Tag Archives: to-do list

Strategic Planning and To-Do Lists… with EASE

Thompson Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Image Credit: (c) 2008, Nicole Radziwill.

Thompson Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Image Credit: (c) 2008, Nicole Radziwill.

In his September post to the Influential Voices, ASQ CEO Bill Troy discusses principles for effective strategic planning, gleaned from his years of experience with the U.S. Army. He also asks what principles we’ve found useful. Today, I’d like to share a little heuristic that Ron DuPlain and I came up with over lunch several years ago. It’s useful not only for strategic planning, but also for creating your daily or weekly to-do list, or even things like making a good grocery list.

EASE stands for Expectations, Actionability, Sustainability, and Evaluation. Here are some excerpts on EASE from a book I wrote for college students. (Note that several of the examples have to do with setting goals as a student… but these can be easily applied to any work situation.)

When you face a challenging problem, examine your scenario through the lens of EASE. Usually, you’ll find that you have a “failure” in only one or two of the EASE letters, and when you remedy that issue, all of a sudden your problem becomes easier to solve. Make sure all four elements are addressed when tackling a challenge that involves people (including you!) and obligations (such as meeting due dates, completing exams, and satisfying learning objectives).

E: Expectations. Did you ever ask your parents to borrow their car so you could go out with your friends? Chances are, unless you have the kind of parents I wished I’d had growing up, they set some expectations with you up front. When are you going to be home? Is anyone else going to be riding in the car with you? Are you going to pay for your own gas? Expectations like these help two people establish a shared situation that won’t get either of them mad or upset. You will need to set expectations with your stakeholders (in college, that primarily means your professors) and yourself about what you would want to get out of a particular class. Make sure everyone knows what the expectations are!! Check out the learning objectives that are outlined in the syllabus, and decide how you want to achieve them. (This means you need to set clear, specific, and reasonable goals.) Expectation setting ALWAYS beats surprises.

A: Actionability. Once you set your own clear goals, you need to figure out what actions to take to achieve those goals, and the actions must be actionable. I know this sounds funny, but I have seen way too many to-do lists where the doer has no hope to actually get the stuff done. Example: I had an item on my to-do list this morning that said “Tax Woman.” (What? I’m supposed to do the tax woman? OMG.) That task is not actionable, but if I’d said “Look up tax woman’s address, write and send payment” then… all of a sudden… I can get that job done. Making tasks actionable means figuring out how you are going to be an active and informed participant in achieving your goals. Figure out what you NEED for items on your to-do list to actually get done. All too often, you will have some tasks on your to-do list that you have no clue how to begin, and those items are not actionable. If you do not have all the resources, help, confidence, information, time, and skills to knock a task off your list, that task is not actionable. Don’t even try to start a task that’s not actionable, because you’ll end up sad or confused. You could potentially even start a downward spiral or fuel a pre-existing spiral with vigor and reckless abandon, if you dare to spend time on a task that’s not actionable.

S: Sustainability. Figure out how you are going to sustain the effort and the semblance of mind throughout the duration of your efforts… so that you can actually make your goal happen. Before the semester begins, figure out how you’re going to balance work life and school life so that you’re not maxing out your waking hours on the stressful pursuit of progress. (For example: if you are working at three jobs a total of 45 hours a week and taking 21 semester hours, this is not sustainable. However, you probably won’t know that until 70% of the way through the term when you catch pneumonia due to exhaustion, lose two of your three jobs, and miss so many classes and so much homework that you have to withdraw from one class and take an incomplete on another. What? You say that’s a completely unbelievable story? Answer: you’re wrong. This was my personal story the second semester of my sophomore year.)

