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5 Tips for Managing Information Overload

Managing information overloadEmails, phone calls, status alerts, updates. We are constantly interrupted at work. At the Pink Elephant ITSM conference last month Dr Joanne Cantor talked about how to manage the bombardment of bleeps and pings that demand our attention.

Here are 5 of her tips for managing information overload.

1. Have a list of ‘drop everything’ contacts

Many of us are ‘always on’. The lines between work and play have blurred to the point that I take work calls and check my messages while I am on holiday. It works both ways, though. I’ll also take long lunches to catch up with friends or leave the office early for the hairdresser. Work/life balance (to me) means making this kind of arrangement work.

However, no one can cope with being always on all the time. Cantor recommended prioritising a small group of people who need to reach you instantly. These could be your boss, your project sponsor or the nursery that your child attends. When you switch work off, make sure these people have an alternative way of getting hold of you if they need to. Then you’ll still feel connected to those that matter without having the burden of being ‘on’ for everyone.

2. Focus

Cantor and another speaker, Nicholas Carr, both commented that the internet and the way in which we work now means we have less ability to focus. I call this a ‘butterfly mind’. You flit from one subject to another. They both argued that we have lost the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time.

I don’t agree. I do get twitchy if I’m watching TV programmes and not doing something else at the same time (I’m making baby shoes at the moment for a raft of newborns due this spring). I don’t cope well staring into space on the tube if I have forgotten to bring a book. But I do think people can still focus on a single activity if they try hard enough. If you have forgotten how, try reading a gripping book and seeing how difficult it is to put it down. Next time you feel an unrelated task coming on, write it down and do it later – don’t get distracted now.

3. Master your interruptions

When you sit down to write a project report, close down your email client until you are finished. Switch your phone to silent instead of vibrate. Change your status on your instant messaging client to unavailable. You can even set your out of office message on email to let people know when you will be next available.

Block out time in your calendar to do actual work – not meetings, not travelling to visit clients. I know it sounds stupid, but some weeks if I don’t do this I just end up with two weeks of work to do the following week instead.

4. Sleep well

Cantor talked about the reviving powers of sleep. She advised scheduling problem solving so that you have at least one night to sleep on the issue. Your mind works on the problem overnight and you could wake up with the answer, or at least a new perspective on the issue.

Put a notebook next to the bed so that if you do wake up in the night full of great ideas you can capture them and act on them in the morning.

5. Play

Cantor talked about the story of the grasshopper, who played all day, and the ant, who worked all day. It’s not a story I knew, but the morale was clear: you can’t work all the time and expect to be productive.

Take breaks. Cantor said that people who actively relax and have a good work/life balance find they need to work fewer hours than workaholics because their brains operate more efficiently.

What other tips do you have for managing information overload?

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Photo of Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins, the Get-It-Done Guy

“When you’re in content focus, you load a project into your brain and do everything related to that project,” says Stever Robbins, in his book Get-It-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.  “If you’re writing a report in content focus mode, you might spend the day writing, researching, calling people strictly about the report topic, brainstorming and editing.  Even though you’re doing lots of different stuff, it’s all so deeply related that your brain can stay with that project for the whole day.”

Do you do that?  Pick a project and work on it with the focus it deserves?  This is one of Robbins’ many tips for working smarter.  He then talks about task focus, which is grouping together tasks that require the same skills, such as returning all your calls, shopping, emptying your inbox and so on.

Get-It-Done Guy coverThis book is funny, and if you struggle with time management you won’t find it difficult to dedicate the time required to read it.  It’s a normal sized paperback, with over 200 pages, all filled with useful advice for people struggling to get things done in the normal working day.  One of the most radical ideas in the book is from the CEO who charges her team $5 from their budget for each email she receives from them.  “[T]he overload has gone down, the relevance of emails has gone up, and the senders are happy, too, because the added thought often results in their solving more problems on their own,” he writes.

