When it rains, it pours

I love being semi retired. I like having control over my time. I like downtime, and I like being busy. Paradoxical, I know, but I guess I mean that I like having a strong purpose(s) that drive me everyday, so that I work hard on things that I enjoy, but do it efficiently so that I also spend downtime reading, Scrabbling, etc.

This is abundance I am grateful for, but…it’s abundance. I think that’s why I dug into Outlander book #8 this weekend, indulging in a calm before a stormy week.

Here are some of the things going on for me…

Working on two consulting contracts right now – one involving thinking, strategizing, recommending, manoeuvring delicately; the other involving conducting interviews and qualitative data analysis. Both very interesting, both (broadly) trying to answer the question – how can we engage our community better? And seeking my next gigs.

Board chair for Canadian Women Voters Congress. Trying to onboard new board members, launch our new strategic plan, implement our new website/CRM. It’s a small board, so a lot of hands on -but exciting- work.

Teaching a masters course on nonprofit governance and management. I really savour my time in class every second Tuesday.

Launching the Quiet Changemaker Project. I just sent out a whole lot of emails to contacts that I thought might possibly be interested in the launch of website. This has generated A LOT of response, which is awesome (yay! the project resonates!) but is likewise overwhelming (how am I going to engage with all this support!?). My cup overfloweth and I’m not sure where the towels are.

Volunteering in the municipal election campaign (so far just distributing flyers, which is great for exercise).

Dealing with a STUPID STUPID infected finger. Hangnail gone wrong. It’s been FIVE WEEKS!! Lots of gauze, ointments, bandages, finger soaks. I really could do without this.

Getting ready for kitchen renovations.

Grieving the loss of my cat, who offered a calming presence and lots of cuddles and I miss her greatly.

And then all the little things that are exciting/fun/relaxing/important. Book club. Interview for the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference. Music nights. Visits with friends and family.

What my master to-do list looks like – Workflowy and GTD

In previous posts on my to-do lists and how I organize my life, I’ve talked about my master to-do list. This, and many of my other productivity practices, come from a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen (also know as GTD…Allen’s productivity ways have a bit of a cult-like following). For people, like me, who organize themselves in a linear/logical way, I highly recommend the read. It’s been years since I read it back at SFU (thanks Chris Koch for the recommendation) but here are some of the principles that I still use:

  1. Brain dump. Every once in a while, give yourself time to write down everything that is on your mind that you have to do/want to do/have ideas about. The idea is to get things out of your head and free up the time you spend running things over and over again in your mind in order to remember. (From the GTD website: Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them”)
  2. Categorize your to-dos. For the things on your plate that you want to accomplish in this moment, identify the next action that needs to be taken. Be specific. The categories I use are: send #email, make #call, #read, #write, take action on the #web, take action #offline on my computer, #do something at home off my computer, run an #errand, and #waitingfor (things I don’t have to do, but are waiting for from others).

To keep this all organized, I use Workflowy. This is a website/app that allows you to create really long to-do lists, with multiple bullet levels that you can expand/contract/click on. You can use #hashtags (as above) to tag items on the list. And if you are working with others, you can @people for things to show up on their lists. It’s like the Twitter of to-do lists.

Here’s a glimpse of what it looks like:


And what it looks like when I click on a tag:

Workflowy tag

I love Workflowy because of how simple and clean it is. When you click on a tag or a list heading, everything unrelated disappears. It’s really beautiful.

A daily to-do list I’ve stuck with for 6 months. Might work for you too.

I came across the 1-3-5 to-do list on the great productivity/creativity blog 99u (a lovely, quick daily read if you’re a productivity/creativity nerd like me).

Here’s how it works: The method assumes that every day you have enough time/energy for 1 big thing, 3 medium things, and 5 small things.

For me, I approach assigning the size of a task with both how much time it will take me and how much energy it will take. Some things that won’t take long but I’m absolutely dreading might be a 1. Some things that take a bit longer but are super easy and fun may be a 5. There’s lots of room for personal customization in this system.

