Time management is such a weird term because when you come to think of it, time is something that is not exactly within your control. What you can control though, is how you spend it. Time tracking, whether done manually or with the aid of tools, helps you allocate your energy better so that you can get more work done during the hours that work best for you. Penny Zenker enthusiastically discusses this with Deb Allison Lee, a digital productivity coach, certified professional organizer and Evernote certified consultant who specializes in helping entrepreneurs use technology to increase productivity. For Deb, time management is really just about knowing how your energy works, identifying your peak times and organizing your day around them. And there is no cookie-cutter approach to this, as very individual has their own rhythm. Listen in and learn how you can optimize yours with Deb’s personal tips on time tracking plus some app recommendations that just might make things a tad easier.
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How Time Tracking Helps You Become More Productive With Deb Allison Lee
Deb Lee is here, and I’m excited to have her. She’s a Certified Professional Organizer, speaker, Evernote certified consultant, and the woman behind D. Allison Lee LLC. She’s a self-subscribed appaholic. Some of you can relate, and I’m sure. She’s also a digital productivity coach, which helps small business owners and company founders master the leverage and leverage technology to increase productivity.
Deb, without further ado, welcome and tell us about that.
Thank you for having me. I love being here. I love talking about productivity. I’m one of those people that like to put productivity with technology. Some people have a little bit of a difficult relationship with tech and with apps. I like to find ways to have the tech help us to do the things that we need to do, to add a little bit of automation so that we can focus on the things that we should be focusing on instead of trying to figure out the tech. That’s my approach to productivity.
What’s your background? You’re a professional organizer. What makes you love and be passionate about helping people or yourself to be more productive?
As a professional organizer, back when I started, I would help people organize their stuff. I would organize their physical things in their offices and their homes because clutter would often impact their productivity. They wouldn’t be able to manage their household. A lot of times, I was getting questions about, “How do I handle my time?” It was stuff in time and time kept coming up. As my life changed, I pivoted and changed directions slightly. I don’t do the physical stuff anymore. I’m focusing more on productivity.
The physical stuff comes up if I’m working with a client where I go into their office and we’re talking productivity, but we’re resetting their desk because oftentimes, the desk is the hub. It’s the hub of the main space. It’s where you sit or stand, depending on the desk you have. If that is cluttered or if you have too many things there, or if you don’t have it laid out the way that works for you, your brain, your work style, then it can impede you. It may not be the main part of what I do anymore, but it comes up every so often, time management, how to use your time, and how to save time. It’s funny, we talk about time like it’s this tangible thing. We can’t hold it.
We can control it like time management, why don’t we even use that expression if you’re managing time? There are 24 hours a day and it will tick by no matter what you do. It’s still going to go tick on.
They’re going to be the same but you can manage your energy.
I talk about that a lot too.
Manage your energy and peak times. You know when you have the afternoon crash. I am not an afternoon person. If you want me to do it well, talk to me at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. Send it to me. I will be blazing 3:00 or 4:00. I’m good but not as good at 7:00. Knowing yourself, your own vibes, and what your rhythm is, some people might be night owls and that’s okay too. Managing the energy, managing your peak moments, and using the tools that work for you. It shouldn’t be cookie-cutter. I like apps, but maybe you need paper notebook. Try to write down what you need. It depends on who you are.
Before we go into some of the tools and solutions, I want to talk about another couple of points about this energy management piece. You talked about in the morning you can get a lot more done. You can expand upon this. For me, it’s also different types of work at different times. I’m great because I need concentration. I’ve got that energy to concentrate in the morning so that I can do content creation or research. I like to fill my afternoons with interacting with people. That brings me energy. At times when I might tend to be lower energy, I do those activities that boost my energy.
That makes a lot of sense. To know when the difficult work, when you need to tackle that harder, mentally heavy stuff. For me, that’s still morning. The content creation, the writing, and putting the thoughts together, I need morning time for that. If I have to write something at the end of the day, I can still do it, and I can do it well. It’s not as well as if it were earlier in the day. Knowing the activities that energize you. By the way, it’s perfectly okay to get the energy by stepping away from your desk.