One of the other useful tips about dealing with email is to delete everything, then go into your Deleted Items folder and rescue emails.  There’s a different mental approach to rescuing things that have already been deleted.  Your brain can be more picky about the things it really has to deal with.  I think this is a great suggestion, although I keep my inbox at under 100 messages most of the time, so I’m happy with the way I handle emails. Still, if it ever gets too much, this is a great way to sift out what’s really important.

Robbins also presents a very mature response to dealing with awkward people who never do what they say they will:

If your job requires paper, Billy’s job is to reorder paper, and Billy never reorders.  You can waste hours being upset, blaming Billy.  It won’t help; blocking your paper order is Billy’s unconscious attempt to wrestle a tiny bit of power over an otherwise miserable life… You’re best choice is to take full responsibility and find other solutions… It would be easier if you could count on Billy, but you can’t. You can, however, take responsibility and do what it takes to help Billy succeed so you can get your job done faster.

This is the concept of radical responsibility that Nick McCormick covers in his book, Acting Up Brings Everyone Down.

Get-It-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More is more than just another book about time management. It’s an entertaining read, and it’s definitely going to show you some new ways to be more productive at work by focusing on the right things and doing them right.

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Villanova Friday, Week 2: Personal Productivity

This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series Villanova Friday

Villanova Friday logoLast week, I started the Maximizing IS/IT Team Effectiveness course with Villanova University.  The online course has a weekly live session, but it’s held in the middle of my night, so I’m not able to attend.

The sessions are recorded, so this week I listened to the transcript of the first chat.  It was a pity I hadn’t been able to stay up that late and take part as it sounded interesting.  The combination of phone, text chat and slides seemed to work OK, once people had worked out how to get their microphones to work.  The group discussed who was a great leader and why.  Humility and selflessness came out as good leadership qualities, and President Obama was suggested as a great leader.

Joan Knutson, the course facilitator, said that it’s unusual for people to put forward people who are living as examples of good leaders.  I suppose that it is easier to look back historically over an entire career or life and see what a person has contributed, and the responses to that.  However, as project leaders, we don’t have the luxury of being able to wait until we’re dead for people to think we’re any good!  Hopefully the course will give us the opportunity to develop leadership skills now.

Joan Knutson presenting a lecture

Joan Knutson presenting a lecture

Logging in to the class website, I noticed it automatically defaulted to showing me all the course info for Week 2.  Confession: I hadn’t listened to the last two lectures from last week (although I’m ahead on the reading, thanks to a long train journey).  So I had to go back and finish those before starting this week’s lessons.

Luckily, a lot of those were about personal effectiveness, like managing time bottlenecks through prioritisation of tasks and being disciplined when responding to emails.  Like many project managers, I think I’m pretty good at time management, so I did some other work while Joan was talking at me.

It’s the end of Week 2, which means there is a test.  Last time I took the test, I failed.  This time, I used the reference books, took my time and scored 90%!  Very happy with that.

Reading time: a couple of hours
Lecture time: 1.5 hours (and there are still 4 lectures I haven’t played)
Class chat time: 20 minutes listening to the half the recording, which was 40 minutes long
Doing exercises: Erm, no time!

Disclosure: Villanova have provided me access to the course at no charge in exchange for me writing about it.

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Curt Finch, CEO of Journyx, Inc., has put all his wisdom about time tracking into a book called All Your Money Won’t Another Minute Buy: Valuing Time as a Business Resource.  It’s not that long and it’s quick to read and while I wouldn’t rate it as one of the top business books I have read this year it did change my perspective on time tracking, which I think is the point, and rather took me by surprise.

The first section talks about the tracking time and how this impacts project risk.  The next bit then looks at SOX and DCAA compliance, neither of which are relevant to the organisation I work in.  The third section considers the build or buy decision for time tracking tools and how to select a product and working with vendors.  This is a well-written bit that doesn’t flog Journyx products, so don’t worry about the whole thing being a big sales pitch.  Finally the book looks at software as a service and the future of web tools.

