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Michelle Cox: Personal Productivity Lessons from Nick Burgett

I recently interviewed Nick Burgett about his speech to the Alamo Chapter of PMI (see link for event overview). I have known Nick for many years and find him to be a great trainer, leader, and engineer. Since we are all faced with productivity issues, PMI asked Nick to speak on this timely issue. Nick was gracious enough to sit down for an extended conversation that I am happy to share here. Here is a link to the event at which he spoke.

Michelle: Why did you pick the topic you presented at PMI?

Nick: I was looking for any number of topics I had available to me at the time and they specifically said they did not need any more talks about leadership. One of the consultant groups I work with does a lot with personal productivity along with things like strength finder and DISC. So personal productivity, getting things done, seemed like the most relevant to the group. Especially at the beginning of the year to start the year off right.

So, you picked productivity, what is the one thing you’ve found that helps YOU be more productive?

The idea of maintaining an empty inbox, whether it’s literally a box on my desk or an email inbox or having my own mental notes emptied out. The thing that keeps us from being productive a lot of times is too much mental headspace being taken up with random things that either you can’t do anything about right now, or tasks that literally have no place in the priorities when you are trying to get work done. So you get distracted instead of getting things done that you need to get done.

Do you make lists?

I do.

What happens when you can’t finish a list in a day?

I don’t worry about it, because the list system I use isn’t built on "here’s my to-do list for today." It’s built on David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” concept so the lists are context based. Lists like: things I can get done while in front of my computer, things I can get done while driving in my car, things I can get done while talking with my boss. I keep very specific context based lists so I don’t have to worry about work things while I’m standing in line at the grocery. An example I gave at the talk: Why is it that when you’re standing in line at HEB you’re thinking about everything you need to talk to your boss about and while you’re in your bosses office you’re thinking about the fact that you need to grab milk, bread and ice cream at HEB after work. Our brains aren’t good at filing and keeping lists, that’s why random stuff pops into our heads. So I keep lists but they’re very context-based lists they’re not a “Here’s all the things I have to get done today” list.

So do you have them prioritized even with your boss? Say you only have 20 minutes with him/her, do you say “this is the most important thing” or are they in random order?

They might initially end up on the list in random order, but absolutely I work them in a prioritized fashion. Before you engage in something, you want to make sure you look at the list and determine which of those things is most important to you. Since it’s not necessarily time based you don’t have the artificial prioritization, so I’m not worried about trying to adhere to a FIFO to do list order with thoughts like "wow this thing has been on my list for three months" well maybe it shouldn't have been on my regular list and should have been on a "Some Day Maybe" list! Which is actually another list of mine for getting things done. 

Being very clear about that, if the item is “Some Day Maybe” or something you can’t get done right away then it doesn't go on those context based lists. So if it’s something that you are not really sure about then get it off a to-do list. If you need to revisit it in two weeks and actually put it on a context list, fine. If you revisit it and you are not ready to put it on a context list then leave it off a list until you are ready to do something with it. 

Do you have electronic lists, do you have paper based lists or do you use your phone?

All of them.

How do you do it?

I have a few different lists. I have the lists at my desk. I also use Evernote because I have Evernote on my laptop, iPad, and my phone. It syncs wirelessly so I can make an update on one device and it goes to all the others. It works out well because I’m always going to have my phone on me. Most of the time I've got my laptop and my iPad.
I have not gone 100% digital with my lists because I think there’s some headspace stuff in there where even when I look at the lists on my phone and I see that list of “Some Day Maybe” things I get distracted as opposed to focusing on what I can get done. 

If it’s a “home based” context list, all the projects at home I want to work on, I’ll keep that at home so I don’t have to worry about it while I’m out and about and find reasons to procrastinate on what I can actually get done or daydream about what I wish I were doing somewhere else.

I think you made a good point, a lot of us in the business world worry about home when we’re at work and worry about work while we’re at home. You work out of your home. Do you find that working out of your home is harder than going into work every day? Or are there some sort of distractions? How have you learned to deal with distractions at home?

The way I have learned to deal with distractions is building those lists. The biggest distractors I have working out of the house are household projects, so walking through my house, seeing something and thinking “Oh I need to call the guy about the kitchen remodel” or walking out to the garage and seeing everything that needs to be done. The biggest thing is writing everything down and getting it onto a list. You would be astounded if you walked through your house with a notepad and wrote down every little thing that you saw that needs to be done/cleaned out/fixed. 
There is something about getting it out of my head and onto paper, there’s something about that tangible writing exercise that clears up space in my mind. I know David Allen is a big advocate of how writing it down is better even than typing it.

What was the best question during your presentation or comment or conversation after your presentation?

Somebody who was working out of his house was struggling with how to balance work and personal life. For example, when his wife wants to watch a show late at night and he is still tied up doing work. He was trying to figure out ways to spend time with her but not feel like he’s losing control of all the work he’s doing because there’s no shortage of work. 

My answer to him was: You’re exactly right. Work will never stop. So I gave him an example from my life. My wife will watch shows after the kids go to bed, she’s probably 70% paying attention to the show we are watching but has her laptop open and still getting work done. If your wife or significant other can deal with you working like that, then you can feel like you’re being productive and at the same time not putting off your family and they don’t feel like they’re living on their own with a stranger in the house. 

What was the most important thing you did to prepare for that presentation based on the audience you had?

Thinking about the audience and where they were in in their careers and the type of work they deal with.

You had a wide variety in that group, correct?

Yes, but they were there mainly from a project management perspective so they may have had different levels of project management. Just knowing how project management works and the personalities associated with that, I found myself thinking about how what I was going to say would resonate with that group. How do I personalize it with the content that’s not on the slide? I focused on the things I thought of when I was a project manager. 

What’s something that I should have asked that I didn't ask about your presentation?

One question I was surprised I did not get from the group was: Does this really work?

My answer to that would be, it is a time management system and there are different kinds of them out there. With some time management systems you end up being a slave to the system as opposed to having the system work for you. I think this one works precisely because it’s not about how I manage my time at work because then it can easily fall into tracking all the things I didn't get done  and putting them on a list for the next day. This system is to be used for more than just work, it’s anything in your life where you think about things you have to do. Make sure everything you do is documented and in a correct category.

So you’re trying to integrate your life to where there is less anxiety?

Absolutely. Less anxiety and knowing that I’m not forgetting something.

Any final thoughts?

The last thing I can say: you asked about working from home, staying productive and not getting torn away. This is another point someone brought up: If you have something on your list you have to get done and you’re going to schedule time on your calendar, I recommend being very specific about what you’re going to do. Block the time out and treat it as if you are meeting with a client or customer. Treat yourself with the same respect you treat your customers and clients. If you schedule time for yourself it’s sacrosanct, hold yourself accountable and give yourself respect to set aside time for it. If it’s important enough to put on the calendar it’s important enough to set aside time. If you are avoiding putting things on the calendar you need to ask yourself “why?” are you not the right person to do it? Does it need to go on a "Some Day Maybe" list? 

I am especially happy that Nick shared his time and insights with me. These types of practical approaches help all of us at Aventine Hill to serve our clients better.

Posted by S. Michelle Cox, PhD
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