Blog2020-11-15T15:03:54+05:30

What They Don’t Teach you about Eisenhower Matrix

Eisenhower Matrix should be one of the most favorite topics for posts on LinkedIn. Check this 99th page of the search results on LinkedIn, if you don’t believe it.  But even today more and more people look at it with the same amazement. No wonder, it is indeed a great way to visualize and classify the kind of tasks we work on. But unfortunately, that is not all to the Eisenhower Matrix. I would call that gross underuse of the Eisenhower Matrix. Before I reveal the right lessons to learn from the matrix, let me first give you a recap.

Like any other matrix, it has two axes which, in this case, represent the two distinct characteristics of tasks that we work on, i.e. Urgency and Importance. The vertical axis has two values, Important and Not Important, while the horizontal axis has values, Urgent and Not Urgent. And this gives us the four quadrants:

 

Quadrant I: Important and urgent tasks, like, crises management
Quadrant II: Important, but not urgent tasks, like preventive measures
Quadrant III: Urgent, but not important tasks, like interruptions
Quadrant IV: The tasks that are neither urgent nor important, like entertainment

 

 

 

It’s easy enough to understand, however, in my experience, I found some people who took little time to understand the fact that there could be tasks that are important but not urgent. Our work environment is so vitiated, that we equate importance to urgency!

Most of the writeups, not just on LinkedIn but on the whole internet, give readers very clear advice on each quadrant:

Quadrant I: Important and urgent tasks – Do it first
Quadrant II: Important, but not urgent tasks – Schedule it
Quadrant III: Urgent, but not important tasks – Delegate it
Quadrant IV: The tasks that are neither urgent nor important – Delete it

There is nothing wrong with this advice on the face of it, but as I said before, it’s a gross underuse of this great tool.

Time to learn the right lessons!

Quadrant III and quadrant IV are about “Not important” tasks, however, in the real world, you cannot eliminate them totally from your life. What best one could do is to minimize the tasks in those quadrants to nearly zero.

Interestingly, one should do exactly the same with the tasks that are from quadrant I, i.e., minimize them to nearly zero. In fact, it is more important to minimize the quadrant I tasks. It might appear shocking but you will find that every quadrant I task from your life, was definitely a quadrant II task once. It crept into quadrant II as the task was not tackled when it wasn’t urgent!

 

 

 

 

Quadrant I tasks are the most hazardous ones as they stress you. Typically they take more time than when they were in Quadrant I. A flat tire on a busy day on the road will hit you worse than the habit of regular air pressure checks. The results of quadrant I tasks are also of poor quality when compared with their counterparts in Quadrant II.

A flat tire on a busy day on the road will hit you worse than the habit of regular air pressure checks.

Further, when you do tasks that are in Quadrant I, you set a vicious cycle of working on more Quadrant I tasks. You end up setting up a game of whack-a-mole for yourself. When you are late to whack a mole, you are already late to whack a bunch of other moles too.

The solution lies in catching the tasks when they pop up in quadrant II first and letting them not creep up to Quadrant I. It’s easier said than done, but there are two key ideas that would make this easy for you:

  1. Always do a work breakdown of a task that is in Quadrant II and then begin working on some of those subtasks as the situation permits. We often hear this at our workplaces from managers, “No matter how much time I give you, I know you will be working on it on the last date”. It does not have to be this way!
  2. Always maintain a to-do list of all your tasks, so that you have the list of Quadrant II tasks handy to squeeze them into your schedule whenever you have some opportune time slots.

Fortunately, as you work more on Quadrant II tasks, you actually set up a virtuous cycle of always working on Quadrant II tasks.

There lies the secret of stress-free productivity!

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(Originally published in Times of India on Nov 05, 2022)

Let’s Troubleshoot Your To-do List

To do list or not to do list was never a question!

As such, our working memory is too shallow to hold all that we must be doing and wish to do. To worsen the matter, the world around us keeps changing faster than we can cope with, in both predictable and unpredictable ways. A well-maintained to-do list only can get you an up-to-date snapshot of your rapidly changing work universe!

To-do lists are not new. I have been seeing my dad using it since I got senses! He always carried a small diary to keep adding and striking off the items on his list. What might have changed since then is that today one could use Apps to manage the to-do list.

