Time management for the career-minded

This post was originally appeared on the Accenture Careers blog.

TL;DR Choose a time management system that’s built to last, integrate work / life balance into your system and prioritize tasks strategically. Ultimately, keep the promises you make to yourself and your community.

What qualifies me, you might ask, to tell you about time management? After all, the topic has been covered ad nauseum, becoming a defacto publishing category. Well, my two bona fides:

  1. I’ve researched and studied probably a dozen systems over the years of my lengthy career and found tips you can follow to extract the most out of whatever system you’d care to try
  2. It’s working! I’m as surprised as anyone that the nuggets of wisdom I’ve gleaned have made me pretty darned effective in my work and personal life

Let’s start with a cliché: The secret to career success is working smarter, not harder. Don’t we all have a trusted family member or friend who told us this? I know I had one, and I was deeply skeptical. Wasn’t this country founded on grit and long hours? For a recent example, the musical “Hamilton” talks about how that Founding Father worked “non-stop” — “All I have is my honor, a tolerance for pain / A couple of college credits and my top notch brain.” Actually, Alexander Hamilton may be the poster child for what can happen to you if you aren’t circumspect about time. He did not work smarter!

Hamilton died in relative obscurity, which is exactly the opposite of what he wanted.

He was known for working tirelessly. One example is his contributions to The Federalist Papers — written with his characteristic eloquence and application of rigorous logic. This contribution alone should have made him a revered historical figure. The Papers became a blueprint for our new country. But Hamilton appears to have thought his cleverness and work ethic were precisely enough to bring him the fame he craved. Nope. He was efficient but not effective and his reputation paid the price.

My mentor was right: You really should work smarter, not harder. We have a limited amount of attention and energy, and more ways to sap both exist today than for any generation before us. We can easily become unmoored, and drift away from what’s truly important. That’s why this is essential:

Regardless of the time management system you settle in with, be sure it starts with a liveable strategy to direct your energies toward the right goals. Only then allow the method to govern how you manage time.

Whither Life Balance?

My studies have been far-reaching, covering both the expected — David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — and the obscure: The 90-minute Hour (don’t bother — this could have been written by Alexander Hamilton, it is so fanatical about productivity at all costs), and The Pomodoro Technique (worth considering for the right type of professional). I even tried, circa 2005, an app called Life Balance, a smart approach that never made the jump to iOS, and died with the Palm OS.

My research even includes the mid-century wisdom of — Go figure — our 34th president, Dwight Eisenhower.

I’ve earnestly tried them all, for a while tethering myself to alphabetized folders, both physical and virtual. I’ve tried working in the mini-sprints of Pomodoro — resting every 25 minutes for five, before starting another. I’ve tried the more agile-like week long sprints prescribed by Covey, categorizing everything by the roles I play in life (employee, professional, brother, friend, servant, etc.).

After my travels through these far-flung lands, I’m back to tell you what’s really important in the system you choose, and how you can immediately become more productive and less stressed-out. Here are my five highly subjective tips, borne of trial and error:

  1. Start with your values. I have to say Covey’s Seven Habits describes this step best. Read how he describes finding your “true north,” and commit to it. And by commit, I mean give it a year or two and see how things go. And if you really like where it’s taking you, dig deeper by reading Covey’s First Things First. That book goes deeper into values, and it finally got me to write a personal Mission Statement. What I wound up with is something that is as resonant for me today as it was when I first wrote it.
  2. Pick a system. Don’t leave time management to chance. Don’t wing it. It’s no coincidence Covey called them “habits.” He prescribes actions effective people must take that shouldn’t require conscious thought; They should become second nature. And many aren’t intuitive. So get a system and make it yours.
  3. Keep to-do lists. Recently a co-worker confessed he was getting overwhelmed. We talked about it, and I asked him how he managed his tasks. He wordlessly brought me to his computer monitor. It was papered with Post-Its, resembling the windshield of a car left under a tree on a wet autumn day. Imagine: He would start each day with more than a dozen yellow reminders screaming at him! Always in his line of vision, the tasks reduced his ability to complete them, and clouded his vision of which ones he could or should delegate! They became his master.
  4. Hide your list. My colleague’s story reminded me how valuable it is that when I capture a new to-do item, I immediately hide it from view. I’m rarely overwhelmed, even when I have a rolling list of 20 or more items per day — most non-urgent ones carried forward to be tackled tomorrow. Although you can rely on paper lists and hide them out of sight, I strongly recommend automated systems: While allowing you to turn away from them, automation keeps them ready for review at any time, wherever you are. That list is the first thing I look at each morning. My online system, Remember the Milk, is installed on all my electronic devices — two computers (one for work, one for personal stuff), my Android work phone and my Apple iPod touch music and podcast player. My tasks follow me everywhere but never overtake me. I am their master, not the other way around!
  5. Prioritize and refine your lists. For this last tip I need to talk about good ole’ late President Eisenhower. He came up with an enduring approach to prioritizing tasks. It is wisdom that Covey also explores in his books, but here’s a summary:

