Much ado about To-do

Sometimes a simple change can be very powerful. Sometimes even the most open to change person can be bull headed and recalcitrant. I saw how both of these statements applied to me this past week.

Once I came around to how powerful a to-do list could be, I was faithful in having a list every day. In fact, I worked to create a fresh to-do list at least 5 days a week for over two years now (I tracked it!)

However, I insisted that I create this to-do list at the start of my day. Even if circumstances forced me to create it later in the day, I was obstinate in my belief that I needed that list on the day I was going to be doing the things on that list.

Then things changed. My morning schedule was disrupted by the requirements of a contract. Plus, my sleep patterns had changed. Suddenly I still had my daily to-do list, but it was consistently being created later and later in the morning. I often ended up starting on items without having my list complete, and I occasionally allowed things to “jump-the-line” because I didn’t have my daily list created.

I was starting to get frustrated.

Finally realizing it couldn’t hurt, and if it did, I could switch back, I started doing my to-do list the night before. Now, I create it just before I go to bed.

The difference is amazing. I feel much more relaxed as I start my day, knowing that when I look at my list on my computer, my work list for the day is already laid out and waiting for me. I can just launch into it.

I had taken what had become a stress point, and made it back into the stress relief it was supposed to be.

When do you create your to-do list? Does it still feel right, or has it become uncomfortable? Most importantly, are you willing to try something new?

A few words on mindset

I find it interesting that almost every success seminar (for life or business – it doesn’t matter) that I have attended spends what might be considered an inordinate amount of time on mindset. Statements like “You have to be comfortable with making money!”,  and “You have to minimize negative self-talk” got beaten to death at the start of many seminars I attended.

So what does this have to do with organization or time-management? Simple. Mindset means nothing if you don’t have a to-do list for today that reflects reality and what needs to be done today (not tomorrow or next week, although those are good for your master list.) If you know where you need to go and you have a list that contains the things you need to do to get there, and you attack that list every day, your mindset and attitude will take care of itself.

The single best piece of no-nonsense advice regarding mindset and attitude I have encountered was from Stephen Covey in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. In essence (I’m paraphrasing here): If you are lost in New York, all of the positive thinking in the world won’t help you much if you are looking at a map of Chicago.

If you aren’t organizing your daily to-do list with tasks that reflect where you are and what will help you get to where you want to be, all the positive mindset and exercises to improve your self-talk aren’t going to do much. So much better to reflect on and execute what needs to be done rather than how you feel about it.

Making a list and checking it twice

Making a to-do list is critical to getting the right things done. I have had days where I have gotten a ton of stuff done, but it was all little fires that cropped up that day – it wasn’t what I wanted to get done. Why? Typically because I didn’t create my to-do list before the fires started.

The problem is there are as many ways to create a to-do list as there are things to do.

One expert I know says he writes down 3 things to do at the beginning of his day. If he finishes all three, he writes down another three.  Other experts will tell you to write down what you think you would like to get done and then prioritize the list. Then there are all of the hacks to make sure you follow your list.

For me the little psychological tricks of scratching things off a list and being able to shout to the heavens that YES I FINISHED MY TO DO LIST! that are supposed to inspire you don’t work.

I keep a master list, and each morning I select things to do from that master list, and I add anything new that I can think of. The resulting list is usually anywhere from 5 to 10 items long. I will often move what I consider the three most important things to the top of the list. 

I don’t care if I get through the whole list. I need to know (and not forget – hence the master list) what is on my plate. I know my deadlines, and I execute accordingly. I also need the flexibility to pick and choose from my to-dos when I encounter a delay on a project. I don’t need to spend time agonizing over which task is more important, or if this one is an A or a B priority. 

So how do you do your to-do list?

So how well does the average person manage their time?

I recently read a fascinating article on the Inc. website. According to the article, research suggested that in an 8 hour day the average worker was only productive for just under 3 hours! The article goes on to list what are the most common non-work activities and the time the average person spends on them (here is the link to the article if you’re interested:

That is a pretty amazing statement.

