Monday, June 30, 2014

Better Choices, And It’s Easy

Jim decided to visit the new restaurant in town. As soon as he sat down, the waiter approached. 

“Could I take your order?” asked the waiter. 

A little surprised, Jim replied, “Well, could I see a menu?” 

“We don’t actually have a printed menu. Some of our items are there,” the waiter said, pointing to a chalkboard over the counter. “We have most of what’s there, although we are out of some things. We have some other things listed on that sandwich board just outside. We have a couple of specials, but I forget what they are. Anyway, we have lots of stuff. What’ll you have?” 

Perplexed, Jim looked over at the table next to him and replied, “I’ll just have whatever she’s having.”Jim never returned to that restaurant. 

When we visit a restaurant, we expect to see a complete, well-organized menu. Why is that tool important? Very simply, you can see your choices.

Therein lies the point of the story and the point of this post: When you can see all of your choices, you make better choices.

If we are to make better choices about how we use our time, we must be able to see all of our choices. Property constructed, our to-do list is that “menu” which makes it possible. Many peoples’ to-do lists resemble the restaurant in the story. The menu is incomplete, and pieces and parts are scattered. Many others wait until the pressure is on, and then stare at a blank piece of paper, trying to pull from their heads the most urgent items. Both approaches are recipes for failure. The pitiful part is that having a good “menu” is easy.

Make It Digital 
In today’s world, a huge percentage of communication, information, and obligations arrive digitally. Doesn’t it make sense to allow what arrives digitally to be handled digitally? My digital to-do list is Toodledo. Remember the Milk, Wunderlist, and Asana are also great tools. Each is web-based, free, and offers corresponding apps which sync the to-do list across all devices. The Outlook task list is also excellent, although syncing with mobile devices can be tricky.

Keep It Simple 
Some well-intending books spend as much as 150 pages instructing you how to set up the software. What I have used for over a decade, and what I teach, is simple:

  1. Every task gets a due date. 
  2. The due date is the answer to the question, “When do I want to see this item again?” 
  3. Sort the list by due date. 

That’s it! While digital tools offer the options to assign a priority, location, context, group, star/no star, color, associated people, and more, you don’t need all of that stuff. In fact, the more of it you use, the more time it takes to get the task in your system.

When you assign a due date to each task and sort by due date, you have one list containing everything you have to do, and it is ordered by when you want to see it each again. To move a task higher or lower on the list, change the due date. It’s that simple.

Search is King 
One of the huge advantages of a digital list is its ability to search, and any good list is going to have that feature. When John comes walking in the door unexpectedly, searching the list for “John” provides a list of every task you need to discuss with him.

When phone calls are added to the list, using the word “call” in the task (Call Jim, Call Mary, Call Bob, etc.) creates a powerful capability. If you want to see every phone call to make, searching for “call” returns a list of every phone call in order by due date.

Repeating Tasks Rock 
How many tasks do you have in your professional or personal life which need to be completed about the same time every year, every month, or every week? Instead of trying to remember them all, add them to the list and use the repeating task function to have them come back to you at just the right time.

When you can see all of your choices, you make better choices. Let’s construct our own “menu” starting today. See how much better your choices become.
New posts will continue to appear on this site for the remainder of June. After that, continue to enjoy new material at

Friday, June 27, 2014

Staying Focused

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Are Interruptions Driving You Crazy?

InterruptionsIn these disparate environments—cockpits and hospitals and IT workgroups—the right behaviors did not evolve naturally. Nurses weren't “naturally” given enough space to work without distraction, and programmers weren't “naturally” left alone to focus on coding. Instead, leaders had to reshape the environment consciously. With some simple tweaks to the environment, suddenly the right behaviors emerged. It wasn't the people who changed, it was the situation. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

The above paragraph is taken from Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. The chapter is entitled "Tweak the Environment" and the subject is interruptions and their impact on performance. Statistics show that we are interrupted, on average, every eight minutes. Not only do we lose time due to the interruption itself, but the time to recover, to regroup our thoughts, and get back into the flow of our work can often take more time than the length of the interruption itself.

