Effective meetings & effective note-taking

This is the last post in my series on organization. Meetings may not be something that you immediately tie to being organized, but I’m including it because meetings can be either a huge time suck or a useful tool in creating organization among a group of people. And I can’t talk about meetings without talking about taking effective notes.

Stop wasting time; only do effective meetings

I hate going to useless meetings. When working as a project manager for a tech company I spent a large portion of my life in meetings.meetings

I have led meetings with CEOs, CFOs and Executive Vice Presidents. I have led training sessions with dozens of peers and team members. Here’s what I’ve learned: If you absolutely have to lead or go to a meeting, make sure it’s a useful investment of time for everyone.

  • If you’re leading: Know why you’re meeting and what you want to accomplish by the end of the meeting. Then tell participants what it is so they can be prepared.
  • If you’re attending: Ask what the goal is so you can be prepared to participate (and to help prompt the meeting organizer to think about why they want a group of people together!)
  • Bring everything you may need with you (notes and documents)
  • Take effective notes (see below).
  • Wrap up a meeting with a list of who is going to do what by when and send that out to attendees.

This last point is really important. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve wrapped up with where people have completely different ideas of where we landed/where we were headed. #disasteraverted

Learn how to take effective notes

Why you should take notes

Taking notes serve a few purposes:

stack of steno pads

4 years of meeting notes

  1. They can help you focus on what’s actually happening in a meeting.
  2. It makes it look like you are engaged and participating.
  3. It’s a good place to jot potential action items.
  4. It’s a good place to jot ideas you want to come back to.
  5. You have something to refer back to later if you need to.

My primary reason for note-taking used to be #1 and #3. Since starting nursing school I actually look back at my notes.

How to take notes

When I started actually looking back at my notes I realized that I often had no idea what they meant. So I started exploring note-taking techniques.

  • A combination of Mind mapping and something that resembles the “bullet” portion of the Bullet Journal seems to work for me.
  • I’m intrigued by the Smart Wisdom method and plan to explore this in the future
  • The Cornel method didn’t really stick with me, but it may be useful to check out.

Where to take notes

While I like to use technology for most things, I prefer handwriting notes in meetings or lectures. When I type, I have a harder time differentiating what’s important and don’t necessarily remember what I typed. There is also a bunch of research about how handwriting helps you remember.

I’m a fan of Gregg-ruled steno pads.

But if you like to go digital with your note-taking, you can check out [my favorite note apps here].

Check out the rest of this series

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Getting stuff done: how to organize tasks and stay focused

This is the second post in my series on getting organized. Today we’re focusing on how to prioritize tasks and stay focused until they’re finished.

#1 Use a system that reminds you

I’m a huge fan of Getting Things Done (GTD). To get a feel for the concept behind todoappsGTD, ask yourself, “Does my brain consistently remind me what I need to do when and where I need to do them?” If so, that’s awesome. If you’re like me, you remember that you needed to buy milk while you’re in the shower instead of at the grocery store.

So, this leads to the idea that you need a reliable system to keep track of, and remind you about, the things you need to do.

highly recommend digital to-do lists like Wunderlist or Asana, but if a handwritten list works better for you, check out the Bullet Journal Format or Franklin Covey (a time-tested planner system).

#2 Identify all the things you need to do

Do an initial brain dump of every single thing you can think of that you need to do. The initial brain dump could take a LONG time depending on how many ideas and responsibilities you have.  Once you’ve done this you’ll probably feel overwhelmed, so…

#3 Prioritize all the things

Now that you have this monstrous list of things, use Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle to figure out what to do now, soon, later or never.

Basically, you organize your tasks into four buckets:

  1. The important and urgent things.Urgent/Important Priorities
    • Ask, “Is this really as urgent as it seems?” If so ask, “What is the quickest way I can get this off my plate?”
    • This may mean delegating or getting it to a “good enough” place so you can focus on #2.
  2. Important but not urgent things.
    • This is where you want to focus most of your energy.
    • These are activities that help you achieve your goals.
    • Ask, “What other things do I need to say ‘no’ to so I can make this happen?”
  3. Urgent, but not important.
    • Avoid these whenever possible. They easily absorb the time and energy you need for #2.
    • Ask yourself, “Is this really as urgent as it seems?”
  4. Not important and not urgent.
    • Ask yourself, “Do I really need to do this?”
    • If the activity is to help you destress/unwind, ask yourself, “Does this activity actually refresh me?” If not, try something new until you find activities that bring more energy to your life.