So, everyday I write down


and draw up my daily list.

On the schedule for today:
1 Music night (time with friends counts too!)
3 Read Engaged City Task Force final report, and draft a response
3 Lunch with Meriko
3 Draft notes for an AGM I’m taking part in next week
5 Move notes from my desktop into proper files
5 Review a pile of old articles from my Masters research for potential blog posts
5 Scrub bathroom floor
5 Go for a run
5 Reply to an internship applicant who wanted feedback on their interview/application

Some days I don’t get everything done — I’m exhausted or I have an unexpected visitor, etc. So some things carry over into the weekends. Unless absolutely necessary, I try to not to schedule work-like things (basically anything that requires me to be at a computer) for the weekends, but if I’m not as productive during the week, I might have to.

Alternatively, sometimes I get more than the list done. Today for example, I had a phone call with Port Coquitlam mayor Greg Moore to talk about a potential event for Canadian Women Voters Congress. I also wrote this post, which is actually something I meant to do yesterday.

My daily to do list is one of the few things that I keep on paper. Here’s what a week of to do lists looks like (the few notes at the top are *ahem* carry over from a lazy end to the week last week):


I draw all of my to-dos from my big MASTER to do list, which I keep on a free online tool called Workflowy. More on the amazeballs that is Workflowy in another post.

Some people start their weeks looking at their master to-do lists, and choosing 5 big things, 15 medium things, and 25 small things to do throughout the week. you can find templates for this online if you search for it. I like more flexibility.

How do you coordinate your to-do lists?

A new way to think about to-do lists and moving important things forward in your life

Lately, when people have asked me what I’m up to, I often talk about my “productivity experiment”: for six weeks I focus on six areas of priority in my life. I read about this method from the book “Necessary Endings” by Dr. Henry Cloud, and I’ve been enjoying the practice.

What this involves:

  • Pick six areas of your life that you’d like to move forward. Areas you’d like to focus on and pay closer attention to.
  • As much as possible, use any available time to focus on these areas.
  • Say no to everything else.

The first six weeks I tried this, my areas of focus included:

  1. Intentional connections: reaching out to people from my past (past jobs, volunteer experiences, conferences, etc.) that I want to stay in touch with, but haven’t connected with recently.
  2. Book interviews: identifying interview subjects and conducting a first round of interview for my ‘quiet’ changemaker book.
  3. Board strategic planning and recruitment: working on these two areas for the board that I chair.
  4. Yoga: using a pass that I hadn’t been using as much as I could.
  5. Travel: winding up a series of blog posts from my trip to Central Asia in 2010, finishing a scrapbook for a trip to SW USA from 2003, and sorting and posting photos from some past trips.
  6. Business file cleanup: sorting through and deleting/cleaning up business files, profiles, etc. Everything from Twitter lists to email folders to computer files.

In addition to these areas, I did other things of course. I spent time with friends, did client work. Did any other fundamentals that I was already commited to. But I said no to many events and meeting requests. I also put a lot of stuff on my to-do list for later, after the six weeks, without guilt (e.g. spring cleaning).

Why this is awesome?

So often, our time is spent doing things that are urgent, but not necessarily important. We have important things that we want to do but never dedicate the time to, and when we do have time, we fill it instead with piddly stuff that doesn’t add much value to our lives. I wanted to get rid of some mental clutter, some stuff that was holding me back, some stuff I felt guilt for not doing already. I wanted to move forward in areas that are important and enjoyable for me, but for I which needed a little push to do.

Will this work for you?

I’m not sure how this would work for someone holding down a full time job–I’m self-employed and work from home so have very high control over my daily life. It might translate well to 6 weeks/6 areas at work, or 6 weeks/6 areas at home. Or 6 weeks/3 areas at home. Or some other combination. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model–make it work for you.

How did I do?

