Sunday, January 31, 2010

If I Had One More Hour Every Day...

During my workshops, I like to ask participants to finish this sentence:

"If I had one more hour every day, I would..."

I ask this question because the concepts from the workshops, if implemented, will save at least an hour a day. In many cases, the amount of time could be far more.

Usually, workshop participants write their responses on slips of paper. During the "Managing Digital Data With Ease" session during Virtual AETC, participants keyed their responses in the comments box. Here is what they had to say:

If I had one more hour every day, I would:
  • Sleep
  • Spend with my family
  • Sleep
  • I'd realize how far behind I actually was
  • Pray
  • Spend time with family and prayer
  • Rest
  • Do laundry-- 3 kids under 8
  • Relax
  • Have quiet time
  • Clean my house
  • Mark more things off my list
  • Spend it will my daughter
  • Spend time with family, read
  • Play with my dogs
  • Spend it with friends and family
  • Rest and spend time with family
  • Clean my filthy house
  • Volunteer more
  • Sleep
  • Relax and enjoy family
  • Have quiet time
  • Give myself a little more time
  • Rest
  • Play with the kids
  • Sleep
  • Spend more time with family and friends
  • I would attend more virtual conferences
  • Play more golf
  • Read
  • Enjoy family and friends
What about you? If you had another hour every day, how would you spend it?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Of Givers and Takers

After reading the post entitled "Keeping the Fire Alive," Dave Sherman added this comment:

...I have come to a crossroads in my own blogging. I am transitioning from a school district owned blog to my own personal blog so that I can write about more than just school related topics. I am struggling a little with this because does anyone really care about my interests away from education, and should that matter to me? Do we blog for ourselves or for others?...
- Dave

Dave's question is a pretty significant we blog for ourselves or for others? I just hope my answer remotely approaches being as good as the question.

We blog for ourselves
For centuries, people have kept diaries in which they have recorded their private thoughts, thoughts for their eyes only. There seems to be something about the act of writing our thoughts on paper that clarifies those thoughts in our own minds. If I am forced to write it in such a way that it would be understandable to someone else, even if that never happens, then I am forced to make it understandable to me.

There is also a permanence about putting those thoughts to paper. They never change. We can revisit them, and in essence, step back in time for a brief moment. Later, if we choose to share those thoughts, the diary's many entries paint a portrait of who we are and who we hoped to become.

Today's blogs afford us that same opportunity with the added benefit of access from anywhere, ability to add media, and no chance of dropping it in a mud puddle or leaving it on the counter at the grocery store checkout.

We blog for others
By nature, we are interdependent creatures. Our society has reached its present level of advancement not because we are smarter or more resourceful than our forefathers. Instead, we are able to begin where they left off and lay the next layer on the foundation they have built. We have been the ultimate takers, reaping the benefits of their work.

On a personal level, any of us who have experienced success in the various arenas of our lives can surely point to someone else who made the road easier. Someone saw in us potential worth nurturing and went out of their way, doing what they did not have to do, to help spin straw into gold. We took very freely from their wisdom.

If balance is to be maintained, we must move beyond being takers and also be givers. We all have something to share, something to give back, and someone somewhere who has a need which matches perfectly with our gift. Our blogs offer an easy way for us to become givers.

Does anybody really care?
Perhaps the toughest part of blogging is knowing whether or not what we do makes an impact on anyone else. Of course, the same could be said of other venues. I am reminded of a workshop conducted years ago for a group of teachers, none of whom I knew at the time on a personal level. Nine years later when one of them became a close friend I was told, "You changed my life through that workshop." The feedback makes all the difference, and it is that element that tends to be missing.

We must write as if what we say does matter, because that's the only way that it will matter to us or anyone else. At the very worst, our blogs provide for us an outlet for our own creative juices. At the very best, they just might be changing lives, even in subtle ways, for people we may never meet. And in that delicate balance between being givers and takers, we may see ourselves begin to hold up our end.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Today on the Eye on Education Blog

Earlier this month, we asked the question, "How did you make today count?" This same post is featured today on the Eye on Education Blog. To read that entry, click here.

On Change

Our society talks about change. Business books love to talk about change. Our new President even ran on a platform of "change we need."

In a wonderful book I recently read entitled Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers, the author included the following quote that goes so eloquently to the heart of why change is so difficult:

It's not so much that we're afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it's that place in between that we fear . . . . It's like being between trapezes. It's Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There's nothing to hold on to.

—Marilyn Ferguson in The Aquarian Conspiracy

One of my favorite quotes addresses that "in between," that space between trapezes, and that brief moment when we are without our security blanket:

When you come to the edge of all the light you know, and you are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.

—Barbara J. Winter

Comforting words in uncertain times.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Forget the Answer. Do You Know the Question?

Our world is moving forward at a blinding pace, and technology is leading the charge. No matter where we are on the continuum of "tech-savviness," there are those who look to us as being the "tech guru" while we are awed by others who are so much farther down the road than we are. Those who can solve the problems and find the answers are essential. There is, however, another group who is as valuable--if not more valuable. They are the ones who ask the right questions.

Perhaps the most memorable of these experiences happened some 20 years during a talk with the school system's transportation director. Those who work in small school systems wear many hats, and Jim was a prime example. He began to show me the paperwork nightmare that was his system for keeping up with field trips. Calendars with multiple pieces of paper stapled to them littered the desk. Invoices had to be typed at the end of each month for each school listing every field trip taken and the amount owed. In the midst of lamenting about his paper avalanche, Jim asked the question that overnight changed that transportation system.

"Frank," he said as he glanced at the AppleIIGS sitting across the room, "is there any way the computer can help me?"

Jim knew little about computers, and at the time I knew even less about transportation. However, Jim was able to describe the kind of information he needed. It would be a conversation which would have long-lasting effects on both of us.

The next day, I was back in Jim's office with a database I had created on AppleWorks. The input screen was designed to parallel the paper request forms that were submitted to him. Input, thus, was made so simple he could delegate it to an assistant. Jim could simply assign drivers and then view reports which would show him information by date, by driver, or by school. Best of all, the labor-intensive task of typing end-of-the-month invoices was now a simple matter of running one report. What had previously taken hours now took less than a minute.

For years, that school district ran its transportation system from that simple database. Along the way, Jim found shortcuts. That tends to happen when average folk like you and me start to sit down and actually use technology. We get better. Eventually, we get very good at it.