Draw an X/Y graph, with the vertical axis being level of importance, and the horizontal being urgency. Then rank each of your tasks into one of the quadrants. Here’s how that looks:

From there, how to proceed becomes clear:

  • Important / Urgent tasks are done immediately and personally.
  • Important / Not Urgent get deadlines (which can be ultimately moved) and are done personally. This quadrant is in yellow because it’s the area most of us fall down on, and it’s the most important to our success. We need to spend the most time in this quadrant.
  • Unimportant / Urgent task are politely delegated.
  • Unimportant / Not Urgent tasks are tactfully dropped.

When you divvy up your work this way, you discover many tasks disappear, which is liberating, and others are delegated — byproducts of which are collaboration and interdependence, qualities that help deepen work and personal relationships (Bonus!).

Drop, Delegate, Do Now or Do Later

Some tasks disappear because they are neither important nor urgent. Example: Does it really benefit you — or your employer — to attend that annual conference, or is it driven by ego … or FOMO? If in doubt, drop it and save yourself the paperwork and the time away from important tasks. You can always find out from others what you might have missed. Start skipping these things and you’ll soon be surprised at how often you hear there was nothing new covered!

Other tasks get delegated. Example: Next time, verbally ask a coworker to respond for the both of you to that group email asking who is bringing what to the potluck. (Promise to return the favor next time, of course. Don’t take advantage of work relationships!). In my experience group emails are often — but not always — the domain of the urgent but non-important. They can quickly become Reply All time-wasters.

Want to know if I deem something unimportant? When you ask me to weigh in on choosing an option, I smile and cheerfully respond “Surprise me.” By saying those words I’ve given both of us a little time back we can devote to other, important decisions. Oh, and another bonus: I’m often genuinely surprised by your choices!

This leaves only important work on your list — except for tasks such as “Follow up with so-and-so on what you delegated.” So what’s truly important? Don’t believe what you’re told. Refuse to let others impose on you what’s truly important. Instead, consult your values and goals. See Tip #1 above.

You Are Your Word

Time management is important because the best employees, the best parents, the best friends, have something in common: They do what they tell us they will do. And with every kept commitment kept, trust — and social and professional esteem — grows.

Here is how I handle a new request: If it’s important and I can do it, I’ll commit to it, and I’ll set a deadline. Then I’ll add it to my to-do list with a deadline well before it’s actually expected. (If it’s urgent and it’s due by 5 PM, I’ll promise that time but shoot for 3:00 and usually complete it by 4:00).

So what have I done? I’ve promised something to my boss, employee, friend or relative. But the task I wrote down in my to-do list was actually a different promise. It was one to my future self. It was a small withdrawal I made against my self-esteem “bank account.”

Once written down, the task is hidden while I tackle other things. I trust myself to do it. When I’m ready to review what’s up next, I will see that task and if it’s time, it tackle it.

When I’m done two things happen:

  1. I check it off my list and feel great! I’ve once again behaved honorably with myself. The amount I withdrew from my self-esteem account was returned — plus interest!
  2. I’ve followed through with the original promise. The person I committed to has an opinion of me as well, and I just helped that opinion grow a little.