E: Evaluation. Figure out how you’re going to measure whether you are on track or off track – and what you’re going to do as a corrective action if you find out you’re off track. Similarly, identify up front how often you are going to take a critical look at your progress. For coursework, you might want to check and see whether you’re allowing enough time to do your assignments. You may want to take a look at the grades and feedback you’re getting. Most of the time, just gauging how you feel about a situation or a problem is the most useful way to evaluate whether you’re progressing. If you feel nervous, anxious, or unsettled, chances are you’re not responding and reacting to that situation in a positive way. If you feel calm, peaceful, in control, paced, and you are enjoying yourself, chances are you are visualizing your desired goals constructively, detaching from outcomes (especially grades), and appreciating the journey towards your goals.

When you examine a strategy using EASE, oftentimes, you’ll find that you have a major failure on one or two of the four points. Simply by addressing those points, you will strengthen your ability to realize your strategy. Here are four types of “EASE failures”:

  • Expectation Gap – One or more stakeholders in your situation has no expectations or ill-defined expectations, or different players have conflicting expectations which sets up an expectation gap. The solution here is to set expectations through conversations and by recording points you agree on, or alternatively, to close expectation gaps through conversation and consensus.
  • Limited or No Actionability – You’ve got stuff to do and tasks defined, but you don’t have the time, resources, skills or clarity required to do them. Fix this by making sure you have everything you need to get started on each to-do list item, and you can launch into them with confidence.
  • Inability to Sustain – You’ve bit off more than you can chew or are working at a pace that will exhaust your time, resources, emotions, or well-being. Scope down and set more reasonable expectations. Figure out how to work at a comfortable pace where you can make more regular, steady progress.
  • Lack of Assessment or Evaluation – You’ve set expectations and have actionable tasks, but you aren’t revisiting the expectations to make sure that they remain relevant, or perhaps you’re just not doing it frequently enough. Also check your emotional barometer.

By examining your intended strategy or activity through the lens of EASE, you can identify and remove potential blocks before they become problematic. Good luck!

Inspiration is the Fuel, Mindfulness is the Tool

(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

I always thought mindfulness was some sort of Zen-like state of nirvana and bliss. (Great for improving the quality of my life in general, but maybe a little too fluffy and spiritual to have any practical value at work.) But, like a lot of others, I tried really hard to develop mindfulness and become more mindful. Even if it wouldn’t help me get more done at work, I was still on board to get that blissful feeling. So I read lots of books! I tried to meditate. I found out I am really, really bad at meditating because I get distracted far too easily. But then I kind of found a way to back-in to a mindful state by just getting happy about stuff. But still, no real useful value for work. Until yesterday, when I realized what mindfulness really is! And this revealed to me just how useful mindfulness can be at the office.

Mindfulness is being able to focus on whatever you want to, or need to, at your command. 

(For example… having problems getting that report done for your boss? If you had trained yourself – practiced your mindfulness – you might not be procrastinating so much. You’d just be able to hop into your mindful state at will, and start being productive without a struggle, or a wandering mind.)

Mindfulness also means being able to shut out any distractions that keep you from your focus – eliminate them from your reality, so that they are just not there. Mindfulness means that you’ve developed the ability to propel yourself into flow, which is your groove of optimal productivity.

If inspiration is the fuel that catalyzes productivity, mindfulness is the tool that will help you pick up those items on your to-do list and start making progress on them without resistance.

So practicing mindfulness… you know, all that breathing and paying attention to the flow of your thoughts… they are just exercises to help you develop your “focus easily and on command” muscles. 

Instant Productivity

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

I’m always more productive when I’m actively avoiding something I need to do, but don’t want to do. Yet.

That’s actually the state I’m in at this very moment. This morning, I have to put together a survey. Now, putting together an online survey is not a real thought-intensive process. You have to figure out what questions to ask… you have to drag and drop icons to make sure that your question types are represented… and then you click on the “Response 1” and “Response 2” text and type in what the real responses should be. I have a little more labor to undertake, since I have to double-click on a Dropbox folder and pull out a couple paragraphs of text that I need to include on the survey. But for some reason, I’m just resisting and resisting getting this super important task done – which is now two days late, and I’ll be extremely embarrassed if it’s three days late, because I confessed my sins of procrastination at a meeting yesterday afternoon and vowed to be faithful to my commitment on this, the third day…

And well, you know how it goes.

In the meantime, I’ve become ultra productive regarding everything else on my to-do list. I’ve prepared for two of my Monday classes. I’ve posted new resources to the online learning management system for my students. I’ve started reading a book I promised to review for a publisher. I’ve done two loads of laundry. And it’s not even 10 in the morning yet.

This is making me wonder whether I should always have an “avoider task” on my to-do list. It’s great fuel to push me to do the others.

Too Much to Do, Not Enough Time

(This is a repost of an article I originally wrote on July 7, 2008 at espressomind.com and edited again in January and June 2011. I was thinking about it again yesterday, when I recognized that if you’re having a hard time getting things done on your to-do list, that might be a sign that your activities don’t authentically line up with what you value. If there’s alignment, it’s usually easier to get things done.)

I have enough time for everything that I need to do! Sound like an unachievable nirvana? It’s not. Through relentless soul-searching (trying to figure out why I didn’t have any time to exercise over a three-year period) I discovered that if you don’t have enough time to do something, then one of the following is probably true:

  • You haven’t prioritized the activity high enough.
  • You are imputing higher importance to activities that are really less important.
  • You’re trying to complete too many activities in too short a time.
  • You expect more of yourself, in general, than you are reasonably able to accomplish.
  • You just don’t value the activity you’re avoiding, or its results.

Sometimes, you may be struggling with more than one of these challenges. When I tried to figure out why I had no time to exercise, I was faced with all five.

First, if something is important to you, it will become a priority. When I was complaining that I never had enough time to exercise, what I was really doing was prioritizing exercise right out of my daily routine. Other things were just more important to me, whether I wanted to admit it or not: putting in face time at the office, doing more and more tasks from my office to-do list, spending time with family, reading books, surfing the Internet, and writing research papers (yes, I really like that!)

My second challenge was that I placed too much importance on face time at the office. For my job, I can accomplish almost as much from home (sitting on my computer) as I can do when I’m physically located in the office. My old morning schedule was to wake up at 7, get online for 45 minutes to check email and handle a few of the day’s tasks, get into work by 9, crunch on the to-do list until 5, then spend a couple of hours at night finishing up the tasks I couldn’t complete before leaving. And then I would feel guilty when I didn’t get absolutely everything off the to-do list for the day, even when I had accomplished what others might consider exemplary. I finally asked myself: what’s more important, showing up on site or getting things done? I had to acknowledge that the latter was indeed more important, and accept that taking a walk in the middle of the day (especially if I thought about important problems along the way, or brought a colleague to have a needed discussion) was OK!

My third challenge was taking on too much. Before I reorganized myself, my daily to-do list had between 10 and 12 items on it. Now it only has the 3 or 4 most important tasks that would have been on the longer list. I typically get all of the tasks done during the day, and as a result I feel less guilty when I get home. There is more time for playing trains with my son, or watching a movie, or doing laundry. (Is laundry really important to me? I found out that on most days, it’s not. On the days that I’m running out of clean clothes, it becomes much more important.)

I still expect more of myself that I’m reasonably able to accomplish, but I’m not sure this is a problem – it stimulates me to learn new things every day and to keep pursuing new challenges. I just have to remind myself that I’m running a marathon, and resist the urge to evaluate whether I’m making progress on a day to day basis. Sometimes, you just have take a step back, and let progress take shape over a slightly longer period of time.

So how did I solve my exercise challenge? I set my expectations for myself a little lower, I stopped feeling guilty about less face time at the office (meaning I chose to impute less importance to it), and I made sure that my daily agenda included taking a 2 or 3 mile walk a couple times a week. On those days, that walk ranks #1 or #2 on my short to-do list, alongside the report writing or meetings I might otherwise be obligated to do.

I’m doing less, I’m getting more done, I’m feeling less guilty, and I’ve lost 10 lbs. already as a bonus. I think it’s a good deal, and I’m willing to make the process of self-evaluation that got me here important so me so I can reap some more benefits.