Time is a scarce resource so we have to spend it wisely. Most of us do have to put up a daily fight to try to spend their time in accordance with their priorities. Most of us rather reduce the time spent on traveling or working and increase the time spent with friends and family. Some even have the feeling they are constantly rushed and stressed in their work. It isn't a surprise that given a choice, most people would like to spend some extra time with their loved ones or take it just a bit easier at their job. In this article we present timesavers and ways of working that might help work more effectively, allowing you to get more out of your time.
This article is inspired on a discussion I had with trainers in personal effectiveness and time management about the benefits of using PDAs. These people are devoted to training and coaching professionals to use their time more efficient and more effective. Since this is one of the goals of Modern Nomads as well, I saw it as a great opportunity to exchange ideas. A lot of ideas came out of it and I want to share these insights with you, since it might help you get a better balance in life.
Many professionals don't have a PDA. According to research around 7% of all people use a PDA and around 14% of all managers use one. It is a shame since we think that, combined with some discipline and insight how to use a PDA; people can benefit a lot from using a PDA. It does require some insight: just buying a PDA does not mean that you are more effective by definition. Around 17% of the PDA owners do not even use a PDA to store any kind of information. It is completely beyond most of us that you would not use it for it most obvious task: it certainly does not make it a sensible investment from a productivity viewpoint.
Personal Information Management (PIM)
Just using a PDA for PIM functionality, simply replacing a paper agenda, does not automatically improve your efficiency. The majority of people simply use their device as the electronic version of their calendar: around 83% of the buyers looking for this. Some people see the electronic calendar as a huge timesaver. In practice it will only save you the copying your appointments by hand because they can be synchronized with a groupware solution, but this will only lead to marginal improvement in the effectiveness of most people. Automatic synchronization is not a huge timesaver unless you are one of those exceptional people that have a highly dynamic calendar (like trial lawyers and general practitioners).
In fact, PDAs do have their downsides as replacement for the paper agenda. The learning curve of a mobile device is steep at some times, especially when having to make a single appointment, and the practical reliability of the device (especially empty batteries) might disappoint people. Flipping through the calendar for empty slots is a lot faster in a paper version. Writing down an appointment on a PDA requires more time on a PDA than in a paper calendar. So for some people the paper agenda can be much cheaper, flexible and more effective.
When used correctly, you can gain a lot from using a PDA, even when you just use it for personal information management. Besides just storing the data electronically, PDAs can actually improve the effectiveness by actively using the data for your benefit. We will describe the do's and don'ts of Personal Information Management one by one: calendaring, tasks, contacts and your notes.
Although it is true that making an appointment on your PocketPC requires more time than in a paper calendar (even when you have a keyboard or decent handwriting recognition), the calendar is a great tool. Although it allows you to save time on many fronts although it has its own challenges.
A benefit of your PocketPC (and its desktop companion Outlook) is that it allows you to view your schedule in any way you might need, giving you a better understanding of your available time at a given period. On a PocketPC, when you use an alternative calendar application, you can color appointments that belong to specific categories which give you an indication what your activities will be in a given period. When you have an impression of the type of your tasks, it can help you assess the possible load in a given period of time. For example, when I see a week full of meetings I know my evenings will be lost as well. When I see a week filled with travel, I will know that I have plenty of time to do some serious work aside during traveling and in the evenings.
Another benefit is the possibility to directly plug into your company groupware. Groupware allows you to share your calendar with other people, which makes the planning of meetings more easily: everyone can see when all attendants to a meeting are available. This is a huge timesaver when planning meetings. This also has its downside: many companies automatically delegate all employees to schedule meetings directly in each others' calendar. This is a huge mistake; the permission to put appointments in someone else's calendar should be assigned very wisely. Delegation implies that commitments can be made without you having control over it. This means that appointments can enter your calendar without you being aware of it, with the possibility of you missing it by accident. It can also mean that people make appointments that they shouldn't have: they can make appointments on moments that are inconvenient for you or with people that you know are a complete waste of time to begin with. Therefore it is essential to stay the master of your calendar and not become a slave to your environment: only delegate if you are for 100% sure you can trust the delegate to make the right decisions for you.