To make the problem worse, we live in a world that gives us more and different ways to interrupt each other. We carry phones in our pockets and whip them out when it is convenient for us. We give little thought to what the person on the other end of the phone call might have been doing before the phone call interrupted it. Leaders profess the merits of an "open-door policy" and at the same time bemoan they can’t get anything done due to non-stop drop-in visitors.

Let's face it, to get anything done, we have to have uninterrupted blocks of time. I have written before in this space how we can each carve uninterrupted time for ourselves. But what if you or I are the leader of the organization? What if we are in a position to tweak the environment?

Is email a help or hindrance in the culture of your workplace? If everyone is expected to check email constantly and respond ASAP, expect little work of real value to be accomplished. If, on the other hand, email is used instead of drop-in visits, email becomes a time-saver. We can check and respond to email with the ebb and flow of the day instead of responding to whoever appears at the door.

Are meetings being held simply purely for the purpose of making announcements and random information? One well-worded page can often replace a three-hour meeting. Are meetings called on the spur of the moment, teaching everyone in the office that constructing a plan for the day is an exercise in futility? 

My background was educational leadership. I witnessed numerous schools where intercom announcements were made randomly throughout the day. The result was each of those announcement interrupted learning in every classroom in the building, all for the sake of administrative convenience.

Likewise, parents, family friends, and salesmen often wanted to “visit” teachers who were busy teaching students. While each visitor wanted “just a minute,” they failed to realize that “just a minute,” multiplied by the 20 students in the room, has just turned into “just 20 minutes.” Factor in the amount of time needed to recover from the “just a minute” of interruption, and an entire lesson is easily derailed.

When someone else is in charge, we are at his or her mercy to protect our time. Good policies and practices will protect our time and allow us make significant progress on worthy projects. Poor policies and practices fragment our days and try our patience.

Every good thing we do for our students is done through the dimension of time. Preventing interruptions helps us get the most out of the time we are given. Protecting the time of our colleagues helps them be more productive. We can and we must "tweak the environment." The right behaviors are then sure to follow.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Organizing Your Students

Organization is a gift that wise teachers give their students, and it is a gift that is useful long after the goodbyes are said in May. In Organization Made Easy!, we devote an entire chapter to organizing students.

One of the central topics is the use of student planners. While some schools have adopted and then left the idea, we explore the subject in enough depth and emphasize the follow-up that is needed from teachers to make the tool work.

We also look at habits and techniques that increase productivity and decrease stress for students:
  • Writing it down
  • Breaking goals into little parts
  • Getting the book bag empty daily
  • Learning to deal with papers
  • Getting everything ready the night before
  • Organizing the locker
  • Using the "one-binder" method
You can order your copy today. Use coupon code IRK95 at checkout for a 20% discount.

New posts will continue to appear on this site for the remainder of June. After that, continue to enjoy new material at

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Amazing, Time-Saving Way to Fold T-Shirts

Folding t-shirts is not something that would normally draw my interest. This video clip from Lifehacker, however, was so easy to follow that when it worked the first time, I was hooked. Grab a t-shirt and follow along as you watch.


Did it work? If you are like me, when the hold thing fell into place, I was amazed. I will never go back to folding t-shirts the old way again!

Incidentally, the video you see in this post was produced on a site called Tube Chop. The original video I viewed is located here. It talked about several different subjects, but I was only interested in showing you the segment on folding t-shirts.

I highlighted the URL, went to Tube Chop, and pasted the URL in the blank provided. The site allows you to choose the starting and ending points. Once you have made a decision and "chopped" the video, Tube Chop provides both a URL and an embed code for the clip. Give it a try the next time you want to use just a portion of a YouTube video.