To both that person and to myself, I have become someone who can be counted on to keep my commitments. One definition of living in integrity is having the same opinion of yourself as those held by your friends, family and coworkers. Good time management moves you closer to that ideal.

Have I missed any good tips? Let me know!

Creative Commons image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MerrillCoveyMatrix.png

Wolves, Trains and Automobiles: The Domestication of A.I.

I’ve thought and read a lot about artificial intelligence (AI). Particularly, its potential threat to us, its human creators. I’m not much for doomsday theories, but I admit I was inclined to fear the worst. To put things at their most melodramatic, I worried we might be unwittingly creating our own eventual slave masters. But after further reading and thinking, I’ve reconsidered. Yes. A.I. will be everywhere in our future. But not as sinister job-killers and overlords. No, they will be extensions of us in a way I can only compare with that most beloved of domesticated creatures: The dog.

For you to follow my logic, you’ll need to remember two facts:

  1. Our advancement as a species from hunter-gatherers to complex civilizations would not be possible without domesticated plants and animals
  2. Our collective fear of technology is often wildly unfounded

Bear with me, but you’ll also probably need to recall these definitions:

  • Domestication: Taking existing plants or animals and breeding them to serve us. Two examples are the selection of the most helpful plants and turning them into crops. Michael Pollan’s early book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, will bring you a long way to seeing this process in action. As for animals, you may think of dogs as being mere pets, but early in our evolution as humans we bred the wolf to help us hunt for meat, and to protect us from predators. Before domestication, we pre-humans hunted in packs, and so did the wolves … never the twain shall meet. After this domestication, we ensured the more docile canines a better life, under the protection of our species and its burgeoning technologies (see definition below), and they delivered the goods for us by helping us thrive in hostile conditions. It was a symbiosis that turned our two packs into a single unit. No wonder the domesticated dog adores us so, and that we consider them man(kind)’s best friend.
  • Technology: Did you know the pencil was once considered technology? So was the alphabet. You may think of them merely as tools, but technology is any tool that is new. And our attitudes toward anything new always starts with fear. Douglas Adams put it this way: “I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1.) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2.) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3.) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” Fear of technology not surprisingly spawned the first science fiction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, a literal fever dream about a scientist’s hubris and the destruction it wrought upon himself and the world. This fear has a name: Moral panic. And it has created some pretty far-fetched urban myths.

In a Wall Street Journal piece, Women And Children First: Technology And Moral Panic, Genevieve Bell listed a few of these vintage myths. The first is about the advent of the electric light: “If you electrify homes you will make women and children … vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them. So electricity is going to make women vulnerable … and children will be visible too and it will be predators, who seem to be lurking everywhere, who will attack.” And consider this even bigger hoot: “There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.”

Sounds messy.

I don’t have to tell you about our modern moral panic surrounding A.I. Except there is a bit of reverse sexism going on, because this time it is male workers who are more the victims. Their work — whether purely intellectual or journeyman labor — will be eliminated. We’ll all be out on the street, presumably to be mowed down by self-driving cars and trucks.

The Chicken Littles had me for a while

So what changed? In the same week I read two thought-provoking articles. One was in The New Yorker, The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark. Its subtitle says it all: The tools we use to help us think — from language to smartphones — may be part of thought itself. This long piece describes Clark’s attempt to better understand what consciousness is, and what are its boundaries. In other words, where do we as thinking humans end and the world we perceive begin?

He comes to recognize that there is a reason we perceive the world based on our five senses. Our brains are built to keep us alive and able to reproduce. Nothing more. All the bonus tracks in our brain’s Greatest Hits playlist … Making art, considering the cosmos, perceiving a future and a past … these are all artifacts of a consciousness that moves our limbs through space.

To some people, perception — the transmitting of all the sensory noise from the world — seemed the natural boundary between world and mind. Clark had already questioned this boundary with his theory of the extended mind. Then, in the early aughts, he heard about a theory of perception that seemed to him to describe how the mind, even as conventionally understood, did not stay passively distant from the world but reached out into it. It was called predictive processing.