A major benefit of a PDA is that, unlike a paper calendar, you have an almost infinite space in your calendar: you can plan ahead without any limitation and add unlimited notes. Especially the notes are extremely valuable. Because you can synchronize the data between desktop and PDA easily, you can prepare meetings on your desktop by adding data to the notes (like the agenda but perhaps more importantly your goals and arguments) that you will need in a meeting. During the meeting you can add extra notes to the appointments. By doing so, your desktop and PDA will become one centralized place for all things related to those appointments. Both locations can be searched easily, so centralizing the information reduces the time you need to look for information associated with an appointment dramatically.
One of the most prominent benefits is warning you for upcoming appointments. So a PDA will not only store your appointments, but it will actively help you keep your schedule. By setting your alarms smartly, the default of 15 minutes is quite acceptable, you will have plenty of time to gently stop whatever you are doing and move on to your next appointment. Some people call this the "wrap-up" alarm. In my daily experience, it saves me from a lot of stress from (nearly) missed appointments: I know I have enough time until the alarm sounds.
There is another benefit of using the calendar extensively: when using the right applications, your device adapts its' behavior to your situation. So when you have a PocketPC Phone Edition it will make sure certain calls are rerouted to your voicemail when your calendar shows you are busy. This way you minimize the interruptions in important meetings or moments of concentration.
Few people realize that a large component of time management is about managing other people and building relationships with them. PocketPC's can help you by storing a lot of data about a person. Not only what the persons' position in the organization is, but also what peoples' family is called and when people are born. The last has a nice side-effect: when you insert someone's birth date in the contacts, the birthdays are placed in your calendar as well, even with the age of the given person. This can help you with being attentive to people. Notes complement this very well: it allows you to add special capabilities, biographies, hobbies or other random notes to people.
Finding contacts back is easy: you can sort the contact list on contact name but also on company. Another way is the filtering on categories, which allows you to easily filter for specific projects or other contexts you use for your contacts. You can also search your contacts full-text, even through the notes-field, enabling the search to be based on random bits of information regarding a contact. This reduces the strain on you when looking for someone: you can actually search on any association with a contact.
Tasks are a very powerful concept. When you move around and people try to delegate things to you, you can do things: try to memorize it all, or write it down. The Getting Things Done method basically tells you to write it down if you can't do it right away. It tells you to stop littering your brain with all kinds of tasks and start dumping them on paper or PDA. It prevents you from forgetting your tasks. It helps you keep your brain clean to start thinking about the mess you have gotten yourself into this time.
While paper becomes disorganized when you have many tasks for many projects, electronic ones excel. When working on paper, you run the risk of starting a list for every project. On the list there are all kinds of tasks: completed ones, active tasks, tasks that are way in the future. In the end, you have a huge stack of task lists. On a PDA, you can give a task a category, a priority, a start date, an end date and an alarm date. By doing so, you can easily have a view of your current tasks per project, or all your assigned tasks. This reduces the chances of you accidentally forgetting a task.
The notes belonging to a task can help you in a great way as well. You can write down details on the task you were given. But when your daily job is chasing subcontractors the notes field comes in extremely handy: you can track all the calls you made to them (including their promises and the people that made them). When you are near your desktop it is a lot easier to fill out, but when the contractor calls when you are out of the office, it always comes in handy to help their collective memory a bit.
It is of vital importance to keep those tasks small to keep them manageable. When you have more complex tasks you have to split them up. Task managers allow you to add hierarchy to your tasks; you can split the big task into multiple smaller tasks and still keep them organized by their master task. This is a great way to keep a good overview over your tasks.