Other questions to help prioritize

  • Ask, “what will happen if I don’t do this?”
    • When I was a project manager I would often prioritize tasks that would lead to a lot of interruptions if I didn’t get them done first.
  • Ask, “What’s one thing I can do right now to make everything else easier or unnecessary?”

#4 Focus on the important things

Once you’ve prioritized what’s important it requires discipline to actually accomplish the important things.

Say “no”

One of the most important actions you can take that will help you stay focused is saying “no.” By making intentional decisions on where you invest your time and energy you can make progress toward the things that are truly important to you.

Get started; Decrease procrastination

I haven’t found the magic potion to eliminate procrastination, but here’s how I deal when I have an activity that I’m avoiding:

  • Be a “productive procrastinator.” I’ll knock off all the easy/little tasks that I pomodorocan find. These are often from buckets #1 and #3 (see above). This ends up freeing up mental space so I can focus.
  • I use the Pomodoro technique which alternates 25 minutes of focus with breaks. I can typically find motivation to focus for 20-25 minutes. And then after the first break I’ve normally found a groove that gets me to keep going. I use the Block & Flow iPhone app.

Stay on task

The things that help you stay on task will be unique to you. Ask yourself, “What distracts me? What are some creative ways I can combat that distraction?” Here are some of the things I do that work for me:

  • Keep my phone on vibrate and limit the number of apps that send me notifications
  • Work in quiet space or use earplugs
  • Do the “heavy lifting” when I first wake up before I talk to anyone. This is my peak performance time. Everyone’s circadian rhythm is different. To find your peak time ask yourself, “What time during the day do I feel the most effective/productive?”
  • Rewarding myself after I complete big things. (Frozen yogurt!)
  • Have a post-it note with a short list of my current priorities in the order I need to complete them.
  • If I keep thinking of other things I need to do, I do a brain dump of all the things so I can add it to my to-do app and get it off my mind.

#5 Stop keeping tasks in your mind

Instead, when you think of a task, add it to your list. Keeping all your tasks out of your head creates space to think about new ideas and to focus on the thing you’re doing right now.

Check out the rest of this series

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Overcoming roadblocks

I’m an independent, let me “do it myself” and “I’ll make it happen” kind of person. I tend to intuitively “get” what needs to get done and identify the most efficient way to get there. So when I hit an impediment that I can’t get around I get stuck. Really stuck. Like when there’s a scratch on a DVD and the same 5 seconds keep playing over and over. And just like scratches on my favorite movie it always seems to happen at the worst moment.

I affectionately refer to this as “breaking my brain.” Something short circuits and I can’t get it back on track. And I don’t handle the frustration well.

In the last few months I had an aha moment and realized that there are there is only one way out of this: ask for help. For me, asking for help is the equivalent of admitting that I’m a complete and utter failure. It seems like something that should be reserved for when the sky really is falling.

I also have to admit that the first draft of this blog included nothing about my extreme phobia of asking for help. It was going to be a nice, sweet “here’s the three types of roadblocks I typically hit on projects… and how to solve them.” The problem was that the first three words in all three roadblocks is “I need help with…” and, well, talking about asking for help without talking about the elephant in my living room seems a little ridiculous. So hopefully you won’t judge me too much for having an independent streak a mile wide!

Now that I’ve made my confession, I realize that the best solution for the three roadblocks I encounter is the most simple yet difficult thing: admit I can’t do it myself and ask someone else to help me.

So… without any more ado, here’s the thee types of roadblocks that throw me for a loop:

  1. I need help to get something from someone else (clarification, decisions, deliverables, approval, etc.).
  2. I need help getting a different perspective or attitude on a situation.
  3. I need help developing or improving a skill.

I honestly can’t think a single impediment from the last 7 years that doesn’t fit into one of these buckets.

Is there a three step solution for solving them? No. But now I’m finding that the more I attempt to get the words “I need help” out of my mouth the closer I get to actually saying it.

Two steps to making decisions on projects

In project management decision-making is inevitable. In fact, I have come to think that project management is primarily about making sure the necessary decisions get made at the right point in time.

Recent my co-worker Nathan R Elson, wrote a blog about the decision parallax. (I’ll be the first to admit I had to look up the word parallax!) I really dig the practical aspect of understanding how to make a decision that helps short circuits procrastination and allows forward movement.

Question 1: Ask will the project be derailed if I don’t have an answer to this right now? This determines priority and urgency. Failure to answer this question correctly can mean that you’ll either get stuck because there are too many decisions to make OR that something on the project will be “blowing up” soon.

