This is a guest post by Tim Sprosen from the UK who is a medical researcher at the University of Oxford, a husband and father and writes about his productivity journey at www.timsprosen.com. In this post, Tim returns to the wisdom of Covey’s 7-habits to remind us all that being productive is not just about getting things done.
Stephen Covey’s 7-Habits of Highly Effective People was first published 25 years ago and I can still recall the day when I picked it up from a newsstand at Chicago’s O’Hare airport before catching a flight back home to London. This book had a profound impact on my approach to time management. As well as providing a practical framework for personal organization, where Covey clearly identified the next seven days as being the ideal period of time to plan and organize – the genesis of the weekly review – the book also recommended taking a very top-down approach to organization.
What that means is working out first and writing down what is important to you before dealing with the day-to-day tasks and other demands on your time. Unfortunately, as I recently pointed out, so much discussion of productivity today and, in particular, the false hopes of technology – what I call the app-trap – is entirely focused on task management. It is like we are relentlessly trying to run a little bit faster without first stopping to work out where we are heading (and also who we are heading there with – keep reading…).
But, what I think was really ground breaking about the book, particularly at a time when so much of the “success” literature was only concerned with money and material things, was the focus on building character and being more concerned with people rather than things. In practical terms, this meant drawing up a mission statement that included identifying the key roles in your life and then on a weekly basis reviewing each of these roles and setting the key things you want to achieve in that role for the coming week. While I am no fan of the concept of work-life balance, organizing your week around your key roles really helps to bring actual balance to life.
Let me give an example. Let’s say the coming week I am traveling with work and will be away from home. Looking at my role as a husband and a father, I might set goals in those roles to book a table to have dinner with my wife when I return home and in the role of father I might make a note to pick up a gift for each of my children while I am away. Then when I look at my role of son this reminds me to make a note to call my mum before I go away. This simple list of my key roles, which I look at each week, really serves me well and like any productivity tip, it means I don’t need to worry about trying to keep these reminders in my head.
So, for the week ahead, try looking at the things you want to get done not just in terms of your tasks and goals, but also through your key roles. Why I invest time in my personal productivity is very simple; it is to spend more of my time and energy on those people and things that matter most to me.
[Melanie here. I couldn’t agree with Tim more and his post was very timely for me. Was it for you?]
This is Week 2 of A Year of Living Productively
I wanted to know if categorizing my tasks by importance and urgency using Stephen Covey’s matrix from First Things First would increase my productivity. I chose to create labels for each quadrant using IQTell. I spent quite a bit of time assigning my tasks to these categories and here’s what I discovered about this productivity philosophy.
How Covey’s Quadrants Saved My Sanity This Week
I know I already understand what’s important and I do important things. I had about twice the amount of important and non-urgent tasks as I did important and urgent tasks. I don’t think that’s because I am not spending enough time in Quadrant II, however. I am with my children, and to a significant extent, my husband all day. Next to my time set apart for devotions, they are my top priority. The tasks in Quadrant II are generally related to writing and organizing. There are just a LOT of things I should get around to doing in those areas. And I do spend a lot of time doing them. All of that to say, knowing what’s important in your life is paramount to choosing tasks. Committing to spending time doing those important, non-urgent tasks is also vital. I have both of those down, but there are problems using this philosophy as your only productivity method.
How Covey’s Quadrants Made Me Crazy This Week
I already have my tasks tagged for priority. The Important/Urgent tasks correspond to my must-do tasks with due dates. The Important/Not Urgent tasks correspond to my should-do tasks with no or longer-term due dates. The labels added nothing new.
I was overwhelmed. Using only the categories to work from, I had 40 important/urgent tasks and 80 important/non-urgent tasks. As opposed to last week when I tested paper and felt motivated, this week I didn’t want to do anything.
I don’t put unimportant tasks in my task list. I don’t write down “surf the web” or “spend an hour on Facebook.” I just DO those things. The matrix had no effect on whether or not I engaged in certain activities.
Importance is confusing. Even the activities that most people would label unimportant may have been important to me at the time. Didn’t I learn something and relax after a busy day? Social media is important to me, whereas it isn’t to other people.
Did Covey’s Quadrants Help Me Get More Done?
Unequivocally, NO. My productivity took a nosedive. Was that because I didn’t use paper? I’m certainly willing to entertain that possibility and plan to test other paper approaches this year. For me, though, Covey’s quadrants are more of a philosophical approach to tasks that have nothing to do with how much you do–even important things.
While I don’t organize my tasks in a task list by priority, I have a new appreciation for focusing on the important, but not urgent tasks. My current approach is to schedule these types of tasks as early in the day as possible so I get to them.
The Productivity Approach I’ll Be Using for Week 3
I was reading Blog at Home Mom this week and author, Christin Slade reminded me that when I abandon routines, my productivity and my life suffer–even though I tell myself I’ll be fine. FLYLady‘s routines were the very first productivity approach I used. Before I found her, I did things willy-nilly. Even when I put things on a calendar, I wouldn’t check it before I started my day. Dishes, laundry, cleaning were done “whenever.” So profound were the changes in me after adopting routines, that I wrote an article about it for Woman’s Day magazine, began speaking about it, and was inspired to write So You’re Not Wonder Woman?.