Another way of dealing with tasks is determining their importance to you. You can do this by the priority field found on your PocketPC. Although this is ommitted from methods like Getting things Done, it is advised by highly regarded writers like Steven Covey. By prioritizing tasks, just to make sure you keep working on the right things. He advises to this in the following way:
|Importance||High||QI: Important and urgent||Q2: Important and not urgent|
|Low||Q3: Unimportant but urgent||Q4: Unimportant and not urgent|
The tasks in quadrant 1 should get your attention without any doubt. The tasks in Quadrant 2 have the tendancy to get snowed under the tasks in Quadrant 3. You should seriously ask yourself if you want to work on the tasks of Quadrant 3 and 4: they don't matter to you that much. Especially if you have to give up on tasks that are in quadrant 2. By setting both priority and due dates to tasks you can make sure you keep working on the things that matter to you most.
Like your ordinary planner, a PocketPC has an application for making notes. With respect to its paper version, it has some advantages. First of all, you can use it at night without having to turn on other lights. Personally I hate having an idea when I'm in bed, thinking all night I may not forget it, just to find out I forgot it in the morning anyway and had a lousy night as well. Instead I scribble it down on my PocketPC and have a good nights rest. Secondly, you can use it as a voice recorder to capture those ideas you have while driving. Also you can synchronize these notes to your desktop.
With convergence one gets communication. It opens an array of communication channels. One of the most important wins in mobile devices is the possibility of shifting work to a more convenient time or place. It allows you to do your work at moments that are convenient for you. Like the following situation, where I pick up my e-mail while watching over my daughter:
According to research, I am not the only one: many other people check e-mail in bed (23%), during class (12%), during a meeting (8%) and at the toilet (4%). Timeshifting and spaceshifting can save you a lot of time because you work while you normally couldn't do any work. This does create its own challenges, which we will describe in the following paragraphs.
We talk a lot about e-mail; this is because e-mail currently is one of the most important communication media. E-mail is a great tool when used correctly. When you put e-mail on a mobile, you can read your e-mail wherever and whenever you want. In fact, around 37% of the people do this. Using e-mail on a mobile posses its own challenges: it is more invasive, more limited and reaches you faster than e-mail on the desktop. When you see that 40% of all office workers spend between 0,5 to 3 hours a day on poorly written e-mail, you can only fear what happens when that e-mail ends on a mobile. Behind your comfortable desktop it is a lot easier to write large texts or hit that delete button.
What it all comes down to is that you have to realize that you decide that what is important to you and what is not, and you decide when you are willing to spend valuable time to read it. A lot of stress related to e-mail comes with from the importance you give to e-mail as a medium: many people think that e-mail is an important medium and are stressed out when they have the feeling they are not responding fast enough to an e-mail. There are three important phases in e-mail: when you pick it up, how you are going to read it and what response you will give.
When to check your e-mail
Almost every time-management method on the planet tells people to turn off the automatic polling of e-mail. The problem is not the fact that the e-mail arrives. The problem is that you have to have some self control that keeps you from being side-tracked in dealing with incoming mail. If you don't, you start working on the latest issue that arrived by e-mail, instead of the most important one. Time management research suggests that you work better when you work at long intervals without many interruptions. Others research indicates that humans are awful at multitasking. You really work more effectively when you just read e-mail at reserved times when they do not clash with other tasks.
The self control bit is the problem: people are known to constantly check their e-mail. According to estimates, 6% of all people is even addicted to e-mail. Technical innovations even introduced push e-mail on mobile devices, making delivery almost instantaneous, effectively robbing you from any chance of controlling the flood of e-mail entering your device. Best solution is to turn off automatic checking of your e-mail. Another way is to turn off the sound of an incoming e-mail, so you will not be disturbed when a new e-mail arrives.
Many people get anxious over this. What if you missed that extremely super high priority e-mail that someone has sent? Well, they shouldn't do that in the first place, because e-mail can get lost in so many ways, it is fundamentally unreliable. Secondly, if it is really important to the sender, these people typically call ahead anyway to check up on you anyway, so that is a great moment to pick up your e-mail. There is no need to read all e-mail directly when it comes in.
Reducing your mobile load: picking your battles
The number of e-mail we get is enormous. Besides SPAM, you also get all kinds of e-mail from real people. This should not be your problem, it is the purpose of e-mail to be a convenient medium. However, it has become a too convenient medium: e-mail really has become the dumpster of the workplace. If you don't know what to do with something, you dump it into an e-mail and send it almost randomly to someone else, CC-ing the rest of the world to make sure they see it is not your problem anymore and correct the erroneous attribution of the problem if they see fit. This leads to a huge load of unformatted, undirected and above all unmanageable e-mails from colleagues.