The reason I say I wouldn’t put it top of my list is that it is very US focussed, and a lot of the concepts – tiddly amounts of holiday, compliance – are not relevant over here.  For a US reader I expect their experience of this book would be very different.

The best bit for me of this book was the first section, and while the content on compliance and regulation wasn’t relevant to me I could at least see how this linked into the premise of the book.  The final section about web tools was more of a struggle.  There are four chapters that don’t seem to tie into time tracking at all – they are about the benefits of using web-based software and how this can provide opportunities for reuse, lower cost of entry and so on.  All useful and interesting information, but not pertaining to tracking time. In the prologue, Finch writes:

Section Four looks to the future in terms of technology and where we are going.  It’s important to consider because it affects all that we do as businesses,  including tracking our time.

I felt that he could have made that sentiment clearer as I was working my way through Section Four as I certainly missed the point.

So, my revelation.  I’m not a big fan of timesheets (if you listen to my webinar on managing money on projects you’ll hear more about this), as I have never worked for a company that used them effectively.  But after reading Finch’s book I had a discussion with my team and we’re going to do a couple of months of time tracking to see how we get on.  Amazing.  I never thought I’d be advocating filling in timesheets, so for all its flaws, Finch’s book works – I do value time as a business resource!

You can buy the book here or wait until Wednesday when I’ll be telling you how to win a copy.

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Working smarter, not harder

Did you know that an individual typically works overtime in a year equating to not being paid until 22 February? That’s nearly two months of ‘free’ work we give our employers because overtime is unpaid.

As project managers, we are generally quite a well organised bunch, and I didn’t think I’d learn a lot at a recent event I attended, entitled ‘working smarter, not harder’. The evening seminar for women technologists was held at Microsoft’s Victoria offices. But I did take away some interesting figures, including the gem above about unpaid overtime. Here are some other stats:

  • 78% of women say they work for companies with flexible working policies, but better technology would make it easier to balance work and life
  • 55% said their work/life balance was just in control, but they wanted more ‘life’
  • 45% said their work/life balances were out of kilter, and actually way past the point of being in balance.

These figures came from a survey of the women in the room, which we completed before we arrived. Suzanne Doyle-Morris, the keynote speaker, also presented research findings from a 2007 study done by the University of Hertfordshire which shows people now walk 10% faster than 10 years ago. Maybe shoes have lower heels nowadays.

I did actually pick up some tips from her presentation, and also that of the other speakers, and I pass them on here:

  • Know your strengths. Don’t be an all-rounder. It’s a waste of valuable time to do things when someone else can do them for you, better than you. Don’t be threatened by surrounding yourself with good people and having a great team.
  • Set clear boundaries about the hours you work: it’s fine to work at the evenings and weekends if it gives you time in the week to do what you want. Be flexible, but take the time back. This also sets a good example to the team.
  • Also set clear boundaries about how people contact you. If people can reach you by IM, mobile phone, desk phone, BlackBerry, home phone, email and so on it makes life much more stressful.
  • Hide away and catch up. Book time in your diary to work at home or at a different office. You’ll still be available by phone but you’ll be more productive as people won’t be constantly passing by your desk and interrupting.
  • Sort out your technology and ensure you drive it, not the other way round.

Even though I’m a generally organised person, it doesn’t hurt to have someone point out what you should be doing, as it acts as a memory refresh. As a result of listening to these speakers, I have gone through my diary and blocked out a couple of days a month where I can work from home – the place I can hide away. It was also worth attending for the fab womenintechnology.co.uk pen I got, which has become my favourite piece of writing equipment. Microsoft also gave us a bar of Microsoft-branded chocolate, which is currently lying half-eaten on my dining room table. I doubt it will stay there for long.

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Giveaway: Supercommunicator

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