But then, or now, to-do lists have been largely useful as a one-off phenomenon. As soon as you start using a to-do list as a system for work management over the long term you would face several troubles with it! Let’s see which of those you could relate to:

1. You end up with multiple to-do lists –

This is the most common scenario. You end up having several of them and since you don’t know which one of them is fit for use, you start fresh, and uh-oh, you added fuel to the fire!

2. All to-do lists even when put together you are sure it doesn’t cover 100% of your work –

This is the most serious issue. One needs to have confidence in their to-do list to rely on it and use it. A partial list will never give that confidence.

3. Your to-do list is a crazy mix –

It could have very small tasks and very large tasks as well. Too small items just bloat your list and make it difficult to work with. On the other hand, too large tasks typically lack clarity on what needs to be done and so they linger around leading to procrastination.

4. Your To-do list has become too long to review and use meaningfully –

Working with a small to-do list can even be fun, but as your to-do list grows, you start missing your items in the nooks and crannies of your long winding to-do list.

5. Your criteria to pick a task from the to-do list is ad-hoc –

It’s one thing to pick a task from your to-do list and get busy with it and it’s another to pick a task that could be called the best usage of your that time slot.  You need a mechanism to choose a task by keeping the size and quality of the time slot at your disposal, which a vanilla to-do list may not offer.

6. There is no way to track delegated tasks that are struck off from your list –

Another peril of having short working memory is that your delegates forget the task assigned by you to them. And, now that you have struck off that item from your list you don’t have a way to track the progress.

7. There is no way to track completed tasks for reflection –

When you finish something worthwhile, it’s always good to do a reflection on the process and quality of the deliverable for optimizing for the future. Again, a vanilla to-do list does not offer any mechanism to do this.

If you are abandoning your to-do list for one or more of these problems, you are throwing the baby with the bathwater. There is no alternative to a to-do list till either human evolve to get better working memory or Singularity arrives!

Meanwhile, you should build a little system around your to-do list to overcome the limitations. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Have just one place to make your master to-do list: a notebook, a spreadsheet, or whatever suits you but just one! Don’t worry even if it grows into a monster. But ensure that it is up to date all the time.
  2. Use the 2-minute rule to finish tasks that take less than 2 minutes to complete, than to enter them into your to-do list.
  3. Break down large tasks into smaller ones and then put them into your to-do list.
  4. Always scan your master to-do list once every weekend to pull out what is relevant for the coming week and focus only on that weekly to-do list during that week.
  5. All that you have to do every day is to review your weekly to-do list and make a day-specific to-do list and just focus on that small list that day.
  6. Any new tasks that come should go into your master to-do list. Some of them should also into your current week list if they are relevant for the ongoing week.
  7. Instead of striking off the delegated tasks, put them separately, for tracking till the task is delivered back to you.
  8. Write a journal to write completed tasks and use the time to reflect and improve the system.

The best utilization of your time is not just for productivity, but for also staying stress-free and healthy and enjoying that precious life beyond work!

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(Originally published in Times of India on Oct 23, 2022)

What is 5G of Time Management?

When we see successful people around us, we want to be like them. We too want to attain the heights that they have attained. Obviously taking inspiration from them is a great thing but it is often seen that we do not end up duplicating their success.

Why does this happen? By doing what we too can always be victorious and successful?

I believe that there are usually three levels of hurdles.

The hurdle at the first level is this. All our attention is focused on the glory of their success and we end up ignoring the hard work put in by the successful people to achieve it. It’s not easy to have and maintain fitness like Akshay Kumar or Suniel Shetty have. Everyone likes to have that chiseled body, but not everyone is ready to take the painstaking effort that is required to achieve it.

It’s not just about physique, whatever field, you want to shine in, you should ensure that you are ready to do the hard work required to achieve it. The bottom line is whenever we see wild success, our attention should also go to the agonizing pain that brought it.

Now once we have made up our minds that we are going to work hard and also start doing it, there comes the hurdle of the second level! When we do not get that success even after a lot of hard work, we start getting frustrated, especially, when we are very close to the destination. And we may abandon the pursuit.

It is told that the superstar actor of yesteryears, Dharmendra, got frustrated after many years of struggle to become an actor and boarded the train to go back to his hometown and even the train started moving. It was at that time that he got his first break. He was pulled down from the moving train with his bags and he gave his first superhit movie and as they say, the rest is history.