In the afternoon, I step away from my desk and if I can’t go outside because I also don’t like being cold, I will walk around my house or I’ll do some jumping jacks. I’ve been meditating which is very different than jumping jacks. It’s a different energy and some days call for, “Deb, deep breath, focus in on the breath. Take two minutes.” I don’t mean ten minutes, just two minutes to reset, refocus, and getting some water. Getting up from this space often will reenergize me and get me to say, “I reset. I’ve got another ten minutes to go.” I like to work in small increments of time. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
There is no cookie-cutter approach to productivity. Know your own rhythm and structure your day around it. Click To Tweet What are the increments that are right for you?
Perfect for me is 45 to 60 minutes. If I’m writing, 90 minutes is much better because I get in a flow and the words are pouring out of me. Other times, I need ten minutes. What happens is I convince myself it’s ten minutes and then it ends up being somewhere around 30. I double my output by saying, “Ten minutes.” That’s all you have to give. Nothing more, nothing less, set your timer, and off you go. If we wait for motivation to drop in our lap, we’ll never do it. Motivation is amazing but we can still get work done without it. Ten minutes is quick but I can do lots of things in ten minutes. Imagine that. Cross them off and get going.
I can write a paragraph in ten minutes. I convince myself and I also picture myself being successful at the end of those ten minutes. The feeling I will have when I put in what I say I’m going to put in. I know that I will put in 30 minutes, I say, “You’re going to be happy that you did this. You’re going to feel great when you’re done.” The feeling that hasn’t happened yet but will also propel me forward. There’s a combination of things that I do to help myself in anything. For the audience, they need to figure out what those things are for them. I’m a firm believer in talking to myself, not answer all the time, but I do talk myself through situations. If we know what those things that work for us are, we need to create a routine around them.
For you procrastinators out there, you don’t have to wait for the motivation. These are strategies that you can use to get started. Once you’re started, momentum happens.
Momentum starts to come. If it doesn’t come, it’s okay. Put in your 10 minutes or 20 minutes, and then you can move on to the next thing.
You made an important point. That’s why I asked you what’s your timeframe for your time blocks or your segments is for people to understand with their attention. Given that they’re blocking out, taking away some of the distractions, or whatever, how long can they focus? Some people have short attention spans. Twenty minutes is a better block for them whereas other people can do a 90-minute stretch, no problem. Know who you are and work with your energy type. Every 20 to 30 minutes, you need a quick energizer and then you can get back into it.
There’s no cookie-cutter here and there’s nothing wrong with you. You said, “I can’t sit for 60 minutes.” Get up. Don’t torture yourself. Don’t do that to yourself at all. Use the tools that you have. Make the tools and strategies work for you. Don’t try to fit yourself into them. If you have to fit yourself into them, you need a different strategy. One that syncs with you. That takes some trial and error. Maybe testing a few things and testing them for a while to see if they work or not and then building a solid routine. That’s what we’re trying to do. Build productivity habits that stick and work.
You mentioned something also of those breaks. Those breaks are important and give yourself permission to take those breaks because without those breaks, we don’t realize that our energy hits that peak and then it starts to go down. It’s like a frog that slowly boils in the warm water. We have to know ourselves and make ourselves go for the breaks. I love the fact that my watch will tell me to get up and sometimes it’s a matter of changing the environment too. Sometimes, I work better at the kitchen table or in my office. I need to mix it up.
I love to mix it up too. Now, I’m in my basement. It’s bright and airy down here but it’s also cold. I can’t be here for very long. I have my whole setup, and then I’ll go upstairs and I’ll work in my office, which, to be honest, is a complete wreck because I was planning a birthday party for my kiddo. All of her stuff is in my office. I’ll move myself over to the kitchen counter and I’ll stand. Some days, I need to be upright. Just because the strategy works now, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to work tomorrow because tomorrow is a different day.