New posts will continue to appear on this site for the remainder of June. After that, continue to enjoy new material at

Monday, June 16, 2014

Are You a Pinterest User?

If you are a Pinterest user, have you looked at my boards? Check out The boards are built around "The 5 Keys to Organization & Time Management." You will see a board devoted to each of the following:

  1. Handle the Papers
  2. Signature Tool
  3. Repeating Tasks
  4. Managing the Incoming Flood
  5. Handle Multiple Projects

In addition, you will find boards for these subjects:

  1. Technology
  2. Speaking and Coaching
  3. Books Worth Reading
  4. Human Greatness
  5. Music

The majority of the images are drawn from my blog posts. Click on the image, and you will be taken to the corresponding blog post. So, if you are interested in handling multiple projects, click on that board. You will see images from posts related to that topic.

Feel free to re-pin items of interest to your own board so that those who follow your boards will be able to enjoy the posts as well.

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Friday, June 13, 2014

The One Question to Ask

You are never at a loss for things to do. The piles of papers, sticky notes around the perimeter of the computer monitor, and notes scrawled across numerous legal pads are monuments to the demands on our time. We know we can only do one thing at a time. Yet, we surround ourselves with everything we have to do. We cannot fully focus on what we are doing because of the all of the constant remembers of what we are not doing.

to-do listLet's face it, at the end of the day, most of the papers that are lying around today will still be there tomorrow. Some of them will be buried even further down. Much of it represents things you had no intention of doing today anyway. In many cases, you couldn't do them. Here is a folder you need for the meeting on Tuesday. This folder needs to go with you when you meet with Mr. Smith on Thursday.

Sure, you could put it all away somewhere. But what happens on the day you need it? Will it still be tucked away wherever "somewhere" is?

If you are surrounded by too much to do, there is only one question you need to ask about all of it: "When do I want to see this again?"

I have written often about the benefits of tickler files. Start picking up those random pieces of paper and files that are lying around. Ask the question of each one, "When do I want to see this again?" Put it in the tickler files for that day. The folder you will need for Tuesday's meeting goes in the file representing Tuesday's date. The papers you need for the conference on the 17th of the month go in file number 17. When you start removing the papers on which you cannot act, the ones on which you can act begin to stand out.

Take the same approach with the "to-dos" written on the backs of envelopes, random napkins, sticky notes, and floating around in your head. Put them in a good digital to-do list (I like Toodledo). Take each item and ask yourself, "When do I want to see this again?". Enter the item on your digital to-do list and give it a due date corresponding with when you want to see it again. Keep the list sorted by due date. On the day you wanted to see that to-do, there it will be.

You can't do everything today. So get real about your commitments. Ask yourself, "When do I want to see this again?" and use your system to make sure that you do.

New posts will continue to appear on this site for the remainder of June. After that, continue to enjoy new material at

Monday, June 09, 2014

How to Procrastinate Effectively

The title of the post is taken from a chapter title of an old time-management nugget. Time Power (1987) by Dr. Charles Hobbs, is one of the hallmark books on time management. Since its publication, much in our world has changed, due to technology. The concept that procrastination can not only be good, but is essential, is one which still rings true.

Time-management literature is full of articles on overcoming procrastination. Each one tells us how to avoid "putting off" our tasks. Authors portray it as a practice to avoid. Procrastination, however, is a friend for those who strive to get the right things done and get them done at the right time.

Procrastinate on your email
Let your email accumulate during the day. Handle it all in one batch at mid-day and again in one batch at mid-afternoon. As people begin to see your responses coming within the day rather than within the hour, you will receive fewer emails with inquiries the sender could have handled with a Google search or five minutes of thought.

You will begin to see little "batches" within your email. For example, work for one of my major clients normally results with several emails each day from teachers around the state who have questions about their data. To respond intelligently, I consult a spreadsheet housing a password for each school district, access one particular website, and with that password, log into that school district to view the data in question. That set of emails goes much quicker when I open the password spreadsheet once, access the website once, and handle those several emails back-to-back.

