Build an effective time-management system

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, The Productivity Pro®

Everyone has a different time-management system — a way of tracking appointments and things to do that has worked ever since you can remember. Although there really is no "correct" time-management system, it's important to remember that the method you use must satisfy the HUG principle.

That is, your system should be Handy, Usable, and Garbage-free.

Embrace the HUG principle

H for Handy     People who don't keep their time-management systems handy are ones I call "scrappers." They're easily identifiable by all the little scraps of paper everywhere — envelopes, sticky notes, and even matchbook covers. That's because they don't carry their systems with them to meetings or to lunch. Not having anything to write on, they grab the nearest available piece of paper (or write on their hand).

Whether you're using a mobile device or a traditional paper planner or notebook, carry your system with you at all times. Scheduling meetings or checking due dates can happen in the oddest of places. You might want to switch to a smaller system if your current system is too cumbersome to always keep handy.

U for Usable     A usable system combines both your personal and your professional lives. If you've ever tried to keep separate work and home calendars, you know you'll inevitably have conflicts.

For example, you might be at home talking to a friend on the phone, and she suggests a lunch date on Thursday. Not having your work calendar with you, you're not sure, but you think you might have an appointment. You schedule the lunch anyway only to realize later on that, sure enough, you've got a conflict. Or, at work, your team wants to schedule a brief meeting on Saturday morning, but your home calendar is, well, at home. So you schedule the meeting, only to be reminded when you get home that your seven-year-old is in a soccer tournament that weekend.

It's important to keep your entire life in one place and carry it back and forth with you regardless of where you are. Write your contact information, as well as "Reward if found" and a dollar amount somewhere obvious on your paper planner or mobile device, in case you should accidentally leave it somewhere.

G for Garbage-free     A mobile device is naturally garbage-free, because it can't hold any paper. However, if you're using a paper system, you should be able to shake your planner, binder, or notebook without paper falling out everywhere. Remember, your system is not a briefcase.

Don't include unnecessary sections in your system. Reduce the sections to the information you actually use. Just because your planner came with a section for finances doesn't mean you must force yourself to use it. If your personal mission statement is in a Microsoft Office Word 2003 document, you don't have to write your statement in the goals section of your planner too. In other words, personalize and tailor your system to suit your needs.

And don't get too discouraged if your system doesn't immediately work. It may require a little trial and error. It's taken me years to create the perfect time-management system that's just right for me.

Paper vs. electronic

So, you may be asking yourself: Am I better off with a paper or electronic time-management system?

To answer this question, you must examine your personality and how you work. Fundamentally, you must decide whether you're a paper or electronic person, because your decisions will largely be dictated by this choice. "Paper" people forced to use mobile devices and electronic gadgets get extremely frustrated. "Electronic" people will pass out at the mere suggestion that you print an e-mail message.

Of course, it doesn't have to be all or none. It's possible to use a combination approach. On one hand, mobile devices are great if you need to retrieve client phone numbers while on the road, access large documents, or send yourself reminders. On the other hand, paper systems are better for reviewing a monthly calendar, taking notes at meetings, or planning projects. If you're a paper person but you use Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 to allow others to schedule meetings with you, that's great. You can just rewrite the information on your planner pages or print your Outlook pages in Franklin Covey format and insert them into your planner. If you have to, note your other commitments in Outlook as well, and then print the pages to store in your planner, if you prefer to carry that with you.

If forcing yourself to use, for example, an electronic system you hate makes you not use it at all, I recommend double-entry back to your paper system. I do it — and I can beat you hands down finding something by using my paper system rather than using an electronic tool. Not that I'm against mobile devices; I just don't prefer them myself. I like a written to-do list and a visual view of my monthly appointments, so I stick with my preferred system.

Still undecided?

ShowSome advantages and disadvantages of paper-organizers versus electronic-organizers

Paper-organizer advantages Paper-organizer disadvantages
You take notes right into your planner. You can lose your planner and have no backup system.
It can't break or doesn't need batteries. You can run out of room in A-Z tabs to write names, addresses, and phone numbers.
Planner pages and page finders are visually attractive. Pages can get messy.
It provides more room to write. No security or password is required, so others can flip open your planner and view your information.
You may be able to write and retrieve information more quickly than when using the stylus for a mobile device. It can be large and bulky. Smaller versions often don't have enough writing surface and calendar space.
You can customize features and forms that meet your needs. Also, it's inexpensive to maintain. It's often overflowing with assorted papers and sticky notes.
Electronic-organizer advantages Electronic-organizer disadvantages
It's lightweight, small, and portable, making it perfect for frequent travelers. There is no month-at-a-glance view that shows your appointments. You must click individual days on a monthly calendar to see appointments for that day.
A mobile device can hold thousands of contact names and numbers that are easily accessible. Note taking is tedious and time-consuming with cryptic shorthand, or you must carry a separate keyboard.
It's always current when synchronized with your desktop computer. You risk crashes, data wipeouts, and being on the road without your calendar.
You can integrate it with Outlook and popular contact management databases. Also, you can access your e-mail if your mobile device has wireless capability. You can't carry papers and notes in it for a meeting.
You have plenty of space to list today's to-do items. List items roll forward automatically if they aren't completed on time. You need paper to take notes, which must be typed into computer a second time (double-entry) at home base.