My original routines were written in a notebook. When I got an iPhone and the HomeRoutines app came out, I gave it a try. I really liked it. I added more steps to my routines that I thought would help me get more important things done. The only problem I had was feeling bad if I didn’t do every single part of my routines. I quit because of my perfectionism. But I’d like to try it again with a new attitude. This time, if I do any part of a routine step, I will give myself credit. AND my goal will be to do half of my routines. If I do half of them, I will be doing considerably more than I’m doing now.
If you’d like to join me for a week, here’s what you do. Make a simple evening and morning routine on paper. If you want to go hog wild and have a school/work and/or afternoon routine, I can hardly say no. But I think you’ll have better luck sticking with short morning and evening routines. The HomeRoutines app is $4.99, but I’m not encouraging you to buy it until you determine that you like working with routines. Include steps in your routines that will help you organize your tasks and will help you feel on top of things. Loading the dishwasher each evening was a huge step forward for me. If you already do things every evening and morning, add a couple of new tasks to each routine. Make them as small or as broad as you need to (i.e., load dishwasher or clean up kitchen). I would list my routines for you, but I’m pretty sure you’d freak out. I’m psycho, remember?
To see how my work using home routines went, click here.
Week 1: Paper To Do List
This is Week 1 of a Year of Living Productively
When I told a friend whom I met on a productivity forum that I was going to be using a paper to-do list this week, she laughed and said, “Techno Girl is going paper, huh?”
Yeah, I’m out of my element. I haven’t consistently used a paper to-do list in many years. Those of you who’ve always used paper may be frustrated with me. First, I’ve discovered benefits of paper that are no-brainers for you. But second, I’ve also discovered some frustrations with paper that you will think aren’t an issue at all.
How a Paper To-Do List Saved My Sanity This Week
A sense of completion. The biggest unexpected benefit for me was feeling like I actually accomplished something. I do think I did more than normal, but even if I hadn’t, I felt like I did. Most digital to-do lists dismiss completed tasks from view, leaving me with the feeling that I haven’t accomplished anything. In fact, I assumed that I hadn’t gotten much done this week until I noticed that most of my tasks are crossed off. There’s just something about crossing off a task with a pen, too.
Reduced overwhelm. Because I only planned to use paper for the work week, I didn’t list everything that I could potentially do in twenty lifetimes–which is what I tend to do on a digital list. Several times when I felt stressed, I reviewed my list and thought, “That’s all?” A limited number of potential tasks is a very good thing for someone like me.
I left it behind. One of the things I assumed was a drawback of paper was actually a benefit to me this week. Because I didn’t take my list everywhere with me like I do with digital lists on my phone, I felt like I didn’t have to do anything but enjoy the activity at hand. So I chatted with friends at the kids’ P.E. class rather than trying to figure out what tasks I could do at the same time.
How a Paper To-Do List Made Me Crazy This Week
Lack of integration with e-mail. I am accustomed to having my email and tasks work together. I didn’t like the feeling of wasting time writing down email-related tasks. I expect that paper users don’t do this, but because I clean out my inbox constantly, I didn’t know what else to do.
Pen failure. Not only did my pen run out of ink, but it tore my paper as I tried to get it to work. Then I couldn’t find a decent pen. That’s the kind of thing that drives me nutty.
Poor follow-up system. If I knew I wasn’t going to work on a task until after this week, I didn’t have a good place to put it. I chose to use a digital approach because I no longer use a paper planner nor do I keep written notes. For me, it seemed silly to have to move back and forth from paper to digital and all-paper is out of the question for this woman who needs digital alarms to remember any kind of appointment.
Did a Paper To-Do List Help Me Get More Done?
Yes! I was more motivated to cross off tasks that remained on my list and felt productive finishing my to-do’s for a change. While I am ready to return to a digital list this week, I realize that I have to find a way to limit my lists AND see everything that I’ve finished.
I still occasionally make paper lists and like them when I do. But my primary lists are digital because of the convenience of having my phone with me at all times.
The Productivity Approach I’ll Be Using for Week 2
The late Dr. Stephen Covey’s approach to productivity explained in First Things First can be distilled down to his focus on four kinds of work: urgent/important; not urgent/important; urgent/unimportant; and not urgent/unimportant. He emphasized the importance of spending time in Quadrant II: not urgent/important. Urgent and important tasks are attended to without much effort, but those activities which enable us to grow, build relationships, or fulfill our dreams are so often put on the back burner because they don’t demand our time. That is, unless you have my kids and husband. They demand my time! But I’m thankful for that. Of course, Covey urged us to spend less time doing unimportant things, urgent or not.
This week, I am going to see whether categorizing all of my tasks by these four quadrants will improve my productivity. I’ve spent a lot of time determining what’s important in my life, so I am ready to go. I am beta testing IQTell and will be using this very flexible system to categorize tasks this way. If you’d like to join me this week, you can set up tags or categories for almost any digital to-do list. However, there are paper forms for you pen lovers, too.
Hoping that checking in with your results next week at least ranks as Quadrant III! Please vote on whether paper helps you be more productive before you click off to get things done. Have a blessed week!
P.S. Read A Year of Living Productively if you don’t know what I’m doing. Click here to see how Covey’s Quadrant Approach worked for me.