For the last thirty-four years, learning about and pursuing goal setting and achievement have been passions of mine. While not my favorite skill (it requires self-discipline), time management takes effective goal setting beyond wishes to project management and achievement.
I stumbled on time management and goal setting as a college student.
Wrestling with lackluster results, I hadn’t yet grasped the concept of personal accountability. As I recall, I made an appointment with my professor for an intro to financial analysis – Ostensibly, to discuss my performance to date. My real purpose was to talk him into raising my grade.
I kicked off our meeting by observing he’d simply assigned too much homework and allowed too little time to do it. I went on to ask him to cut me some slack on homework grades because I could prove empirically there was simply no way a regular guy could do all the homework in his class and do all the other things one absolutely had to do just to get by in life. A natural list maker, I’d brought a doosey of a list with me.
His eyes lit up when I showed it to him. He grinned like he’d just won the lottery. Then he leaned back in his chair, stared me right straight in the eyes and said, “Bruce, welcome to life. That’s a great list, but what’s that to me? My job’s to teach you finance. No homework; no learning. If anyone can do all the homework and make an A, you can do it. You have the same amount of time as everyone else. Question is, are you using your time wisely?”
Geez! Thanks! Lecture plus rhetorical question – I didn’t want one of those. I wanted sympathy.
I tried again to explain how my circumstance was unique and simply beyond my control. For crying out loud – I was working full time, going to school full time, trying to stay on top of my guitar. I’d joined a professional fraternity, I didn’t get enough sleep, my car needed fixing, my feet were aching, and I’m the only one of my roommates who can cook. Years later I heard Zig Ziglar use a similar story to describe what he calls the “Poor Little Ol’ Me Disease”. “PLOM” for short.
Dr. Green nodded knowingly. To his credit, he didn’t burst out laughing, but his eyes were twinkling like sparklers on the Fourth of July.
You probably already guessed I didn’t have much luck persuading the professor. I received no gratuitous grade bump, but I did make an A in the class thanks to his sage counsel.
The sage counsel came in the form of great questions.
The first was, “What are your goals, Bruce?” Followed immediately by, “How do you manage your time?”
Goals? What the heck did goals have to do with my grades? Why’s he talking to me about goals when I came to talk about why I deserved to get an A in his class, but didn’t have time to do all the homework? I recall thinking, “This guy’s just not fair!” In fact, life’s not fair.
How do I manage my time? Now that’s a stupid question; it’s absurd. How can you manage something that comes and goes?
I wasn’t clear about either goals or time management and I told him so. I admitted I didn’t really have any goals beyond getting through the semester and that the two words “time management” didn’t even seem to fit together.
He didn’t comment. Instead, he opened his planning system and pointed at the first page. After letting me study it for a few minutes, he explained how he used it focus all his actions on written personal goals and manage his time to ensure he accomplished the goals.
I’d like to say it all made sense in that moment and I immediately thanked him for his wisdom, but I hate liars – so I won’t. What I did do was get mad. I can crank up a good rage on demand and apparently get a kick from the adrenaline rush. Besides, a good mad made me listen just a little more carefully than usual if for no better reason than it often helps me win arguments. That day I listened very carefully. I wanted an A and had just enough wisdom NOT to blow my top at the guy who stood between me and my final grade for the semester. Just enough wisdom to listen, and then think about what he showed me.
Then, he showed me his to do list.
Looking back it was crude, but effective. His own design, he’d used lined, 8.5 X 11 notebook paper (this was in B.C. – before computers), and hand labeled the columns:
What (To Do)?
Why (Do It)?
Who (Will Do)?
He’d printed each To Do neatly in pencil, and for each item, he allowed as many rows as necessary to describe the action that would lead to a specific desired result. I noticed only six items on page one and most of the page remained for making notes.
The value of the simple system escaped me, but I made myself listen. I REALLY wanted to ace that course and I could tell I wasn’t getting out of there without learning how to use the system myself. In spite of my initial disinterest, his demo hooked me. By deciding exactly what I wanted to accomplish (goals) and then deciding what to do and not do, why, when, where and how (time management), I could do the best possible job of ensuring I ended up with what I wanted most.
That began my more or less continuous study of goals, goal setting, goal achievement, time management, priority management, effectiveness, and a lengthy list of this, that and the other that all boils down to what I now call Common Sense Time Management. Most of the ideas I teach are NOT my own. I borrowed them from many books and the likes of Jesus Christ, Marcus Aurelius, Dale Carnegie, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Gantt, Frederick Taylor and more recently David Allen, E.R. Haas, Anne McGee-Cooper, Alan Lakein, Stephen Covey, Bettie B. Youngs and a host of other goals and time-management gurus.