Important sections in your time-management system

Whether you opt for paper, a mobile device, or a combination of both, here are a few time-management tools that you'll want incorporated into your system.

Calendars     A multitude of paper calendars are available, each one designed to fit different needs. A month-at-a-glance calendar may be all you need if you have a couple meetings or appointments per day. A week-at-a-glance calendar is helpful if you have many meetings and need more room to write. A page-a-day or two-pages-a-day view is perfect for keeping a daily appointment page, your to-do list, meeting directions, and notes all in one place.

Alternatively, you can create your own customized calendar. Use Word 2003 to create a blank calendar template (or use a template from the Microsoft Office Online or the Work Essentials Web sites), customize the template as necessary, make copies of it, and insert it in a three-ring binder.

Or, if you prefer to organize your day electronically, a calendar program such as Outlook will show the appointments in month, week, and day views. (If you're using a Microsoft Windows Mobile–based Pocket PC as your mobile device, you'll find that it includes scheduling, messaging, and task-management applications that can synchronize with your desktop copy of Outlook.)

To-do lists     To-do lists keep track of action items, not meetings or appointments. You should have two different to-do lists, a daily and a master. A daily to-do list is the first thing you see in the morning when you arrive at work and the last thing you see before leaving the office; it keeps you focused and on target throughout the day. A master to-do list is an ongoing list that you use to keep track of things that you might want to do in the future, but ones that you're not ready to add to your daily to-do list.

Lists reduce the clutter in your mind, because you can write something down and then forget it. For example, if you needed a few items at the grocery store, you could make a list, run in, and grab just the items you need. Or you could walk up and down each aisle, looking at every product, hoping your eye will catch something and trigger your memory. If you get your shopping done a half hour earlier by using a list, you could spend your time doing more important things.

If you prefer an electronic version of the lists previously mentioned, you can use the Notes feature in Outlook for lists for such things as groceries, gifts, chores, errands, shopping, repairs, and birthdays. When you leave to run your errands, print your note, and off you go. The Tasks feature in Outlook is also excellent for this (and by using the Tasks folder, you can schedule your to-do lists in the Calendar folder in Outlook).

A-Z tabs     A-Z tabs are great for tracking addresses and contact information. If you use contact-management software or an e-mail program to track names and numbers, you can use a mobile device and synchronize the data so that you always have your contact information accessible.

You can also use paper A-Z tabs to track communications and lists. If you use a paper planner, purchase plain, lined paper that's the same size as your planner. Write the name of each person with whom you communicate frequently at the top: subordinates who report to you, key coworkers, clients, your boss, spouse, children, and so on.

As you think of things you need to discuss with another person, but don't have time to do immediately, simply turn to that person's log, filed behind the first letter in the person's name, and make a note. When you have several items "saved up," you can call to schedule an appointment to review your thoughts. Or refer to this planner section in a scheduled weekly or biweekly meeting with subordinates.

Also, keep track of lists filed behind the letter of the category, such as goals, values, classes to attend, books to read, shopping, errands, gifts, chores, vacation ideas, purchases, birthdays, holidays, and special occasions. Tailor this section to fit your needs.

Project tracking     Keep a separate section in your organizational system for each large project. These can be business, home, or personal projects, such as developing a new sales presentation, coordinating the department picnic, and redecorating the bathroom. Use numbered tabs to track updates, deadlines, or any crucial information for each project. Keep a separate file for all related paperwork.

If you're using an electronic system, you can create a new note in Outlook to outline the separate steps of your project. Then create a separate task for each one, including the start and due dates, to make sure that you're systematically working toward completion.

Find a time-management system that works — and use it

Remember, your time-management system is an organizing tool, not a backpack.

The easiest way to determine what you're missing is to ask yourself, "What frustrates me about my time-management system?" For example, do you often get stuck without anything to write on? Is your calendar back at your desk while you're trying to schedule a meeting?

By using the HUG principle, you can quickly determine the gaps in your system and fill in the missing components by using one of the critical sections previously discussed — calendars, to-do lists, A-Z tabs, and project tracking. You may have certain pieces working smoothly, but taking the time to determine how to fine-tune your system will reduce your frustration, improve your effectiveness, and ultimately save you time.

Just keep in mind that your organizing needs are as unique as you are. After you've found what works for you, be consistent. If you sometimes move an e-mail message to the Tasks folder, sometimes print it, and sometimes put it in a personal folder, you are very quickly going to confuse yourself.

Bottom line: Find out what works best for you, and stick with it — no guilt and no excuses.

About the author     Laura Stack is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., an international consulting firm in Denver, Colorado, that specializes in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations. Laura holds an MBA in Organizational Management (University of Colorado, 1991) and is an expert on integrating advances in business productivity with the retention of key employees. Laura is the author of the best-selling book Leave the Office Earlier (Broadway Books, 2004) and Find More Time (Broadway Books, 2006).

Applies to:
Outlook 2003, Word 2003