate that other people’s urgencies will pop up this morning and try to derail your efforts from the primary mission. As you sip that first cup, decide that you will be gracious and warm to all, while undeterred and focused on your top mission. Do whatever is necessary to get started on the mission before lunch. It is best to complete your primary mission before noon, freeing up time for the bonus initiatives in the afternoon.

Fourth, as that first cup runs dry, think through what you will do when you run into a roadblock. Adapt and overcome, with perseverance and tenacity. Too many people run into a roadblock and shelve the mission to gather dust for weeks or months. If your #1 mission for today was deserving of being #1, it deserves your whole-hearted commitment and tenacity. I find that if I think through alternate plans, roadblocks don’t seem like dead-ends but rather simple detours.

Lastly, after dinner, write down on your calendar a short blurb of how your day went. Pale ink is far better than a great memory.

If you use this simple recipe while drinking your first critical cup of coffee for 4 weeks, I believe you will find you will have had a great month. Accomplishing personally important initiatives leads to progress and happiness. Review your calendar entries at the end of the month and you will find peace and optimism. 

It is up to you to make today a fabulous experience. A fabulous life is the product of lots of fabulous days.

I.M. Optimism Man

 

Dec 152012
 

I think most of us feel a bit stressed and harried by the standard modern day workplace — too many emails arriving minute by minute in the inbox, too many text messages, too many instant messages, too many meetings that take too long and accomplish too little, too many conversations that distract us from the critical items that must be done, and too many forays onto the internet that wind up in diverting us for dozens of minutes at a time.

In short, distractions are killing our productivity, which dominos into greater frustrations and feelings of stress.

I noticed years ago, how I usually did my best creative work of the month while sitting at 38,000 feet, bound for Boise or Jacksonville. Being cut off from other people for a few hours, has its merits.

Try this simple idea: Do not check your e-mail and don’t wander anywhere off topic on the internet until 1 pm, right after lunch, for just one week. Consider activating the auto-responder feature on your email system so that it tells those who email you that you are unable to check email until “late this afternoon” so that those folks that expect realtime responses are placated. If possible, respond to every text message with a standard message too. If you promise “late this afternoon” and then get back to someone before 2 pm, you will have under promised and over delivered, a great little benefit while reducing your stress.

I believe you will find that carving out distraction-free (or at least distraction limited) zen work time each morning before lunch, then beating back life’s little urgencies in the afternoon, will bring new order, new peace, and a new level of productivity to your day.

Why not give it a shot? You have the power to choose, to design your own life, and this is but one small step. Send me an email and let me know the results of your experiment, using the contact form above.

I.M. Optimism Man

 

Aug 042012
 

It takes courage, political smarts, and talent to disagree — constructively.

Most people avoid disagreement, especially at work. This is a mistake. Please watch this short video by Margaret Heffernan and understand why being a yes-man or yes-woman is a blockade to critical thinking and progress.

Question everything! And develop a trusted inner circle of friends and mentors that questions your theories and ideas. The mental challenge will make you stronger.

I.M. Optimism Man

Jul 082012
 

We all have too much to do. Most of us have difficulty deciding what “good tasks” to leave undone. Yet I believe that the overwhelming load of “good” tasks is the number one reason few people achieve greatness. Good tasks get in the way of great tasks.

Six months ago in my “BigRock Task Management & Frogs for Breakfast” post, I observed that making meaningful, strategic progress in one’s life has much more to do with picking and completing the one most important thing to do each day than it does with adopting a system that helps you complete the hundreds of smaller “good and worthy” tasks each of us face. People procrastinate on the great tasks because they are usually a bit more difficult to swallow. If you missed the original Big Rock post, I recommend reading it before continuing on here to more fully understand the concept.

These same concepts — this “Big Rock formula” — works exceptionally well if you want to become a Jedi Manager of other people.