Twenty years later, the names have changed, I have changed school systems twice, and technology has improved dramatically. The essential elements are still there, however. We still need people who can solve problems. And, we still need people who can ask the right questions.

My former school system came a very long way in terms of moving from paper housed in filing cabinets to digital creations housed on its intranet. Spreadsheets I designed locally began to receive statewide use. Above all, we were doing it all with minimal staff and with tools that practically everyone already had at their disposal. The key to it all is that we had a few people who have been around technology long enough to appreciate the promise it holds. When confronted with a problem that involves data or copying information from one place to another, their first thought was to ask the same question Jim asked 20 years ago.

"Dr. Buck, is there any we could get the computer to..." That's a question that those who have worked closest to me tend to ask frequently. "Yes" is the answer they tend to get, and then I can get busy figuring out how to do it.

We need those who can find the answers. But first, we need those who can identify the questions.

I am beginning to understand that we can never find an answer to a question which has not been asked. Whether we are good at finding the answers or good at asking the questions, we can all play a valuable part in the bigger game, provided we choose to play at all.

What questions in your environment have gone unasked for too long? What role can you play in asking them? What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Becoming a People Person

Recently, a friend told me about a conversation she had with a principal who had just read Get Organized! The principal had this to say:

When I accepted the job as principal, I envisioned myself as being a "people person." But, it just hasn't worked out that way. The paperwork and other demands of the job have kept me so busy there has been no time for people. This book is going to allow me to be the "people person" I had hoped to be.

At first, I thought the comment was strange. Get Organized! says very little about people skills. It's a book about organizing paper, digital information, and time. It is about the stress relief that happens when all of your responsibilities are housed in a comprehensive system. But a book about becoming a people person...?

Actually, the comment is right on target. For the last 10 years, I have opened most every workshop with this poem:

Good-bye, Sir, excuse me, I haven't time.
I'll come back, I can't wait, I haven't time.
I must end this letter--I haven't time.
I'd love to help you, but I haven't time.
I can't accept, having no time.
I can't think, I can't read, I'm swamped, I haven't time.
I'd like to pray, but I haven't time.
--Michel Quoist

The poem illustrates the time pressure we all face. Furthermore, the poem makes clear that those things which are pushed aside for lack of time are often the real treasures of life. Get Organized! was written to help the school leader flourish in a profession and in a world where the time demands so greatly exceed the available time. The strategies in the book conservatively add an hour to every day, and probably much more than that.

What do we do with the time we save? The book is silent there. That answer must come from the reader. During this summer's workshops, I began having participants respond anonymously in writing to this question:

If I had one more hour every day, I would...

At the end of the workshop, I read those responses aloud. As a people, we really do have ideas for what we would do if we had more time, and those responses are as varied as the personalities and interests of the people in the room.

For some, another hour a day would mean time to exercise, time to spend with children, time to resurrect that old hobby, time to learn a new hobby, or for this one reader...time to spend with the people in the building.

Whatever it is you wish to do, whatever noble service you will perform for your school, your community, your church, and whatever good you will bring to your family or yourself...all of it will be accomplished through the dimension we call time.

If I had one more hour every day, I would...

How will you answer that question?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Success Story

I received this from a participant in a recent Get Organized! workshop:

Dear Frank,
I recently purchased a Day-Timer as my signature tool. Now I don't go anywhere without it; I use it all the time. My family is currently going through a major bathroom remodel. Keeping up with the carpenter, electrician, tile people, and plumber has been made easy with the handy Day-Timer. I keep daily notes and jot down all of my appointments. It's also convenient to have a small phone directory at hand. The Day-Timer also has calendars through 2014! So many times, my co-workers and I would be looking for a calendar. From now on, I am taking my "signature tool" to all meetings.
I plan to make my tickler file before school begins. Right now I'm focusing on completing the bathroom remodel.
Thanks for all of the wonderful, useful ideas!

The signature tool is something that works, as this teacher illustrates. Having one tool that keeps it all in front of us makes life easier!

Monday, January 25, 2010


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. Two 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 depending upon whether you system is paper or digital. 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 on 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 able to 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. What can you do now to prevent the insanity of this coming May?

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

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Anything Worth Doing... worth doing well. worth doing poorly.

Which way did you expect the sentence to end?
Which one is correct?
Could both be correct?

A quick internet search revealed that others have put a twist on the old adage, "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." Most notably, Zig Ziglar tells us, "Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly until you learn how to do it well."

This subject seems particularly on point when we talk about the use of technology in the classroom. I remember vividly how much technology was transforming the administrative aspects of my job twenty years ago. A spreadsheet served as my gradebook. A database kept track of all of the music in the band's library. Word processing software held all of the documents I was producing.

Since that time, technology has become cheaper, better, and more accessible. That being the case, many in the teaching profession speak of "not being able to turn on a computer." Others who may be able to handle some of the administrivia of the job on a computer hesitate to use technology in their teaching. I believe the root of the problem goes back to one simple thing: We must be willing to something poorly in order that later we will be able to do it well.

We get good at what we practice. When our tools consist of a piece of chalk and a chalkboard, we become good at conducting a lesson that way. Given a digital whiteboard or document camera, we would find ourselves fumbling. Why go through that? Why not stick with that which is comfortable?

In the short run, sticking with the familiar pays off. After all, learning something new takes time, and time is in short supply. "Someday," we will learn to use technology. Days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months. We wake up one day and wonder where the last ten years have gone.

Technology is a time-saver when used well. Technology makes things easy. There is one caveat: We have to be willing to make mistakes as we learn. We have to be willing to deal with some frustration at first. We have to be willing to ask questions and get outside of our comfort zone. We have to be willing to do it poorly, at least at first.

Some people are not willing to go through the process of being bad on the way to being good. I fully realize that we could substitute any term from "ice skating," to "fly fishing" in place of "technology" and we would have a valid argument. Just about anything in life that is worth doing takes some degree of skill in order to do well, and skill comes with practice, and practice takes

What is it in your life that is worth doing yet you have not devoted the time? Why have you continued to say "no" to devoting the time necessary to developing it? What else could you say "no" to in order to say "yes" to this area of your life? Maybe that area is using technology in the classroom. Maybe it is something else. Whatever it is, if it's worth doing, it's worth doing least at first.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
--Leonard Cohen

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I Love You. Now What?

The October issue of Fast Company included an article by Dan & Chip Heath entitled "I Love You. Now What?" They argue that while businesses have an efficient means of handling customer complaints, they are generally lousy when it comes to making it easy for customer compliments to get to the right people.

