Imagine this scenario. It is 5:40 PM, you are on your way home from work. It is your turn to cook but you have to pick up your daughter from after-school by 6:00 PM. As you pull into the grocery store, you realize you have ten minutes to shop. You stride in and start pulling things from the shelves into your cart. Your phone beeps, it is an email message from your boss asking about an unfinished task. You start thumbing in a reply on your phone when you think it might be easier to just call. Phone stuck in one ear, you push your way through the aisles grabbing vegetables, meat and bread. As you pull up to checkout, you thankfully hang up on your mollified boss when you realize you forgot the pasta. Apologizing to the checkout clerk you dash back pull some boxes of spaghetti off a shelf and zip back to the checkout avoiding the glares from the annoyed shoppers in line behind your cart. As you pull out into traffic you realize you are now late to pick up your child. Having narrowly missed a fender bender and a possible speeding ticket you pull up at the school ten minutes later. Your heart skips a beat when you see the anxiety on your child’s face as she holds a teacher’s hand.
This could happen to any of us, note that the narrative about the protagonist is gender neutral. Unplanned lives lead to chaos. We live in the age of information overload, distraction and having to do more with less. Those fantastic smart phones that bring the world to your fingertips don’t help either. As the CEO of a rapidly growing business I only half-jokingly call myself the “Chief Everything Officer.” I probably wear more than a dozen hats in the company and these duties make serious demands on my time, seven days a week. Many evenings, as I wait for my kids to finish a class, I find myself at a McDonalds armed with coffee and my laptop “catching up” on numerous tasks.
Until such time as the robots take over, our workloads are not going to ease off. So how do we get everything done and still retain our sanity? Based on years of living it, I have come up with a simple 4 step process called CPOP.
I am the king of checklists. The hard drive in my brain can only handle so many things. I therefore have checklists for everything – work, personal, groceries, movies I want to see, books I want to read, even the “things I want to do in life.”
- Start your day with a checklist, an inventory of the things to be done.
- It is possible you may have some items left over from yesterday.
- Pick your own method of checklist creation. Some people use a note pad. I use Google Keep which stores the checklists in the cloud and can be accessed from a browser or app.
- If you maintain checklists on different scraps of paper or stickies that is self-defeating. Have a single master checklist (of your work items) that is always accessible. This could be in a notebook you carry or your favorite app.
- As you get things done cross them off the list and add new ones as they arise.
P – Prioritize
Not everything is equally important. Some items are easier to do than others and some are complex. It is important to follow the 80/20 rule – to determine which 20 percent of activities will yield 80 percent of the results. This will help bring you nearer to your goals for the day. I prioritize any opportunity to generate revenue or propel the growth of the company at the top and any opportunity that costs a lot of money and does not immediately impact to growth sinks to the bottom. All the items on your checklist can be ranked by importance (impact to the company, drives revenues, client satisfaction, employee morale, improves our reputation, etc.) and immediacy (client has an urgent request, an employee is waiting on something to be done by 5:00 PM today, tax returns are due tomorrow, etc.)
There may be items that are important but not immediate, and items that are immediate but not important. In general, important and immediate items should be at the top of your checklist. If you can’t figure it out, ask your boss for help with prioritization. If a higher up hands you a task to do, always ask:
- When is it due? (immediacy)
- What is the priority? (importance)
Once established, map the priorities to your checklist.
- If it is an app like Google Keep you can drag and move the item up or down and re-order the list.
- On paper, you could label your items as A, B, C, with A being the highest priority.
- Sometimes I add an extra-large * to show that this item is very important with high impact to the company.
Prioritization is also dependent on your job function. I shared my priorities above but it is important to remember that one size does not fit all.
O – Organize
As you get ready to execute on your prioritized checklist, get all the needed “stuff” together to complete that task. Having a hot pan on the stove and searching for ingredients or seasoning is a great way to create a burnt mess or worse, burn down the house.
- Allocate time to each task item and compartmentalize.
- I use my Outlook calendar to define each task as an “event” and set time spans for each task (I even used to mark “eat lunch” so that function got taken care of). Outlook will remind you when the next task event comes up.
- My calendar often looks like “compartments” or coaches on a train, one behind the other.
- Multi-tasking is not something the human brain does well. Focusing on one task at a time means your brain power and time are focused on finishing that task.
- Sometimes you may not be able to finish a task in the time allocated or you may have to wait on a colleague to do some part of it. Pause it, move on to the next task and come back to it later. If it is not crossed out, it still has to be done.
P – be Productive
You made your checklist, prioritized it, got everything organized and compartmentalized but then a colleague wants to ask something, an email pops up or you get a phone call. There is no shortage of distractions.
- The key to success is focus and discipline
- Put up a sign that might say “do not disturb, genius at work”.
- Phones can be muted. Instant Messages can be ignored (for the moment)
- Do not check your email every 2 minutes. Email is a productivity destroyer. A task called “check and reply to emails and IMs” can be on your calendar once every two hours. Let people know not to expect an immediate response to emails (unless you are a help desk person).
While working on one task compartment, do not worry about another task in another compartment.
There is nothing more gratifying than wrapping up your day with a host of items scratched off your list. When I get in my car for the drive home, I always ask myself if I did anything to further the growth of the company. A positive answer is usually proportional to the amount of checked off items on my list.
Now let’s revisit the scenario we began with. That morning as you created your CPOP list, you added an event to your calendar at 5:30 PM called “pick up groceries.” Shortly thereafter is another recurring event at 6:00 PM called “pick up kid”. In anticipation of the grocery event, you had created a separate personal checklist on your phone of the items to buy (or maybe the super-efficient you did it last night while watching TV). You walk into the grocery store, dropping items into your cart as you checked them off on your checklist app. Your phone beeps with an incoming email which you ignore. You finish five minutes earlier which is good because Google tells you there is extra heavy traffic on the way to the school. The time cushion is enough to quickly call your boss and yet have you pull up at the school on time. Your whole day was worth the beaming smile on your daughter’s face.
Happy CPOP, work hard, play hard, live life to the fullest.