Too many think demanding micro-management and Marine-drill-sergeant commands-to-be-followed-without-hesitation are the tickets to management success. They are not. The best managers help their people achieve their best, most productive years while thinking for themselves and growing in confidence. A manager succeeds when he or she successfully teaches the team to prioritize their tasks and avoid procrastination on the tasks that matter most. An employee that always completes at least the one most strategically important task on his list, each and every day, will outpace a hard worker who is constantly busy with the daily minutiae.

Unfortunately, nearly everyone spends too much time on the little busy-busy items that seem important at the time. In truth, most of these tasks would be better left undone, if (and only if) one completes more meaningful and strategic tasks. If a person does their Big Rock strategic task first, the other work will still fill in the gaps, but a first down will be made on the way to making a touchdown and winning the game. The manager is in an extraordinary position to either help his or her team members achieve greatness or drown in the quicksand of good-but-not-great tasks.

As I graduated from the professional sales arena, please allow me use sales management as an example.

A great salesperson knocks her personal sales objective out of the park for a few years in a row and gets promoted to sales manager. In most cases, the new manager “learns” how to manage by observing other sales managers. Unfortunately, invariably, companies are fixated on making the monthly, quarterly, and yearly numbers and the sales force is the hood ornament on that train.

Conversations between sales managers and sales professionals become overly focused on the numbers — sales forecasts, potential deal size, and percentage of success. These conversations do little to absolutely nothing to improve the quality or accelerate the sales attainment of the manager’s salespeople. The relationship often degrades between the manager and her team as she is doing little to help them succeed. She becomes frustrated at her inability to hit her targets, given to her by the numbers-oriented managers above her. Over time, she starts falling out of touch with what is going on in her district/region, spending far too much of her energy on candy-coating the spreadsheets for the higher ups.

Most people are caught up in the nitty gritty details of their job and have a difficult time prioritizing those few strategic tasks that can produce the most meaningful progress. The manager in this example was a good salesperson but she is now a spreadsheet masseuse, and that doesn’t help. Other managers fall into the micro-management trap. This manager tries valiantly to understand every detail and nuance that is happening in every account with every salesperson that reports to her. The result is that she is in the weeds along side the salespeople, unable to see the trees, let alone the forest.

There is a better way to manage. A great manager asks great questions, helping his people identify and envision the tasks that will result in great outcomes. Get into a habit of reviewing projects in a conversational planning atmosphere with each member of your team, asking each person to ID their most important strategic-progress Big Rocks by project. Take great notes — pale ink is magical — and then inquire about timely progress to overcome people’s inclination toward procrastination. When asked without confrontation, people usually do a great job identifying the most important things to do. The trick is getting them to act on the important tasks decisively, without any procrastination.

The results of this simple Big Rock management method will surprise you — remember, quality and direction are more important than quantity and speed.

Ask good questions, take great notes, stay involved, and expect progress on the tasks that your own people have identified as most important. Your people will succeed and so will you.

I.M. Optimism Man

Mar 132012
 

When it comes to income and our job, we all get dealt a hand at the poker table of capitalism. If you have ever played poker for more than a couple of hours, you quickly realize that hitting a straight flush is an exceedingly rare event in real life — 64,973:1 when dealt five cards — although James Bond makes it look quite a bit easier than that in Casino Royale. The same odds hold true in receiving super-high-income wages.

Every time you change jobs or get a significant promotion, the income producing “poker hand” that you are dealt changes. But for most, you wind up playing less than 10 or 15 hands during your career, and the hand you hold is one of employee. Make no mistake: capitalism is the best economic system on the planet, but the capitalism game is slanted to reward the business owner over the employee. Employee earnings are bound by supply and demand of people with similar capabilities and experience, not by the economic value they directly produce for the company. Risks are higher for the owners but rewards are better too, for they are tied to economic success of the enterprise.

Because of the employee dynamic, unless you received smart advice while growing up, heeded that advice, played the game well, and got a bit lucky too, your hand looks something like this:

Employment is designed to keep a person content but not independent. Jobs usually require so much of a person’s week that barely enough time remains for family and rest. This balance ensures that the employee stays loyal to the employer, in essence putting all their eggs in one basket. Few people diversify their sources of income. When a job is lost, the only logical choice is to find another job as soon as possible or face financial ruin. Most people are like hamsters on a wheel, going nowhere fast and never escaping the gilded cage.

