Focus Up, Do More, and Stress Less

The Strategies of Effective Task Management

Productivity relies on more than sheer force of will. Powering through a mess of tasks at the expense of your sanity isn’t the same as efficiency. Even if you get a lot done, most people are left feeling unaccomplished or overwhelmed at the end of the day. Why? Because most things we agree to do are time-sucks and don’t actually contribute to our overall growth. We all do it: We all say yes to things that we don’t have time for, and overextend ourselves to breaking points in pursuit of finishing unimportant tasks in addition to our daily workload.

Then there are those who can’t even face their to-do lists and tend to blame distractions, or the lack of time in a day for why they can’t do as much. To them, it’s all a stressful, disorganized blur and making the to-do list isn’t enough to get motivated.

What’s really the problem in these two cases? If you had more time would you get more done? Or would you simply do more stuff without really furthering your goals? It’s hard not to get bogged down in daily minutia, and it can be daunting to try to get Every Single Thing done, but there are basic and manageable ways to combat these problems.

Here are ways to conquer stress and get more done in a day:

Create focus

I can’t emphasize this enough: Creating focus is the most important step because it sets you up to succeed. Focusing on what is truly important and valuable to you will help you curate your list and goals. Skipping this step can lead to a person focusing on the wrong thing, or too many things at once, which will indeed keep you busy, but not in the way you want. Focus is all about priority, and staying productive comes from having clear goals — and a trustworthy way to maintain them.

Maintain your goals with a task management strategy

Your brain creates stress when you are (a) constantly reminded of things you need to get done in moments when you cannot do them — for example in bed at night — and (b) when you realize you cannot get something done that you were supposed to, and now need to figure out what to do about it — in essence, creating even more tasks for yourself. To overcome these two mechanisms for stress, you need to:

  1. Find a good place to write down every task you have to do now and in the near future. This step can be a brain dump of every task you can think of because the goal is to get it all out. This step gives your brain a break, allowing it to switch off “reminder mode.”
  2. Try to group your tasks into categories like family, work, etc, and prioritize them by determining what is more immediate and what is further out, keeping in mind that long term goals may need immediate day-to-day action, and that priority is about more than just due date. (You can make your list on paper or use a productivity app. I created an app called Completo that facilitates this kind of prioritized list building for you.)
  3. Now, review all the tasks that you’ve written down in your list. Think about what the top three to five important areas of your life are. Categorize your tasks in those terms and see which ones fall into the important categories and the ones that don’t. You’ll see that at least half of your tasks aren’t really that urgent. This will free you up to stay busy with what’s most important to you.
  4. Within this pared-down list, choose your top three tasks for the week and prioritize them over everything else. Say to yourself “these things get done no matter what comes up” and then whenever you have a moment be sure to spend some time progressing them forward.

Stay flexible but don’t lose sight of priorities

Be sure to execute this strategy daily and weekly, but know that there isn’t such a thing as a “perfect week” so don’t cram the week full of tasks before you even start. Leave some room to be dynamic and deal with the real world effect of surprises happening.

Note: Your brain isn’t wired to multi-task, so don’t worry about trying to do everything all at once, but at the same time try not to get caught up spending the whole day focusing on one thing. Work on one thing until you can’t progress further and then move to the next priority item. Most of my own tasks involve calling someone, emailing someone or doing some further research. While I’m waiting for the answers to come back from these communications, I keep moving through the rest my tasks while keeping my priorities in view.

Setting yourself up each day with your prioritized list will help you maintain focus throughout the day. This ensures that no matter what distractions or interruptions you face, your goals will be in place and your productivity will be more tangible as a result.

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Get F$#%* Dressed! How Applying Lean Management to My Toddler Saved Me Two Hours a Day

My toddler takes forever to get ready in the morning — somewhere in the neighborhood of an hour and 15 minutes. Needless to say, this routine needed some adjustments. Especially since time management is What I Do (I even made the apps to prove it) and my wee one was putting my reputation on the line here with his freestyle schedule. So, I did what I do in any situation of inefficiency: I made a factory floor Visual Management board and a Standard Work checklist.

And it worked. If you have a kid between the ages of 2 and 5 you’re gonna want to use this.

