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Time Management with Two Notebooks and a Pen

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As the Marketing Director for the company I work for, time is a commodity that I have relatively little of.  My time is divided between coaching my team, creating a direction for our company's future AND actually getting stuff done.  As a result, I am forced to fit more into my day or face the consequence of long, lonely nights away from my beautiful wife.  

When looking at the options of increased efficiency at work vs. increased time at work, it is clear that increased efficiency trumps increased time 7 days of the week (well, hopefully only 5, if I am as efficient as I would like to be...).  To accomplish this task, I have come up with a simple system that anyone can use that has greatly helped me increase my efficiency and my execution, as it constantly re-focuses me on what is important and what tasks need to get done in a given day's time.  

The process is so simple and cheap that anyone can get started for less than $10!

It all boils down to two notebooks and a pen.  

The Pen

The pen is obviously used for writing.  It does not need to be fancy, but it should be comfortable, write well and be in abundance so you never have to wonder where your pen is. Basically, use what you like.   To me, the key is that they fit in the circular binding of your notebook and that you have lots of them.  I like the Pilot G-Knock Fine Point Pen.  They write well, are comfortable, and seem to fit nicely in my pocket or in the wire binding of the notebooks I use.  Naturally, they come in packs of a dozen, so they are readily available when I need them.  

Notebook #1

The first notebook is used for note-taking.  I write down any/all notes from meetings, phone calls, etc that come up.  It is the place that I keep track of my random thoughts, suggestions, ideas, etc.   90% of everything that I write is in this notebook.  Whenever I need to remember an idea that was discussed, the specifics about a project or the overall flow of the concept we were discussing, I can refer back to this notebook.  It is crucial to capture nearly everything that is noteworthy in this notebook.

Notebook #2

The second notebook is used for action items.  The ONLY thing that goes in this notebook are the action items that apply specifically to me, whether it is a task that I need to perform, something I need to follow up on, an email I need to send out, anything that I need to DO.  I organize my day by this list.  I have some symbols that I use to let me know, at a glance, where I am on each task.

A circle to the left of the task means I have started working on the project
A forward slash (/) through the circle means that the project still requires work from me, but it is currently in someone else's hands
An X through the circle (/ plus \) means that I have done everything I need to do on the project, but it is yet to be completed
A horizontal line through the task means that the project is finished and I have crossed it off my list

Each day, when I come to work, I look at where I am, what projects I need to give attention to, what is important, etc, and based on that information, I plan my day accordingly.  Each week, I carry the projects that are still in the works over to the next week's list and spend about 30 minutes adding other tasks that I would like to accomplish that week.  This gives me a fresh new task list to work from.  Having this list close by limits my down-time because I have a constant reminder of what I am working on, what needs my attention, what doesn't and what I need to do next.  

Why 2 Notebooks?

IMO, the KEY to this process working is the two separate notebooks.  With only one notebook, you are forced to constantly be flipping back and forth, trying to decipher your tasks from your notes.  I have found that when I do this, key action items regularly get missed because they are jumbled with all my other notes.  Having two separate notebooks with two separate functions will keep you organized and separate what you need to DO from what you need to REMEMBER, greatly increasing your chances of finding either when you need to.

BRING THEM WITH YOU!!!

If you don't bring them with you everywhere you go, this WILL NOT WORK.  I suggest getting small notebooks like this one so that you can easily carry them around with you.   Also, I suggest bringing them BOTH with you, as you should begin separating action items from notes from the get-go versus trying to remember which was which when you are out of the meeting, or more realistically a couple days later when you finally get back around to reviewing your meeting notes.

Good Luck!

Regardless of what you chose to help you manage your time, you need to make sure it works for you.  Everyone is different.  Some people have the luxury of bringing their laptop with them wherever they go, or they use their SmartPhone or PDA.  No matter what you use, the key is that you use something and that you separate your notes from your action items.  Left to your own devices, if you don't have a written, separated list, you are going to constantly find yourself working on the urgent over the important and worse yet, you will probably have to work 10 to 12 hours to accomplish what you could have in 8 or 9.

Hopefully this simple, practical, effective concept will help you with your time management, regardless of the resources available to you.  I know that the people who I have shared this with have found it to be a huge help in their efforts to better manage their time and I wanted to share it with you as well.

Hope this helps!
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Author:jhoekman
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13 Comments
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Expert Comment

by:Jason C. Levine
jhoekman,

Thanks for the article.  As odd as it seems for a technology-based site, there are some things are better done the old-fashioned way and task lists can be one of those things.

I have printed it out and stuck on the board at the office.
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by:jhoekman
Awesome, jason1178, glad to hear you liked it!  
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Expert Comment

by:mbizup
I second Jason's comments.

Pens and notebooks are highly underrated ;)

<With only one notebook, you are forced to constantly be flipping back and forth, trying to decipher your tasks from your notes.>

I particularly like these thoughts on using two notebooks.  I have been "flipping back and forth" between categories in a single notebook organized with sticky tabs for years, but the simple solution of using multiple notebooks has just never occurred to me.
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Expert Comment

by:John
jhoekman - this is the first article that I read, and appreciate you contributing. I personal enjoy the feel of a traditional paper notebook and the only pen I ever use, the Sanford Uni-ball micro in black. However, I find carrying less to/from the office to be a high priority in keeping my workload and messenger bag light. I don't have detailed instructions, but I've found that using Microsoft OneNote to be a fantastic way to capture everything, yet quickly identify priorities. It's ability to integrate with the entire Office suite and IE, is unmatched in getting information into a single instance to review. And then creating the prioritization task lists or outline notes is a snap using the tools available in OneNote. Even though it was originally designed for tablet PCs (I use a regular laptop), I highly recommend giving it a try so that you have everything in one place. And since we're either carrying our handheld or laptop to a meeting, it's such an easy way of getting new information into it via the handheld sync. By using 2 pieces of equipment most people already have, there's no need for 2 more. I find this a more simplified and streamlined workflow.
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by:Jason C. Levine
multispace,

However, the notebooks don't require batteries or an AC adapter :)
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Expert Comment

by:John
jason1178 - That's correct and I see your point on simplicity and I'm arguing the same thing. If you're already using MS Office and Outlook to keep everything together, and you're sync'ing that with your blackberry/iPhone/Palm (I'd guess 70% of the business world) then why add yet another silo of data that needs to be entered into your computer when you get the time to do it. If you manage your data within your existing toolbox, then isn't that simpler? SalesForce, Google and the like understand their market is already using these very common Microsoft apps and are finding ways to integrate that data into what people are already using. Shouldn't we find more creative ways of doing the same? Not adding to additional data entry tasks? BTW - I am very partial to nice stationary and smooth flowing pen. It definitely has it's place, I still do formal letters ever so often. I'm not anti-paper, I'm just pro-simplicity.
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by:Jason C. Levine
>> If you're already using MS Office and Outlook to keep everything together,

See, that's a big if.  Large businesses with the infrastructure to run Exchange and really take advantage of those applications are going to operate like that and they have support available to the end user.  Small business and individuals may or may not be taking full advantage of the handheld -> desktop synch because they don't have or they don't perceive they have the savvy/support to set it all up.  For those people, a simple paper-based system may trump all the tech you can throw at them because they intrinsically know it, understand it, and will use it.  The same cannot always be said for what you propose...

>> Not adding to additional data entry tasks?

I would think a paper system should not be replicated into the electronic system.  Again, different strokes for different folks.
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Expert Comment

by:John
jason1178 - I see your point. And actually I do support for small business (target is <20 EEs, ~$5-10 M revenue), but I think your comment about lack of support is accurate only for the smallest mom-n-pop shop, with 60+ year olds. I see my clients (not all that many yet - so my sample isn't huge), very interested in technology solutions. And although new to it, quite savvy in assimilating new technologies. And there are solutions that don't require large costs or sophisticated systems to support. My original post, involves nothing but Outlook/OneNote/handheld and a larger support infrastructure isn't needed. I also agree about "different strokes..." you have to use what you WILL use, but I still argue that moving your notes outside your regular respository of information will decrease that likelihood in using it regularly and with missing routine, will miss information.  
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Expert Comment

by:John
jason1178 - Please don't construe this debate as a lack of respect for your article. I think it was good and well though out, I just have a different opinion. Community contribution is important and you've contributed, and look was it sparked. Good job.
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Author Comment

by:jhoekman
Actually, it was MY contribution!  :)

I do think that digital has a good place for this kind of stuff, when you use it.  The thing I like personally about the notebook option is that I am more likely to use it because it is easier for me to take notes by writing than by computer, unless I always bring my laptop with me, which is harder to lug around.  However, that being said, if you do have a laptop that you can lug around, OpenNote sounds like a great option.

Tell you what, multispace, I have 'showed you mine', why don't you 'show me yours' and write a review or a tip/trick on how to effectively use OpenNote and how well you like it.

Has the gauntlet been laid down?  :)
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Expert Comment

by:John
jhoekman - I'll see if I can complete one this weekend. And will leave a link here. :)
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by:jhoekman
Sounds good!  
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by:Jason C. Levine
multispace,

As jhoekman says, it's not my article.  I wish I had thought of it.

>> Please don't construe this debate as a lack of respect

Of course not!  I think we actually are not disagreeing about all that much.  We both admit that how one keeps a task list is a highly personal decision.  You are biased towards the tech and I am biased towards paper but we both recognize that the user will use what they want to use.  The value in jhoekman's article is not "use paper" but rather the way he organizes the paper into a simple, easy to understand system.

>> I think your comment about lack of support is accurate only for the smallest mom-n-pop shop,
>> with 60+ year olds.

Unwarranted generalization and assumption.  There are plenty of younger, savvy businesspeople who are not comfortable with tech.  They use it because they have to as part of business (email, bookkeeping) but otherwise prefer other methods of organization.

>> decrease that likelihood in using it regularly and with missing routine, will miss information.  

Again, it depends on the workflow.  You are assuming someone is tied to the tech and the tech is always available to enter the notes.  This isn't my experience except for tech heavy jobs or tech savvy personnel.  

>> And although new to it, quite savvy in assimilating new technologies

Every new toy gets played with initially.  The true test is how long the user uses it.  I have had a Palm Pilot, Palm III, Palm VI, iPAQ, Palm V, Toshiba Pocket PC, some tablet, an iPod Touch, and now a Sony VAIO netbook thingy and I have to run/support Windows, Mac, and Linux every day.  That's a lot of tech and a lot of options.  But I still use paper lists.

A paper notebook is small footprint, lightweight, doesn't need power, survives being dropped, can be spill resistant, never needs patching, and doesn't crash or lose data.  Can you make the same claims? :)
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