One must improve their poker hand and not just sit on the 5 cards dealt. Everyone I know would prefer to have multiple sources of income but only the optimistic, decisive few actually improve their odds. Most people have a pair of fours and stay pat. Wishful thinking does not result in a new stream of income.

There are multiple ways to escape the hamster wheel of employment. You have to start making money on the side. You have to actively draw new cards to try to improve your income producing poker hand.

The most common and reliable way is to save and invest. When your savings starts paying back dividends or gains, this passive income is truly a blessing, especially when measured against the limited hours one invests to earn the windfall. Savings and investments take time to compound, so the earlier you start, the more likely investment income becomes a substantial piece of your financial pie. Every teenager should be required to read this book: The Richest Man in Babylon. If the simple lessons sink in, your teen will be better off for the rest of his or her life. If you have not read it, consider doing so: It is short, simple to read, and easy to understand.

Another way to improve your hand is to find a new job with higher potential. You have to seek if you wish to find. In practice, people do not change jobs often. Surveys find that the single most frequent reason a person changes jobs is because they seriously dislike someone they must work with on a daily basis, rather than to enhance their income. Yet in truth, the compounded effects of climbing the income ladder faster are incredible when you look at a 40+ work year career.

Your chances of becoming the Millionaire Next Door are not very good if you have a pair-of-fours job and don’t do anything about it! One of the more interesting facts from Dr. Stanley’s extensive surveys of American millionaires is the relationship between self-employment and financial success: “self-employed people make up less than 20 percent of the workers in America but account for two-thirds of the millionaires. Also, three out of four of us who are self-employed consider ourselves to be entrepreneurs. Most of the others are self-employed professionals, such as doctors and accountants.” This clearly shows that the capitalistic system does not favor the “normal” employee. (this link above is a summary and well worth the 5 minute read – one can’t help but be optimistic when you realize that 81% of millionaires in America inherited no money!)

The logical conclusion is that most of us should have a goal of starting an income on the side in addition to our primary job and income we receive from investments. This is not an easy endeavor but it is well worth it. The first step is to become a professional at time management. Using your time well, balanced across your primary job, your family, and your secondary income stream ideas is required. A person who becomes great at time management can often get their primary work done in less than 40 hours per week. It requires great discipline to change gears and reserve quality hours for your secondary ambitions.

What can you do to earn more income?

Buy low, add a bit of value, sell high is a proven formula as old as the sands of the Sahara. Explore the multitude of manufacturers peddling their products on Alibaba — if its made in China, you can find it on Alibaba, buy it, and get it here with more than a 60% profit margin at U.S. price points. Selling it becomes the trick.

Another proven idea is to own rental properties that turn a profit. This works especially well if you have good knowledge of real estate values, skills at fixing up houses, and a decent credit rating. Right now, mortgage rates are very low while demand for rentals remains high.

Creating things from scratch that then sell for good profit is much harder, but the strategy works for many as well. When you create something that becomes a successful brand, the payoff is usually handsome. Be careful to not try to make a new market where nothing exists. It is exceedingly risky to create demand.

We have a service economy so there are a multitude of ideas in the services front, although services usually don’t scale well unless you hire employees, because the primary input is often time, the one precious resource that you are trying to juggle across your primary job and family. Spot a great idea that is working in big-metro neighborhoods and bring them to other neighborhoods. As with all business, the idea doesn’t have to be brilliantly new, just well done.

The long-term tortoise-beats-the-hare goal is to improve your poker hand, year in and year out. In fact, you would like to have five or more sources for income, making you bulletproof against any one venture going south. When you have five sources, your optimism, freedom, and security will reach extraordinary levels. This gives you the ability to pursue an endeavor that you desire. Isn’t this the definition of “Be All you Can Be”?