But first, a quick rundown of terms:

Visual Management is a lean tool that uses mostly images to convey how something works, it drives efficiency in factories and businesses.

Daily management is a lean tool that encourages a daily stand up at a whiteboard to talk about what needs to get done. It keeps everyone on the same page and helps keep progress going since it’s daily. Software developers adopted this concept more recently, and may refer to it as kanban boards, daily scrum, or agile development but it’s basically the same thing.

Standard Work is a lean tool that creates a standard expectation day after day to make sure everything is taken care of, and within a certain time period.

All of the above were the tools used in the creation of this board. Obviously my son didn’t know that — I’m obsessive but not quite to the point where I’m preaching about lean management to a three-year-old (yet). Still, it was these very methods that led to the huge time saving (or productivity saving as it would be called in lean) the board has delivered.

Don’t get me wrong, I make no claims to being the first parent to come up with this idea. Lots of parents make charts, chore wheels, and visuals for their children to follow, but something that tends to get overlooked is the element of ownership. My boy had to be involved in making the board for this visual to work.

For instance, he chose all the pictures for the chart. I did the search of what I wanted to convey and he chose the pictures that he understood best, and of course, the funniest pictures were his favorite.

He also helped me laminate the pics, print the images, cut out the cards, put magnets on the back to stick to the board — all of this meant he felt like it was his and he made it, it was not something thrust upon him. We picked them to convey the message because he can’t read yet, but also because in lean we always try to use images (even for adults) because the brain processes images faster than text. Images are especially useful in a workplace with international clients or coworkers whose command of a given language can vary.

All of the images are attached to magnets so we can add or take away things over time. The board changes, and he rolls with the changes. This has simultaneously made him feel more comfortable about both structure and change. Not only that, but he sees what’s coming for the week ahead and can prepare accordingly. Previously, he would feel anxious about going to pre-school. Now, he sees the pre-school days coming way ahead and so when the day arrives he is totally ready.

The Board

  • The top of the board is the days of the week. They’re listed out with the picture of the god that the day was named after and with the planet the day is associated with. This makes it easier for him to understand the different days and makes it easier to remember than just a word. Also, the days have the name written in English and Spanish so I tell him both names to improve his Spanish.
  • The bottom right of the chart is his evening checklist.
  • The bottom left of the chart is a morning checklist. He looks at the pic then does the action, say brush teeth. Then he checks it done. The act of checking something done for him seems to be as important as it is for an adult, he really gets a good feeling from it.

The best part is, he seriously enjoys all this stuff now. Before this, it was a huge chore to get him to brush his teeth and get dressed in the morning, and bedtime was pretty much a nightmare, too. Now, instead of saying “it’s time to get ready for school” or “it’s time to go to bed,” all I have to say is, “c’mon let’s do the board,” and he loves it — really loves it. In addition, it’s easier to help him with his tasks since he already knows what needs to happen, and it’s fun to see him enjoy them. An added bonus is that my wife and I can look at the board to see what needs to get done, instead of each of us mistakenly assuming the other took care of it.

It now takes about 15 minutes to get him ready in the morning, with zero fighting, whining or tantrums. And the other night he wanted to go to bed early just to do the board. Parents, you know what I’m talking about here — those tantrum-free minutes back in your day are pure gold.

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The Worst Way to Manage Your To-Do List

Are you managing your life with a calendar? Here is why you need to stop.

If you manage your to-do list the way most people — and companies — do, it’s probably heavily reliant on the calendar. Maybe you set milestone dates leading up to the launch of a big project, or share a calendar with family members or colleagues to share tasks and progress updates. It’s a process that will help you keep track of what’s due and when, but it’s not one that will actually help you get things done. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the calendar is the most inefficient way to manage your time. Here’s why: What’s due this week or this month may not be the highest priority item on your list.

Organizing your to-do list by priority first ensures that you’re always on top of what’s truly important to your business or your life. And that doesn’t mean you throw dates away entirely — they’re still important. But starting with a priority ranking first will ensure that you’re spending the bulk of your time knocking the most valuable to-dos off your list. More importantly, if you’re focusing more on the projects that deliver the most value to your life or your business, rather than being ruled by the calendar, you’re likely to be more productive and get more out of your time.