You may be tackling something different that requires that movement or shift in environment back when we could all go off to the local cafe and work, which I used to do all the time. I love the hum of people talking. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I hear them. There’s this hum, I hear plates, I hear dishes, I’ve got my coffee, and I can get some good eats if I have to. I’m in a zone, and I loved that. Try to recreate that now. It’s a little trickier.
Did you know that you can play different audios? You can go on to Spotify or FM1 where they have specific channels that you can also tune in, like a coffee shop.
Play around with it. If you’re not in that vibe, it’s okay. We don’t beat ourselves up way too much. We probably get a lot more done than we realize, but we also have that negative talk happening. I’m guilty of it too. It’s not that I’m perfect. It’s just that I have a few more tools that perhaps are at my disposal. Again, I talk to myself a lot and I say, “Ten minutes is better than zero minutes.” Use whatever those things are and know yourself, know your own rhythm, how you best work, and work with that. Don’t try to change. That’s my personal opinion.
A lot of people think in terms of a shortcut like, “I want to get the results and I want to get it fast.” I’ve been asking the guests to share their favorite shortcut. If you have one thing that makes everything easier for you, maybe it’s an app, it’s a way of thinking, or it’s something you tell yourself. What would your shortcut be?
I don’t know if it is a shortcut, but it has become a habit and that is planning ahead. I don’t mean a ten-page production. What I mean is, “What do I have coming up the next day? How much can I accomplish?” Taking ten minutes to look ahead, look at my next day, and look at my calendar. I’m using a digital calendar so that helps. I can do some searching. If I need to, I can use a keyword that will cut down on my sifting through a paper calendar.
For me, that works. If that lasts 5 to 10 minutes of the evening before of looking ahead, not just at the next day, but then also a little bit beyond so I’m prepared. I find that when I don’t do that, I miss things like appointments or I’m thinking, “Is there something coming up?” There’s that nagging feeling, which I don’t like. It’s awful. There’s something looming that doesn’t feel good. I make a point that every night, I checked my calendar for the coming day. I look another day or so beyond that to see what’s next.
I do have to-do lists that I like to keep and that’s on paper. I love paper to-do list. I’m an app girl. I love apps. If you want to talk apps, we’ll talk apps forever. I love this notebook. I can take pages out, I can remove them, and rearrange them. I write down my to-do list. I crossed them out. I feel like a rock star paper, but if I have an appointment, that’s digital. You work with what you have, but for me, it’s a little bit of preparation the night before. It’s not a shortcut, it’s a habit, but it’s a quick one.
In the context of it takes you a couple of minutes, by doing that, it creates efficiency for those days that you’re doing it.
That is correct. It’s something that I do every night and to make sure that I do it, I have a repeated reminder in my phone that says, “Check your calendar,” because there are days when you were going and going, and the end of the day is here. When it’s hectic, you sometimes lose sight of those things that ground you your routines. I build in the backup to the mental memory break, “I’m stressed and I’ve forgotten to do something.” I have a reminder that says, “Check your calendar.” Look at it. You don’t have to do anything. If you’re looking at it then you’ll figure out what you have to do the next day. Do you have to be prepared? I knew what time I had to be here. I showed up, I was ready because I checked my calendar the night before, I’d say 5 or 10 minutes at the end of the day.
Let’s talk about apps a little bit because people love the apps. I do want to put this out there for everybody. The tool is not going to solve all of your problems. It’s a picking process. Tools do help but I want to make sure that people are aware that you have to also step back, look at your approach, and see which tools are going to fit you. Not that I get too hung up on that.
Before you even look at an app or download an app, figure out why you need it and figure out if you need it because maybe you don’t. Your friend tells you this app works for him or her. That’s great but they are different than you are. Can you look at it? Can you test it? Absolutely. Why do you need it? I like telling people to figure out what it is that they’re trying to solve. We’re solving for why. What are you trying to solve? What’s the issue? Map out. What are the steps? The buzzword is workflow.