This requires a triage in e-mail: you have to realize that some e-mail is more important than others. In medical environments they call this a triage. When resources are scarce medics label wounded according to four levels:
- deceased: beyond recovery, all effort is wasted on them,
- immediate: needing immediate attention,
- delayed: can wait until action is needed,
- minor: actually does not need action at all
We propose to do a similar thing with the e-mail you receive. You can use easy gut-feeling tricks or more complex schemas, but it is certain that not all e-mail is worth your immediate attention. You certainly can not deal with all e-mail you recieve while you are on the move. So triage is a necessity. Triage can be done automatically, saving you time in downloading, or manual on the client. But you have to do it if you want to keep your mental health.
Automatic triage on the server is by far the most luxurious solution. Most e-mail servers can do this: in Microsoft Exchange you even can set them from Outlook. Other servers can probably do this through the client or web-interface as well. By far the best solution is to dump undesired e-mail of any kind into folders on the server. Preferably you will not fetch the e-mail from these folders so you will not have to deal with them on your mobile. You can deal with these e-mails at regular intervals at your desktop, around once a week works pretty well for me.
There are some very obvious groups of e-mails that can easily be redirected from your inbox to something else (be it the trashcan, be it a special folder that you will read later when you are at a desktop):
- SPAM: most SPAM-filters bounce the obvious stuff, and mark the things they suspect being SPAM (with around 95% accuracy). By redirecting this potential SPAM to a special folder, you can look for that remaining 5% when you are working on a desktop, but you are not bothered by it on your mobile.
- Mass mailings: Newsletters, store-updates, mailinglists, blogcomments, forumthreads, and LiveJournal mails. Most of them are a waste of time, none of them are important or require immediate attention and there are an awful lot of them.
- Internal e-mail to every employee: None of them are time-pressing, most of them are the "there is a car in the parking lot with headlights still on" kind and no one is going to notice if you will not read them the same day. More mature organizations use special aliases like "all" or "employees", that allow great filtering. Just park them in a special folder and read them when you have reserved your time.
- Mail where you are not in the TO-field: in other words, they copied you in just to inform you. If people just dump information upon you without clear task or goal, they do not deserve your immediate attention.
- Mail marked FYI or OT: even if people take the time to specifically address you, marking e-mail with For Your Information (FYI) or Off Topic (OT) signals you can safely ignore it for the time being. Some organizations are mature enough to introduce these annotations (as well as ACT, for action) allowing quick browsing and filtering.
- E-mail that is forwarded: research has indicated that forwarded e-mail is not considered as important by recipients anyway, so why not automate this.
Some mention that the best way to decide that something belongs in the filter is when you get that "Ugh, this again?" feeling with an e-mail. It is a daily task to learn about the types of e-mail you receive and tweak your filters accordingly.
There are some tells that something should be ignored or bounced back to its sender for clarification:
- Long e-mails. While a PDA is a great way for performing a triage on your mail, it is not suitable for reading large texts. But as some suggest, if it takes more than 5 lines to ask something it is either something incredibly complex (e-mail was not the right medium) or it is not reasonable to ask in the first place. Another explanation might be that the sender doesn't know either what he should tell.
- E-mails without clear goal. Some senders seem to think that recipients are capable of mind reading as well. It often takes a lot of energy to just find out what the goal of the sender was. There are simple checklists helping you to check if it meets this clarity criterion.
- E-mail with multiple goals. Some people have the desire to completely mix all kinds of messages into one e-mail. This makes it easy for the sender because you dump all your problems with a person in one e-mail, but it can make the life of the recipient pretty hard because he gets confronted with a lot of issues that have to be dealt at the same time. While this can handled with some pain on a desktop with multiple windows, this will typically fail dramatically on a PDA.
