Sunday, July 8, 2012

Time Management in the 21st Century

The primary purpose for planning is to get results by controlling events.

Over the years, I've learned how to plan to forget everything that I need to do and organize in a way so that I could afford to forget.

The key is to organize my tasks so they are either self-prioritizing (we never forget to wear our shoes to work) or ensure that they come in front of me at the appropriate time. This seemingly simple advice took me a long time to master. But, now that it's a habit that makes for relaxing evenings since I can free my mind from work. 

Que Sera, Sera

I come from a rather casual family. I like to use the term, "Neapolitan," to describe my New York Italian upbringing. In simple terms, this means that my family was always late to events, or, rather, we considered 90 minutes late to be on time.

When I was 18 years old I joined the Marines. The Marine Corps obviously had a different philosophy about timeliness and tardiness. Being late was a crime known as UA (AWOL). "Hurry up and wait," was the norm as well as other axioms such as, "To err is human; to forgive is divine. Neither of which is Marine Corps policy."

Two events from my time as a Marine helped me refine my time management skills.

Write It Down

When I was a corporal, we were getting ready to make an amphibious landing, during an exercise, after spending two weeks aboard ship.

Technical aside: We were testing out new military equipment which we could use to set up simple, secure, chatrooms. It was nothing more than a specialized piece of hardware that could interface with an encrypted military radio system (PRC-77 and KY-57) using Procomm software that was very popular in the pre-TCP/IP world of the mid-1980s.

While preparing for our amphibious assault, I had packed up the equipment and then, unbeknownst to me, another Marine had placed it on a chair and slid it under the desk to tidy up our workspace. Instead of making a list of materiel to bring ashore, I just glanced around the desk and saw that there was no visible equipment - I completely missed the fact that the laptop and communications equipment were tucked under the desk on the chair.

When we got ashore and discovered that the comm gear was missing I received a nice reaming from my captain.

Lesson #1: Write it down.

Plan It Out

About seven years later, when I was a first lieutenant, I was deployed with a MEU made up of four ships sailing for the Persian Gulf. While in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I was supervising the transfer of supplies from one ship to another - known as cross-decking. To make a long story short, the supplies didn't get palletized in time to make the scheduled helicopter.

Lesson #2: Plan It Out.

Get Results

As a Marine supply officer I was responsible for ensuring that we tracked all of the equipment in our battalion - after all, it was entrusted to us by the U.S. tax payer. This process was accomplished using a cryptically named procedure referred to as the quarterly CMR reconciliation.

Since I, working in the supply warehouse, didn't have day to day control over, say, the rifles in the armory or the Humvees in the motor pool, we'd ensure that these items were tracked by a specific person, designated in writing, known as the Responsible Officer (RO). We had about a dozen CMR accounts in our battalion and, once a quarter, we'd task the RO to physically inventory each item within 15 calendar days as per the Marine Corps Order (at the time, deadline extensions were not allowed).

The problem is, even with the ROs best intentions to complete the inventory, on time, the CMRs were rarely completed by many ROs within 15 days for a host of legitimate reasons. Although this wasn't my responsibility, it would always come back to bite me, later, when our records were inspected annually.

I tried a variety of techniques to improve this process. One option was to have the RO sign a letter of intent that the inventory would be completed within 15 days. But, when the CMR still wasn't done on time (again, usually due to circumstances beyond our control) I was stuck with the same "ding" on our inspection. Another option was to get the CO or XO involved in the process, each quarter, but that still didn't work.

Of course, we could have backdated the CMRs - formally known as fraud - but we never did that. I'd rather take the hit on the inspection.

After trying a host of different techniques, we finally found one that worked. Instead of issuing out all CMRs to all the ROs at the same time, we'd meet with each RO, before the beginning of each quarter, to see when he wanted to conduct his inventory. This definitely made our job, in the supply section, harder since we had to track a dozen different CMR deadlines, but that's what it took to get the job done. We put up a large white board in our office so we could easily see the status of each CMR. Problem solved.

Lesson #3: Get results.

Time Management in the 20th Century

After my mistake, when I was supervising the pallet cross decking, I became intrigued with time management. I needed to find a way to better track tasks. I tried different techniques and studied time management books ranging from Time Management for Dummies to Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First. Many of these teachings focused on the four generations of time management.