  • If the answer is yes, the first decision has been made! You’ve decided to decide. Proceed to question 2.
  • If the answer is no, the first decision has been made! You don’t need to decide right now. Because I use a modified version of GTD (Getting Things Done) I ask myself another question (question 1a): will I need to address this at some point? If not, I disregard it unless it comes up again. If yes, I proceed to question 2.

Question 2: Ask can/may I make this decision? This determine whether I am allowed to and whether I have the information necessary to make an effective decision.

If I previously answered question 1 with “yes, my project will be derailed if I don’t get an answer right now”, then the answer to question 2 prompts these actions:

  • “Yes, I can make this decision” = make it and move forward without procrastinating.
  • “I’m allowed to but I don’t have enough information” = seek out the input that is missing and then make the decision and move forward without procrastinating.
  • “I don’t know if I’m allowed to make this decision” = ask someone who has the authority to decide whether I can make the decision or not. This is different from asking them to make the decision. Don’t procrastinate on asking them.
    Some people I know rarely landing here because they prefer to “ask for forgiveness later”. I default to thinking I don’t have permission, so I include this option for “ask for permission first” people like me.
  • “No, I’m not allowed to make this decision” = ask the person who can make the decision to make a decision and follow-up until you get one.

If I previously answered question 1 with “no, my project won’t derail if I don’t get an answer now” and question 1a with “yes, I’ll need to address this at some point in the future”, then the answer to question 2 prompts these actions:

  • “Yes, I can make this decision” = I put it on my to do list with a due date so I don’t have to think about it until my system reminds me.
  • “I don’t know,” “I don’t have enough information” or “No, I can’t make this decision”: I add this to my list of follow-up items for an individual person.

Decision-making flow chart + my version of the GTD system.

To do lists

Yes, I have an epic list of future items that will need to be decided. I use Wunderlist to keep them organized.

Follow-up Items

There are decision makers that I always have a long list of items for. Over time I’ve worked out a system that works for me and for the individual decisions makers. For example:

  • With my boss, every week we have an hour meeting. Beforehand I send him my complete list of open items (with high priority ones highlighted) along with my weekly update. This list is probably 2-4 pages long and we’ve worked out a system that allows us to get through most of them in 30-40 minutes.
  • With directors and executives, I schedule 15 or 30 minute working meetings whenever items on their list get urgent enough to need their input. I rarely send them my entire list of open items.

The one thing that never fails… emergencies

In Army basic training, drill sergeants launch CS gas (AKA tear gas, pepper spray) grenades into formations of recruits. There is a set procedure:

  • close your eyes
  • hold your breath
  • pull down your glasses (if applicable). If you’re wondering: they stay around your neck because of the geek strap!
  • open gas mask pocket
  • pull it out
  • put it to your face (it’s already prepped for quick use)
  • pull the straps over your head
  • tighten
  • blow out
  • breath in to test the seal.

The whole process should take less than 30 seconds. We practiced over and over before the first test.

I have a good memory for procedures, but I still panicked the first time the CS gas hit my face. It burns so badly. If you open your eyes you can’t see because of the tears. You can’t breath because your lungs and throat feel on fire. More snot pours out of your nose in a few seconds than you thought humanly possible.

8 years and I still can vividly remember it.

Sometimes when an emergency project hits and people begin to run around like crazy, I can see the cloud of CS smoke drifting away from a formation. And as it clears I can see the one thing that never failed: at least one person freaking out. No gas mask. Weapon abandoned. Arms flapping in the air. Tears pouring down their face and dripping to their knees.

And you know what? It puts it all into perspective.

Project Management and Rapid Redirection

Four weeks ago a major project came through the marketing department like a tsunami. The rapid transition from projects that already were underway to something of this magnitude caused me to think about managing projects and tasks in a way that allows for quick redirection.

I strongly believe that as a project owner/manager, it’s important to take ownership seriously; to be invested, set personal goals and push it forward. I’ve also learned (the hard way!) that it’s important to keep a loose grip on that ownership. Every day there’s the possibility of something arising that is strategically or corporately more important than what I’m currently doing.

I’ve found that adjusting focus works best for me if I take a few minutes to set aside my current work and make sure I have something written down that shows where I’m at with each project and tasks currently on my radar. Because the very nature of my job means that I regularly get completely redirected, I’ve been working on a personal organization system that helps me do this quickly.