That’s pretty much what it is. Step-by-step, what is it that you’re trying to do? Where’s the hole? Do you have a hole? If the answer is yes, is technology the best way to fill it? If the answer is yes, then go searching for the best tech tools to help you to do that. The answer doesn’t always equal yes. If you’re tech-averse, that’s fine. It’s an analog way of doing it. That’s okay too. Figure out the problem first, if technology can solve it for you, and then if the answer is yes, get it. I absolutely agree with you on that 100%.
Share some of the tools. If you were to say I’m going to take your computer, your phone, and I’m going to wipe them clean, and you’re going to add them back. What are the first apps that you’re going to add back outside of your mail and your calendar? Outside of that, what are those apps that you rely on day to day?
Evernote is one because I use it for writing. Evernote is the first place I go to write. It’s my hub for writing of any sort. It’s also a great place to put all of the brain dumps and the ideas that pop up when you’re supposed to be doing something important and they float to your brain. They’re the shiny squirrel that crosses by your desk. They try to pull your attention away. Evernote is a great place to throw them in there.
I started with Evernote and it was simple. It was a clean interface and this is years ago. It has changed and updated quite a bit. I built a routine around Evernote in writing and it stuck because it worked for me. I loved that clean, non-distracting interface that it built around writing. I love that it’s robust and that you can use it for other things too. That’s where people get a little tripped up with it.
Use it for things that is not designated for. Is that what you mean?
Trello is a project management and it’s Kanban-style, boards and lists, it’s set up for you. You use the templates as you see fit. Evernote is this blank canvas, you tweak, and you fix it. It’s building something of your own. There’s nothing set up. There are templates now these days. When I first started using it, we didn’t have that, but you still have to come up with your way of using it. It’s not as intuitive in that way but for those who have been using it for a long time, we’ve built that habit around it. For me, that certainly is true. I connect it very much and strongly to writing and the brain dump in. I’m collecting things that I want to refer to later.
If I had a magazine basket of things I wanted to read and then reread, I would throw it in Evernote because it’s my long-term depository. I would use an app like Pocket or Instapaper or other tools like that. Those would be my short-term reading. Those little articles that came across my desk, that I wanted to see but when I was done with them, I would delete them. My workflow has changed a little bit. I don’t need those two anymore. I focused on Evernote primarily. That’s one of them.
You probably get a lot more done than you realize. You just have to be more aware of how you spend your time so that you can optimize it. Click To Tweet Before you go on, I want to say I use Evernote too. I’m using it for a long time. What I like about it is the searchability. When you talk about dumping everything in there, I take notes in it, and I dump it because I hate the search functionality in my Mac. When I went to Mac years ago, they said that it was better than Windows. It’s not. They’re all the same, but Evernote, without even tagging, it will find me the words in the text, and it’s so robust. That’s why I like it. I can find one word that I know that I use, and it will bring up four notes instead of hundred notes that I need to go through.
It’s perfect for search. That’s such a great point to bring up. It’s powerful. You can search inside of the PDF. You can search texts inside of an image. You can save various content like audio. You can type it in. You can do handwritten notes and take a picture of that. It’s very versatile, but you need to know how you want to use it for it to be effective. That’s where other tools like Trello sometimes. It comes already ready. It’s prepared and then you use the interface that you get. Again, find the one that works best for you, but Evernote search is amazing.
What are some of the other tools that he would add-in first?
I like Any.do. It is a task manager. When I first started using it, I used it with the friend and colleague. We were doing a talk together. There were certain parts of the talk that we were both responsible for. She was using it. Shout-out to Kim Oser. She then assigned me inside of Any.do a task. When I checked it off, she got pinged. I was like, “This is amazing. I love it.” This was before I started using Basecamp and some of those other tools but this one was a nice way to collaborate with someone else on something very specific. She didn’t have to ask me, “Did you do this or did you do that?”
It was obvious because she would be notified whenever I did. I loved it for that purpose. It also has a personal feature that I love, which is a grocery list. It’s a standard list that I keep recreating. You can check things off. When you check it off, it gets online right through it. I love that. It’s not the same as writing it but close enough. I love that grocery list and I’m able to organize. I know this sounds silly but from my brain, I love organizing. It’s by aisle, by type of item, produce, and pantry items. I can do that and I love it. It works well with my brain. Any.do would be one that I would absolutely put right back there. Calendar, Evernote, and Any.do.