It really puts a whole new light on deadlines. Think how less stressful those deadlines would be if half the day wasn’t wasted doing trivial things (besides time wasted in useless meetings – not much you can generally do about them.)

More interestingly, as I reviewed that list, I thought how easy it is to slip into non-productive activities. This could be a real issue for employees or consultants/freelancers that work at home.

How much more could the average person do if they had a real system to stay on track?

I’m curious, how many of you believe that research conclusion, or have you heard different estimates? Tell me what you think in the comments.


There is no “Information Overload”

One of the biggest crocks still out there is that we are inundated with information, so much so that it can paralyze our decision-making. Like I just said, it is a crock.

We are inundated with data. However, there is a difference between data and information.

Data is, simply put, “stuff” or better yet, lists of “stuff.”  Last month’s sales numbers are data. How many people are on Facebook is data. This is what we are inundated with.

Information on the other hand, is data that is organized and presented in a way that allows us to take an informed action. It is data placed in context.
Rather than information overload, we often have an information deficit.

Check this out:

1 billion people use YouTube (10/3/2016)
4 billion views per day on YouTube  (1/23/2012)
6 billion hours of video watched per month (4/21/14)
40 minutes is the average time spent in YouTube in a session. (10/3/16)

OMG! That is amazing data! Why aren’t you producing videos on YouTube! Look at the audience! That simple list above is a perfect example of meaningless data. By the way, the site I pulled those numbers from (that pulled them from numerous other sites and studies) has another 140 fascinating statistics. Lots of data without any context!

Qualifiers that might turn some of that data into information depending on what you are looking for:

Age ranges of users
Types of videos viewed
Average time spent viewing what types of videos

It is easy to overwhelm yourself with data. Take some time and determine what data can be used to generate information and then focus on that. You will feel a lot less overwhelmed, and more successful.


Everyone has “Big Data”

Just about everybody has heard the term “Big Data.” Most likely you have heard it in the context of Fortune 500 companies or the government scanning millions or billions of pieces of information looking for patterns. These amazing feats of data analysis require special software packages and tons of hardware; did I mention millions or billions of pieces of data? So “Big Data” is strictly for these multi-billion dollar companies and the government, right? Well…

Even relatively small sets of data can have patterns. Obviously the more data you have the more confident you can be about the pattern, but if you have been in business for a few years or working on starting a business, you probably have more data than you think. When we hear the word “data” a lot of us immediately think “computer.” Understandable, but wrong. data is simply a collection of “things.” It could be your memories of the last 10 customers you worked with. It could be the sales figures in your accounting system. It could be the collection of invoices in your filing cabinets where you scrawled notes about the customer. The issue for most of us isn’t that we don’t have data, but rather we haven’t yet taken the time to organize and examine the data we have to see the patterns that exist, or don’t know how to.

In fact, you most likely have access to some very powerful tools to organize and analyze data. I’ll introduce those in upcoming posts.

The Presidential Debate: A Metaphor of the Marketing Challenge

First off, let me say this post has nothing to do with who should or should not be President of the United States.

No, what I thought interesting was for all of the analysis of who “won” or who scored a hit on the other, the end result of the debate will be pretty much nothing. No massive swing in the polls for one candidate or the other. Which makes the debate a perfect metaphor for so much marketing today: Lots of noise and hyperbole, but really nothing new, resulting in… few sales.

There was nothing new presented in the debate. No new policy announcements, no real solutions to real problems. People who were going to buy their candidate anyway are still buying, and those who weren’t…

This is the lesson that so few marketers allow themselves to learn. In today’s market, hyperbole works, but only if it is hyping something truly new and original. If you already have some customers who support you, they will stay with you (as long as you don’t actually do something to damage the trust you have built,) but you probably won’t attract too many new followers – we have heard it all before from too many sources, and it has become background noise.

The reality is you need to present something different, something unique – which is hard to do in a market flooded with competition. Find that differentiator, a true difference, and then scream it from the hills with all the hyperbole you can muster. Screaming the same thing over and over again won’t get you very far. Not today.