Getting Stuff Done

I like to follow the Getting Things Done (GTD) model of writing down all tasks in a way that is guaranteed to remind me to do them (I currently use Wunderlist). Otherwise tasks constantly bounce around in my mind saying, “Do me. Do me.” Or I’ll run into that moment when the task that I couldn’t get out of my mind disappears right when I’m trying to remember it. I started using GTD 3 years ago. It helped me increase my capacity significantly. I continue to use GTD because I’ve found that it helps me:

  • Switch projects quickly without losing all of the momentum on the one I’m temporarily putting aside.
  • Switch mental gears so I can pour my focus onto the current assignment

Weekly Recaps

I do weekly recaps that are meaningful to me. My supervisor has asked for a weekly report. I could do it just because it’s required, but I see it as an opportunity to take a few minutes to get out of the details and look at where I’m at, where I want to go next week and what could get in the way.

1) I typically ask myself:

  • Are there projects that are almost finished that I can wrap up with a little extra effort next week? If so, I add those tasks to my list for next week and identify a time when I’m hoping to work on it.
  • Are the right projects in my do now/do later buckets? If not I switch them.

2) I go through and give a quick written (since I process best in writing) update on EVERYTHING I’m working on grouped by projects that are “on fire” “do now” or “do later”. I invest more time on the “on fire” and “do now” items. I use this time (normally 15-20 minutes) to set goals for myself for next week. I rarely reach all of my goals, but achieving them isn’t the point. The point is to provide me with direction/focus for what I should do if no other emergencies land in my lap. And by writing them down, if an emergency comes my way I can refer back to this update when I’m ready to move forward.

3) I highlight key items. I do this is because I send my weekly report to my boss with an even longer list of open discussion items and follow-up items for him. Highlighting draws attention to the stuff we really need to cover. I typically highlight things where I:

  • Need his ok to proceed
  • Need something from him to move forward
  • Need his help to get around a road block
  • Want him to be aware of

By preparing ahead of time, I can go over a 4-page list of updates in a 30-45 minute meeting.

After the water receded

After 3 weeks of intense and long hours, it’s taking a while to get back up to speed. My first day “back to normal” I couldn’t figure out where to pick back up. Then I realized that I could look at my weekly recap from three weeks before and start there. It was so useful! It didn’t solve the exhaustion but it helped make this week more productive that it would have been otherwise.


Using Excel for Project Planning

I’ve used Microsoft Project in the past. There were some features I really liked, but mostly I found it frustrating, cumbersome and time-consuming. I hate wasting time; I have an obsession with being as efficient as possible. So a few years ago I ditched Project and decided to use Excel to handle my project management needs.

My solution is a combination of the =WORKDAY( formula and the stacked bar chart as a Gantt chart (as explained in this video and this post). In this post I’ll be talking about how I use the workday formula in Excel to calculate the key milestones for my projects all based off the due date and the number of days each activity will take.

For example: Let’s say I’m working on a promotional plan that will launch on March 1st and will run for 30 days. In order for the promotion to launch I need the following items:

  • A landing page, which will take 1 week to code, 2 weeks to design and 1 week to write copy, plus 2 days between each for approvals and revisions.
  • An email that is going out on launch day (3/1) that is due to the media company 5 business days before it sends, will require 3 days to code, 5 days to design and 2 days to write copy with 1 day at the end for final approval. Plus an additional email that is going out on 3/25.
  • Banner ads that are due to the media company 3 business days before launch, and that require 7 business days in design plus 1 day for review/approval.
  • Blog posts that will go out every week for the course of the campaign and that require about 2-3 days to write and 1 day to get proofed.

Plus, our company is closed 2/15-2/18 and no work will be accomplished on those days.

Here is the spreadsheet I created that calculates all the “start/due” dates for each activity. Below I’ll walk step-by-step through how/why I did what. Note: I always set up these type of spreadsheets as templates I can use on multiple projects, so in the spreadsheet I’ve highlight the only cells (in yellow) that should be changed when using for a different project.