Not buying it? Following are a few more reasons I think people need to drop their obsession with the calendar:

  • Reminder Overload. What I often see happen to people who run their days by the calendar is that reminders begin to stack up, but there’s no hierarchy to them, which gives the sense of everything being urgent. Pretty soon you’re being overwhelmed by reminders, and once you’ve got more than three or four, you’re likely to just ignore them all. You become numb to the reminder and it becomes pretty useless.


  • You’re Planning for a Perfect Week That Doesn’t Exist. If you schedule everything, you’re planning for a perfect week and that doesn’t exist. There’s always more immediate problems that come up, so in today’s world you have to be flexible, you have to be a little bit dynamic. When you say these things will happen on these days, you’re not leaving room for reality. The stuff that’s not due until the end of the week you’re likely not to get to in time, and the stuff that’s due at the start of the week will often get pushed back because you think you have time. All of a sudden everything is urgent.


  • It Ensures Procrastination. If you schedule a high-priority task for Thursday, and you find yourself with spare time on Monday, it’s unlikely that you’ll use that time to do Thursday’s task. Instead, you’ll do something else with that time and wait until Thursday to take care of the high priority task. A general manager I know has a sales report due the same day every month and for years he was in the habit of always waiting until the morning it was due to start it. Then inevitably he’d run out of time and turn the report in a day or two late. He’s not a lazy guy, he’s just busy, and because he leaves it to the schedule rather than organizing by priority he just never has enough time to get it done. Once he switched to organizing by priority he would work on the report in spare moments throughout the month, and finally hit the deadline.


  • You May Not Be Getting the Right Things Done. Instead of a calendar of due dates, you need a reliable list that says here’s the order in which these things need to get done. When you have a list of 3, 5, even 10 things, it’s rare that you can sit down of an afternoon and get one thing done. Yet this is how we tend to think of tasks: I’ll set aside two hours on Thursday to get that report done. In reality, you’ll usually start on one task, then hit some sort of a stumbling block — maybe you need to do more research, or you need input from someone else and need to wait to get it from them. If you’ve got a list going, you just move on to the next thing while you’re waiting, and so on down the line. By the time you’re in the middle of task three, maybe you’ll have heard back from the person you were waiting on to complete task one and you can cross that off your list. It’s not so much multi-tasking, as doing as much as you can on each thing before moving on, so all of a sudden by the end of the week, you’ve finished some key tasks and are well on your way to completing others.


  • You’re Separating Your Life Into Two Lists. Generally when you manage everything by a calendar, you’re managing your work and family calendars separately — maybe you’re using different colors or different accounts — but whatever it is, they’re two separate things. The reality is you’re living one life and you need to be able manage both those aspects of your life in one place. The tendency when they’re in separate calendars or lists is to always prioritize work. When you have all of your life’s priorities in one list, it’s easier to keep your personal commitments and strike a better work-life balance.


  • It’s Easy To Fool Yourself Into Thinking You’re Getting More Done Than You Are. With the calendar, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that because you had a lot of meetings and talked to a lot of people you got a lot done, but when you look at your task list, you might realize you only got 5 things done. The task list keeps you a little more honest, forcing you to be more efficient with your time, and more accountable for how you’re spending it. It ensures that you’re actually being productive and not just hitting every meeting in your calendar.

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3 Tried-and-True Business Tactics to Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

I’ll be honest: I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions. In Scotland, where I’m from, our New Year’s tradition is to clean the house so you’re ready for the next year, and I still try to do that (although my wife might argue that I’m slipping). But I have been hearing from a lot of friends lately about their own resolutions, which got me thinking about why these commitments so often fail, and whether there might be a business-minded solution there.

I think I’ve come up with something.

1. Stop being ruled by the calendar.

The calendar is the most inefficient way to manage your time. Here’s why: What’s due this week or this month may not be the highest-priority item on your list. Organizing your to-do list by priority first ensures that you’re always on top of what’s truly important to you. If your resolution is to work out at least three times a week, instead of slotting that workout into dates plucked at random, hoping that every week will go perfectly (you know it won’t — and the first thing to get chucked will be your workout), put that rendezvous with the gym on your priority list, and make it happen.