If you work with a large group of employees, your email will likely include items which seem to follow the same theme, such as questions regarding a recent communication. You may find you can fashion one response to handle them all.

Procrastinate on placing phone calls
School administrators are easier to catch after school. Procrastinate on making calls to them and handle however many you have in one batch.

Procrastinate on reading 
I would include in this category books, magazines, your RSS feed, and social media. During the day, you will find yourself with odd blocks of time: waiting at the dentist's office, sitting in the audience waiting for the concert to start, arriving early for a meeting and waiting for the other participants to show up. Having a supply of low-priority tasks which can fill the gaps turns potentially wasted time into productive time.

I read my RSS feed during those odd moments. While standing in line at the grocery store, I open Feedly and read the items from the blogs to which I subscribe. What I read there is certainly more beneficial that skimming the racks at the checkout aisle. Reading my Twitter feed happens at these odd moments.

When magazines arrive in the mail, I throw them into a decorative wooden letter tray. When I check books from the public library, I put them there also. I procrastinate on reading them. When I leave the house, I always throw some reading material in the briefcase.

Procrastinate on some writing
I am writing this post while sitting in the audience at a concert band festival. After the performance of each band, considerable setup for the next group is needed, leaving small blocks of time for audience members. I came with ideas for five different blog posts and hoped to write those five during the "breaks in the action."

Jason Womack talks often about his practice of keeping blank note cards in his briefcase. After meeting Jason the first time, I received a hand-written note a few days later.

Procrastinate on those items which need to "bake"
Some projects simply need time for more thought and maturity before being launched. Additional, helpful information comes at the most unexpected time from unexpected sources.

Need to buy a car? Procrastinate on the decision to purchase and you will be surprised at how many reviews of your desired model show up, how many friends you see driving that model, and how many dealerships have that model at bargain prices.

Actually, all of that information was probably already available. Now that you are in the market to purchase a car, information which you would have unconsciously filtered out is now the information on which you focus.

Procrastination frees time
When those things which are best done later are out of the way, you "clear the deck" for the things which are best done now. After all, doing what you should be doing in the order you should be doing them is what time management is all about.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Job Hunting? Could You Spice Up Your Resume Like This?

Over the years, I saw many resumes and received many phone calls from people looking for teaching jobs. Some are more innovative than others. This one, got my attention...

No, it was not one sent to me. You can view this one, view some similar ones, and read about the project on Presentation Zen.

The video is entertaining, but it's also food for thought. Whether it's finding that first teaching job, or trying to break into administration, I ask those who come to me for advice one question, "What makes you different from all the rest?" It's a question applicable not just within education. Every field is looking for those who stand out from the crowd, those who can look at the same problem as everyone else and see the opportunities nobody else see.

Maybe we can't showcase our uniqueness in a video such as this, but identifying our own special qualities and communicating them is essential, regardless of the job we want.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Motivational Slideshow

Thanks to Phil Gerbyshak for this collection of motivational quotes.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Preventing "Overwhelm"

One principal who helped mentor me described the end of the school year as “…like being on a sled going down a steep, snow-covered hill. Things just get faster and faster and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just try to avoid running into a tree.” We forget just how much hits us until it arrives. The end of the year just seems the logical time to bring closure to just about any activity you can name. Everyone is trying to clear up everything all at the same time. Work shows up faster than we can possibly get it done. Without intervention, next year will be no different.

As the year comes to a close, we would actually like to enjoy it. Everything we have worked for all year long is now blooming. How nice it would be to savor the moment instead of feeling the stress of so much to do in so little time!

It doesn’t all have to be done right now.
Some of what is on our plates could wait until the dust settles. Our fear is that by the time we actually have the time, those good ideas will have been forgotten, so we try to cram it all in while things are fresh on our minds. Three simple tools allow us to take those worthy tasks and carve a place for them in our future. One more gives hope that we could prevent this onslaught next year.