When people hear such stories, they think of “luck”. It is never luck. It is your hard work that leaves its footprints and looking at them people find you.

Now that you are past the two hurdles as you understood the importance of hard work and also resolved that you would not give up, easily, there comes the hurdle of the third level.

“Oh man, I want to do it, but I just don’t have enough time.”

It happens. When you want to do many things, you face a shortage of time. But then, time is such a thing that you couldn’t get more. Everyone gets only 24 hours, every day. So here comes the importance of time management.

As we are evolving, the nature of work is changing. And as the work changes the method of time management should also change. Your time management should be according to the needs of today’s era. A farmer of agricultural age needed just a little more than a rooster to manage his time. Can the same method work now?

The concept of generations is made popular by the cell phone network – 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G. If you ask me what 5G of time management could be, I would say this:

A choc-a-block calendar is a thing of the past. Time management 5G is about having a sparse calendar with only the time-sensitive tasks booked in it. The rest of the tasks are picked up flexibly, allowing the spontaneity to pick a task that suits the size and quality of the free time slot. This is possible only when you maintain a full inventory of your tasks in a smart to-do list. The smartness of a to-do list lies in how well it allows you to filter to get to the smaller subset that matters for your current day or the week.

Maintaining your to-do list to have 100% of your tasks is also not easy. You need the right techniques to ensure that. An incomplete to-do list will marginally be better than not having it at all. All this should be part of 5G of time management.

With the right attitude towards the work and the reward and the sophisticated time management system, no goal should be unachievable!

(Originally published in Times of India on October 07, 2022)

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How To Plan Your Day for Stress-free Productivity

Thou shalt plan your day before you get on to your work.

Simple and profound, right? No one would disagree! And since it’s easier said than done, this too goes in cold storage like many other such commandments.

There are practical difficulties, most of which arise from the two basic facts that our mind is not good at remembering the work and the world around us changes too fast. You may not remember what priority for the day is. Or you may decide on one thing, but you may not be sure if that’s the best use of your time or if you are missing something. Or you plan but couldn’t follow it because of a sudden change in priorities.

You will need a robust system behind this to make it work for you! The premise behind this approach to daily planning is that, given the dynamics of today’s business world, it is impossible to follow a tightly planned daily schedule. However, that doesn’t mean that one should not plan, but it means that you have to make a flexible plan for the day so that it doesn’t break with small distractions.

Strict timeboxing could work only for a committed school student, whose mission is supported by people around her. Timeboxing would fail often for a professional and eventually would render itself useless. Instead, you should choose a flexible day scheduling, which is as follows:
  1. Make your calendar sparse: Your calendar should contain day/time-sensitive tasks only. These are the appointments, that you couldn’t snooze. So, for example, reading a report is a strict no-no for a calendar.
  2. Make a to-do list: All the goals and tasks other than what went into the calendar should be put on a to-do list, preferably a digital one. You don’t need anything fancy. A regular spreadsheet app is good enough. The only care you need to take is that just one spreadsheet should be the single version of the truth of your work. You might consider using it from the cloud so that it is available from all places where you could be.
  3. Weekly planning: Every weekend, you would need to spare 30 to 45 minutes to go over your to-do list and identify the probable candidates for the coming week. You need to be more practical here than wishful.
  4. Daily planning: Now that you have your sparse calendar and the week-specific to-do list, you are well-equipped to do the daily plan. Your calendar shows you the slots that are already booked for you for the day and which are non-negotiable. You need to find the remaining slots for the work items from your to-do list, factoring in your calendar items, lunch, and other breaks. You would extract the day-specific to-do list, from your week-specific to-do list, based on the time slots you have and the priorities.
Again, you should refrain from mapping the time slots to the tasks. But assigning an order of executing the shortlisted tasks could be useful. And here you go with your work. As soon as you finish a task or an appointment, you would refer to your day-specific to-do list and pick up an item that is the best use of the time slot at your disposal. Your previously assigned order will also be a useful guide.
This method is effective as it allows you to maintain your daily work plan amidst the continuously changing environment around you. Your schedule doesn’t get disturbed by distractions. In fact, you will love to give in to some welcome distractions as you are quite sure about what is on your plate and can take a judicious call about alternate usage of your time.
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Let us make you oops-proof

The human mind is quite peculiar in the sense that while it is quite smart to relate things and generate interesting thoughts, it totally sucks at remembering them. You must develop a habit of capturing them at a single designated place, if you want to act on those ideas, sooner. Worse, you get more ideas when you are away from your desk, so it makes sense to have this “single designated place” on your smartphone.