  1. Intentional connections: Reached out quite a bit, had  very enjoyable conversations. But, I didn’t follow up with people I didn’t hear back from the first time.
  2. Book interviews: Reached out to a very targeted group of people, conducted 10 interviews, learned a lot about how I want to reach out and conduct interviews and research moving forward.
  3. Board strategic planning and recruitment: This was probably the area I spent the least time on. I did lots of board work, but not focussed enough on this area.
  4. Yoga: Went to 3 classes out of the 6 I was hoping to get to.
  5. Travel: THE BEST!! Got everything done I wanted to. Finished the scrapbook, finished old blog posts, sorted through tonnes of photos and shared them.
  6. Business file cleanup: Also did well. Fell back in love with Twitter because of how I arranged my lists and apps. Deleted a lot of old email (cut > 50% of my Gmail file space use) and files that I wasn’t going to reference again. Deleted website pages that were just clutter.

Wanna try? 4 tips for success

  • At the beginning of the six weeks, spend time outlining what you’d like to achieve in each of the six areas. It’ll help you use time wisely throughout the six weeks
  • Include a breadth of areas. i.e. if all of the areas focus on reading, or on manual labour, there won’t be enough diversity to keep you interested.
  • Really do say no to things. Meetings, events. Does the fridge truly need to get cleaned now?
  • If you are a part of a group (e.g. colleagues at work, or with family at home) gain the support of others so that you can say no to thing guilt-free (or guilt-less). I work and live alone so I had a lot of flexibility.

So what’s next?

I’m totally doing this again. The mix of the six (as was last time) is 1 “home/personal,” 1 health/fitness related, and the others are a mix of volunteer and business priorities.

Up next are:

  • Running: Every 2 days. I use a “couch to 10K” app.
  • Home improvement: Spring cleaning. Fixing my hissing toilet. Making plans for kitchen renovations. Refinishing a banquette. etc.
  • Board reduction: Reviewing all of the goals I personally have for the board, and identifying the ones that are not truly the responsibility of a board chair. Either
    1. do them (if it’s an area of interest to me)
    2. find someone else interested in leading the task, or
    3. make note of it for future chairs, but forget about it.
  • Thought leadership: In the areas that my business conducts research and strategy, writing and publishing some white papers and resources to share among my “market.”
  • ‘Quiet’ changemaker visibility and credibility: similar to above, but create and seek opportunities to build myself as a thought leader specific to the book topic.
  • Green listening and learning: I’ve been asked to run for CEO of a federal Green Party riding (kind of like a board chair), and the next six weeks are not about taking action, but learning about the current people and plans.

Would love to hear what you think, and what you would/will focus on!

3 ways to contribute to greater good via email

For a recent research project I did for HRSDC, I reached out to a wide range of innovators, entrepreneurs, and social change agents from across the country. I emailed a lot of people as a starting point, and often times didn’t get a response.

A CEO of sustainability company, a potential interviewee for the research, respond quickly, and by the end of the work day we had scheduled an upcoming interview. I thanked her for getting back to me so quickly…this was rare.

Her response was something like…

We’re all contributing to a movement. There’s no excuse to hold each other up.

She didn’t mean to say yes to everything that comes across your inbox. She just meant dealing with it (whether ourselves or via delegation) in a timely manner. Our colleagues in the “greater good” movement need forward momentum – let’s help each other out and not leave each other hanging.

1. Get to the point

Make your emails short. This is probably the tip that I follow the least well, but I try. It depends on the audience – I know some people prefer direct emails (me!) while others needs a warm-up before the email gets down to business. For those of you who like direct, short, emails, you might be interested in the sentenc.es personal policy.

2. Reduce back and forths

Provide all the information needed for the recipient to provide an effective response the first time around. For example, in my work I schedule a lot of meetings and interviews. I try to keep the back and forth to a minimum by not putting out a vague “Are you available to chat?” requests, but instead provide the details required to actually schedule a meeting: a link to my calendar (I use Doodle, which links to Google Calendar), an invitation to choose a time that works for them, and where I’ll be travelling from so they have context for a good location to suggest. The ideal response to a meeting request is a time and location; the worst is “all those times work for me, so whatever is good for you” because it requires a further email.