Examples the Heath brother cite include the compliment you have about the meal that will never make it back to the cook. The note you write about how much you appreciate the extra-deep automobile cup holder will never be read by the engineer who actually designed it. The article goes on to highlight the effects that expressing gratitude have on the giver, and that one point alone makes the article well worth reading. It can be found here.

The sentence that struck me most was, "What is your company doing to let gratitude blossom?" Perhaps an even more pointed question for each of us is, "What am I doing to let gratitude blossom?"

The article spotlighted an idea from American Airlines, pre-printed "Applause" cards given to frequent flyers who had reached "elite" status. The customer, provided he happened to be carrying the card with him, could write a quick note and hand it to any employee who had demonstrated a praise-worthy act.

The idea American Airlines idea is interesting, but do we really have to reach any particular status or be given a set number of special cards in order to do basically the same thing? Anywhere I go, I always have a few business cards with me. It takes only a few seconds to jot a note on the back of one of them and leave it on the table for an especially good member of the wait staff or ask someone to pass the card note along to the chef or whoever needs to realize that their talents have been appreciated. Charles Hobbs, author of Time Power would call that "throwing golden bricks."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Today on the Eye on Education Blog

Earlier this month, we looked at an easy system for documentation. Today, that post appears on the Eye on Education Blog. To take another look, click here.

Time Management and the Art of the Juggler

Looks like they stole a page from my playbook...

Page 75 from Get Organized!: Time Management for School Leaders:

"You can stay on top of multiple projects. At times, you may feel like a juggler. In a way your role in handling multiple projects and the role of a juggler are much the same. A juggler keeps a number of balls in the air by giving each one a little attention on a regular basis. The juggler knows just how many objects are in the air, where each one is, when attention is needed, and how much attention is needed. We need to know exactly the same thing about each of our projects."

Check out this commercial for the Palm Pre:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

When Will I Get It All Done?

If you are like me, you look at your to-do list and ask, "When will I get it all done?" At what point will we get up one morning and see that there is nothing on the list? More importantly, if that list was blank, would that be a good thing? Would if represent freedom? On the other hand, would it represent a life for which there is no longer a purpose?

To understand the point, let's substitute the term "restaurant menu" for "to-do list." When I go into a restaurant, I am presented with a lengthy menu. A large menu selection is a positive trait. Am I going to order everything on the menu? Of course not. Even if I visit that restaurant a dozen times and order something different each time, I will still not have tried every choice on the menu.

Ordering everything is not what a menu is for. It is not something to be "finished." It presents choices for me, enjoyable choices. The longer the menu, the more things I won't choose. The longer the menu, the greater the chance that what I do choose will be delicious! I won't eat everything, but I like the fact that the menu puts it all in front of me.

I walk into a library. There is no way I am going to read everything from the vast array of books that occupy that building. But that's not what a library is for. It presents me with wonderful choices. The organized way in which books are shelved and the comprehensive card catalog provide me a total picture of my choices.

We can view our to-do list as something that must be finished, or we can view it as something to be enjoyed. I propose that the attitude we take toward the length of our list may well shape the quality of what we put on it, and in turn, the quality of our lives.

If my aim is to finish the list, then my temptation is to add only those items which can be finished quickly. I will limit my goals. I will resist adding items to the list, looking at each additional item as an enemy standing between me and a list that is "done."

I can take another view of the list. I can view it as a place to trap all of the worthwhile opportunities that I can't take advantage of at this very moment. It is the menu that lists 50 different varieties of cheesecake. I will eat one today, but I sure would like to keep a list of the other 49 for the next time I am hungry for cheesecake. It is the library which houses all of the classics. I can only read one at a time, but I am glad the shelves house many more, because I will be back.

The older I get, the more I realize that I will never "get it all done" and neither will you. With all of the opportunities that are available to you and to me in this great age in which we live, to be able to "get it all done" means we must ignore the mere existence of a wide array of wonderful choices. What a sad existence that would be.

The length of my list is a testimony to the wide variety of interests I have, my thirst for knowledge, and the overall outlook that tomorrow will be better than today. As long as there is a healthy list of opportunities, there is a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to "seize the day," and an attitude that when the night comes, I can say that I did something to make today count.

When will I get it all done? I hope the answer is never!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's Not Working? What Would It Take to Fix It?

Conveniences are all around us. From microwave ovens to electric pencil sharpeners, we have an abundance of tools that make our lives easier—provided they work. What a handy tool we have in that electric stapler—only it doesn’t work because it’s out of staples. How about that empty tape dispenser in your desk drawer?

This week, I challenge you to look at what’s not working in your world and do something about it. The electric stapler sits unused because it’s out of staples and you haven’t refilled it because you are out of (or can’t find) more. You have been meaning to order more but you keep forgetting. The next time you think about needing staples is—you guessed it—when you go to use that stapler and find it’s still empty.

As you come across these little annoyances, take a second to decide what needs to be done to fix it, and jot it in your signature tool. Don’t put getting staples on the list for today. Instead pick a day about a week out and start a list of little items to get. A week from now, you can handle that whole list at once.
Fixing the problem is the first step. The second step is deciding how to avoid the problem in the future. Think about this one—at your house, when do you decide you need to buy toothpaste? Is it when the tube runs out and you realize there are no more under the counter? Or, is it when you take the last one from under the counter. In the first case, you have a minor crisis—you need toothpaste NOW. In the second case, you just need to put toothpaste on the grocery list and go on about your business.

Ask yourself the same thing about supplies in your classroom. Do you order more when you are OUT or when your reserve is low? What about textbooks? If a new student enrolled tomorrow, would you have books for him? If not, why not go ahead and put in a request now, so that when you DO get another student—and you will—that you are prepared. You own 7 umbrellas, yet you never seem to have one in the car you when a downpour occurs. What could you do to fix that problem once and for all?
What else in your classroom doesn’t work? What about that regular pencil sharpener where the handle has been loose for 2 years? What would it take to fix that? You have two desks that are awfully wobbly. What would it take to fix them? Realize this is a thought process that seldom occurs to most people. Too many of us simply get so used to all of the things in our lives that don’t quite work that we soon stop thinking about them anymore.

