We all know this potentially stressfull and chaotic mixture of tasks, deadlines, e-mails, meetings, and other work and non-work related things. This simple system made me worry less, prioritize and remember almost everything. If you are currently not using a good ‘self-management system’, using it will impact your life drastically and very positively. At first I wanted to publish this in 3 pieces, to keep you motivated. However, if you are a person that wants to improve, you just nail this down, isn’t it? Print the post and apply it. Some motivation: you will not have to read a lot of self-help books on planning, as this system combines lots of them.
Why do I share this system with you?
If you are like the majority of us, no one has ever explained you the use of an ‘advanced self-management system’ structurizing your work and life. It is not structurally embedded in the educational and corporate worlds which is a huge mistake. PS: we also don’t learn how to get to know ourselves. The vast majority of us, including myself, was never made aware of the HUGE positive impact of self-organisation. If we would apply it at large scale, it would lead to a happier society and increased productivity. It is what they call a no-brainer: low investment, huge postive gain. Children should learn to manage tasks, plan and prioritize from a young age and employees should be stimulated to make self-effectiveness a major priority . Days per week -indeed, that order of magnitude- can be saved and spent to other things such as family and friends.
People often act as if resouces, including their own lifes, are infinite. In my opinion, not doing your best to be productive while realising its importance is bad behavior.
If you are currently using no or a just a poor system, you can expect a drastic postive impact after applying it.
The system explained: the magic self-management triangle
I did not invent this myself! I only compiled systems from different quality sources and found something that beautifully workes for me and will likely work for you. I got inspired by different sources (eg books from Stephen Covey, Peter Drucker, Gary Keller, Roy Baumeister and many other books, blogs, etc.).
Just one warning: it is very simple but not easy. You’ll need will and discipline to succeed. If you are not a good self-manager right now, creating this rather complex habit will take you at least some weeks. On average creating a new habit takes around 67 days (The One Thing, Keller).
The system I am using is built around 3 main pillars. Do you want to outperform almost everyone? Just master the trianlgle:
- Smart inbox management: don’t let e-mails accumulate and structurize them as soon as you can
- Intelligent task management: limit your TODOs, and gather them centrally, but intelligently so you can prioritize
- The advanced week agenda: plan your week to get things done, while being flexible to cope with the unexpected
Step 1: Define Me, myself, I and the other me’s
Reading Stephen Covey’s ‘7 habits’ book made me realise that everyone is different persons in one body. Think about it: I am the CEO of a small startup. However, as it is a small company and a startup, I am also a business developer, project engineer, sales person, marketing person and partly doing admin tasks. And I am also a father of three children, husband, friend and just myself. And yes, these ‘roles’ compete! They all want and need your attention, including the ‘myself’ (think about the ‘I need time for myself’). Roles evolve over time and for example I should reduce my roles as the business grows.
The take home? You must identify your roles. Only then you can start balancing and planning your personal life and give you1, you2, you3, … the necessary attention at the right time (here prioritization comes into the picture).
So write down all your roles. It is important, as the whole system is based on that.
Step 2: construct your triangle
Triangle part 1/3: Smart inbox management
Every week I see so many people with a full inbox with hardly any subfolders. Again: the vast majority. Start with creating a subfolder for each of your roles and an overall ‘Done’ folder. I use numbers to order the roles in usual order of priority. In my professional inbox I don’t have a ‘me’ folder as this is my private email.
Your inbox is not a task list! Many people keep emails in the inbox because that’s their only way of not forgetting things. They will, and they will lose a lot of time too.
How my inbox structure kind of looks like:
If that is all set, use the following rules to start managing your emails:
- Prevent getting e-mails: For example, limit these short but frequent project-related emails from colleagues by using a messaging system such as WhatsApp or Slack. I strongly recommend the latter. Please: also only ‘reply all’ if needed. Too often the ‘reply all’ is used to show off and feed ego’s in environments poor of trust.
- Apply the 2 min rule: If you see an e-mail you can answer within 2 min, reply immediately.
- Always aim for an empty INBOX: Delete unimportant emails and after having answered relevant emails, drag them into the appropriate folders or subfolders. E.g. a sales-related e-mail goes into the ‘sales’ folder. Miscellaneous things go into the ‘Done’ folder. Emails you want to actively follow-up should go to the TODO lists (see further).
- Check your e-mail only few times a day: Adjust this to your specific situation. However, my experience learns that you cannot perform and concentrate optimally with your mailbox open. I usually start the day with checking emails. And turn off the beeps/vibrations of your smartphone if you receive email! These turn you nuts. Who invented this?