I’m going to say not necessarily productivity, but Twitter. I say Twitter because in this time of COVID where I don’t see people as much as I could in the past, I’m able to maintain contact with folks and meet new people. Twitter has been great for conversation. When I’m taking a break, I can have that conversation. I know Twitter can be a time suck. I do my 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or 90 minutes, Twitter is my reward. I have to put in the work first so I can have the conversation but I’d say for something fun, which I do think also helps with your productivity. You can’t be all the time going, “I would put Twitter in there.”
One of the things that you have is Time Tracking Worksheet. Let’s talk about time tracking and why should people time track. Let’s start there.
Sometimes, we know that we need to improve our “management of time” or how we use our time. You don’t quite understand what it is that’s taking our attention away. It’s what it is when you’re using time, and you use it for a purpose. If you sit down at your computer to start writing, Twitter is up on the screen, and then you notice that your attention is a squirrel, you’re moving away. Some people aren’t aware of where the time goes. Sometimes, you feel busy and at the end of the day, you were exhausted, but you’re not quite sure what you’ve got done.
Everybody can relate to that.
We can all relate to that. Time tracking and seeing where the minutes go, the data doesn’t lie. The numbers do not lie. If you have an hour to complete something, the hour is up, and you haven’t got anything done. Let’s assess, and let’s see where the time went because when you know where the time went, you can make a plan to address that. I said Twitter can be a time suck. All social media can be a time suck. We all know that. I use it as my reward. That’s my strategy. I can’t get to that until I do this. If you don’t know that it’s Twitter, Facebook, it’s someone who calls, or it’s the dishes in the sink if you work from home, and you can’t stand seeing dishes in the sink.
Everything has to be clean before you start working. Tracking your time gives you the opportunity to figure out where it goes, what’s working, and what needs to be addressed. For me, time tracking shouldn’t be, “It’s awful.” It’s an opportunity to make some good change and keep what’s working. Tracking your time whether you do it manually or using a spreadsheet or something, put in 6:00 AM I woke up, went down and got coffee at 6:30, and map out your day because it might also show you if you’re working too much. Not spending enough time doing other things outside of work because then overwork brings us closer to burnout and exhaustion. We’re looking for a balance or an integration. I prefer that word. I don’t think balance is the right word. You want to be able to have a nice integration of work and life. You’re not overdoing it in any one area and that you’re not overdoing it at work and keeping yourself frazzled because then you can’t be productive.
It comes back to managing your energy. We’re full circle around but it’s about managing your energy.
Track the time and look at where it goes.
What’s that link that they can go to? How can they get more information about you, your services, some videos, and things that you’ve got?
I can be found about everywhere on the web, @DAllisonLee. My website is DAllisonLee.com. I also have a free download on my website that they can take a look at for productivity apps.
You’ve got a free Time Tracking Worksheet and you’ve got all your favorite apps listed in your website.
I’ve got my top five apps. If you wanted to take your company online or to productive online, there are five apps that everybody needs to have. That’s also a free download on my website.
Thank you so much for being here, Deb. It was a lot of fun and informative.
Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Thank you all for being here. I hope you took some notes and you wrote down some tips. What we’re looking for from each one of these blogs that you’re reading, if you find one thing that’s going to help you improve the way you approach, how you do your work or your play, or something that helps you think differently and be more productive in what you’re doing, that’s our goal. With that, you should be able to take back time. Whether that means work less, work smarter, or whatever it means to you. That’s our mission here to help you to be more productive and to get to your goals faster. Thank you so much for supporting the show. Make sure that you’re going in and you’re checking us out on all the different locations that we’ve got access to. Make sure you subscribe because it’s not just that you can comment. Also make sure that you’re here for the next episode. Every Friday we release a new blog. We’ll see you at the next episode.
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