Have you cleaned out your desk lately? If not, put it on your to-do list. Out go the pencils with no points, the dried-up ink pens, the empty packs of Sweet & Low, and a host of papers that never should have been there to start with. You will be amazed at what you find there that you had no idea you had.
Why do people resist thinking through what it takes to fix the little broken things? I think the answer lies in that thinking through what needs to be done creates a long to-do list for people who already have too much to do and try to keep up with all of it in their heads. For those of us who have a “signature tool,” life is easier. We take a second to jot down what needs to happen. We organize our list in a way that groups similar items together. Then, we handle that whole batch all in one sitting.

Get all of those conveniences in your life working and watch some of the stress in your life go away.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Leadership and Management

In the October 2008 issue of Principal Leadership (page 21), Doug Reeves addresses the topics of leadership and management:

Well, I think we have to be very careful about avoiding the false dichotomy between leadership and management. Whether you're talking about the leader of a large, complex school system or the leader in a classroom, all sorts of routines and protocols--plain old garden variety management--have a lot to do with allowing us to be successful and creative. I think that people see that there's a divergence between creativity and visionary leadership at one extreme and dull old management on the other.

My argument is, you don't get to do the creative and visionary work, whether you're a teacher or a superintendent, without having attended to the nuts and bolts of time management, people management, project management--getting the right things done in the right order at the right time.

Leadership and management, then, are not mutually exclusive. The second is a necessary element of the first. I have said many time that every good thing thing that we do for our schools, our familes, or communities, or ourselves is done through the dimension of time. Manage time well and the possibilities are unlimited. Manage time poorly and everything becomes more difficult.

Monday, January 18, 2010

In a Million Words or Less

A new school year begins every August. If you are a parent, what is it that you want the teacher(s) to know about your child? If you are a teacher, what is the best way to learn about the students who come through the door?

Pattie Thomas, principal of Raymond L. Young Elementary (Talladega, AL) shares with teachers throughout her school system a vehicle which she used as a teacher. I invite you to read about her yearly ritual in this post. The idea is so simple that it actually works! It offers parents an opportunity to compose something that may well be meaningful for a lifetime. It provides the teacher valuable information to help him/her connect to the child and the home.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Play from Your Strengths

Over the several years, I have become quite a fan of John Maxwell's writings. His positive message wrapped in beautiful prose make reading his books a delight. The point I focus on today is from Maxwell's The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.

At one point in the book, John Maxwell discusses strengths versus weaknesses. In the book, he suggests:
  • Focus 70% of your time and energy on strengths
  • Focus 25 % on new things
  • Focus 5% on weaknesses
Maxwell suggestion is simple: Play from your strengths. Furthermore, it echoes the message of virtually every leadership and management book I have read lately. As just one example, in The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker talks of making strengths productive, and doing so in such a way that it makes weaknesses irrelevant.

Playing from one's strengths is opposite from what we are often encouraged to do...especially in education. Our typical evaluation system is designed to identify our weaknesses and lead us through the formation of a plan to shore up those weaknesses.

Certainly I am not in favor of overlooking flaws which significantly hinder performance. Ignoring strengths while continuously focusing on weaknesses, however, is a formula for mediocrity.

What about the weaknesses? Can they be delegated to someone else who has some strengths in that area? Can you "swap out" and handle for someone else an are where you are strong and he/she is weak while the other person does the same for you? Does the weakness necessarily need to be addressed at all? If the impact is not terribly negative, ignoring it may be the best alternative. Generally, the areas where we are strong are also the areas where we like to spend time. The reverse of this point is also true. Playing from your strengths is not only more productive, but more enjoyable.

I think Maxwell is correct. We should spend the majority of our time honing those areas which are strong.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Simplicity Allows People to Act

The November 2007 issue of Fast Company included an article by Dan & Chip Heath entitled, “Analysis of Paralysis.” The essence of the article is captured in the sentence which ended the article’s first paragraph: “Simplicity allows people to act.”

I find that when I look at to-do list, I gravitate to the tasks which are easy to do, and you probably do as well. We like that which is simple and easy. When complexity and ambiguity set in, we procrastinate on that activity and choose something which presents a little more clarity.

Perhaps the answer is to make everything simple and make everything clear. The paradox is that some work is required in order to make things easy. The work consists of thinking a project all the way through from beginning to end. The work consists of figuring out all of the steps as well as knowing when it may not be possible to know all of them. Furthermore, keeping all of the notes and documents related to that project neatly organized takes some thought.

The good news is once we have structured a system and are willing to spend a little time keeping it clear, the rest becomes easy--incredibly easy.

Imagine looking at your list and knowing in which order to tackle the items and exactly how to proceed on each one. How simple that would make your day. Simple enough, you would actually act.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Get Organized--10 Take-Aways

The National Middle School Association has asked its presenters for a list of "10 Take-Aways" from their presentations. At first glance, to try and reduce several hours of well-chosen material to 10 points is tough. I must admit, however, the exercise was eye-opening. Summing it all up in 10 points forced me to look not only at tools, but to look at principles which emerge again and again regardless of the tool. I have often said that if I go to a workshop and come away with one point that is life changing, I would consider my time well spent. To be able to offer people 10 of them makes me realize the importance of the material and its relevance to the world of today and what's coming tomorrow.

So, here are the 10 Take-Aways for my participants:

  1. An educator's world is complex and becoming more so with each passing year. Staying on top of all of our responsibilities requires a system.
  2. We do what is easy; therefore, our system must be easy.
  3. "Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now." Thank you, Alan Lakein!
  4. Make the decision, "When do I want to see this again?" and put it in your system so that you do. However, your system should allow you to answer the question, "What if I need to see it before then?"
  5. Tickler files keep your desk clean and ensure that papers resurface on the desired date.
  6. A digital signature tool allows that which arrives digitally to stay digital. It offers the advantages of portability, shareability, and searchability.
  7. Education is a cyclic business. Getting good at identifying repeating tasks makes life easier.
  8. Documentation is easier than you think.
  9. You can be a master at follow-up. The "bookmark" system shows how.
  10. Stress is feeling the whole world is caving in. Organization is keeping all of the balls in the air by giving each one the right amount of attention at the right time.
Look for this post later today on the Eye on Education Blog.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Feedback for Improved Teaching

As a teacher, one of the best self-help tools for me was to tape record a class every now and then and then simply listen to it. We are always going to be our own worst critics, so if we can get to a point where we are pleased with what we hear on the tape, it will probably come across as GREAT to ourkids. Many of my teachers will recall my making this suggestion on an individual basis in a post-observation conference. I never have to ask someone if they have taken me up on that suggestion; it's very obvious in later observations.