Fast forward to today. I often share a tool called my “GoalMind To Do card” with business owners because almost all agree they struggle with distractions, management by crisis and the sheer number of plates they must juggle to make it through a day. Some use planning systems. Some use computers. Some get dragged through their days by crises, customer agendas, endless false starts and “those monkeys on their backs”. Most of them rarely get around to their “bucket list” and setting and achieving goals, much less priority management and time management. Seems that business ownership creates the perfect setting for occupational attention deficit disorder. As a serial entrepreneur, widowed father of three teenagers, head scratching manager of a retirement portfolio and sometimes mentor, I understand juggling priorities.
As is often the case, the secret to juggling anything effectively lies in knowing the right questions to ask.
So, whether I’m connected to a computer, a planning tool or a project plan or not, I carry an index card with the following questions on it so I always have a place to jot down ideas as they occur to me. This, in turn, gives me the ability to banish any nagging thoughts and consider each idea as thoroughly as necessary when it’s appropriate. The questions work with any planning system without requiring one if you’re an out-of-the-box person like many of my clients. The cards will fit in your purse, wallet or shirt pocket and are incredibly powerful tools. If the card idea doesn’t work for you, put the questions in your iPhone or your scheduling tool. The power’s in the questions.
Judge for yourself.
For each thing you believe you must or want to do, ask yourself:
1) What’s the action?
2) What’s today’s date?
3) Where will the action take place?
4) What’s the action’s relative priority?
5) What’s the action’s LOE?
6) What’s the action’s ETC?
7) Does the action recur? If so, how often?
8) What’s the action’s status?
9) Is the action important? If so, why?
10) Does the action have a hard deadline?
11) Must I do it? If not, who? If so, why?
12) Does action require my total focus?
13) Will I enjoy this action?
14) Will I dislike this action?
15) Does this action relate to a bigger goal, project or objective? If so, which one?
16) What action logically follows this one?
Here are working definitions:
1) Action: What you intend to accomplish. Begin description with an active verb and complete it with concise, envisionable description of desired result.
2) Date: Today’s date. Valuable because it gives you a date stamp that helps you calculate elapsed time. Elapsed time helps you determine whether an item is still as important as you initially thought it was.
3) Where: Where, physically will you complete this action? At home? At work? At grocery store? On business trip? Valuable for grouping activities for most efficient accomplishment.
4) Priority: Today’s assessment of this action’s relative priority. A = Urgent (has approaching deadline) and Important, B = Important, but not urgent, C = Urgent, but not important, D = Neither urgent nor important
5) LOE: Level of Effort. Today’s best guess about how long it will take you to complete this To Do in man-hours. Valuable for helping you see how well or poorly you approximate effort.
6) ETC: Estimate to Complete – How much (currently) remains to accomplish this task, again in man-hours. – You will erase and rewrite your estimate often, if you work on a To Do over several days. Valuable for helping you decide what to and what not to tackle within your overall schedule.
7) Recurs: Y/N – Freq – For tasks that recur. If so, answers the question “how often?”
8) Status: Valuable for answering questions about where you are in an action’s completion?
9) Important: Y/N, Why? _______________ – Is the To Do important TO YOU? If it’s important to someone else, but you didn’t PROMISE or OTHERWISE commit to do it, AND it’s not all that important to you – your answer will be “No”.
10) Deadline: Y/N, When? _______________ – Does to do have a practical deadline? If so, when is it?
11) Must I do it: Y/N, If Not, Who? If so, Why? – Helps you figure out what you can hand off to others and a pretty revealing self-evaluation tool for control freaks
12) Total Focus: Y/N, Enjoy Doing? Y / N – Asks the question does completing or working on this to do require total focus? It’s an opinion question; therefore, I follow it with habitual procrastinator’s biggest hidden excuses:
13) “Enjoy Doing”, Y/N and
14) “Dislike Doing” Y/N
15) Related Project: When you catch yourself thinking about To Dos related to a project, this is where you may pencil in the name of the project
16) Next Step: While I don’t encourage using this form for multi-step activities, I often find that I THINK something’s going to be quick and simple only to discover it isn’t
Also, I encourage people to answer only what’s immediately important about each task as it occurs to them, and NOT to worry about answering all the questions for every item. It’s important to set aside some time daily or once a week to clear your mind of all the “To Dos” floating around in your head, just to get them out of your mind and into some more manageable system. Often, by the time I’ve written down the date and the task, I realize the To Do isn’t that important to me anymore and I’ll answer the rest of the questions only when and if it moves up on my radar.
Finally, I keep a master To Do list. Some call it a master task list and some simply call it stuff I want to get done. Whatever you call it – I highly recommend keeping one, but understand that each must plan in the way that works best for them. When I set out to plan my day or week, I pull the most important items from my master task list and add them to my schedule – a topic for another time.
In case you’re having trouble envisioning the index card, here’s one way to do it: