Managing activities and productivity as a consultant

I have a hard time keeping track of my activities. It can be hard to track my availability, and my days tend to disappear in a flash. I have tried many different digital ways of doing this, and now I’m going with a mix of digital and analog.

You don’t get what you want, you get what you work for

To lead anyone, you have to have a healthy degree of self-awareness. I find that this is one quality which I don’t see very often, and it’s very hard to try and cultivate it. As a first step, it’s good to measure how you spend your time, because that shows your priorities more clearly, and in a way that you can measure.

I use Trello and Plus for Trello to log my activities over a period of time. The results showed that I spend a lot of time in email, so I worked towards getting it down to Inbox Zero. It took 30 hours of solid email writing to do it, and I did it on planes across the Atlantic to the US, and on planes across to the East. Inbox Zero doesn’t stay for very long though, so I used my last flight to Singapore to try and clear down as many as possible, and I’m down to the last 300 emails. I’m sitting in a cafe in Watford on a Sunday morning, while my dog is being groomed, to clear these down.

My Trello reports showed that I regularly do 15-16 hours of work a day. I work at every available pocket of time, with downtime only for food and for spending time with my son. Sleep gets squeezed. All of this work means that I am leaving a trail of things behind me, and that means it is difficult to unpick when it comes to invoicing and expense time.

Too busy to pick up the $50 notes that you drop as you go

I have hired a Virtual Assistant and she has been helping me a lot; it’s been worth the time investing in training her in my various home-grown systems and I’m hoping to get some time back. I was getting to the point where I was dropping things like expense claims, so, basically, I was dropping $50 dollar notes behind me as I sped along my way. Having the VA onboard means I have someone to help me to pick up the $50 dollars as I go, and it’s worth investing the time.

We are designed to have ideas, not hold them in our heads

I bought the Get Things Done book and something really spoke to me; humans are designed to have ideas, not hold them. That’s true.

I wrote down every single idea that I had. Truthfully, we forget our ideas. I didn’t bother evaluating if it is a good idea or a bad idea; I just wrote it down. I then saw that I could group these ideas, so I start to split them out. One of my headings was ‘Ideas for blog posts’. Very shortly, I had 36 blog post ideas down on the page, which I had collated over the period of a week or so. This is blog post #36. I haven’t lost the other 35; I can pencil them in my planning journal. So let’s dive in and take a look at the system.

Bullet Journalling in a Traveler’s Notebook

I started to use the bullet journal system and I’ve heavily adapted it. It was worth investiging a couple of hours to understand it, and get it set up. Here is the website here. After having tried various electronic and digital systems for the past twenty or so years, this is the only one I’ve found that works for me.

I have a Traveler’s Notebook, which is like a refillable notebook that you can customize yourself. Here’s my Traveler’s Notebook, which I took whilst I was out in the Philippines:

IMG_20180507_184026

The Traveler’s Notebook itself is customizable. I have the following sections:

  • Task List
  • Monthly Tracker with Weekly next to it
  • Daily Tracker
  • Mindsweeper (a brain dump, basically) for blog ideas, things to remember, quotes I like, tentative activities, adresses I need temporarily etc.
  • Slot for holding cards
  • card envelopes for holding things such as train tickets, boarding passes
  • Zippable wallet for holding passport

Here are some ideas to get you going.

Tracking over a Month

I use a monthly spread, which uses a vertical format. On the left hand side, I record anything that is personal. On the right hand side, I record work activities. I don’t split the page evenly, since I have less personal activities than work activities.

Here is my example below. The blue stickers are simply to cover up customer names. I took this shot half-way through my planning session, so you could see the structure before it got confusing with a lot of dates in it.

IMG_20180507_205411

Using my background in data visualization, I try to stick to the data/ink ratio. I am trying to simplify my life and declutter what my brain can take in quickly, so I find that it isn’t necessary to repeat the customer name for every day. Instead, I can just draw a vertical line that has two purposes; to point to a label, and to denote the length of the activity. In other words, it forms a pointer to the label, which shows the customer name. The length of the line covers the number of days that the activity lasts for. So, if the line has the length of four boxes, then this means that the activity lasts for four days.

Occasionally, I’ve got excited because I think I have some free days to book myself out for an unexpected request. Then, I realize it’s because I haven’t marked out the weekends. I work weekends too, and the main reason I mark weekends separately is because my customers don’t work weekends, usually. Therefore, I colour weekends in so that I can easily categorize the days as being part of a weekend or a normal working day. I have also done this for Bank Holidays because I tend to work then, too.

My personal things go on the left, and my work things go on the right.

Tracking over a Week

I put the weeks on the right hand side of the page, and this is where I combine time, tasks and scheduling. I use the grid in order to mark out the days, and, on the same line, I mark out the Task. Then, I can put a tick in the day when I have pencilled in the task itself. You’ll note that I have marked a seven day week. You can see it at the right hand side of the photo.

If I don’t manage to complete an activity that day, I just add another tick mark so the next day so that it gets tracked then.

I don’t eliminate tasks that I haven’t managed to complete that week. Instead, I just put them in the next week instead.

In my weekly list, I don’t cross things off when I’ve done them. I find that it created an unnecessary clutter, and I didn’t want to bring into focus the activities that I’ve done. I’m more interested in what I have to do next. I leave that to my daily list, and I will come onto that next.

Tracking over a Day

For the Day, I use an A6 size notebook, and I use a two-page format. On the left hand side, I go back to the vertical representation of time. This time, the day is chunked in to hours. As before, anything personal or non-work-related goes on the left hand side. On the right hand side, my work activities for the day go here. That may include stand-up meetings, retrospectives or whatever I am doing that day.

I have added in a slot for lunch. I don’t normally take lunch but I need to make sure that I eat something. It is easy for the day to slip by, and I only notice it’s lunchtime because people are not around and the office has gone a bit quieter.

On the right hand side, this forms a mini-brain-dump of activities or thoughts that occur as I proceed throughout the day. It can also form a memo pad of things that I need, such as a phone number, which I jot down before I add to contacts. This usually gets filled during the day. It is a messy space, a place to unload,

Some of these thoughts are important but they are not urgent. I can then clear these items into a less transient mindsweeper but I just need a place to hold them temporarily while I assess their urgency.

The idea of having ideas, rather than holding them in my head, was a revelation to me. I’d been worrying about my memory, and forgetting things. If you forget something, then you lose a part of yourself and you don’t get it back. I set myself memory tests, such as remembering the name of a painting, or a quote of some sorts. When I start to forget things, then I know I am starting to have problems. The reason I started to do this is because I could see the start of someone else’s memory start to go a little, as he forgot things such as who he ate dinner with; simple things like that. It made me very sad, and I realized that our memories make up so much of who are we.

It can be tremendously liberating to divest ourselves of our responsibility of trying to remember everything and to focus on the things that matter. It frees your mind to have more ideas, rather than focus effort on holding ideas, which is harder for your mind to do.

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