- If the e-mail contains a task, decide what to do: Delegate the task if you can or if it is not your responsibility
- If the task is yours, assess how urgent it is. Either:
- Do it immediately if required
- Schedule it immediately if completion is required within a week
- Put it on the appropriate TODO list if not urgent (next week or later)
- If the task is yours, assess how urgent it is. Either:
- If the e-mail contains important information, decide what to do:
- Put it in the appropriate (sub)folder for further reference
- If really important: put it in your note management system (other blog post).
Triangle part 2/3: Intelligent task management
I have seen so many TODO (task) systems! Written notes, notes in Word files, post its sticked on laptops, walls, …
But very few people:
- Store TODO’s centrally and digitally
- Categorize their TODO’s according to their roles (see Step 1)
- Really get things done while not getting demotivated and stressed
I am keeping all my tasks centrally in Evernote and categorize them in the form of separate notebooks. I have them on my PC, in my browser and on my smartphone. You can use another software, but most important is that you can categorize tasks and store them centrally.
Every task is a single note, with the task in the title field. I rarely use the text field for notes (sometimes I paste a url, email, … there). I am keeping 8 task lists, which seems a lot. However, besides easy prioritization, it has some good psychological consequences: task lists never explode in size and the fact that every task is a note and one note does not contain several tasks, you will be able to ‘delete’ tasks (notes) every week, which motivates the animal-me and will motivate the animal-you.
How I use them: every time I am notified of any task I should complete later than this week, I directly add it to my task list. Mostly this happens using my smartphone. More urgent tasks go to the agenda directly (see further). Every Sunday I revise my tasks lists (see further).
How do you know you are managing tasks the right way? Tasks should never accumulate. It’s that simple. Usually I have max 10 tasks per list.
If they do accumulate, it means one of the following:
- You are not completing them (find the reason and solve the (procrastination) issue)
- There are tasks on your list that others should do (delegate)
- Some of the tasks should never be done (press DEL)
Triangle part 3/3: The advanced week agenda
Many people only have meetings and events in their agendas, which is a major time management mistake.
If you don’t have your tasks planned, you don’t know what you are not doing what you actually should be doing to reach your goals. Compounded over a lifetime it will make a huge, yes HUGE difference in performance.
First choose a good agenda platform. Many people use the Outlook agenda or google agenda. Both are good examples, but google agenda allows most flexibility and is easiest to set up. Start with making a separate agenda for each of your roles, with clearly different colors. Additionally, make 4 extra agenda’s for short tasks with varying importance (based on Stephen Covey’s excellent suggestions):
- A-priorities: if you don’t do it that day, it will have a negative impact
- B-priorities: if you don’t do it that day, it might have a negative impact
- C-priorities: if you don’t complete this, you can complete it another day
- D-priorities: delegate! Don’t do this yourself
Meetings, events and tasks should then be scheduled according to their corresponding role. E.g. I will schedule ‘Running’ as ‘Personal’ and ‘Make proposal for client X’ as ‘Sales’. I always schedule the ABC priorities at 4am just to put them somewhere so I can complete them somwhere during the day. Now you will probably start noticing the connection between your role-oriented inbox, todo lists and your schedule. That’s what it’s all about. We’re almost there! My agenda system looks like this, with every color representing a role or priority:
How do you know you are scheduling the right way? Your agenda should tell you what to do without you being the slave. How luxury if someone (your agenda) tells you what to do all the time, while leaving flexibility.
Step 3: bringing it all together
So now comes the good part, making the connections and starting the machine that works for you.
Every Sunday late afternoon, I spend 30-40min planning the week to come.
- I review past week and check what was completed (makes me happy) and what was not. I investigate why certain things were not completed so I can avoid that in future. Either:
- My week plan was too ambitious (I underestimated the time certain tasks took, which happens regularly)
- Something unexpected happened which messed up my plan lacking resilience
- A task became obsolete or less urgent
- I transfer the uncompleted but still relevant tasks to my task list (if not there yet)
- I delete the tasks I completed (this is a dopamine shock) or update the title of ongoing tasks according to their status
- I now plan next week
- Use time blocks for the tasks that need completion. Yes, some tasks will not be planned in this week.
- Most urgent tasks come earlier in the week.
- The hardest and critical tasks come early in the morning. I personally avoid having meetings in the morning, as I am a morning person with peak performance between 5-12.
- I sometimes make little ‘pretasks’. E.g. in order to start the task on Friday, I have to email someone on Monday.
How to check if your system was set up rightly
After some weeks/months, just think about deleting your whole triangular system. If it feels like your world will collapse, your system is working for you.
You will feel the impact:
- You will become super proactive
- You will get much more things done
- You will forget almost nothing
- You will have time to think strategically
- And above all: you will save a HUGE amount of time which, compounding over a lifetime, will simply change your life. (just read the book ‘The Compound Effect’)
Planning is bringing the future into the present so you can do something about it now. Jay Samit
Have fun, persist and enjoy your free time!
Can you share your personal thoughts below?
Share if you like!