3. Reply

The possible responses to any email can be whittled down to one of five options:

  • Yes (I’d like to talk, I agree with you, Let’s move ahead, etc.)
  • No (I don’t want to, I’m too busy, I’m unable to, I don’t think we should, etc.)
  • Here is your response
  • I will respond, but I can’t right now (I have to think about it, I don’t have all the required information, I’m waiting for someone else first, etc.)
  • Someone else will respond to that for you (and I’ve cc:d them so that they take the ball from here).

Pick an answer and fire the response back. Not necessarily as the email comes in – getting to your inbox once a day will do it.

I personally attempt to respond to every email request that I get, usually within a day (though I don’t usually reply to product/advertising pitches). Because I don’t have a day job, it’s easy for me to reply to emails regarding my volunteer commitments or personal life at anytime I’m at my computer. A 24-hour reply schedule doesn’t work for everyone, but 2 business days seems reasonable.

Are these expectations too high?

Am I unrealistic? Or can we all do better with email and help each other carry the greater good forward?

Scheduling future tasks to get down to a zero inbox

I practice a zero-inbox philosophy, because I find when an inbox is full, it:

  1. causes stress every time you open you email,
  2. results in stuff getting forgotten because it gets buried, and
  3. wastes time because every time you open your inbox you spend time scanning and considering what’s in your inbox before likely ultimately deciding to do nothing.

Calendar screenshot

So, I try to act on emails as soon as I read them. But what if you truly need time to think about something, and acting now isn’t necessary?

It seems basic, but I add an ‘event’ to my calendar (I use Google Calendar but any calendar, paper or electronic, will do). I have more than one calendar in my overall Google Calendar – one for actual commitments/meetings I have so that people don’t double book me, and another for ‘soft’ commitments – things to get done but not necessarily at a specific time (I call this calendar “Tasks”). The calendars each have different colours. (In this post’s image green=commitment, aqua=errand, burgudy=task).

As an example, say I get an email about an upcoming conference. I don’t know if I can attend because of a tentative trip. The early bird registration is on June 15. So I…

  1. Put an event in my Tasks calendar for June 13 at 9:30am with the title “Is trip confirmed? Conf early bird reg Jun 15.”
  2. Archive or file the email, and get it the heck out of my inbox.
  3. Forget about it.

I also use this technique to remind myself to follow up with people in case they haven’t gotten back to me, and even to remind myself to connect with friends on important days (e.g. “text Andrea to see how her first day of work went”). This way, I don’t have to keep running these things through my mind in order to remember them. I just rely on the power of the calendar.

Use technology to collaborate with Millennial volunteers online

Collaboration and brainstorming doesn’t have to happen at a set time and place, in person, on walls with flip chart paper and post it notes.

In order to work with young peoples’ busy (and often inflexible) schedules because of work, school and childcare, use technology to collaborate online. This is also a fantastic way for national organizations to work with people outside of their geographic area.

I’m currently working with 3 other young women to plan (as volunteers) the next version of the recently closed Next Leaders Network in Vancouver. Sure, we met once in person. But so much work can get done in between meetings if technology is harnessed.

My two standard tools are:

  • Google Docs – a place to build and edit documents openly online. People don’t have to have a Google account to contribute. The person that creates the document can leave it open for anyone with the link to edit. Use it for brainstorming, everyone adding their own responses to a question, for people to add comments to an existing document. 27 Shift used Google Docs last year tocrowdsource an article for CharityVillage.com for a special Millennial edition of Village Vibes that we produced.
  • Dropbox – a place to share files online. People that install Dropbox on their desktop have folders that look like any other folders, except they are linked to “the cloud” instead of just a computer. When you are online, the files sync up automatically. If you are offline you can still access articles, but they won’t be updated for everyone else until you get back online. No more emailing versions of documents around and around.

These two common tools are nothing new for many people who work collaboratively and virtually. But using them allows organizations to engage volunteers who aren’t able to contribute at a fixed time and place.

Any other collaborative online tools you find useful?