The key that I discovered in the mid 1990s was to carry a day planner with me, all the time, and write down every task and appointment. I wouldn't check off a task until I had confirmed that it had been completed. Any to-do item that didn't get done today was moved forward to the next day's list in my day planner. After a few days of rewriting low priority tasks, I either got it done or explicitly dropped that to-do since it was no longer important. I didn't prioritize to-dos with letters or numbers, such as A, B, or C - that just doesn't work on paper. If there was something on my list that was urgent or important, I simply highlighted it with a yellow highlighter.

I photocopied important lists - such as a list of all the equipment in our infantry battalion or a list of the supply chain status codes, etc - and added them to my day planner so that they were always at my finger tips.

Any task that I wrote down in my day planner, which needed to be delegated, was prefaced by my coworker's name:
☐ Sgt Smith - Complete maintenance report and fax to HQ.

As I delegated the task Sgt. Smith and I would agree on the deadline and then I'd add that to the task in my day planner:
☐ Sgt Smith - Complete maintenance report and fax to HQ. By Thursday close of business.

I ended up turning my time management techniques into a 74 page workbook that I used to train others.

All of these techniques worked fine until the consumerization of IT resulting in the proliferation of personal smart phones and tablets in the workplace. Carrying around a day planner was no longer practical.

Welcome to the Digital World

While the fundamentals of the time management skills I learned haven't changed, the implementation is much easier in the digital world. No more carrying around a paper based day planner or writing and rewriting tasks on paper.

Over the past year, I've learned how to simply use my iPhone, iPad, and Mac to easily manage my time and tasks via iCloud. You don't need all of these devices and services - just an iPad, alone, will suffice - but I found it very convenient to have it all tied together and kept in sync. However, if you're not disciplined enough to follow my first lesson - write it down - then it won't work.

Meetings and Appointments

Keeping track of meetings and appointments is much simpler, now, since you'll probably be notified of an upcoming meeting, via e-mail, with either an Exchange or iCal invitation. As a matter of fact, you probably won't even see the e-mail with the calendar attachment; instead your device will automatically place the meeting invitation on your calendar where you can answer Yes / No / Maybe.

One gotcha when using iOS devices in a Microsoft Exchange environment is that, occasionally, if you accept a meeting on Windows it might not show up on your iOS device. The key to preventing this is to only accept meetings on your iOS devices. If you accidentally accept a meeting on your Windows computer and it doesn't show up on your iOS device, then you can forward the meeting from Outlook, to yourself, as an iCal invitation. The iCal and Exchange meeting invite won't be in sync if the meeting time changes, but it's better than completely forgetting about the meeting.

To-Do Tasks

Every time you come up with a new to-do task then write it down in your device. Since iCloud syncs everything for you - usually within seconds - then it doesn't matter where you write it down since it'll show up on all of your devices and computers.

I use iOS's free Reminders app which is a simple way to track a list of tasks. I've labeled one list "Me," which are tasks that I need to complete. I've also created a list for each person that I interact with on a daily basis. As to-do tasks come up that I need to delegate, I write them down on that person's list. Now, whenever I'm talking to that person, I can just look at the person's to-do list in my Reminders app.

The key, when jotting down tasks for delegation, is to write out the to-do reminder as you'd actually ask it. For example, if you only write down "Report" then there's a good chance that you'll forget which report, etc, you were going to ask about. It's better to write down as much detail as possible; for example, "What is the status of the maintenance report that's due to the COO tomorrow afternoon?"

After each tasking that isn't fully completed, I put an "A:" and jot down the "answer" to the question I asked or its status. That way, when we reviewed it later we could pick up from where we left off.

Notes and Minutes

Over the years I've sat in some long meetings and conference calls. It's impossible to remember every decision, tasking, issue, and due date from every meeting. I've found it very handy to capture all of this information in the iOS Notes app. This is especially handy since it's searchable. I generally create a separate note for each project where I can track key events and decisions. Many times, project information will be passed via e-mail, so it's simple to copy and paste it directly into the respective note. When deadlines changes, it helps to explicitly capture that, too.

7/9: Code complete (was 7/1)
7/10-18: User acceptance testing (was 7/6)
7/19: QA begins
7/20-21:Vulnerability assessment scan
7/24: QA complete
7/25: QA sign off
8/1: New website live

Remember, to have a fighting chance, you'll need to get into the habit of always writing down all of your tasks.

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