The Tickler File
There are the physical things which are lying around in the form of papers and files. Their physical presence serves as reminder of the work to be done with them. Every time we look at them, we are distracted from the task at hand. That’s where the tickler file comes to the rescue. We have a pretty good idea of when the dust will settle and life as normal will resume. Drop those papers in the tickler file for that time. They will resurface exactly when you have decided you wanted to see them.

The Signature Tool
There are the mental things rolling around in our heads. Every one of them screams “Don’t forget to…!” yet still we forget. Those things which could be done later compete for our limited attention with those things which much be done now. Our signature tool, be it paper or digital, is the answer. Pick a date when things will be more settled. Write it down or key it in. Either way, you have earned the right to forget about it. It will come back on its own, and it will do so on exactly the date you had chosen.

The Repeating Task List
Some of the avalanche is caused by other people. Some of it, we likely have nobody to blame but ourselves. It seems as soon as life settles down in June, we forget the feeling of overwhelm and what we might have done to minimize it.

The world of education is a cyclic world in which many of the same tasks and same projects repeat every year. Some of what we are doing in May could have been done in March, if only we had thought of it in March. You can structure a system which will cause you to think of it in March, or at any time you choose. I have spoken often of the value of the repeating task list, a simple tool which allows us to think of something one time and then let our system remind us at just the right instant.

Finishing teacher observations, scheduling next year’s dates, grading mountains of make-up work, or taking inventory of our equipment are just a few examples of the tasks which need not be left for the mad rush of mid-May. If all of what we are trying to fit into a small window of time was actually written down in one place, we would instantly realize that we have set ourselves up for failure and begin to do something about it.

Master these three tools and watch your productivity go up and your stress level go down:
1. Tickler File
2. Signature Tool
3. Repeating Task List

End the Insanity
Mid-May is a terrible time to fix the problems of mid-May. June is a perfect time to lay the plans and implement the procedures that will make next May the perfect end of a perfect year.

Our two greatest problems are gravity and paperwork. We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.
— Dr. Wernher Von Braun

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why "That's the Way We've Always Done It is a Myth"

When you or I question a practice that seems to defy logic, the answer is likely to be, "That's the way we've always done it." The response shifts whatever blame there may be to some unnamed person at some unnamed time in the past. The response also indicates no thinking is going to go into whether or not what has been done in the past is the best course for the future.

Time Management At best, "That's the way we've always done it" is only partially true. Consider the story of the young girl helping her mother prepare Easter dinner.

Before placing the ham in the oven for baking, the mother cut off both ends. “Why did you cut off the ends of the ham?” asked the daughter.

“That’s the way my mother always did it,” was the reply.

The daughter quickly vanished. In moments, she was on the telephone to the grandmother verifying whether or not what she had been told was true. The grandmother replied that she did, indeed, always cut the ends off the ham. When asked why, the grandmother replied, “That’s the way my mother always did it.”

As fate would have it, the next week brought about a visit from great-grandmother. Overcome with curiosity, as young children often are, nothing would do but to pose this same question.

“Great Grandmother, Mommy always cuts the ends off her ham before she puts it in the oven. Mommy says she does it because that’s the way Grandmother always did it. Grandmother says she did it because that’s the way you always did it. Is it true, Great Grandmother? Did you always cut the ends off of the ham?”

“Yes, indeed, my child, I always cut the end off the ham” replied the elderly woman.

“But why?” asked the young girl.

Holding her hands about 12 inches apart, she replied, “Because my pan was only this big.”

Decades ago, Great Grandmother was confronted with a set of circumstances. Her pan was not large enough to accommodate the ham. She came up with procedures to handle those circumstances. She did the best she could with what she had.