I.M. Optimism Man

Dec 132011
 

Task management and time management are complex subjects, made exponentially more complex by self-assured gurus who are happy to teach you their intricate process for efficiency. In my humble opinion, most these gurus are wrong, not because their processes do not work, but rather because they miss A) what is truly important and B) the complexity of their process often causes people to quit the system.

It is not surprising that many people ignore formal methods, confidently tapping their noggins while proclaiming that they have it all up there. After my seven years of personal focus, learning, and experimentation with task/time management and task management software, I have no doubt whatsoever that any written task system is better than “it is all in my brain and it’s a steel trap” method. People that keep everything in their head add greatly to their subconscious stress, even if they rarely drop the ball on a task.

The crux of the matter is that time is our scarcest and most precious resource. Use time well and you can accomplish great things while living a life of true quality. Waste your time and years will fly by while you spin your wheels, stuck in a rut. Therefore, optimizing where you invest your time is critical and like most things, quality and direction are more important than quantity and speed. This is the distinction between effectiveness and efficiency. Most gurus worry too much about the latter.

I believe you should have two parallel systems — one for strategic “advance my life in substantial ways” tasks and another all your other tactical “keep all the balls in the air” tasks — and the two should not mix. The truth is you will never get it all done and hard decisions must be made. Favor strategic advancement whenever possible.

One definition of genius is making complex activities as simple as they can possibly be. If you one of the noggin-only people finally deciding to do things better, I recommend implementing only the first “strategic” tasks system now. It is the simpler one and is far more important for progress. I call it BigRock Task Management, inspired by Stephen Covey’s vivid example (click for the video) from the 90s.

Do these 5 steps daily, and you will change your destiny in just a few years:

1) Every evening after dinner before you turn on the T.V. or open a book to relax, take a fresh index card and write tomorrow’s date at the top. Then, label three categories on the left margin: Work)  Family/Personal)  and Improve).

2) On the card, write the most important item — item numero uno! — the item that you know is important but its been hard to do, or to get started on — the item that will result in a “first down” in the football game of life, for each of the three categories. If your item is too time-consuming for one burst, like writing your first novel, break it into a manageable amount for one hour of time — like write 12 pages of my novel.

3) The next morning, pull your index card out and read it over with your first cup of coffee. Pick one of the three BigRocks and do it first, without checking email, without checking the news, without checking your voice mail. When done with the item, check it off, turn the card over, and jot down a few words about what you did, noting what you will do next on this same project while it is still fresh on your mind.

4) Now, manage the rest of your day such that you accomplish one more of the big items on your card before lunch, and one more in the afternoon, so that the other two BigRocks are completed before dinner. I personally like setting aside two time slots as appointments on my calendar for BigRocks, so that I have planned times to work on them.

5) Save your cards for review.  Go back to Step 1 after dinner. I would advise avoiding Work BigRocks on weekends… we work too many hours as it is, and few people wish that they had spent more time at work while lying on their death bed.

Imagine how much farther your life will be when you accomplish 260 Work, 365 Personal/Family, and 365 Improve Thyself BigRocks in one year. There may be days where you only get one BigRock done, but even so, what if your total BigRocks score is over 500 for the year? Today, many of us drift week after week just keeping the tactical balls in the air, accomplishing little real progress.

Save all your cards and review them once a month. If your BigRock score is 115 this quarter, try to beat it next quarter. The momentum of getting important things done does wonders for your energy. Get obsessed with hitting the perfect score for a month, then for three months, and then the ultimate 990 for the year. If you get there, be sure and contact me about getting a BigRock 990 t-shirt!

We put off what’s truly important because many truly important items are difficult.


Often you will find is that the BigRock on your list is a slimy, squirming frog that must be swallowed. For better or worse, strategic progress items often are difficult items to do. It is not easy to make up with your long lost brother. It is hard to call an upset client and ask for forgiveness and a second chance. It is hard to finally start on that business idea. Its a slimy frog to swallow when you have to step in and tell a friend that he is heading down the wrong path. These strategic tasks/projects are usually not urgent, making it all too easy to procrastinate. Truly successful people don’t hesitate often — they plunge forward taking decisive action with optimistic zeal.