2. Remember that it’s more about time management than commitment.

The reason most resolutions fail isn’t because people are weak willed so much as the fact that most people aren’t great at time management. That’s probably why whatever they’ve resolved to do isn’t getting done in the first place.

So, think about your time realistically. Continuing with the workout example, do you find it easier to squeeze things into your mornings or evenings? And, if the answer is “evenings,” will you actually have the energy to work out then, or are you likely to be burnt out from work and just say forget it?

People set themselves up for failure all the time, simply by scheduling things at inconvenient times. Really look at where you might be able to make time — is lunchtime an option? Is there a task you can put off for a while so you can build up a routine around your workouts? Can you get up an hour earlier or go to bed an hour later without losing much?

3. Quit separating work and ‘life. ‘

I should probably have made this No. 1 because I think it’s one of the most important things. Here’s what happens in most people’s lives: You’ve got a “work” to-do list and/or calendar, and a “life” version. You consult your work list daily and generally stay on top of it. Your life list, on the other hand? Mostly you just look at it when you’re adding yet another task that’s bound to be ignored for weeks.

But you have only one life, so you should have only one list. Otherwise, your work tasks will almost always take precedence and your life management will suffer. My priority list is a mix of business and personal items, and while it’s still heavily weighted toward work, the important life stuff is on there and getting done a whole lot more efficiently than it was when it was off in the life-list ghetto.

5 Ways to Get Your Home Running as Smoothly as Your Business

I spend a lot of time thinking about all the ways that successful business strategies can be applied to other areas of our lives and recently — thanks to the arrival of my second son — had occasion to apply those strategies at home. Here are five things that helped get our chaotic household running efficiently.

1. Use data, not your gut.

Most people (and small business owners for that matter) will proudly say that they follow their gut on major decisions. And that’s generally a good thing. But, did you know that the world’s top CEOs are actually trained precisely not to follow their gut? They’re taught instead to manage with data and that’s a good lesson in the home, too. Case in point: it’s easy for both moms and dads to feel like they’re the ones doing the bulk of the childcare or chores, or feeling like the other person doesn’t know all they do. Capturing those tasks on a shared list not only ensures everything gets done but also gives your partner visibility into everything you’re doing and vice versa.

2. Don’t rely too heavily on the calendar — prioritize!

Our days are often driven by the calendar but that means only the most pressing, not the most important, things get done each day. Instead of letting the calendar rule the roost, set priorities for yourself. We do this using an app, and it’s great to set not just monthly or ongoing priorities, but also daily ones: what are the three things I absolutely have to get done today? This helps ensure the important stuff gets done and also lets you off a hook a bit for not conquering your entire to-do list.

3. Use pictures.

In Lean Management we always try to use images to convey a message because the brain processes images faster than text. Images are especially useful in a workplace with international clients or coworkers whose command of a given language can vary. For our household, it’s a way of communicating with our toddler, and it’s working like a charm.

4. Daily Management.

Daily management is a lean tool that encourages a daily stand up at a whiteboard to talk about what needs to get done. It keeps everyone on the same page and helps keep progress going since it’s daily. Software developers adopted this concept more recently, and may refer to it as kanban boards, daily scrum, or agile development but it’s basically the same thing. My wife and I do the same thing with our schedule board so we know from one week to the next who’s got a meeting coming up, what childcare we’ve got scheduled, any unusual events happening, etc.

5. Get the whole family involved.

Getting everyone involved is a key part of this, so it’s not just one person’s job to keep the household schedule; everyone knows what’s happening and everyone takes responsibility. Just like team projects in an office setting, making sure that each person feels shared ownership is vital to getting 100 percent effort from everyone.


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3 Proven Strategies for Running a Great Business that Will Also Work in Your Personal Life

Even some of the most savvy business people I know often check their management smarts at the door when it comes to their personal lives. But while it may sound hopelessly practical and boring (hey, I’m an engineer after all), there’s quite a bit that good business management can teach us about optimizing our lives, too.

Following are three ways to apply the same strategies that have made companies like General Electric, Toyota and Siemens great to improve your life outside of work.

1. Continuous Improvement
The great Taiichi Ohno, a Japanese professor and businessman, and the father of “The Toyota Way” and Lean Manufacturing, once said, “The greatest problem is having no problems at all.”