I was reminded of this point recently in this short essay. In it, author Steve Pavlina suggests going a couple of steps further--video taping yourself and getting feedback from other people.

I will never forget a certain class my junior year in high school. It was the first day for the brand-new student teacher to conduct a class. Within the first few minutes, it was painfully obvious that she had a few verbal "tics." It seemed every sentence started with or ended with "you know." (Some sentences started AND ended that way.) Add to that a bushel of "OK" and a peck of "and-uh," and before you know it, all my friend Darrell and I could do was count the verbal "tics."

The smiles, suppressed laughter, and glances back and forth between Darrell and me did not go unnoticed. And the end of the class period, this student teacher asked us what we were doing, and we showed her the paper with the tally we had been keeping. The use of "OK" numbered over 70 all by itself, and that was just in a 45-minute class period.

What happened next is what makes this story from almost 30 years ago memorable. Rather than being angry or hurt, this student teacher asked us if we would run that same tally each day for a while, and we agreed. Within two days, this young teacher had virtually eliminated all of the vocal tics even without the help of audio or videotape feedback.

For veteran teachers, "routine" becomes "rut" unless there is a guiding force to shape improvement. Without the feedback, we only become more and more like ourselves. As veteran teachers, we also have the ability to step out of a rut and lay new tracks. The feedback we can give ourselves through audio, or as this author suggests--videotape, is an easy and significant step.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Little Things are Big Things

One of the most rewarding experiences of my career has been mentoring those who are going down the same road I have traveled. That opportunity presents itself once again as a close colleague was recently appointed to a principalship literally overnight. During the past week, I have spent some time each day at the school in an honest effort to give this principal the kind of support that every new principal deserves yet few receive.

Seeing my colleague in action serves as a reminder of the challenge the principalship brings and the tools needed to meet that challenge. Input comes from all directions, often at the most unlikely of times. Even lunch is fair game. The requests for the principal’s time and attention are, by in large, little things. The challenge comes in handling the sheer volume of them. Now, more than ever, I am convinced that the “signature tool” is the secret to making things happen while maintaining sanity.

The “signature tool” can take many forms. It can be paper-based, such as a notepad, a loose-leaf planner, or a legal pad. It can be digital, such as a Palm or BlackBerry. Whatever form it takes, the signature is always available, must be quick, and must be easy to use. It is that trusted partner who never forgets anything and holds everything in one place. Over time, the appearance of that tool gives confidence to the observer that what is being talked about at the moment will not fall through the cracks. That little tool becomes unmistakably linked to accomplishment.

Over the last several days, a goodly share of the talk between me and my friend has included that particular idea. How and where will she record all of the requests, all of the ideas that strike while walking down the hall, and all of the positive activity that is happening in a school which already does so many things so well? How will she trap all of those “little things” while staying focused on the task at hand? We discussed the pros and cons of entry directly in the BlackBerry, initial entry on a notepad, and even the use of reQall.

During my most recent visit, a teacher walked into the principal’s office and in words which obviously came from the heart, began by saying, “I just want to tell you how much all of the little things you are doing means,” and went on to tell of how word of little things getting done was spreading into the community.

Doing little things, and doing them well, is a big thing. Virtually every task we perform is insignificant when viewed alone. Knit together, those small accomplishments move mountains.

My friend and I set up a voice mailbox, imported scores of repeating tasks into Outlook, devised needed forms, and ironed out all sorts of organizational details which will later save time for the entire faculty. Our work, however, was interrupted numerous times…by children. A child came to read to the principal, another came to show off her artwork, and another simply needed a little morale boost. This principal stopped and spent time with every one of them. A couple of minutes here. A couple of minutes there.

Little things, yet big things. Big things in the eyes of a child. Big things in shaping the direction of a school. Big things in defining a leadership style for a new principal.

I came away that day with the distinct impression that “a good place to learn and grow” just got a little better.

In the end, it is the attention to detail that makes all the difference. It's the center fielder's extra two steps to the left, the salesman's memory for names, the lover's phone call, the soldier's clean weapon. It's the thing that separates the winners from the losers, the men from the boys, and very often, the living from the dead. Professional success depends upon it, regardless of the field.
--David Noonan

Note: This post originally appeared exactly two years ago today. Since that time, this school has flourished under the leadership of its principal. The 80-year-old building has never looked better. The philosophy of providing a well-rounded education is pervasive. Stakeholders of all sorts have pulled together to provide the resources needed even in the leanest of financial times. A school that calls itself, "A Good Place to Learn and Grow" continues to get better every day.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Using Spare Minutes

In the last post, we talked about carving out chunks of time, allowing us to focus on something of worth. Drucker talked about being able to accomplish little with "dribs and drabs" of time. Life happens, however, and often leaves our days broken into fragments. Sometimes "dribs and drabs" are the only vehicles through which we can move forward. The ability to use those spare minutes allows us to reclaim time that would otherwise be wasted, sometimes resulting in fairly large amounts of time.

This post is one such example. On the day I composed it, my former school system was in the midst of a professional development day. My role was to circulate from school to school and observe the training that was happening at each site. I knew ahead of time that my day would be spent sitting and watching. For that reason, I started the day by scanning my to-do list for items which could be done while I watched the various trainings. Writing a post on using spare minutes was actually one if the items. I grabbed a piece of paper, and off I went.

Everyone probably thought I was taking notes on the training being observed. I was, in fact, giving a goodly portion of my attention to the training. At the same time, I was writing this post, which I completed in its entirety to later be keyed into this blog.

Other items I noticed as I scanned my list were phone calls which could be made quickly. Between visiting schools, I was able to place these several calls from my BlackBerry while in the halls.

Reading material is always a good source for filling spare minutes. I have a section of my brief case reserved for reading materials. When magazines arrive, I throw them in there along with any book I happen to be reading at the time. When there is any chance that I will have down time, I either grab the briefcase or at least pull some of the reading material from it.

Nothing beats chunks of time. When life breaks those chunks into tiny fragments, choosing the right tasks can turn "dribs and drabs of time" into productive minutes.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Drucker on "Focus"

Cell phones ring, visitors drop in, e-mail comes rolling across the screen. Maintaining focus can be a challenge, and the challenge is only becoming worse in this age of constant and instant availability.

