Organize Yourself in 2015–Build Time for Upgrading Your Key Skills

In Stepen Covey’s classic book on self-improvement, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he says that you have to build time in your schedule not just for production, i.e., getting things done, but for building your production capacity.   In other words, you need to upgrade your key skills so that you can get even more done in the future.

However, you have to be willing to sacrifice some production time.   In economic terms, it’s like the production curve we all learned in our introductory economics courses.   If you invest some of that production into research and development, you will produce less in the short term than someone who gives 100% of their resources to production.   However, in the future you will see the production curve itself move outward as the fruits of that research and development increase your ability to produce.

In the eleventh chapter of his book Eat That Frog!, Brian Tracy recommends three general tips for upgrading your key skills.

I will add a prerequisite for this list as my bullet point.

0.  Identify

Of course you need to identify those key skills.   Whatever you do for a living, what are the top three skills you must have to be promoted in your field?   In my case, I want to be a project manager for an international company so the top three skills I concentrate on are:   a) project management, b) communication and leadership skills through Toastmasters, and c) foreign language skills (through Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and other applications).

1.  Read

Read articles or books in your field, between 30 minutes and 60 minutes per day.   Of the 12 areas of my life that I schedule into my yearly goals, monthly goals, weekly goals, and then daily goals, “Reading” is one of them and I put it right under “Professional Development” and right before “Language Learning.”

2.  Study

Take courses and seminars available on the key skills.   Nowadays you can find more and more webinars that are free, but you should also invest in quality courses which will stretch your knowledge boundaries through interaction with the instructor and the other participants in the seminar or course.

3.  Listen

Listen to audio courses when driving in your car.    When I moved from New York to Los Angeles, the daily commute was quite a culture shock.   As opposed to the subway, where I could read a book, driving took most of my attention and I had a lot of it do, since I had to drive an hour to and from my workplace.   However, I decided to take Brian Tracy’s advice, and I turned my car into a university lecture hall with the various lectures from The Great Courses company, and I practiced my foreign languages with recordings from Michel Thomas, Pimsleur, and the Foreign Service Institute courses that are in the public domain.   I don’t know if practicing foreign languages calmed me down while driving, but at least I had a choice of languages to use to swear at the other drivers if necessary!

Essentially, these three ways to build on your key skills are to mind like daily exercise is for your body.   But like Brian Tracy recommends, you need to build these into your schedule.    Pick at least one extra “area” for you to create goals for, and call it “Professional Development.”   I split mine up into three parts, “Professional Development,” “Reading,” and “Language Learning”, but as long as you put it SOMEWHERE in your schedule, you are making a continuous investment in yourself that will reap dividends in the years to come!


Organize Yourself in 2015–Compose Your Resources, Decompose Your Plan

Let’s say you have made a New Year’s Resolution, say, “I want to lose weight.”

Well, there’s good news and bad news.   The good news is that your mind has thought of a goal to improve yourself, which puts you ahead of people who have no wish or even any desire to improve themselves.   The problem is that, if it stays in your mind, and doesn’t get translated into the real world, it will have the same effect as if you hadn’t made the goal at all.

1.  Improving your resolution by sharpening the focus

Here’s how to improve your resolution:

1)   Pretend it’s at the end of 2015, and you already have achieved the goal.   Write it in the present tense, rather than the future tense.   Say “I have lost weight” or better “I am my ideal weight.”   If you constantly put your goals in the future tense, it is as if you are putting them on the horizon, which doesn’t sound bad until you realize that one definition of the horizon is “an imaginary line at the limit of your vision which goes away from you as you approach it.”

2)  Are there any boundaries or tangible reality to the goal?   In my case, I know that I want to “20 lbs”, so I will put that into my goal.   I don’t say “I want to lose 20 lbs.” either; combining the advice with that given in paragraph 1, I write it “I weigh 200 lbs.” which is the “ideal weight” I have chosen as the goal.

3)  If your goal is a long-term one, then you can break the goal into subgoals.   If my goal is to be 200 lbs by my birthday in May for example, then I can breakdown the 20-lb. weight loss into smaller goals, so that my weight at the end of January is 215, my weight at the end of February is 210, etc.

2.  Compose your resources

One effective weight-loss program I have used in the past is called the Transformation program by Bill Phillips.   It’s a series of 18 weeks where you write down what you eat, you have three regular meals and two smaller snacks in between, and you do strength training on alternate days combined with cardio.   The Transformation program works, but it requires a commitment.   In order to do the program, you have to prepare by setting out your menu for each meal for the week, for example.    This requires you do some preparation before the week starts.