The idea is to collect such thoughts super quickly in a mobile App before we forget what it was and then process the collection after coming back to the desk. There are dime a dozen Apps for this purpose, but you need a lightweight App that does not take you on a tour, just to add an item to the list. “Goggle Keep” is one such app that fits the bill, for its simplicity and wonderful features.

You can install Google Keep for both iOS & Android. It has a browser version also to access your lists interchangeably from your computer. You don’t need to do a whole lot to set up the Keep App other than creating a list named, say, “Catch all”. This is where you would capture anything and everything – a pending task, an idea that can be posted on social media, something you want to buy online, something you want to google about, etc.

The only other thing you need is a ritual, preferably a morning one, to process your “Catch all” list at your desk. Although you might just finish some items right then, our goal is to process the items – simply sorting them! You may slip some items into your To-do list. Some items may get into your other lists such as writing ideas.

Once you have Google Keep with you, you may use it for other interesting purposes. here are some ideas:

  1. Meeting agenda items – A running list of meeting agenda items is very handy.
  2. Meeting actions – to capture actions from your meetings. We process this list too as part of the morning ritual, exactly like the “Catch all” list.
  3. Things to do when out – If you are one of those who do not move around a lot, you will have to maintain this list so that you get as many things done whenever you are out.
  4. A bunch of checklists – Monthly recurring payments, things to pack for travel, etc.

Set different color and picture backgrounds for your lists so that you will be able to quickly locate the one you want out of the whole bunch. You could even order the lists in the App in a certain fashion, like, the ones you need more often on top.

 

This simple setup and more importantly, the habit of collecting and processing will go long way in keeping you ahead on all your responsibilities and stress-free.

 

 

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(Originally published in Times of India on September 10, 2022)

You too could be Organized with your work!

Have you seen a chef performing on a cookery show? Why do you think they perform so well? The reason is that they could fetch all that they needed in a moment. Their kitchen is perfectly organized – at least when they are on the show! Similarly, being organized with your work and work material is the key to sustained and stress-free personal productivity.

There is a popular belief that people are born either organized or unorganized, which is not true. If you too feel so, ask yourself this – When you plan to go out, do you get your car key easily. Yes, right? Why is it so? Because you keep the key at a certain place when you come back from a drive. That’s enough to prove that you are organized. It’s not about genetic makeup but it is about a deliberate decision of being organized about something. It’s prudent to be organized with the things that matter to you.

So how do you get the capability to fetch whatever you need for your work in a moment? As we saw that it is possible only when you plan places for all your work material. You need a singular, known place that is easy to access for every kind of thing that you deal with. In absence of this, you lose precious time in searching for what you want, or even worse, work couldn’t be done on time because you could not locate the required material.

As we deal mostly with digital artifacts, the central element of your organization of work material is a well-planned hierarchical file folder structure on your computer or cloud. You will have folders to store specific kinds of material, say, project proposals, design documents, invoices, notes, presentations, and so on. Keep the retrieval in mind when you create such a structure or name the folders. Keep experimenting with it till you settle on the best arrangement.

The next thing you need to know is the DRIFT principle – Do it RIght the First Time.

When you are at work as the work material comes to you through all kinds of communication, you will organize each piece of it in the right place as and when you receive it. Once you know that you will need something in the future, you need to ask yourself where would you look for it, and that’s the place where you should put it. This is what I am calling the DRIFT principle.

In addition to the file folder structure on your computer, there are other artifacts that you may want to build with the DRIFT mindset, such as –

  • A to-do list for work to organize your tasks in it
  • Checklists to organize steps to do or verify certain things
  • Running lists to organize things dynamically
  • Browser bookmarks to organize the web resources
  • App shortcuts for most frequently used Apps
  • A Read later App for online reading material
  • “Watch Later”  lists on YouTube for video recommendations that keep coming all the time
  • Wish list of books that you might want to read

Armed with such a simple but powerful DRIFT mindset, you will be able to beat the stress and be highly productive.

(Originally published in Times of India on August 28, 2022)

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