Proper Presentation

What good is data to prove a point if your audience can’t make sense of it? The obvious answer is: not much. The answer is so obvious that we often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to present our data in the most graphically attention-getting way figuring this will get our point across! Lots of colors, annotations, call-outs, 3D bars and pies. I freely admit to agonizing over just the proper angle of my 3D pie chart and just the right size of my vertical 3D bars.

Until now. Having read “Storytelling with data” by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, I now know that I was probably doing more to confuse my audience than enlighten them. Probably the single most striking advice she gives is: NO 3D. She is adamant about it. Why? Because to render a 3D graph, programs like Excel must make certain sacrifices in accurate placement of the bars and scales on the X and Y axes, which show misleading results.

I always thought one of my great failings when creating presentations about data was that I was not a very good graphic designer (like, not a graphic designer at all). Suddenly I find I don’t need to be, in fact the temptation to make a graph super stylized tends to decrease the effectiveness of what you are presenting.

If you are frequently making presentations that include graphs (or worse, you are just dumping out tabular data) I urge you to check out this book. The author’s sense of simplifying the presentation to make the most impact is dead-on.

The belief that we must present data in almost an artistic manner because it just “feels” that is the correct way is shattered by the reality of how this can actually mislead or even confuse the very people we are trying to convince. Nice to know my lack of artistic sense can be overcome with just a little common sense and the most basic functions of presentation software. Data doesn’t lie, but it sure can be made extremely confusing. Let’s make sure our point gets across simply and effectively.

Well intentioned, but incorrect advice

Where Do I Start to illustrate confusion and the need for a plan in a project, a career or life

Recently, I was looking through some posts on a speaker group and I ran across a question from someone just starting out: I would like to start speaking, who should I be contacting and how?

One person replied that the person posing the question was getting ahead of themselves. First they should have a presentation written and know it backwards and forwards, then they should go out and give that speech for free to as many groups as possible to polish it, and after doing all that, then they should start thinking about contacting people about paid speaking gigs.

The advice was well-intentioned, but wrong. The first thing anyone with an idea should do is find out if there is a market for what they want to sell, be it a product, services, or in this case, a keynote presentation. Too often we are told (or convince ourselves) that we need to hone our skills or product until there is no question we have reached as close to perfection as possible. The problem with this of course is that if no one is interested in what we have to sell or say, we have wasted a grand amount of time, and we are going to be VERY frustrated when we start selling.

We still hear the old chestnut, “do what you love, and the money will follow,” or some variation on that theme. We are fed the stories of people who gave up the grind of being a lawyer or a stock broker to pursue their dream to create pottery, jewelry, or perhaps something even more exotic, and how this business grew to be even bigger than their previous career. A lot gets left out of those stories. One thing in particular that isn’t mentioned or gets glossed over is the person in question often has been doing this new business as a hobby or a sideline for years, and has developed a following. In marketing-speak: they identified their target market. In my terms: they have identified a key data point: will anyone buy this?

Simply put, before you decide to spend a whole lot of time developing your product, service, or speech, find out if people will actually pay for such a thing, and if there are enough of those people to sustain you. Don’t let your desire, belief in, or love for something allow you to ignore cold hard facts.

Are you sure about that?

factsYou probably have some cherished beliefs about how your business works, how marketing works, and how you can make more money. If you really want to change things, you need to open your mind to what data can tell you, even if it destroys some of the those cherished beliefs.

Let’s take a very common belief (at least amongst us older people) these days: Millennials as a group are selfish, lazy, entitled, and have no work ethic (at least not as strong as mine!) Now, let’s look at some data:

And that is just a few things from just one source – who sourced all of his statements. You can see the original blog post from Dan Schwabel.) While this is hardly definitive, it makes you pause when you consider your own beliefs.

We often get our information anecdotally, for millennials it might be from a friend who had a friend who had a cousin who knew someone who owned a business and had trouble with some younger workers, and then form an opinion.

My point here is not whether millennials are lazy and entitled or not, but rather “beliefs” need to be evaluated against data. How many of your beliefs about your business might change is you started looking at some cold hard data?