Manage your time and tasks from a Big Rocks first perspective, swallowing the difficult frogs with reckless abandon first thing each morning, before engaging in the minutia of the typical day. You will find that your optimism grows as you build momentum, achieving one strategic first-down after another.

I.M. Optimism Man

PS. BigRock Task Management is easy enough to do without technology although there are advantages to managing your strategic tasks with a smartphone — for one, you can review your entire history at any time, like when you are stuck in the waiting room of the pediatrician’s office.

Once you have mastered managing strategic tasks, the next natural step is to improve one’s process and manage your tactical tasks with software, because paper is just too cumbersome with the multitude. I believe task management is best when it is always with you — no matter if you are in the office, at lunch, at your kid’s game, or heading to bed. That requirement leads to the always-with-you smartphone as the only logical platform.

Most smartphone software packages come up short when asked to keep hundreds, if not thousands of tactical tasks well-organized in one system, following a proven process. If you embrace technology and want a smartphone-based system that can make it happen without running out of gas, I recommend ToDoMatrix for iPhone and BlackBerry. Jumping ahead, there is a full white paper on best practices for managing all your tasks, strategic and tactical, on the ToDoMatrix website.

Full disclosure — ToDoMatrix is the software I have toiled over for the last number of years.

Aug 302011
 

As we get older, we forget some simple tricks that work astonishingly well.

All my readers are familiar with my belief in the magic of pale ink. I believe that anything worth reading, anything worth remembering, anything worth doing, is worth jotting down. There is magic in making the notes.

Back in grade school, we were asked to read books and then produce book reports to summarize what we read and learned. The small effort of summarizing did wonders on our memory. Many of us could remember these first books years later.

Today, I find that when I read an interesting article, essay, or book, it is well worth jotting just a few paragraphs down in my daily journal or in an email to myself. Even jotting just a few lines helps a lot. Pale ink is magical for learning and retention. I rarely go back and look at my notes, but I find that I can remember an article far more vividly if I did take the notes than if I just read it and moved on.

Try this experiment for one month. Buy a small journal and jot down what you learned from each and every news story and book you read during those four weeks. If you are a technology lover, check out http://www.evernote.com, which basically offers unlimited notes space and is accessible from PC, Mac, or smartphone (and is free for anyone that uses it for text notes most of the time because they only charge the people that take a lot of pictures use a lot of bandwidth). I believe you will have a small revelation as to the wisdom of book reports. Pale ink is the key that unlocks a better memory.

If its worth reading, its worth remembering. Our seemingly aging memory is not as much aging, as it is overwhelmed by distractions. Pale ink helps turn the tide. A great memory leads to better ideas and a better, more optimistic life.

I.M. Optimism Man

Mar 242011
 

The pace of change over the last 30 years has been incredible. The variety of media has exploded and all of it is clamoring for attention. The population keeps getting concentrated more and more in the major metro areas. We are immersed in constant background noise and distractions.

Much has changed since my Betamax lost to VHS in the VCR wars of the early 80’s.  We now have five hundred or more TV channels, all of which can be easily recorded on DVRs for viewing at any time. In case that is not enough flexibility, services like Hulu and ESPN3 stream TV over the net whenever you want it. There are more movies than ever, many of which are available on demand from Netflix or your TV provider. The magazine rack is miles long, with printed products that have subdivided into smaller and smaller interest groups. The web offers zillions of websites, blogs, youtube videos, and podcasts, all offering more noise and distractions. None of this has killed the radio — the radio dial has stations literally on top of each other, satellite radio delivers hundreds of stations, and others like Slacker and Pandora stream radio wirelessly to cell phones.

On the personal messaging front, e-mail, SMS text messages, Facebook notices, and voice mail notifications beep, vibrate, and generally clobber our daily lives. People have crazy expectation of “real time” — if you don’t respond to someone’s text within a few seconds, the other party often wonders if you are angry with them.