One of my favorite books is The Effective Executive by management guru Peter Drucker. Despite its 1966 copyright date, it remains a hallmark book on time management. One of my favorite passages is this one:

"To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive, therefore needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks. To have dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours." (Page 29)

While opportunities to fragment our day increase, the fact remains that nothing of much worth is going to be accomplished without some degree of focus. How can we create the "chunks" of time in an age that so desperately tries to fragment our lives? Below are five suggestions:

  1. Allow things to "pile up" and handle them in one group. This technique applies to such things as e-mail, voice mail, and the U.S. mail.
  2. Stay ahead of deadlines. When we bump up against deadlines, we are invariably causing problems for other people. Naturally, they call, e-mail, and drop by for a "status report." Staying ahead of the game eliminates the need for others to "check up" on you, and provides more time to focus on the project at hand.
  3. Visit other people on your own time schedule. If drop-in visits from the same few people are a problem, drop in on them first. In this way, you are doing it on your schedule. As a principal, I made it a point to be in the halls before the start of school and circulate through the building. If a teacher had a quick question, my presence coming down the hall provided the perfect opportunity. Those quick interactions in the hall reduced the number of interruptions throughout the day.
  4. Plan your work, and make it easy. We interrupt ourselves. We often do so by turning from the difficult job at hand to some diversion that is easier and more fun. To combat that temptation, make what is at hand easy, and hopefully make it fun as well. Break the overwhelming goal down into manageable tasks that are clearly worded. All too often, the to-do list contains items which have rolled from day to day simply because they are ambiguous. Clear up the ambiguity by making decisions and asking questions.
  5. Group related tasks. Grouping applies to more than e-mail and voice mail. When a few quick face-to-face meetings are needed, handle them all in a group. Go from one person to the next as you make your way through the building. Do the same with errands. Once you get in the car, go from one to the other.
When our work is easy, interesting, and fun, there is less temptation to succumb to the interruptions in our lives. Focused or fragmented? It's a choice. Nobody is going to protect our time. That one is up to us.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

E-Mail Makes Us Stupid??

We now have research that shows E-mail makes us stupid! A study done in Great Britain found that e-mail lowers our IQ by 10 points. Hewlett-Packard commissioned the study which found that the constant interruptions of e-mail, 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.
Is it really e-mail that is the culprit? I certainly don’t so, at least not when e-mail is used correctly. E-mail when used properly is 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 e-mail, handle every message, and get “in” to “empty.”

On the other hand, there are those who check their e-mail 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-box grows with each passing day. I don’t doubt that their IQs drops and their stress levels rise.
Likewise, the cell phone can be a blessing. You can make calls from anywhere. The problem is people can track you down anywhere and at any time. (We have probably all had the experience of being in the restroom and hearing the phone ring in the next stall.) That’s where technology can become a curse.

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 e-mails 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 ever increasingly central in our culture, we had better determine its function.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Getting from "In" to "Empty"

Let's look at a daily practice in each of our loves. You walk to the curb and take the mail from the mailbox. When you walk away from that mailbox, it is empty! Better yet, it’s not empty just one day; it’s empty at the end of every day. Wouldn’t it be great if only your e-mail inbox operated like the mailbox by the curb?

Decisions, Decisions 
The key to getting an empty inbox is to simply make decisions about each and every item there. Therefore, make a practice of only looking at your e-mail when you have the time and energy to make those decisions. You are going to need to go from top to bottom and make small decisions at each turn.

It Much of your e-mail requires no action on your part other than briefly scan it and hit the delete key. Candidates include advertisements in which you have no interest, jokes, threads from e-mail discussion groups, and FYI courtesy copies. I find it helpful to sort the e-mail by “conversation.” All mail related to a single subject appears together. If the subject is of no interest, I delete the entire thread at one time.

Do It 
Some e-mails require only a quick response. I recommend giving that response immediately and then deleting the mail if it is of no further value. What if the response is going to take some time, and possibly some research? In that case, I send a quick response to let the person know I received the message and will be getting back with them. Using Outlook, I drag the e-mail to the Task icon, assign a due date, and change the subject line as needed. I then delete the e-mail.

Schedule It 
If the e-mail talks about somewhere I am supposed to be on a certain date and certain time, that information belongs on the calendar. I drag the e-mail to the Calendar button, which creates a new appointment. Adding a date and time, and then saving puts the appointment on my calendar. I still have access to all of the details in the e-mail. They show up in the note section of that appointment.

Delegate It 
Perhaps someone else really needs to be handling this message. I forward the message the appropriate person. I want to be able to follow-up on whether the person performed the delegated task, so I create a reminder by dragging the e-mail to the Task button and creating a due date so that I see it again on the date I have chosen. Now, I delete the e-mail.

Save It 
What if the information may be of lasting value? I can save the e-mail by going to the “File” menu and choosing “Save As.” I am able to choose the appropriate place on my computer. If the e-mail is something I need to save for documentation purposes, I go to the “Memos & Letters” folder I have created in “My Documents.” I name the file with the author’s last name, a hyphen, and a few words descriptive of the subject. I choose to save the message as a text file. After saving, I can then delete the e-mail. Perhaps the e-mail is a lesson plan. I would then save it with other lesson plans already stored electronically.

“In” Becomes “Empty” 
The point is that a decision is made about each piece of e-mail, and that decision is made the first time the message is read. The basic decision is in which category a message falls: Delete, Do, Schedule, Delegate, or Save. After handling each item, “In" soon becomes “Empty.”

Friday, January 08, 2010

Holiday Letters from the Future

Setting long-term goals has always been an important theme in time-management literature. Personally, I guess I have always had some individual goals. What has been missing seems to be having that total picture of what my life would look like a year, two years, or five years down the road. That missing link came into focus three years ago. It happened by added a new twist to a well-established practice.

For many years, my wife and I have composed a holiday letter which we enclose in the cards sent each December. The letters recap the events of the past year so that friends who live in other parts of the country can keep up with what we were doing. The letters also serve to help the two of us reflect on the year just passed.

It was in January three years ago that I did something simple that turned out to be very powerful. One afternoon in January, I wrote the holidays letters for each of the upcoming three years. I wrote them as if those years had already passed and were now being recounted to friends. This act forced me to write with the same level of specificity I have always used to recount the past year.

I saved the letters and reviewed them each month. Every month those thoughts were being presented to me. Once a month, I was being reminded of the direction in which I hoped our lives would be headed.