  1. To start, I’ll enter the closed “holidays” in a separate tab/worksheet. The dates are in cells A1:A4.SetHolidays
  2. Then I’ll create a new tab called “Project Plan”. I’ll enter the start date (B2), the promotion length (B3) and then in B4 I’ll add B2 + B3 together to get the promotion end date
  3. In row 5 I’ll add the headers for each of my columns. Then I’ll use Freeze Panes to make it so rows 1-5 show up no matter how far down I scroll in the worksheet.
  4. In row 7 I added a header for my section “Landing page” by merging 3 cells together and highlighting the cells in gray.
  5. Then in Column A I outlined all the tasks in reverse order
  6. In Column B I added how long (in business days) each activity should take
  7. In C8 I linked to B1, which is the go live date.
  8. In C9 I created the =WORKDAY( formula. The logic for this formula is: the first value (C8 in my example) is the “start date”, the second value (B9 in my example) is the number of days we are adding the to the start date, and the third value is the holidays that I entered in step 1 (NOTE: I added dollar signs between the cell references so that I can copy the formula without breaking the holiday calculations). You’ll notice that instead of calculating from the date I’m starting my project, I’m calculating based on the date I want my project to end, so instead of adding days, I want to subtract them. That is why there is a minus sign in front of B9.WorkdayFormula
  9. I then copied this formula to C10 through C14.
  10. I repeated steps 4-9 for each of the different deliverables.
  11. On the blogs, I simply copied and pasted each section and then added 7 days to the previous “Go Live” date.
  12. Then, to make this spreadsheet more useful, I highlight rows 5 through 62 and then turn on the filter. Now, I can create a filter that shows me every activity that needs to be done in a particular period of time. Here’s an example of filtering so that only February dates and blank values show up (I keep the blank values so I can see the section headers).FebDates

Let me know if this was helpful. I know that I didn’t explain all the commands necessary to execute this type of spreadsheet, so let me know if additional details or posts will be useful.



Using Excel for Resource Planning

Right now I’m planning every promotion we’ll be doing in 2013. This represents hundreds of different promotions that will be managed by more than a dozen people. I’ve been using Excel to build my list of promotions so that I could:

  • Easily filter them by categories (huge vs mini promotion, sale vs product promotion, etc.)
  • Filter them by date or date ranges
  • Filter them by who will be running the promotion
  • Identify the start or end date and then calculate the other date based on how long the promotion should last


The information is great, but I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around what was going on and how they overlapped. In these situations I find that visuals are incredibly helpful in identifying how much activity will happen in a certain period of time. What I needed was a Gantt chart without the complexity of Microsoft Project. I did a Google search (which is pretty much how I’ve learned to do everything in Excel) and found this YouTube video that taught me to do exactly what I wanted to do (not to mention the instructor is Irish and I LOVE accents!).

I ended up with a chart that was several hundred lines long, which was pretty but wasn’t particularly useful. As I played with different options, I realized that the chart only displays visible cells. So I could filter the data and get really useful visuals. This means I can filter by an individual and see what projects they own over the course of the year and how they overlap AND I can simply look at specific month and see how many promotions would overlap.

I was so excited that I just had to show some of my co-workers. It looks like we’ll be using this simple chart to give us visuals for several other planning-related activities. #soexcited


4 skills to help young leaders succeed

This article by Carey Nieuwhof is incredible: Seven Ways for Young Leaders to Overcome the Slacker Label. I think the content is a great encouragement/reminder for anyone who wants to succeed professionally.

His seven ways (which I recommend you read!) are:

  1. Show up early
  2. Show up prepared
  3. Develop a system for capturing to-dos with 100% accuracy
  4. Take notes
  5. Think productivity, not hours
  6. Advance the mission
  7. Ask for direct feedback

To these awesomely practical tips, I would add a few ideas that are more about skills that are developed over time:

  1. Identify solutions. When you go to work there will doubtless be things that are not working right. Many people become frustrated, start complaining or simply disengage because of organizational or process-related issues. By seeking to identify solutions and championing those solutions with the people who need to approve them, you can set yourself apart as a leader who is committed to the organization and to delivering value.
  2. Intentionally build relationships with people around you. Invite people to lunch or out for coffee. If you can afford to, buy their drink/meal. Think about questions you want to ask them. Learn as much as you can from other’s experience and perspectives. In the last 10 years. Identify people who have characteristics you want to emulate and intentionally pursue time with them. Doing this has changed who I am as a person and as a worker. I’ll be sharing about what I’ve learned as part of my Wall of Wisdom series.
  3. Learn active listening skills. Listening isn’t instinctive or even easy. Seek to understand what people mean more than what they say. Ask clarifying questions. The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about the value of listening. When I graduated from High School one of my mentors shared with me that the skill of listening was the most valuable tool to develop. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t get what she was saying. Then in the last few years it started to click I realized how on-target she was.
  4. Respect others, especially those in authority. Learning to respect others has been a long journey for me. The concept finally clicked when I read Created in God’s Image by Anthony Hoekema. The idea that everyone deserves respect simply because they are made in God’s image continues to rock my world. I have spent a lot of prayer time wrestling with Romans 13:1-7 about submission to authority. According to this passage God has specifically given individuals the authority they have. When I wrestle with a leader’s decision I always return to this concept, praying for wisdom on when to champion a different idea or when to accept their decision.

What about you? What skills do you think young leaders need to develop?