Everywhere I go, it is loud. The hustle and bustle, the Kesha and Black Eyed Peas ringtones, the bleeps of BlackBerrys and iPhones, the general crowding at popular spots, the spray painted industrial ceilings without any sound absorbing material, all contribute to the din.  It seems like a quiet dinner or a cup of coffee on a tranquil patio is extinct.

How can one think about the meaning of life, his purpose in life, her mission this year — without a bit of meditation while in his or her personal fortress of solitude?

We have to make a choice to leave the smartphone on the kitchen table and go for an hour’s walk (or at least turn off all the smartphone’s tones and vibrations during the walk). We have to decide to eat dinner without leaving the TV blaring in the living room. We have to go drink that first cup of coffee while watching the sun rise majestically in the east. And we have to focus for a half hour or hour at a time, without distractions, on tasks that we have decided are strategically important.

If you choose to stop the noise and the distractions, even for just one hour each day, you will find yourself recharged and refocused, optimistic about the potential this day brings.

Feb 072011
 

Procrastination is really a beast to overcome. We have all struggled with the beast, but I have found a couple of tricks that really work well.

1) Break big tasks into super small micro-pieces:

When you are facing a difficult task that is daunting, its usually because the task will take lots of the hours to complete.  Unfortunately, its all too natural to put it off.  The trick is to chop these big tasks into smaller pieces – but sometime, the chopping itself is not obvious and seems impossible.

Perhaps you have a thirty page paper due, or you must respond to a hundred question RFI questionnaire.  These tasks are huge, guaranteed to take 20 or more hours to complete.  The task itself seems to be broken to its smallest part – write the paper or answer the RFI – what more subdivision is possible?

That’s the trick.  Put a smaller measure and little milestones on the task that seems to refuse reduction. Change your thinking from “write the paper” to “write page one”, “write page two”, “write page three” or “write section 1, 2, 3”.  If the project is answer the RFI, split it into “answer question 1, 2, 3” and so forth.  As soon as the work is split into smaller sections, take that first step – start on page one!

Voilà! The task becomes more palatable right away.

Your brain plays tricks. With the tiny steps perspective, you have a sense of accomplishment as soon as you get page 1 and 2 done before lunch.  It becomes easy to pen page 3 before you meet Jim for dinner, and page 4 later that evening. Tiny steps changes the dread of the ‘no way I’ll finish this…’ into ‘I made sparkling progress today!’ You now come home happy, which is priceless to getting along well with the spouse and kids.

Most people have motivation vs. action backwards.  Motivation comes after starting, not the other way around.  Starting is the biggest step toward being motivated. Accomplishment fuels more motivation. The dreaded task starts flying toward completion, a bit at a time. Which brings me to trick #2…

2) Dedicate Small Highly-Focused Bursts of Time:

Recently, I found the Pomodoro Technique, a simple method to make progress and reduce procrastination.  It was first created by Francesco Cirillo in 1992.  The essence is to use a countdown timer to put everything else aside and work on only the task at hand for 25 minutes at a time.

This works! Twenty-five minutes is a palatable amount of time to not look at email, to not listen to your voice mail, to not answer your phone. The result is that it becomes easier to start, and starting is the key to eliminating procrastination and getting motivated. The Pomodoro Technique makes daily progress easier when you decide to write that book, paper, or RFI response.  Decide to put in (2) x 25 minute sessions per day and don’t go to bed until the sessions are done.  Progress happens!

I think the short burst of time – 25 minutes – is magical.  Its just short enough that you are willing to give it a go, yet long enough to make some real progress on the task at hand.  Francesco offers his e-book as a free download on his website.

By the way, in my opinion, hearing the tick tick of a mechanical timer is valuable. I find it easier to get distracted if a silent timer is running, but the tick tick tick helps keep you focused for the entire 25 minutes.

Beat the nasty procrastination habit and you will become more optimistic and productive.