Important vs. Urgent: The Presidential Edition

Have you ever had one of those days where you were busy non-stop, but afterwards you felt like nothing got done? Most of us spend our days in a reactive mode as different people assign us work that is vital for them, but not for you. However, when we are caught in the busy trap it is easy to forget our own priorities. Is there a way to keep your own goals front and center in the face of worldly demands?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood this challenge. As the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II and then a successful two term President of the United States, Eisenhower had lots of urgent items brought to his desk. The difference for him was to make sure that the urgent never eclipsed the important. To ensure that he accomplished his goals he created a decision matrix now known as the Eisenhower Box. It was based on this line of thinking that he shared in a 1954 speech.

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

The Eisenhower Box (or Matrix) is a simple four square grid. A visual of this box can be found here. Whenever any item came across his desk Eisenhower would decide whether it was important (aka aligned with his primary goals) and/or urgent (aka time constrained). His choice of what to do next was based on the answer to those two questions.

  • Important and Urgent = Do it immediately
  • Important, but not Urgent = Defer it (aka place on calendar)
  • Not Important, but Urgent = Delegate to someone else
  • Not Important nor Urgent = Drop it immediately

For a more detailed explanation of the Eisenhower Box, please review this article at the Todoist web site authored by Laura Scroggs. Then go ahead and put it into practice yourself. After all, if it worked for President chances are it will work for you!

Tips for Virtual Speaking

It used to be that many people were afraid to stand up in front of a room to give a presentation. With COVID sidelining most public gatherings, the fears have moved to the virtual realm. On the surface it should seem easier to speak on Zoom. Many virtual participants leave their camera’s off or the presenter can choose to minimize them away. However, this makes for an even more challenging problem: audience disengagement. Virtual speakers have to up their game in order to hold the attention of the audience. In turn, presentations require even more preparation and practice to make them engaging.

To help improve virtual presentations, Ljana Vimont managing director of Stinson Design wrote an article for the web site Presentation Guru. In it she provides ten tips to create and present great virtual presentations. For example, number 5 is:

Involve Your Audience

When you give a live presentation, you probably ask the audience questions, tell them to raise their hands or involve them in some other way to help keep them engaged. The same is true when giving a virtual presentation.

Get comfortable with the presentation software and learn how to ask people to raise their virtual hands and let them know at the beginning of the presentation that you will be calling some of them out and asking them questions. Create a plan for how you will incorporate audience interaction.

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Take a look at the other nine tips on the Presentation Guru web site.

Basecamp’s Written Approach to Communication

It is a cliché nowadays to say how much people hate meetings. However, very few organizations have found a way to successfully avoid having them on a regular basis. It would seem there is a natural tendency for people to come together in a real or virtual room to discuss issues or advance projects. However, some organizations have tried to eliminate meetings by crafting a different priority straight into their DNA.

Basecamp, a company that produces project management and internal communication software, has decided that the company works best when its employees focus on written communication. According to their Guide to Internal Communication:

You can not not communicate. Not discussing the elephant in the room is communicating. Few things are as important to study, practice, and perfect as clear communication. Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time. Internal communication based on long-form writing, rather than a verbal tradition of meetings, speaking, and chatting, leads to a welcomed reduction in meetings, video conferences, calls, or other real-time opportunities to interrupt and be interrupted.

Basecamp Press Resources

Why do they believe long form writing is the better way? It has to do with an understanding that most communication is asynchronous.

Communication shouldn’t require schedule synchronization. Calendars have nothing to do with communication. Writing, rather than speaking or meeting, is independent of schedule and far more direct.

Read the entire Guide to Internal Communication to learn more about how Basecamp encourages employees to keep each other updated on their projects.

Making Successful Resolutions

With 2021 a reality, many people around the world made New Year’s Resolutions. Unfortunately, most of those resolutions fail to make an impact. According to U.S. News, 80% of people give up on them within six weeks. Does this mean resolutions are useless to make? Not necessarily.

In an article from Forbes Magazine, journalist Jennifer Cohen shares reasons why people fail to achieve their resolutions. In those reasons are embedded ways to make them successful. For example:

We Fail To Pick Realistic Goals

According to Statista, the most common New Year’s resolutions are to lose weight, exercise and eat more healthfully. These are achievable goals, yet so many of us can’t follow through. It’s because we don’t take an approach that’s rooted in reality.

Ask yourself the following question—which goal is more achievable? Losing 100 pounds or cutting refined sugars from your diet? The answer is obvious. If you cut sugar from your diet, you’re more likely to lose weight. 

You should also keep in mind that choosing realistic goals or resolutions and achieving them improves our mindset. Even a small victory is still a victory (like 30 days without sugar) and you end up preparing yourself for a much larger one.

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Not sure what resolution to make? Then you might benefit on a period of structured reflection. The good folks at Getting Things Done created a simple document to guide a review of the past year and to look ahead at the new one. The PDF handout can be found here.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!

How to Run Smarter Meetings (or just Appear to be Smarter at Them)

Meetings are vital to a successful workplace, but at the same time they can be a bane to all involved. When a meeting has no clear objective, is run poorly, or has become a weekly routine it ceases to add value. Yet we also know that meetings can be important to ensure unity on projects, clear the air of misunderstandings, or keep people connected. So what are the secrets to holding good meetings?