- E-mails that require a complex answer. Like some say: some questions are so broad they could be used in a job-interview at Google. E-mail is not the right medium for that: just bounce it or defer it to another medium.
- E-mail discussions that go back and forth. Some groups keep e-mailing back and forth issues so many times, that basically they are running a discussion list through e-mail. E-mail is not a medium for discussions: bounce the e-mails, put the discussion on a filter (generally filtering on e-mails which subject contains "RE: RE: RE: RE:" might do the trick) or defer it to another medium.
What it all comes down to is that the lack of attention from the sender of the e-mail should not be compensated by the recipient who would have to waste hours in investigating what the intention of the e-mail was. You should really bounce these e-mails with a request for clarification, forcing the sender to repair his lack of his attention the first time he sent the e-mail. This way you train other people to be good senders (at least to you).
When something worth while is read, you might be inclined to answer it. At this point you have to ask yourself if e-mail is the right medium to do it and if you want to do it on your mobile. Please realize that a PDA is not suitable for writing large texts: replying to an e-mail might take a lot of time, so you might think twice about what you are doing. On the other hand, you should keep messages short anyway so that shouldn't stop you.
People have the natural urge to reciprocate e-mail responsiveness of the sender. Some even explicitly suggest replying as quickly as possible. Don't. Take your time. You should not feel forced to reply to an e-mail quickly just because the sender wants you to. Lack of planning from the sender should not bother you at the receiving end. You should not feel pressed into responding and it should not stress you that you did not respond in time. E-mail is an unreliable, asynchronous medium: if people needed an answer quickly they should have called you.
Be short, to the point
Some people have the urge to reply in short books. Don't. Keep your reply short; quote only what you need and try to stay below five lines of text as much as possible. If you don't know the answer, say so (you might give a hint on who might know). This not only reduces the effort needed on your side, it also does on receiving end.
One of the biggest mistakes is that people choose one communication medium and stick with it, regardless of the deteriorating effectiveness of the medium in the communication that follows. We all know it: a simple question through e-mail raises another question or rather heated debate. The thing that follows would be a lot easier when taken to another medium: a phone or a meeting. Converged devices can switch channels quite easily.
Another reason to switch channels is when you have to reach people quickly, have complex matters to discuss or have emotionally sensitive things to discuss. Best way to communicate these things is to meet in person. If you don't, you do not only run the risk that the message does not come across. You also run the risk that people are insulted by the use of a cold medium to convey a specific message. For example, my previous professor guiding my PHd-project decided to quit the university, effectively endangering my PHd-project. By conveying this message by e-mail he gave the impression that he considered me as being low value for him.
One of the most important reasons to switch channels is that you need commitment from the other side. E-mail can not get you the commitment you need: you can't check if people share the urgency you have or even understand the task at hand. You have to do that in in an interactive channel like Instant Messaging or, if possible, the phone.
There are great applications to organize yourself, helping you to easily store information and retrieve it again. Besides storing information a PocketPC can help you with tracking how you spend your time. One of the most benefitial things is that you can write down on the spot how time is spent. This not only eases the task of billing your clients. Timetracking can help you identify clients that cost you much time/energy and do not deliver much benefits. In my personal experience I had customers which sounded good on paper, until I discovered that the overhead of travelling and writing tenders was so big we possibly could not make any profit on that customer. By not serving that customer any more I won a lot of time and actually made more money in the end.
Sometimes PDA's can really save you time when they supply you with vital information while traveling, for example while riding a train or flying. Although this may sound far-fetched for many, but most navigation applications allow you to avoid traffic jams saving hours of your valuable time otherwise wasted looking at the back of a car in front of you.
Another type of timesavers is the RSS newsreader, which saves you the effort of visiting a lot of websites. The RSS-reader checks the sites on regular intervals and alerts you when there is a change. It can even alert you when there is new content that contains certain keywords.
Is this it?
To put it quite bluntly: no. Working efficiently requires a lot more than some tricks and good applications. It requires discipline, the guts to say "no" and a daily flight against procrastination. There are great sites helping you with that, like 43Folders and LifeHack. We do hope that we did help you a bit on your way to be more effective.