What if we were to confront today's challenges the way Great Grandmother in the story confronted hers? What is we did the best we could with what we have? What we have keeps getting better, meaning what was "best" back then is far from "best" by today's standards.

What if we re-framed "that's the way we've always done it" to embody a standard of quality rather than a particular act? I imagine we would spend more time challenging outdated practices, more time learning the tools at our disposal, and less time carrying on with practices which worked in a bygone era.

If we look to the past for examples of doing the best they could with what they had, we also throw down the gauntlet to generations to come. We issue the challenge not to mindlessly carry on as we did, but to build on our accomplishments.

Our circumstances change. Our procedures must change with them. Our ancestors understood that. Do we?

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Does Email Make Us Stupid?

We have research that shows email makes us stupid! A study done in Great Britain, conducted back in 2005, found that email lowers our IQ by 10 points. Hewlett-Packard commissioned the study which found that the constant interruptions of email, instant messages, and cell phones temporarily lower a person’s IQ. The 10 point drop is more than double the IQ dip associated with smoking marijuana—a mere 4 points. Since that study was commissioned, we now have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other diversions competing for our time.

Is it really email that is the culprit? I certainly don’t think so, at least not when email is used correctly. Email can be one of the best tools we have going for us. We ignore it and take care of other business. At some point in the day, we turn our full attention to our email, handle every message, and get “in” to “empty.”

On the other hand, there are those who check their email constantly to see if anything new has arrived. They read and re-read messages without ever making a decision about what needs to be done with any of them. Their in-boxes grow with each passing day. Productivity drops; stress rises.

Ending the Insanity
You can take control of your email. These steps show you how:

  1. Check email only once or twice a day. If you check your email throughout the day, you will never get out of your email. You respond to people only to have them send you a follow-up on the same subject. You wind up playing "email ping-pong," and the exchange would be better handled with a 2-minute phone call.
  2. When you handle email, handle it all. Start at the top and open the emails one at a time. If it needs a response, respond. Outside of that, you can only do five things with that email. Read this post to see what those are and how to handle each case.
  3. Learn how to send emails to your to-do list. Many emails sit in our email because they embed vague reminders of things we need to do. The better digital systems allow you to forward an email to your to-do list. The subject of the email becomes the subject of the task, and the body of the email appears in the note section of the task. I composed this post on how this concept is handled in Toodledo.
  4. If you use Gmail, turn on the Priority Inbox. Gmail offers another option. It's been around since 2010 and works quite well. It's called "Priority Inbox." Priority Inbox presents all of your emails on one screen, but segments them into three groups. At the top are the emails Google has determined are important. At the bottom is a section Gmail calls "everything else." In the middle is a space where emails you have "starred" are grouped. That segmentation gives me all I need to see what might need my attention first or may need considerable time to handle, and what can be handled quickly and with no time deadline. This video demonstrates the concept of the Gmail Priority Inbox:

Gmail learns which emails are important using criteria such as which ones you open and which ones you reply to. If Gmail makes a mistake, you manually mark an email as important or not important. In the future, Gmail will treat emails from that sender according to those preferences.

If you are a Gmail user, you can turn on Priority Inbox at any time. If you are using the new tabbed inbox, you can change to Priority Inbox. On the left-hand side of the screen, mouse over the "Inbox" label and click the drop-down arrow which appears. From the menu, choose "Priority Inbox."


On your mobile devices, go to the Gmail app. On the settings, tap on your email address. Select "Inbox type" and then "Priority Inbox."

Our challenge is to be sure that our technology makes our lives easier, reduces our stress levels, and functions as the wonderful servant it can be. Technology can trap those calls in voice mail, quietly hold those emails until we choose to handle them all, and beautifully organize our to-do lists so that our minds can engage in creative thought.

Technology—a valuable tool or terrible distraction? As technology becomes increasingly important in our culture, we had better determine its function.

What are the challenges that you face with email? 
What solutions have you found?