One point of view comes from Terri Williams at the Economist magazine. In an article titled, “How to stop wasting your time—and everyone else’s—in meetings” she shares this startling fact:

“A Clarizen/Harris Poll survey reveals that the average American worker spends 4.5 hours in general status meetings each week, and workers spend even longer (4.6 hours) just preparing for those meetings. Almost half of the survey respondents stated that they would rather perform some type of unpleasant activity—including visits to the dentist or nightmarishly-long commutes—than attend a status meeting. “

So how do we hold good meetings to ensure everyone’s time is well spent? The first step is to understand the purpose of the meeting before even scheduling it. Williams identifies five types of meetings:

  1. Problem Solving
  2. Decision-Making
  3. Planning
  4. Status Reporting/Information Sharing
  5. Feedback

In her article she highlights the best practices for each type of meeting. However, in all cases meeting improve substantially when there is an agenda in place with clear objectives, participants don’t get sidetracked to non-essential items, and the meeting starts on time.

Of course if you don’t want to go through all the trouble to prepare for meetings, or are stuck in one that is going no where, it is not a total loss. You can still do your best to look smart at these meetings by using the techniques of comedian Sarah Cooper. One of her most famous satirical pieces is the 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. For a good laugh click over and see if any of them are familiar. I have personally done this one:

#7 – Pace Around the Room
“Whenever someone get up from the table and walks around, don’t you immediately respect them? I know I do. Walk around. Go tot he corner and lean against the wall. Take a deep contemplative sigh. Everyone will be freaking out wondering what you’re thinking.”

Have fun with the other nine!

Notes = LEGOs

I love to build LEGO sets with my daughter. One of my favorites was the TARDIS control room from Doctor Who and right now the Razor Crest from the Mandalorian. The reason why LEGOs are such a successful toy is that any piece has the ability to connect to any other piece. This means that the combinations are endless, limited only by the imagination.

Recently Tiago Forte of Forte Labs wrote a post on his web site that showed why notes, especially digital ones, are the basic building blocks of knowledge work. He proposed a new definition of a digital note:

A digital note is a “knowledge building block” – a discrete unit of information interpreted through your unique perspective and stored outside your head. 

This is similar to a definition of a note that I made in my article on Efficient Librarianship in Public Libraries magazine. In that article I stated that a note was “an information artifact of perceived value.”

In his post, Tiago illustrates a different perspective on how to view digital notes. They are the LEGOs of knowledge work.

Like a LEGO block, a knowledge building block stands on its own and has intrinsic value. Yet each block can also be combined with others into greater works – a report, an essay, a website, or a video for example.

And just like LEGOs, these building blocks are reusable. You only need to put in the effort to create a note once, and then it can be mixed and matched with other notes again and again for any kind of project you work on, now or in the future.

Read the whole article for free on the Forte Labs web site.

Taking Better Notes

The secret to success in knowledge work lies in successful note taking. In my article for Public Libraries Magazine I defined a note as an information artifact of perceived value. Notes are necessary because we simply cannot rely on our brains to remember everything of importance. So the art and science of note taking is a field worth studying.

In an article by Kenneth A. Kiewra called A Seven-Step Guide to Taking Better Notes, the author starts out by focusing on why it is important to take notes in the first place, especially in an academic setting.

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Students who take notes during a lesson achieve more than those who listen to the lesson without note taking. This is because the act of note taking staves off boredom and focuses attention on lesson ideas more than listening without taking notes.

The primary value of note taking, though, is more in the product than the process, more in the reviewing than the recording. Students who record and then review notes almost always achieve more than students who record but do not review notes.

Read the rest of the article on the Quartz web site. If you haven’t done so already, learn the best techniques for digital note taking over at Forte Labs and their signature course, Building a Second Brain.

Second Brain Crash Course

Recently Forte Labs launched their first ever Second Brain Week. Bringing in experts in digital note taking from around the world, founder Tiago Forte lead a free week of training on how to up your electronic productivity game. Their promise was simple:

Come join us to learn about digital note-taking, organizing, productivity, knowledge management, and online education, and how creating a system of knowledge management for yourself can help you do all of them far more effectively.

While the live sessions are over, everything was recorded and available for free on the Forte Labs web site. So if you want to take your productivity up to the next level, take advantage of the free Second Brain Week sessions available now on demand.

The Missing Link?

How easily can you decide on what to do next at work? The answer to that question goes a long way towards determining your daily success.

The basic building blocks of knowledge work are next actions and projects. The two are deeply connected. Projects themselves are essentially the outcomes we want, such as finishing a report, losing weight, buying a home, or hiring a new assistant. The next actions are the physical things we do to move projects forward, such as call Joe, read the article, draft an essay, or schedule the next gym class.

In a recent piece piece on the GTD web site, the connection between projects and next actions was explored. It discussed why sorting actions by context rather than project is more helpful than first apparent.

Sorting next actions by context, not by project, can initially seem awkward. Some people are used to having multiple files, piles, notepads, documents, and spreadsheets related to a project, with next actions for the project buried amongst all of that information. Next Actions lists don’t replace project plans—we would just call that data “project support.” In our experience, it rarely works to have current next actions stored with project support for day-to-day action management.

Read the rest on the Getting Things Done web site.