When I did this, the initial investment seemed a little daunting, but then I realized by not creating a menu for the week, I would a) go to the store several times a week rather than just one, and b) I would buy things at the store that I didn’t need.   This initial investment of time at the beginning of the week helped me in terms of time management and money management because I didn’t need to go back to the store more than twice a week (once a week for perishable items, twice a week for perishable ones), and it helped me in terms of money because I wasn’t buying impulse items.   Everything I bought got used up.

So your goals/tasks, especially the major ones, should have a place to write down the resources you will need before you start.   This means that when you are creating the project plan, you will schedule the gathering of the resources before the start date of the work on the project itself.    Many people want to throw themselves into the project right away, but if you start doing so only to find you’re missing something you need, you will be starting the project with frustration rather than flowing right into the work.

3.  Decompose your plan

Breaking the goals into subgoals makes it easier to chart progress, and to see whether you are on track towards completing the goal on time or not.   But you need to break the goal into smaller tasks, so that you are literally only doing one thing at a time.

Multitasking reduces your performance, unless you pick two tasks that don’t require similar parts of the brain.  What we call multitasking is really hopping from one task to another, and this causes a lag as your brain gets used to the new task.   There are some things you can do to train your brain to multitask, i.e., to increases its ability to adapt to switching back and forth between tasks, like Lumosity (which I use every morning before I go to work), but Brian Tracy recommends trying to do what you can to reduce multitasking, so that you have as much of a stretch of time devoted to the really important tasks as possible.

It’s seems a little old-fashioned for people in Generation Y or the newest generation, the Linksters, but I think time will tell that Brian Tracy is correct, and you should try to avoid the multitasking trend.

However, he and other organizational experts would agree with one thing:   it is vital to break down tasks into manageable units, i.e., 30 minutes to 60 minutes of work that can be reasonably done in one sitting, so that you can step back after the work and say, “ah, I’ve accomplished something today.”

The tips above aren’t just what the experts say, I can recommend them from personal experience that they have made me more productive.   Take what is normally “down” time at the end of the day, and don’t just relax, but put some thought into preparing for the next day.    If I have papers or other things I need at work, I put them out the night before so I can just pick them up and go, rather than trying to spend morning time figuring out “now where the hell did I put such-and-such?”

Just think of preparation as “paying it forward”–to yourself!

Organize Yourself in 2015–Make Organization Itself One of Your Goals

In the ninth chapter of his book on preventing procrastination with the whimsical title “Eat That Frog!”, Brian Tracy says that after you list your goals for the year (a process I outline in the first post in this series I did on 1/1/2015), you need to “prepare thoroughly before you begin.”

1.  Gets Resources Ready Before You Start

As a project manager, I know that after the project plan has been created, I have to make sure that the resources are there in order to get the job done.    That will mean resources in terms of the raw materials and components to assembly the product, if you are in working on a manufacturing project.   And, of course, it means the people to do the job.

Let’s consider each of your goals as a project, with yourself as the project manager.   The main person doing the tasks will be yourself, unless you choose to delegate a certain task to someone else.   Your resources will be the time it takes to do the task, and anything you need to get it done (a computer, etc.).

The important point from Brian Tracy’s standpoint is that you don’t want to schedule a task for 9 AM, to have 9 AM come around and then for you to say, “okay, let’s get my resources lined up.”   They should be lined up beforehand.

2.  Get the Plan for Each Day Done the Night Before

This brings me to a suggestion for doing the planning for each time period–it should be done at the end of the previous time period.   So planning for tomorrow will be done the last thing tonight, rather than the first thing tomorrow morning.

The reason for that is at both practical and imaginative.    The practical reason is that you will get up the first thing and do rather than plan.    Second of all, if you do the plan the night before, your mind will have a chance to process the plan during your sleep, and you may wake up remembering something you forgot to put in the plan, or realizing that something has a lot higher priority than you gave it the night before.    This is the real reason why I try to do the plan the night before.    Not only do I have a virtuous night sleep knowing that the plan for the next day is done, but I also know that my unconscious mind will help my conscious mind out by prompting me the following day if there’s something my conscious mind left out.

3.  Make Organization Itself One of Your Goals

Creating an organizational system that works is so important to me that I include “Organization” itself as one of the 12 areas I have goals in.    The goals I have for the Organization category are in the “production” and “production capacity” areas, meaning that there are some things I do as a practice as far as organization is concerned, and there are some things that I do to study the theory of organization.  Two books I can recommend you start with are Goals by Brian Tracy or Getting Things Done by David Allen.   In fact, the posts I’m doing for the first few weeks of the year are riffs on the chapters of these books, with special tweaks that I have made that I have found helpful.

