This post is the third in a three-part on improving your personal productivity. Read part one here and part two here.
Personal Quarterly Offsites, Weekly Reviews, Out of Your Head, and Managing Meetings
Personal Quarterly Offsites.
Personal quarterly offsites are Dennis’s biggest personal productivity discovery of the last five years. The idea comes from the classic Eisenhower or Richard Covey approach of focusing on the category of your tasks or your projects that are “important, but not urgent” that you never find enough time to get to. Strategic planning is perhaps the best example of this type of activity. Dennis first saw a mention of this term in Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism and, since then, has built his own approach and methodology. You can think of it as the personal version of an organization’s quarterly offsite meeting.
Here’s the concept. You commit to taking a half-day each quarter, perhaps on a Saturday morning. Dennis does his at the end of each quarter, but there’s nothing magic about that other than it makes it easier to be consistent. He uses the half-day to devote some time to the stuff that takes a little extra time to consider, capture ideas, make decisions about going forward, set big priorities and strategies, and the like.
Dennis says that almost everything he’s doing now has come directly out of these offsites, including new projects, priorities, experiments, and approaches. It’s a way to focus on this often-neglected category of activities. Dennis believes that it forces you to take time to that important but not urgent category because, otherwise, the urgent stuff will drive out any time that you have to pay attention to these bigger things.
Weekly Reviews and Daily Shutdowns.
If the personal quarterly offsite is the macro technique, then weekly and/or daily reviews are the micro technique. Has this ever happened to you? You wake up in the morning or sit down at your desk in the morning and wonder, “What am I going to do today?” And then you think about that for the next 30 minutes to an hour and lose part of your day.
The weekly reviews are another core component of David Allen’s “getting things done” method.
Here’s Tom’s version. Tom takes 30 minutes on a Sunday. He has a list of things that he wants to go through. He goes through all his emails. He triages his email, turning emails into tasks. Next, he goes through his calendar for the upcoming week, declining meeting invitations for meetings he can’t or doesn’t need to attend. Next up is his downloads folder and his notes from the week. He goes through his notes to see if there are any open to-dos that he needs to capture.
The last thing he does is review his new task list and time block for Monday. He doesn’t time block for the whole week, but time blocks for the first day of the week so that the minute that he walks in on Monday, he’s ready to get started.
Dennis uses his weekly review to triage the week in advance, set up his weekly and daily Kanban boards, and review what he got done the previous week.
Tom also likes to do a daily shutdown. When he’s done working for the day, he spends an extra 10 to 15 minutes wrapping up. He deals with his email for the last time. He files away into folders stuff that he knows he doesn’t need. He turns into tasks the things he needs to pay attention to the next day or later. He updates his task list and time blocks for the next day. He can then walk away from work knowing that he is ready to start the next morning.
Dennis’s approach to the daily shutdown is conceptually similar but less rigorous. He reviews the “done” items on his Kanban board to give himself credit for what he has accomplished, then moves undone items to the next day’s kanban board and does any obvious triaging.
Doing those either daily or weekly reviews has made us much more productive, and it also makes us feel comfortable going into the next day because we know what we’re going to do and can mentally prepare for it ahead of time.
Get Stuff Out of Your Head.
Many times, probably even as you read this, you find that you’re stressed and overwhelmed by all you think that you have to do and what you might be overlooking or forgetting. You just feel like there’s too much and not enough time. And you are trying to carry it all in your head.
What Dennis tries to do whenever he gets that feeling and on a regular basis is to do a brain dump and get everything out, captured, and managed. Dennis finds that if he writes down or mindmaps the seemingly hundreds of things floating around his head that he feels he needs to do or might forget, the mere fact of capturing them outside his head makes everything seem much more manageable.
This idea of capturing is also another feature of David Allen’s “getting things done” method.
Once you capture those ideas, you can look at the list and say, “No, I don’t have to deal with that yet or that can be delegated to someone.” You don’t have to worry about forgetting notes and you can just tackle the stuff that’s bothering you the most as part of your regular management system.
What about those one-off thoughts or ideas that happen while you’re walking through the house or walking with the dog or doing something else? Tom likes to talk to one of his Google Nest hubs and say, “Hey Google, let me talk to my task manager.” And he can quickly add a task. He can do something similar with one touch of a button on his phone. The key point is that he can capture it quickly and easily when and where it happens and then he doesn’t forget it.
The simple act of getting it out of your head makes a world of difference. In fact, there have been times when simply making the list has made Dennis’s stress magically melt away. It’s not so much the amount on your list but your sense of loss of control that causes your stress.
A great candidate for the best phrase of the last two years is “You know, this meeting could have been an email.” Many meetings indeed could be emails, but many times emails led to communication breakdowns so badly that we wound up spending more time talking in email than we might have spent in a meeting.
There’s definitely more art than science on knowing the right way to go. But here’s where personal productivity comes in. Although this may be hard if you’re in a meeting-intensive practice or you’re meeting with clients lots of times during the week, try to schedule a single day where you get most of your meetings done. For example, you might try to make one day the day when you have your internal meetings, such as meetings that you have with your staff or other people that you work with.
A good example of this approach is how Dennis sets office hours for students in his classes when they can schedule meetings with him or drop by.
Tom has been taking this approach for a couple of years now. He manages a group of consultants and has a one-on-one meeting with each of them every week so he can catch up on what they’re doing. They meet for 15 to 30 minutes every Tuesday and that’s the day that he meets with them. Otherwise, they’re doing their own work and Tom is doing his own work. Tom knows that’s going to be the day that he might not get as much of his own client work done but he is going to spend more time catching up with everybody in the organization.
Find a day where you know you can do that and then dedicate the rest of your week to other types of work because meetings tend to take a lot of time. Also, try to find a way to combine multiple similar meetings, if possible.
Dennis decided lately that if he going to have meetings, they’re going to be in the afternoon because he’s a morning person and is most productive in the morning. So, if anybody asks him what his availability is for a meeting, it’s always going to be after 1:00 pm on any given day. That’s another way to put meetings in their place and reserve the most productive time of day for yourself.
These 12 powerful personal productivity tips can help guide you through what we sometimes call the “Time of Overwhelm” and keep you out of the pit of personal productivity despair. Using some or all of the 12 tips in this three-part series puts you on a good path and allows you to do what you do best in an easier, more manageable, and more satisfying way. Try them out and let us know what works best for you.