Predictive processing starts with our bodies. For instance, we don’t move our arm when it’s at rest. We imagine it moving — predict its movement — and when our arm gets the memo it responds. Or not. If we are paralyzed, or that arm is currently in the jaws of a bear, it sends the bad news back to our brains. And so it goes.

In a similar way we project this feedback loop out into the world. But we are limited by our own sense of it.

Domestication of canines was such a game-changer because we suddenly had assistants with different senses and perceptions. Together humans and dogs became a Dynamic Duo … A prehistoric Batman and Robin. But Robin always knew who was the alpha in this relationship.

Right now there is another domestication taking place. It’s not of a plant or an animal, but of a complicated digital application. If that seems a stretch … If grouping these three together — plants, animals and applications — keep in mind that domesticating all of them means altering digital information.

All Life Is Digital

Plants and animals have DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. They are alive because they have genetic material. And guess what? It’s all digital. DNA encoding uses 4 bases: G,C,T, and A. These are four concrete values that are expressed in the complex combinations that make us both living, and able to pass along our “usness” to new generations. We’re definitely more complicated than the “currently” binary underpinnings of A.I. But as we’ve seen, A.I. is really showing us humans up in some important ways.

They’re killing us humans at chess. And Jeopardy.

So: Will A.I. become conscious and take us over? Clark would say consciousness is beyond A.I.’s reach, because as impressive as its abilities to move through the world and perceive it are, even dogs have more of an advantage in the consciousness department. He would be backed up by none less than Nobel Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kohneman, of Thinking, Fast and Slow fame. I got to hear him speak on this subject live, at a New Yorker TechFest, and I was impressed and relieved by how sanguine he was about the future of A.I.

Here’s where I need to bring in the other article, a much briefer one, from The Economist. Robots Can Assemble IKEA Furniture sounds pretty ominous. It’s a modern trope that assembling IKEA furniture is an unmanning intellectual test. But the article spoke more about A.I.’s limitations than its looming existential threats.

First, it took the robots comparatively long time to achieve the task at hand. In the companion piece to that article we read that …

Machines excel at the sorts of abstract, cognitive tasks that, to people, signify intelligence—complex board games, say, or differential calculus. But they struggle with physical jobs, such as navigating a cluttered room, which are so simple that they hardly seem to count as intelligence at all. The IKEAbots are a case in point. It took a pair of them, pre-programmed by humans, more than 20 minutes to assemble a chair that a person could knock together in a fraction of the time.

Their struggles brought me back to how our consciousness gradually materialized to our prehistoric ancestors. It arrived not in spite of our sensory experience of the world, but specifically because of it. If you doubt that just consider my natural and clear way just now of describing the arrival of consciousness: I said it materialized. You understood this as a metaphor associated with our perception of the material world.

This word and others to describe concepts play on our ability to feel things. Need another example: This is called a goddamn web page. What’s a page? What’s a web? They’re both things we can touch and experience with our carefully evolved senses.

And without these metaphors these paragraphs would not make sense.

Yes, our ancestors needed the necessary but not sufficient help of things like cooking, which enabled us to take in enough calories to grow and maintain our complex neural network, and the domestication of animals and plants that led us to agriculture and an escape from the limitations of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes (I strongly recommend Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies for more on this), but …

To gain consciousness, we also needed to feel things. And what do we call people who don’t feel feelings? Robots. “Soulless machines.”

Without evolving to feel, should A.I. nonetheless take over the world, it’s unlikely they will be assembling their own IKEA chairs with alacrity. They’ll make us do it for them. Because our predictive processing makes this type of task annoying but manageable. We can even do it faster over time.

It’s All About The Feels

But worry not. Our enslavement won’t happen because — and I’m feeling pretty hubristic myself as I write this — we’re the feelers, the dreamers, the artists. Not A.I.