You should be reading one of these books on a regular basis, even if it is just a promise to read one chapter a week and to do the exercises that come at the end of each chapter.    After I complete the posts based on the Goals book by Brian Tracy, I will outline David Allen’s method.

So if you want to know how to get organized, the answer is the same as the one in the perennial vaudeville joke, where a guy who looks lost asks a native New Yorker, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”, and the other guy answers back, “practice, practice, practice …”

Organize Yourself In 2015: Delegate and Eliminate

In his books on goal setting, Brian Tracy describes the time-honored tradition of prioritizing one’s tasks into three levels of priority, “A” tasks that must be done in a given time period, “B” tasks that should be done in a given time period if the “A” tasks are completed, and “C” tasks that can be done in a given time period if the “A” and “B” tasks are done.

But he takes this basic framework and expands it in two ways.   One, which is described in a previous post, is to take the “A” tasks and to take 20% of them and label them as “top priority”, or using the idiosyncratic language from the book title “Eat that Frog”, as one’s “frogs”.   These should be done as early in the day as possible.

In this post, I talk about the fifth and sixth chapters of his book, where he talks about two new priority levels, “D” and “E”.   Actually, it would be best to describe these categories as “low priority” levels.

1.  “D” is for delegate

If you are a project manager, it makes no sense for you to have to do all the project scheduling yourself.   You should have a project coordinator who handles the project documentation like the project schedule.   In a similar way, if you are in an organization and there are some tasks that can be delegated to someone else in your group or team, then label them with a “D” and don’t hesitate to delegate.

2.  “E” is for eliminate

Sometimes we do things on a regular basis which really add no value, but we do they because they are entertaining or simply out of habit.   I study 9 foreign languages a day with the language-learning app called “Duolingo”, which requires a total of about one hour a day.   Where do I come up with the time to do this?   Well, I did it by eliminating at least an hour’s worth of things I used to do but found that they don’t add value.

Here’s a list of things I have given up since I have discovered Brian Tracy’s books a few years ago:

  • Watching a lot of television programs
  • Reading the newspaper in the morning
  • Playing video games
  • Listening to the radio in the car while driving

For each of these activities, I found I was spending hours and hours on them and deriving very little value out of them.  So I ended up if not eliminating them entirely, greatly reducing them.   All of a sudden my day had a lot more time in it than it used to have for activities that add value to my life, like my language learning, or, incidentally, the half-hour to an hour I spend every day on this blog.

With this blog, the time I have spent has really given me a lot of return–I am close to a third of a million hits on my blog since I started it a little less than three years ago, from people in practically all the countries of the world.   So when people ask to I miss watching all the latest television programs or playing the latest video games, I can honestly say no because I know for a fact that I have gained a lot instead by giving them up.

And in your daily list, you should try to find 10% of the activities you do on a daily basis, which if eliminated, would either make no negative difference in your life, or which might even improve it by their absence.

By delegating and eliminating, you are reducing the “no value” areas of your time budget so that whatever is left is bound to be more valuable!

In the next post, I talk about how to identify the skills in “key result areas” and to show how you build time in your schedule to improve them!

Organize Yourself in 2015: Use Lessons Learned (and Relearned)

In the past three posts, I have shown how to take your yearly goals for 2015 for the various categories of your life (based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and to break them down into monthly and weekly goals.

I also talked about prioritizing goals and using the Pareto principle to take the 20% of the goals for each day that give you 80% of the results towards your ultimately yearly goals, and to label those as your “frogs” or “top priority” tasks.   Then you put them towards the very beginning of your schedule.

Okay, that is the basic organizational scheme.   How do you get good at this?   Through practice, and through improvement. You practice is by doing it every week, but you improve by reviewing it every week.

What should you watch for?   The biggest thing you should look out for are “top priority” tasks which have been skipped or remain incomplete.   If you keep putting off a certain task, then this could be because you are unconsciously procrastinating on it.

One of the books I recommend for those who procrastinate is The Now Habit, by Neil Fiore, Ph.D.   One thing that Brian Tracy admits he does NOT do in his book on preventing procrastination, Eat That Frog, is he does not get into the psychology behind procrastination; he just gives practical techniques to try to stop it.   But if you are really having problems with procrastination that have a psychological origin, then Neil Fiore’s book may be for you.

