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  • Tom Birchard

Staying Organized to Stay Productive

For most of human history, access to information has been a limiting factor related to decision making and just getting things done. Only recently with the advent of the internet, mobile technology, social media, etc. has that access to information rapidly increased to previously unimaginable levels. Now the premium is placed on our ability to filter all those inputs to get at the information we need to move forward and make good decisions, but without completely overwhelming ourselves in the process. A key part of that is staying personally organized.


I recently promoted two employees to their first ever people-manager roles in our company. It wasn’t long at all before the question arose of “how can I possibly stay organized with everything coming at me?” I’m sure many of you have felt that at some stage of life, or are even feeling that now. Emails, phone calls, meeting invites, random conversations in the hallway, it often comes from all directions. One caveat to everything that follows: there is no magic-bullet here. I truly believe that everyone has to develop a system that works for them and their unique situation and preferences. Some people I know swear by One Note and yet it’s a tool I’ve never personally used. That being said, I think there are some key principles and in sharing with these two first-time managers some tips and tricks that have worked well for me, I figured it was worth turning them into a blog post…


· Inbox Zero – The first time I heard the phrase “inbox zero” I think I rolled my eyes just like many of you probably are right now. If you work in a job where email is a primary mode of communication then the thought of getting down to having an empty inbox probably sounds like an unachievable dream. I get 100+ work emails per day and I’ve made inbox zero a reality and it makes a big difference in my productivity. First of all I think it’s helpful psychologically to have a clean inbox vs. the daunting hundreds or thousands (or even more) of emails staring at you every time you login. The key is to quickly scan the email and then to determine what’s next. Some might be FYI only where you can quickly digest and archive them. Others will require a response in which case I recommend doing that right away and then quickly archive that email. Here’s the key though, some of the emails you receive will require action from you, some may even have a due date in the future tagged to them. DO NOT use your email inbox to try and keep track of all your tasks, instead document whatever you need to do in whatever to-do list you’re using (more on that later) and archive that email to reference later. Some people use rules and automation to aid in this process, but however you accomplish it if you can finish each workday with your inbox at zero or close to it, you’ll have made a big step towards improved organization.


· Organize for Following Week – Do you ever have that feeling where Monday hits and last week feels like a distant memory and you’re trying to figure out what you should be focusing on next? If so, then you should probably be spending some time before Monday gets there planning out your next week. This includes your calendar as well as to-do list items and if possible you should strive to get to a rough plan of things you want to accomplish each day. A common excuse from people who don’t do this is that unexpected “fires” will come up that they’ll have to respond to so any plan in advance is worthless as it’ll inevitably change. While this is a valid point, and some jobs certainly have more of this than others, it’s no reason not to have a plan, and if anything it is extra reason to try to plan ahead. When those unexpected issues arise, as they inevitably do, one of the biggest drains on productivity is that after you address the issue you spin your wheels in the moments immediately following as you try to figure out what to do next. The beauty of a daily plan for the week is you can immediately start on the next item on your list and not let those interruptions knock you too far off course.


· Consider Mobility – Even the best method of staying organized can break down when you’re on the move. For many of us we travel for work, have customer meetings, or at a minimum have drive time and staying organized amidst those activities is more challenging than while sitting in front of a computer. That’s why it’s important you consider your unique situation and make sure your system of staying organized can hold up when you’re mobile. This could involve notes on your phone, sending yourself emails, taking notes in a notebook, even voice memos when you’re driving…whatever allows you to document the action in your to-do list (once again, more on that later) when you get back to your normal work environment. Another thought on both mobility and planning for the following week is look for ways to safely multitask. For example, if you have a couple non-urgent phone calls to make and you’re going to be driving one day, plan on making those calls during your drive if you have the ability to do that hands-free.


· Get Everything to One To-Do List – In case you didn’t notice, the other tips on the list allude and build up to this. In my opinion, this is the most important one. Too often someone apologizes to me for forgetting to do something and I start to pry into their system of staying organized and once I take a peek under the hood, see a mess of unread emails, sticky notes, scribblings in a notebook, voicemails, etc. and best of all, they proudly (and ironically) show all this to demonstrate they are in fact well organized! Having tasks documented in a bunch of different places is a recipe for things getting missed. I think the tool you use for this singular to-do list is less important than the commitment to consolidate everything in one location. I’m old school and use Microsoft Word and get a lot of satisfaction from crossing things off when I complete them but I’m sure there are better tools out there. One subtle tip is to find a way to designate something that may require follow-up. For example you send an email to someone asking them to do something, mark it for follow-up and don’t fully check it off the list until you know it’s done. In other words keep things in front of you until they are definitively completed and then cross them out. The goal of any good personal organization system is to keep things in front of you to ensure important balls don’t get dropped.

These are just a few of the concepts and tactics that work well for me to ensure I stay organized and don’t let anything critical slip through the cracks. What do you find helpful that I might have missed? Thanks for reading and Happy Halloween!

Recommendations from last two weeks:


· BookThe Motive: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni – I plan to reference this book in an upcoming blog post so I’ll keep this brief, just like the author did with the book! At only ~170 pages this is a quick read and the majority is an easy-to-read fable about two fictional CEOs who get together to talk leadership. At the core of the book are two very different motivations for individuals that pursue leadership positions that generally result in very different experiences and outcomes. I won’t spoil it with further details, but if you lead a team of people in any capacity I think this is a must-read but even if you don’t, I think you’ll find the book entertaining and insightful


· Video – Dr. Peter Attia's Nutrition Framework – I previously wrote a blog post about diet/nutrition as one of the key pillars of health and plan to do one on exercise in the coming weeks. I admire people that can take a complex topic and simplify it with a model or framework that is easily understandable and Dr. Attia definitely does that in this less than 5 minute video


· Article The Company That Was Made for the Pandemic – So I might be a little biased on this since I work for Trane Technologies but this is a fascinating article about our company and our CEO Mike Lamach. With everything going on in the world I definitely feel fortunate to work for a company that is both performing well but also making a positive difference in the world and this Bloomberg article provides an excellent overview


· QuoteAll self-help boils down to “choose long-term over short-term.” by Naval Ravikant (P.S. if you’ve never heard of Naval, he’s a fascinating guy and recently did his second interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast, worth the listen)




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