When December arrived and I sat down to write the actual holiday letter which would be mailed, the similarity between what I wrote back in January and what had actually come to pass was remarkably similar. Consciously, I had done nothing differently. Subconsciously, quite a bit was different.

Every day presents little choices that move us either closer to our desired future or farther from it. That once-a-month reminder seems to be making a difference for me. I offer this one simple idea, "Holiday Letters from the Future" for your consideration.

Look for this post later today on the Eye on Education Blog.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

How Many "Ins" Do You Have?

Life used to be simple (or so we like to think). Those who worked in an office had an “in” box. When the in-box was empty, you were up to date! The organized teacher could adopt the same idea. Incoming paper went in the box. Phone messages were jotted on slips of paper and dropped in the box. Ideas could be jotted on a scrap of paper and dropped in the box to be handled later.

In the “old days,” work did not show up in many places. Check the mailbox at home (and dump the contents into your in-box at home). Check your mailbox in the teacher’s lounge and dump the contents into your in-box at school. When you saw the bottom of the in-box, you could relax. Getting “in” to “empty” was the name of the game.

Getting “in” to “empty” is still the state you want to achieve. What has changed is how many “ins” you have. Before you can get a handle on everything that calls for your attention, you have to first get a good idea of just how many “ins” you have. Ask yourself if you have:

…a mailbox at home for U.S. mail?

…a box at school where your receive mail and paper messages?

…voice mail at home?

…voice mail at school?

…voice mail on a cell phone?

…e-mail at home?

…e-mail at school?

...e-mail on a smartphone?

…more than one e-mail account at either home or school?

…a notepad that lives by the phone that must be checked?

…a fax machine that must be checked?

…a bulletin board at school where information is posted?

…a school website where information is posted?

…a legal pad where you take notes during meetings?

…a memo pad in your pocket?

…a brief case or purse that collects papers?

You may have more in addition to what is listed above. I ask you to sit down with pencil and paper and list the “ins” that you have. Use this list as a starter. Before you can organize all of your “ins” and have any hope of getting them to “empty,” first you have to know where they are.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Just Say "No" - Custom comment codes for MySpace, Hi5, Friendster and more A little more than a year ago, I presented a breakout session for the Alabama Staff Development Council Convention. As we talked about how to organize the task list to get the most done in the shortest amount of time, one participant asked, "Is it OK just to not do something?"

What a great question, and what an important question! The answer is not only "yes," it is OK to leave certain things undone, it is essential. Today's world presents unlimited choices and finite time. We could easily spend all day watching YouTube. One diversion blends into the next and all of them are "nice."

There is nothing wrong with a little diversion, but I think there are two important points to be made:
  • We must recognize when we are engaged in diversion
  • We must recognize that if important tasks are not being handled, minimizing what does not need to be done in the first place is a prime place to start recouping some time.

Take a good look at your to-do list. Is it longer than you would like? If the answer is "yes," start looking at what could simply be eliminated with no harm being done.

This sentiment was echoed by Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, in his keynote at last year's National Middle School Association national Conference. Collins advocated having a "stop doing" list.

Examining your to-do list will help in another way. When you realize the volume of what you have on your plate, you are less likely to take on trivia.

When we say "yes" to one thing we are by definition saying "no" to something else. In these busy times, let's make sure we are saying "yes" to the right things. Learning to say "no" to the others is a good place to start.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

How Did You Make Today Count?

Anyone who knows me well knows how much I value a comprehensive set of repeating tasks. Instead of hoping I think of things at the right time, I structure a system that insures I will think of them at the right time.

I have a repeating task which shows up on my BlackBerry each day. It reads, "How did you make today count?" That one question stares me in the face every evening. That one question forces me to think back over the events of the day and be honest about the way I used a very special gift. That one question helps me focus and compare how my day was spent in contrast to the vision I have for the future.

I have for some time adopted the practice of noting on my calendar the answer to that question. For me, it is sort of a "mini-diary." It also serves as a compass.

How did you make today count? It is a sobering question indeed, at least for me. Perhaps the knowledge that I am going to have to answer that question when the day ends works on my subconscious from the time the day begins.

As you read this post, I invite you to join me in answering this question for yourself:

How did you make today count?

Monday, January 04, 2010

I Do It When I Think About It

How often do we hear someone talk about performing a routine task “when I think about it”? The corollary for that one is when the task goes undone, the excuse is likely to be “I didn’t think about it.” We hang up the phone after talking to Sam for 15 minutes and then remember the 3 things we really needed to ask. We think about the application we need to submit the day after the deadline. We wake up at 3:00 A.M. thinking about needing to buy ketchup. The next day we walk right past ketchup at the grocery store without a clue. If only we could think about things at the right time.

Let me pose this question: When is the last time you thought about chocolate ducks? My guess is that you have not thought about chocolate ducks in a while. Yet, what are you thinking about right now…? Yep, that right—chocolate ducks! A simple trigger caused you to shift your attention, even if for a brief moment.
In all seriousness, I believe that all of us do things when we think about them. The challenge is to develop some type of mechanism which causes us to think about them at the right time. Car manufacturers understand this concept and build in a little chime to indicate the fuel level is low. That mechanism causes the driver to think about getting gas at the exact point the tank is approaching empty.

Cooks understand this concept and set timers to cause them to think about taking the cake out of the oven at just the right time. Merchants buy air time so that their commercials can remind us right at the peak of the gift-giving season of the products they sell.
Some people seem to always be doing the right thing at the right time. Others are continually letting things slip through the cracks. What is the difference?

If it is true that I do things “when I think about it,” then the magic becomes developing a system which causes me to think about it at the right time. Yet there is one more crucial step. The real magic is making that system easy enough that I will sustain it not for a week or a month, but for a lifetime.

Countless times during the day, responsibilities come my way which cannot be handled at that moment. What I can do is trap that thought before it escapes. That reminder likely goes straight into the BlackBerry or Outlook worded clearly enough that its meaning will be understood weeks later. If the ideas are flying and the exact task is hazy, my journal traps the conversation and I flesh out the “to-dos” at a more quiet time later in the day. Or, when obligations or thoughts come “on the fly” as I am walking down the hall or sitting in traffic, the memo pad I carry in my shirt pocket traps the basic idea.