In any case, a review of each week at the end of the week, and then a review of each month at the end of the month, can give you clues into how well you follow your plans, and they can tell you whether you need to redo the plan.

If you consider your yearly goals as projects in and of themselves, then you should do what is called a “Lessons Learned” exercise to improve your performance.   However, one of the new trends in project management is not to wait until the end of a project in a kind of post mortem to figure out what went wrong.   Many project management experts now recommend that you do a “lessons learned” review at several periods during the project.   In that way, if something needs to be corrected, it can be done early on before the project is done, so your wisdom can not only be used on future projects but the current ones you are working on as well.

In a similar way, constant review at the end of any particular time period, be it a week or a month, can be really helpful in changing your behavior to fit the plan, or changing your plan if it turns out to be unrealistic.

You may have to learn lessons and sometimes relearn them, but that is the incremental change you will need to truly transform your organizational practice!

If you are no longer procrastinating on the “top priority” or “starred” items, then you already have triumphed due to your organizational practice.   However, if you are still not completing the “A” or “B” tasks as much as you would like, it’s time to add two new letters, “D” and “E, to your three-letter sorting system of “A”, “B”, and “C”.   That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Organize Yourself in 2015: Using the Pareto Principle

In the last two posts, I have presented the goal-setting techniques of Brian Tracy in his best-selling book Eat That Frog!    In today’s post, I will explain why his book has such a strange title, because it has to do with the subject of his third chapter on the Pareto principle, and how you can use it to boost your productivity.

Mark Twain once wrote “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”  The reason why Brian Tracy named his book on avoiding procrastination “Eat That Frog” is because, if you think of the most challenging task you have each day as a “frog”, then the best thing for you to do to improve your productivity is to “eat that frog”, meaning, to do that task as early as possible in the day.

How does this fit into the Pareto principle.   This is the principle developed by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto that says that 80% of the results you need to achieve will come from 20% of the activities you perform.   So if you want to achieve more, identify those activities in the “vital 20%” that will gain you 80% of the benefits you are looking for.

Here’s how you can adapt the goal-setting technique using the Pareto principle.

1.   Let’s say you have taken your yearly goals, split into the various areas of your life as defined through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as specified in the first post on the series I published on 1/1/2015.

2.   Now say you have divided these yearly goals into monthly goals, weekly goals, and day-specific goals (goals that you work towards on a daily basis as a matter of routine should remain in the weekly goal list), as specified in the second post on the series I published on 1/2/2015.

3.  Now say you have identified those activities which you are going to do the next day, and listed them by priority using the letters A, B, and C for activities which must be done on a given day (“A”), those which should be done on a given day if the “A” activities are completed (“B”), and those which can be done on a given day if both the “A” and “B” activities are completed (“C”).

Take a look at the “A” and “B” activities.   Identify the 20% of your activities which, if you perform then, will give you 80% of the results from that day’s activities towards your yearly goals.   These are your “Frogs” and should be identified with a “star”.  If you have a journal and can find a small frog-shaped stamp, then go for it!   But a “star” should suffice to show that these activities are your ultimate challenges for the day.

4.  THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT–put these at the beginning of your day, meaning that they are simultaneously the most urgent!   Or as Brian Tracy would say, “Eat That Frog!”

Why is this important?  Well, I urge you to read Brian Tracy’s book to get the full list of benefits and anecdotes about why this is so.    In a nutshell, it’s because one of the key strategies procrastinators use is to spend their time not on working towards achievement, but creating the illusion of achievement by doing the easy, “C”-level tasks to prop up their ego and let them pretend they are busy.   This is being efficient by doing a lot of activity, but at the price of not being effective by doing activities which give you the least amount of return or “bang for your buck.”

By accomplishing the most challenging thing first thing in the day when you have the most energy, you will be achieving more early on in the day, and as Mark Twain indicates in his quote, you will feel that the rest of the day will go downhill from there!

5.  Prepare yourself well before eating the frog

If you prepare yourself well, with a morning routine that includes, besides the usual hygiene rituals, things that strengthen your body, your mind, and your spirit, such as the following (which I do every morning), you will be ready to take on the world when you get to work:

  • Qi Gong or Stretching (5-10 minutes)
  • Yoga (15 minutes)
  • Meditation (15 minutes)
  • Exercise (10-15 minutes)

My routine takes me about an hour, but I don’t begrudge the time because it gets my ready and accelerates my body and my mind to be able to handle anything that the day can dish out.    These cover the physical body, the subtle body, and the mind (the causal body), and so bring your entire self up to speed.   You will be ready to eat that frog!