Before we domesticated dogs, we were limited in where in the world we could roam, and the game we could hunt. After dogs, we progressed. We prospered. Dogs didn’t put us out of jobs, if you will, they took the jobs they were better at in our service. Inevitably, we found other ways to use our time, including becoming creatures who are closer to the humans we would recognize on the street today, or staring back in the mirror.

We are domesticating A.I. Never forget that.

And repeat after me: We have nothing to fear but moral panic itself.

Personal Mission Statements are dumb

That’s how I felt 25 years ago, when I was working on a system to improve my work and life focus. The concept made sense, it wasn’t that. Stephen Covey of Seven Habits fame conjectured, to paraphrase: “What good is ‘climbing the ladder’ if you reach the top and realize it’s against the wrong building?” He was trying to make the distinction between being efficient — moving as quickly as possible from rung-to-rung — and being effective. Effective people are also more resilient. For people who know they are navigating against their “True North,” setbacks don’t seem quite so hard.

No, what I hated about personal Mission Statements is the fact that those I had read — the examples I found — frankly were dumb. I know, they weren’t dumb to their authors. But to me they all sounded way too high-minded. They all sounded like the platitudinous statements made during the Q&A phase of a beauty pageant.

But I persisted. I realized that I needed to ignore the ones that I’d read. (They comprised a fairly small sample; This was pre-internet, before the world’s knowledge was at the end of a quick Google search.) Instead, I meditated and ruminated. And I assured myself that when I found the right one, others would likely find mine as dumb as I found theirs. It’s sort of like looking through someone else’s closets (“Do they really think that shirt is a good idea?!?”)

After literally a year of trying, my mission statement came to me in a flash. I was, interestingly enough, on a massage table at the time. It’s surprising what’s released along with all that lactic acid. For what it’s worth, here it is:

Lead by example
Live in acceptance and non-judgement
Help people laugh at themselves and the world
Help people succeed financially

That last one comes from my early professional life, which took place in the mid-1980s, the second most severe recession since the last one. It was a tough time to start out, and money was scarce. I vowed to be the mentor I never had and help people find work that they love.

Do you have a notable Mission Statement? I’ve turned my comments off, but you can find me. Let me know!

This year’s NPR Austin 100 includes impeccable break-up advice

NPR’s Austin 100 is a curated collection of new music from SXSW. I’ve never been to this Austin-based music festival, but I look forward to the annual playlist as eagerly as many await March Madness. And contrary to what’s supposed to happen with age, my tastes aren’t narrowing. I’m actually finding more to love in the collections every year. In 2015, the first year I started downloading the 100 songs, I kept only 27 — An hour and 42 minutes of listening.

This year, the hit-rate for me is up to 85 percent: A little over five hours of diverse new music. I’m sure there will be other songs from the 2018 collection that will go into heavy rotation, but here’s my initial song crush: Lucy Dacus delivering a small masterpiece on coping with a broken heart.

Arresting Lyrics In An Addictive Melodic Package

Two things will strike you about Night Shift. First, the lyrics. There isn’t an unnecessary word or phrase, and not a single cliche. Instead, you feel the hurt, as she recounts a meeting with a recently lost love in a coffee shop. You imagine this meeting was suggested by her ex to assuage guilt over cheating that led to the break-up. Or maybe it was just love that faded. When you’re still in its throes, even just the other person falling out of love can feel like an unthinkable betrayal.

Don’t hold your breath, forget you ever saw me at my best
You don’t deserve what you don’t respect
Don’t deserve what you say you love and then neglect

Regarding the second striking aspect of the song, I can be far less articulate. I’m a word guy, not a trained musicologist. But the structure is stunningly crafted, and makes the impact of her lyrics all the greater.

Yes, it builds, as a lot of modern pop songs do. Dacus starts with a simple, quiet folk melody and proceeds to a crashing, crunchy guitar crescendo. That’s nothing new. But this song does things differently. Since it caught my attention I’ve listened to it perhaps two dozen times — first for pure enjoyment, but then to try to grasp its magic. I needed to crack the code!