What I can do is look at everything I have trapped during the day, make decisions about when I want to see each task again, and word them clearly in my signature tool. Now, everything I wanted to think about today is going to appear on the list for today. All I have to do is look at it. If I need something more, adding an alarm to any appointment or task causes me to think about it at the precise time I need a reminder. One of the beauties of organizing with a digital tool is that when Sam calls unexpectedly, quickly keying “Sam” in the "find" command on my BlackBerry or in Outlook brings up a list of everything I wanted to talk to Sam about.

We live in a world that is potentially filled with stress. In February 2003, Fast Company magazine referenced data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that 80% of our medical expenditures are now stress related. The National Mental Health Association estimates that 75-90% of all visits to physicians are stress related. Tools as simple as a memo pad or as complex as a smartphone combined with a strategy for how to use them can relieve a good bit of unneeded stress.

Those little tools serve as our personal assistants and remind us at just the right time of our meetings, the gifts we have to buy, the reports we have to write, and even the chocolate ducks we might like to see on an Easter morning. All the while, we are able to focus and be fully present in the moment. Carrying that smartphone or memo pad, and developing the discipline to use it, is a small price to pay for the freedom from stress that it brings.

A very good friend who proof-read the original draft of this post asked, “Did you write this with me in mind?” I was a little surprised, seeing as how this person is someone I view as being one of the most having-it-all-together people I know. The question did let me know that this message is one that probably speaks to us all at some level. Somehow, it clicked for me my senior year in high school and has made all the difference ever since. Perhaps it will click for someone else today.

We do it when we think about. That’s our nature. We just need an easy system, one that runs constantly in the background, does our remembering for us, and nudges us at the right moment. As we begin a new year that holds so much potential for each of us, can there be a better time to adopt a simple tool and simple system which will allow us to unleash some of that potential?

Sunday, January 03, 2010

An Easy System for Documentation

Habits take about a month to form. The habit of writing things down as soon as they arrive is the single biggest time management and organizational tool, as well as a great stress reliever. Going one step further is the question of WHERE to write it. For those familiar with the Day-Timer, I want to focus on the right-hand page, the page called “Diary and Work Record.” Franklin-Covey has a similar page.

This page is meant to take the place of the memo pad by the phone, the grocery list by the refrigerator, the back of an envelope you grab to jot a phone number, and the Post-It notes that decorate your desk. Here are some examples of what you might find on that right-hand page:
  1. You get a call from a friend inviting you to a party. While he tells you the particulars of the day, time, what to bring, and directions on how to get there, you jot it all in one place—today’s right-hand page. When the call is over, you can close the book and resume doing whatever it was you were doing, trusting that all of the information has been captured in your planner.
  2. You order some materials over the phone. The right-hand page is where you jot down the name of the person you spoke with, his/her extension, the order confirmation number, any discount you will receive, and other information you might need later.
  3. You normally go to the grocery store on Saturday afternoon, so Saturday’s right-hand page is the place to make the grocery list. Every time you think of something you need, flip to Saturday, jot it on the right-hand page, and close the book.
  4. You have a conference scheduled with a parent. Every time you think of something you want to discuss, open the book to the day of that conference and enter it on the right-hand page. You are building an agenda as you go. During the conference, take notes on the right-hand page.

A quick review of that right-hand page at the end of the day is vital in keeping the system alive. Look at what you have written throughout the day on today’s right-hand page and ask yourself, “What does this mean to me?” or “When will I need to see this again?”

The first example was an invitation to a party. When you look at those notes at the end of the day, that will be your cue to flip to the appropriate day in your planner and note the party on the appropriate time slot. You also see from your notes that there are a few items you are to bring. You flip to Saturday’s page and jot on the right-hand page a couple of items you need to buy at the grocery store.

On the day of the party, how are you going to remember what to bring? How are you going to remember how to get there? Here is the real magic of that right-hand page—being able to go right back to information exactly when you need it. Let’s say the conversation about the party happened on May 10. As you review your notes at the end of the day, you will not only turn in your planner to the day it is going to occur and write “Party” by the correct time slot, but you will also put out beside it this—(5/10). Anything in parentheses in your planner tells you, “Go to this date for more information.” When its time to get ready to leave for the party, that little note that says (5/10) tells you to look back in your planner to May 10. Now you are right back at the notes you took. You are looking at a list of what to bring and directions on how to get there!

We have talked about taking notes on the right-hand page when placing orders by phone. When the call is over, your documentation is over. At the end of the day, you look at your notes and ask yourself what would be a reasonable amount of time to allow for the order to arrive. You flip ahead in your planner and in the to-do section, you write “Acme (5/10)”. When that date arrives, that entry sends you back in your planner to May 10, the day you placed the order with the Acme company. When you call to check on the order, you have the phone number with extension, the name of the person you talked with, confirmation number, and all of the information you need at your fingertips.

We all know that documentation is important. It’s about time we had a system that was easy enough that we would actually do it!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Choosing a Signature Tool

We have all been to workshops where we heard some good ideas and had full intentions of implementing them. When we leave the workshop and step back into our lives where things are coming at us from all directions, so many of those good intentions go by the wayside.

The best minds in the area of professional development keep telling us that for things to "stick," there has to be follow-up and time to practice. That's the whole reason for establishing this blog. This is a place where we can review material from the workshop. It also gives me the opportunity to bring these ideas to people I would never meet face-to-face.

If I could isolate one idea as being the most important from the workshop, it would be that of having a "signature tool" that does your remembering for you. That tool could be a Day-Timer, a legal pad, a notepad in your pocket, or a smart phone. Any of them work provided: 1) you have your signature tool with you all the time; and 2) you have formed the habit of writing down that appointment, to-do or idea immediately.

The idea seems simple, yet so many people ignore it and try to simply hope they will remember it all. While we may have gotten by with this approach as late as our college days, it simply doesn’t work in our busy day-to-day lives. We wind up with sleepless nights wondering what we have forgotten, or waking up in the middle of the night remembering what we forgot to do.

Others write things down but do it on any scrap of paper at hand. With pockets full of Post-Its and various slips of paper scattered everywhere, putting our hands on the telephone number of the salesman we spoke with last Tuesday is impossible.

What will that “signature tool” be for you? Make a decision on that. Make sure it is something that will hold your calendar items—that is, things that happen at a specific day and time. Make sure you have room for your to-do list. Also, you will need a place to write down ideas or notes from meetings and phone conversations.

Forming a habit takes about a month. So, for the next several weeks having that capture tool handy and using it will be something you will force yourself to do. After that, habit takes over, and you will begin to notice a good deal of the stress in your life will start to vanish.