Inspired by both Mr. Meyer‘s “How I Work” video as well as another side project to which I contribute, I thought I’d open the new year with a series of posts that highlight some of the tools and strategies that I use to stay on top of things. You know – keep it light. After all, it’s still technically summer.
Anyone who needs to be productive on a daily basis needs to look hard at three important aspects of their lives: managing inputs, doing stuff, and remembering stuff. Today I’m going to take a look at the first of this trio: Managing your inputs.
Everyone — teachers, administrators, students — has a constant stream of information coming at them all day long. Remember this, do that, check on this, follow-up with that, etc.
Like others, I’ve noticed that my brain is not exactly the best, most reliable repository for information. I’ll illustrate with a pretty common scenario.
I’m walking down the hall after herding the lovelies into their next class. Here comes the Media Specialist: “Scott, I need you to make sure you let the new teachers know that we are planning a training for our email client after school on Thursday!” Makes sense. I’m responsible for the new teachers in the building. I can do this. I’ll just send off an email when I get back to my office.
I start sauntering back to my office chanting, “New teachers. Email training. Thursday.” Who needs a Hipster PDA? Uh oh. Here comes one of our department chairs. “Hey, Scott. Remember that presentation you did on preparing slide decks that engage students? Yeah – can you email me that? I’d like to use some of your ideas!” Of course! I’ll get right on it just as soon as I email the new teachers about… Ummm… That thing on Thursday. Or is it Friday? In the library? After school? Oh crap.
You can see how the system begins to break down. And this doesn’t even touch on the stuff that comes out of our weekly administrative meetings where we discuss professional development and the general day-to-day operation of the building.
I’ve never been one of those people who could carry a pen and paper everywhere, so for these kinds of “chance” requests, I’ll use my iPhone. If someone approaches me with something that needs to be done I’ll pull out the phone, open up my productivity program of choice (currently vacillating between OmniFocus and Things) , and drop it into the Inbox for processing later. If you subscribe to Remember the Milk, you can text message a Twitter to @rtm and it will zip right into your RTM inbox. If that’s not a mouthful I don’t know what is! Alternately, if I’m driving, I can phone my brain dump into Jott – a speech-to-text service I’ve been using for quite a while.
Meeting of the minds.
I hate taking notes in meetings. I bet you do, too. We do it, however, because it seems like the expected behavior. We all went to school, right? And when the Person In Charge started speaking — whether about the French-Indian War or factoring polynomials — we started writing. We’re well trained.
What bugged me most about taking meeting notes was that I’d never, ever look at them again. I’d file them away thinking, “OK. If anyone asks me what Bill said about new dry erase boards at Monday’s meeting I’ll be ready!” But no one ever asked. Not once.
A couple years ago I came across a great tidbit that liberated me from the compulsive urge to try to scribble down everything in a meeting. It was a post at Behance about their “Action Method.” In short, you should be primarily focused on capturing action steps; stuff that we need to actually do. You don’t have to write down every single piece of information discussed.
“During a brainstorm, meeting, or on the run, ideas arrive in a flurry of other activity and can be lost unless they are captured and transformed into action steps.”
The method’s third component frees me of the guilt of not archiving every single piece of information I receive: “File reference items. Sparingly.” That’s it! What do I do with that binder of notes we have from our monthly department meetings? Throw it out! That folder full of notes scribbled at the professional development workshop you attended in the late-90s? Trash it.
For notes during meetings, I’m definitely a low-tech guy. I have a Levenger letter-sized Circa notebook that holds all the aspects of my non-digital work life. Into the Circa goes any actions that I capture during the meeting. When I’m back in my office, I scan the list and move any relevant items into OmniFocus so they’re available to me at my desk or on my iPhone. Having them digitally enables me to adjust due dates and priorities as well as move them around as needed.
If the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me.
Phone calls are a fact of life for most of us, and school-based administrators are no different. Whether it’s a parent calling to request that I fire a math teacher, a district administrator calling to check the status of our school improvement plan, or my wife calling to make sure I pick up diapers on the way home, I take in a lot of information from the phone.
For phone calls, I’ve adopted a one 3×5 card per call/issue method. When I get a call I immediately reach for a blank card and a pen. I’ll immediately date the card and write down the caller’s name and number. If the card requires some action on my part, I’ll do it immediately (if practical and possible) and get back to the caller. Most of these things don’t require entry into OmniFocus because they’re be as simple as “Excuse Johnny’s absence for last Friday. He had a tummy ache.” If they’re bigger (“Set up a conference with the math teacher and the counselor to determine why Andrea can’t seem to remember to go to Trigonometry.”), I may shoot off an email to both parties and put the item in OF to remind make sure I remember to get back to the parent once I hear from the teacher and counselor.
When I’ve finished dealing with an issue, I’ll throw the cards into an old-school 3×5 box arranged chronologically. That way if Mrs. Johnson calls again and says, “Remember when I spoke to you last month about the mean lunch lady?” I can quickly reference that card in my file.
So those are the basics of my approach to capturing stuff that needs doing. For stand-up meetings in the hallway, I’ll shoot ‘em directly into iPhone. During meetings, I’ll dedicate a page in my Circa to capturing actionable items only. And for phone calls, I use one index card per call or issue.
When you’re capturing items into your inbox, be it physical or electronic, make sure to free yourself from thinking about due dates, projects, contexts, resources, timelines, priorities, etc. and just get the item captured. You’ll deal with the other stuff later.
After years of hacking away at things little by little, I feel like I’ve finally arrived with a system that lets me get things done without worrying that I’m missing something.
Assuming you can manage what information is important to you and filter out the stuff that doesn’t require some kind of action on your part, what you should be asking next is, “Now that I’ve got a plan for capturing stuff I need to do, how do I actually make the time to do it?”
The message today is to recognize that you just can’t trust your well-meaning brain to remember important stuff. You’ve got too much coming your way during the day for that. Get it out of your head. Get all of it completely out of your head. That way your brain can focus on solving that whole global warming thing or dreaming up ways to improve the economy.
Coming up: Now that it’s all out of your head, it’s time to start actually doing something with it.
“file cabinets” by h. wren
“Bat Phone” by Phillie Casablanca