Tomorrow’s post will be on one of the most important parts of your week, which is the weekend.   Just like the month January, which we are in now, comes from the Roman god Janus that faces both directions (the past and the future), the weekend should be your time not only when you do your weekly goal for the next week, but you look back on the week you have just completed to review what has worked, and what hasn’t, which will give you a chance to do a miniature “Lessons Learned” which you should use to tweak your organizational system.   A small mid-course correction done on a weekly basis will prove to be much more effective in “sharpening your saw”,the 7th Habit of Steve Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, than a retreat that you do on an occasional basis during the year.

Organize Yourself in 2015: Setting Monthly, Weekly, Daily Goals

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

The last post talked about setting your “grand vision” for the year.   But like the saying from Lao Tzu reveals, you can only get to that completing that vision by taking a single step now.

Once you have created a list of yearly goals in the various areas of your life arranged in their order on the Maslow hierarchy of needs, as described in the last post, you need to take those goals and break them down into monthly goals, and then weekly goals.

There are two schools of thought regarding breaking down the weekly goals into daily goals.   After discussing the alternatives, I will give you my take on which I prefer.

1.  Brian Tracy–do daily goals

In the second chapter of his book on preventing procrastination called “Eat That Frog!”, Brian Tracy recommends taking the yearly goals you have broken down into monthly and weekly goals, and taking the additional step of creating a list of daily goals.

This gives you the following advantages:

a.  This will allow to focus on activities, rather than accomplishments during the day.   Just start on the list based on priority and urgency of the items involved, and keep up a steady pace, while allowing occasional breaks for you to “come up for air”. Priority means based on the A, B, C system mentioned in the last post.    “A” is an activity that must be done that day.  “B” is an activity that should be done that day, but which is not absolutely required, and should be done after the “A” level activities are completed.    “C” is an activity that can be done that day as long as the “A” and “B” level activities are completed.

Urgency means what part of the day the activity is required.   Although completing a report at work may have higher priority than doing exercise, if your exercise plan requires you to exercise before work rather than after work, you will be exercising before you do the report.    Use the combination of priority and urgency to create the order in which the items should be done like this:   A1, A2, A3, …, B1, B2, B3, …, C1, C2, C3, etc.

b.  The list will allow you to get a feeling of accomplishment when you check them off after completion.

c.  The list will allow you confidence at the end of the day when you really how much you have accomplished.

d.  The list will allow you to review the day’s activities, and help you plan for the next day based on putting items on that list that were not yet completed on the current day.

2.  Dave Allen–don’t do daily goals

Dave Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, says that a monthly goal and weekly goal should be all that you need to do.   If there are day-specific actions or time-specific actions on a given day, they should be added to your calendar (using Outlook or a physical appointment calendar), along with any day-specific information related to those appointments, events, or activities.   But a list of activities from the weekly list put into a daily plan is not recommended for the following reasons:

a.   Shifting priorities at work may make it hard to pinpoint exactly what activities should be done on a given day.   Let’s say it’s Monday and you are looking to see what to do.   Check the weekly goal list and figure out which you should start on first, usually based on their priority (A, B, C) as mentioned before.

b.   If you keep a list in writing and don’t finish all the items, and have to rewrite them the next day, then it could be demoralizing and a waste of time.

c.  If there’s something on the daily list that’s on the “C” level that don’t need to be done, it will dilute the emphasis on the items on the “A” level that DO need to be done.

Here’s my take on this.   I combine the Brian Tracy and Dave Allen methods in the following way:   for those activities that need to be done on a daily basis (exercise, taking vitamins, etc.), then these don’t need to be repeated every day.   There should just be a list on the weekly goal list with a grid for each day of the week.   Once you do these daily activities, just check off the box on the grid in the weekly goal for that particular day.

Then I do create a daily goal list, but for those activities which are to be done on a specific day rather than every single day.  This creates a daily goal list (which goes along with the Brian Tracy method), but eliminates from the daily goal list those repetitive items from the weekly list (which goes along with the Dave Allen method).   So I reduce the burden it takes to create a daily list–I just find that the psychological advantages of having a daily goal list mentioned in paragraph b and c in section 1 are worth the extra time it takes to create that daily goal list.

The next post will explain what the “frog” is in Brian Tracy’s book title on preventing procrastination, “Eat that Frog!”, and what it has to do with something called the Pareto principle.