At its root, Continuous Improvement is all about accepting that you will fail and striving for success, anyway. It uses failure as a learning experience to move on from, rather than letting it derail you. It’s not an unfamiliar idea outside of Japan. Plenty of Western business cliches can be traced back to it: “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” for example. Or, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Related: Fight Overthinking, That Destroyer of Decision Making

Here’s how to go from the platitudes to a process that actually benefits your life:

First, set yourself a big, seemingly unattainable goal. People often limit themselves, right out of the gate, by setting only what they see as achievable goals. Get out of that mindset and really go for something you’ve always dreamed of. It might take you years to get there. Heck, you may never reach it, but I guarantee you, every day in the process of moving closer to it your life will improve exponentially.

Figure out your immediate first three steps to move you toward that goal. Then be brave and take those steps. If those steps successfully move you forward, great. Move on to the next three steps. If you fail, treat it as a learning exercise. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and then try again. Maybe you need to adjust your steps to focus on smaller tasks that will move you forward. Keep trying until you succeed, then move on.

Don’t get hung up on a bad day or even a stretch of several bad days. Just take it as a learning experience. Even when the obstacle blocking your path seems beyond your control, think about how you can change or adapt or somehow work around those obstacles. If you can’t take it head-on, how do you get around it?

Focus on your day-by-day progress. Get better each day and know that, over time, those incremental improvements move you closer to your ultimate goal. If you set a goal and accept that you’ll fail sometimes, and just learn every day, you can feel successful on a daily basis even though you’re nowhere close to your ultimate goal.

2. Turn one overwhelming project into several simple tasks
The most successful companies approach major transitions or initiatives by distilling what needs to be done down to several distinct tasks. This approach is just as effective when you’re facing an overwhelming project in your personal life, as well.

First, divide the task at hand into several smaller tasks. If there are items on that list that you know exactly how to tackle, do them first. Then, if you’re not sure how to proceed past a certain point, try to establish tasks that will enable you to figure out what to do next. If you need to renovate your kitchen, for example, and you don’t know where to begin, then your first task is go talk to a contractor or go to Home Depot and look around.

Related: The 5 Pitfalls of Decision-Making, and How to Avoid Them

If you’re feeling really overwhelmed, don’t wait until you’ve figured out every detail. Just start. This approach can be particularly helpful for big life changes that have an emotional or stressful undercurrent to them. If you’re expecting your first child, for example, it can seem completely impossible to imagine all the things you’ll need to be prepared for, and to organize and accomplish all of them. Breaking it down into small, practical tasks can remove some of the panic, helping you not only to get everything done, but also to feel a little less stressed in the meantime.

3. Data-based decision-making
The best companies decide things like whether to focus on growth or cost-cutting on actual data, not just the arbitrary decision of whoever seems like the smartest person in the conference room. Taking a similar approach to life decisions can really help to not only guide you to the right choices for your life, but also to remove some of the emotion and stress that often cloud big life decisions.

How you feel about things is an important data point but combining that with other information tends to improve decision-making. I’m not just talking about basic data points from a quantified self app, like how well you’re sleeping or how much exercise you’re getting. Although those things can be helpful, I’m talking more about gathering a variety of data points until you have enough information to make an educated decision.

If you’re thinking about buying a house, for example, there may be emotional components to it — you’re tired of renting, you want to set up a home, you just like the idea of owning a house. Those are all valid data points, but most people could benefit from adding things like housing trends, market fluctuations, interest rates, historical data and neighborhood news like whether there’s a new development breaking ground soon or the school district is about to be redrawn.

A big decision people grapple with is whether or not to leave a job. A more objective approach to your subjective feelings about your job can help you work through that question. Set a baseline – ask yourself how satisfied you are with your work, how many hours you spend working, how much you like your boss, how likely your job is to help you meet your long-term goals. Track those feelings over the course of one to three months.

Look also at more objective data like your cost of living, what sort of salary you need to live and how likely you’d be to find another job should you leave this one. You could even take one of a handful of self-administered workplace happiness surveys (this one was developed by the Zappos folks, and these were developed by famed psychologist and Flourish author Martin Seligman).

Armed with that data you’ll be able to make a decision that not only makes logical sense, but also makes you feel good.


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