Which brings me to today. During a long, chilly walk, I was determined to listen to as much of my edited playlist as I could. But that damn song. I kept hitting replay on it. I finally surrendered and just tapped the Repeat Single button.

What followed was perhaps a dozen more listens. And possibly some hearing loss.

The melody appears to my untrained ear to change at three points, not counting a bridge just before what I guess you’d call the refrain. But this stunning refrain caps the end of the song instead of connecting separate verses. Dacus’ booming finale is a top-of-her-lungs declaration of Screw it! I’ll get over this — and you. Eventually.

You may disagree, but I find it to be a perfect song.

This isn’t the first time I’ve admired Lucy Dacus’ music. She was featured in the 2016 Austin 100. Here is that song. I’d like to believe it’s a new genre of anthem, dedicated to chubby girls or bookish girls, who are clever, smart … yet always overlooked:

My Own 2018 Austin 100 Curation

If you’re interested in what else is turning my crank from SXSW this year, here is my 79-song playlist in no particular order. It’s six songs short of my full list because, I’m guessing, a handful of artists did not agree to be on Spotify.

Enjoy.

Photo credit: Style Weekly piece on her. You should read the article.

A Business Communication Reading List

A month ago to the day, I provided a crowd-sourced list of recommended readings for the career-minded. I didn’t have room in that post to talk about all the excellent suggestions from one extraordinary friend. Jill Stewart is a professional lecturer at DePaul University’s College of Communication. I’ve never told her this, but hand’s down my favorite business class in college was Business Communication. I thought I’d ace it without breaking a sweat. Boy, did I have a rude awakening!

My professor, lo those many years ago, showed me that communicating in business is hard. It’s also vital to career success.

I was reminded of all of this when I read Jill’s reading list, provided here verbatim. If you can find a smart, dedicated professor like Ms. Stewart, take her class and heed her words. Next best thing: Dip into this list. You can let her know what you think here.

Books on how to improve your writing

Clark, How to Write Short (2014) and Writing Tools (2008)
Danziger, Get to the Point (2001)
Gray-Grant, 8 ½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better (2008)
Fiske, The Dictionary of Concise Writing, (2006)
Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (2008)
Kallan, Renovating Your Writing, (2013)
King, On Writing, (2000)
Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences about Writing (2012)
McCormack, Brief (2014)
Norris, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2016)
O’Connor, Woe is I (2012)
O’Connor, Words Fail Me (1999)
Rubin, Hey Wait How Do I Write This Email? (2015)
Strunk & White, Elements of Style, (1999)*
Watt & Bradford, An E.B. White Reader (1996)
Yagoda, How to Not Write Bad, (2013)
Zinsser, On Writing Well (1998)

Online resources, tips

American Copyeditors Association
AP Style Guide
AP Style Quizzes
Flesch Readability
Grammar Girl
Grammarly
Harvard’s Shorenstein Center’s Journalist’s Resource (for PR practitioners, too!)
The Publication Coach
Owl Purdue Online Writing Lab
Ragan’s PR Daily
The Writer’s Almanac, American Public Media
Writer’s Circle

Articles on writing tips

BrainPickings Blog (link is to a sample post)
Writer’s Digest (link is to a sample post)

* I do have to add that if you are new to Strunk and White’s legendary The Elements of Style, be aware that much has changed in language since E.B. White updated the work of his beloved teacher, William Strunk, Jr. Mind you, I used to consider this my bible, carrying a ragged, coffee-stained copy with me from apartment to apartment. But I now realize most of the rules have become quaint. This was a recent shock to me. I recommended the book last year to a dear friend, and then revisited it with her. It was sort of like visiting the house you grew up in, realizing it wasn’t an extravagant, magical palace as you remembered it. I still adore White’s short fiction and essays, his The Second Tree from the Corner — both the short story and the collection named after it — will blow the top of your head off. His mastery of language is that impressive. Likewise the book Jill listed as well, An E.B. White Reader. But if you buy The Elements of Style, listen to this podcast by the delightful John McWhorter for a strong dose of context.

For more career advice, these are two posts I reprinted on my blog from an Accenture Career site: