Category Archives: Productivity & Time Management


A new administration tool – Contatta

I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone that I hate administration. My ideal form of admin is for it not to be needed. Failing that, I’d rather like to be Captain Piccard of Star Trek fame, able to say “Make it so” and for someone else to do it.  Add to that the horror of most online admin systems and you’ve got my idea of hell.

contattaEnter Contatta.

It’s only beta at the moment (which means it’s free at the moment :) ) but despite that there’s a reasonable amount of functionality. Enough to mean that unless something goes seriously wrong, I’m going to migrating there.  I really, really like it.

Before you all rush off and sign up, let me just outline a few of the minor niggles and (relatively) major ones I’ve found so far. (But let me mention in passing that the response from the team at Contatta means I don’t mind these things so much, as they get back to me with comments or workarounds etc. – can’t fault their customer relationship stuff).

  • Some of the wording hasn’t been updated after they’ve added new functions. For example, if I want to save an incoming email to an opportunity I’m working on (called a Deal in their jargon) I don’t think I can.  I can, but it doesn’t look like I can.
  • Workrooms are the mainstay of how work (and working together) is done…. but they don’t nest. What I mean by that is that for the way I work at least, projects tend to have a hierarchy or a tendency to group together. Having a Workroom for every project implies they’re all of equal weight etc and can lead to having a shedload of Workrooms. There are lovely sexy ways of filtering them, I know, but that’s not quite the same thing as being able to see how things link together at a glance
  • Lack of “task groups”.  It’s possible (and easy!) to have a task that nags you more than once for repeated tasks, for example, but I’d really love the ability to create a pre-defined set of tasks and apply them to a contact at the single click of a button. (For example: send email 1, send email 2, invite for coffee, send them an invoice). The same is true of Deals and projects in workrooms. Other CRMs have them (such as insightly, which is what I use at the moment) and it’s bugging me a bit to not have it (yet).

Actually that’s pretty much it!

The things I love are legion and many of ‘em are the kinds of things a traditional project management system and CRM do (but think about that for a moment, here I can do both together, how cool is that!) but there are a few lovely little “Aaahhhh” moments…

  • Gmail integration. What’s not to love. My business runs out of Gmail so this is a Godsend
  • Creating a contact – just highlight the sigfile stuff in an incoming email and create the contact and Contatta does a reasonable job of filling in all the various fields for you. It’s not perfect but it saves a lazy person like me the choice of either not filling them in (my default) or fighting with them for ages
  • The interface.  I don’t suppose it’ll suit everyone but the clean feel of it makes me actually want to use it… and let’s face it, no matter how good software is I’m not going to use it if it’s not “fun”.

I realise this isn’t a proper review. Don’t shoot me! All I’m doing here is commenting on my personal experience.   It’s one of the tools I’m using, for example to write my new book.  (By the way, you can read about the process of writing it at This is an example of a project that could do with being able to nest Workrooms, too. At the moment there’s one Workroom for the book but it would make sense to have one Workroom for each chapter… but that would create me 40 new Workrooms, which is messy.

My summary?   I’m not leaving my wife for it, but I’m probably leaving my old CRM :)


Continually learning – the how!

I’ve read – over and over and over – that it’s important to carry on learning. I agree. Learning from your mistakes is better than fretting over them, worrying or just feeling guilty…

Of course, that’s easier said than done!

It’s human nature to worry about what went wrong and to compare ourselves to other people or (worse) compare ourselves to the fictionalised, apparently perfect, demi-god-like versions of other people. Comparison can be good, too – it helps us learn, to grow and improve.

The problem, it seems to me, lies in how we make those comparisons and how we learn.

If we have a system for learning it makes it easier.  Instead of just fretting over what we did wrong and saying to ourselves “Must do better next time”, if we have a process for how we plan to “do better next time” we can take those actions and close down the worry, knowing that we’ve learned what we can.

We use two systems here, which might be useful for people.  The first is our simply Ties and Flies lists and the second is the Rolfe methodology.

Ties and Flies is the generic name we give to all our preparation checklists. They got this name because the first one we created was called this – and in turn the list got it’s name from the last item on the list… things we check before we go on stage to give a presentation! (There’s nothing going to undermine your confidence more on stage than wondering if your fastened your flies or if your tie is straight! :) )

The thing that might need a bit more talking about is the Rolfe thing. We like to do a bit of self-reflection after every event, gig, training event, project, whatever, that we do. It’s easy to dwell on the negatives but having the Rolfe approach to give this reflection a structure is very helpful.

Essentially the Rolfe method consists of asking yourself the questions ‘what’ three times – or more specifically

  • what?
    What happened?  What is the incident of note that you’re interested in?  Did you forget to bring something? Was someone particularly interested in something? Did an attendee think the course started at a different time?
  • so what?
    What were the consequences of this? Were they significant and if so in what way? Were the consequences positive or negative?
  • now what?
    What can you do about the event? If it was a positive event/effect, how can you adjust your working to make it happen again? If it was a problem, how can you set up a system to stop it happening again?

We love it – not least because of its simplicity. Anything more complicated and we would resist using it after a long, hard training session! This is simplicity itself.  (Rolfe is now how our Ties and Flies lists get updates, for example.)

Speaking of examples, let’s work one through, using Rolfe.


A fuse blew

So what?

A data projector stopped working suddenly which means that a video the audience were watching suddenly vanished!  (And the life-expectancy of the projector’s lamp was also reduced).

Now what?

All our equipment has the correct spare fuse taped to the plug. It might not stop the fuse blowing but it means that we can replace it (with the right amp’d fuse) in the minimum time possible.

Nice, isn’t it! :)


Not enough time? Really? Eh?

I delivered a half day training course this week on time management. It was for PhD students… smart people who don’t have an upward limit on how much time they can spend on anything they do and whose work is (by definition) unpredictable and difficult to plan.

In other words, both the very people who most need time management but also those who are most able to take on board the learning from a training course.

Like all our courses, there was a lot (seriously!  a lot!) of research behind this one, to make sure we didn’t just churn out the same fallacies, misconceptions and assumptions as most courses on time management. And at the start of the course I checked the research against the expectations, needs and experience of the smart people in front of me. The feedback was pretty close to unanimous, varying only by details which were related to individual circumstances.


Well that’s obvious. We can’t manage time. Unless we’re God or Dr Who we’re working on the assumption that time just ‘is’. What we need to do is figure out how to use it most effectively.

So far, so obvious.


Pretty much everyone in the room agreed that, deep down, they knew at least a few things they could do to make themselves more effective and more efficient. What they needed wasn’t more time, it was

  • a better sense of priorities
  • more self-discipline.

There was pretty much a round of applause in the room for this quote from H Jackson Brown.

Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur,Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.


It turns out it dosn’t matter what system you use for sorting out your time: the key thing is to

  1. have a system
  2. use it
  3. stick with it

In other words, anything is better than nothing, and chopping/changing between systems is as bad as not having a system at all.

That said… here’s the big, big thing that we agreed would make people more effective and efficient at what they do.

You’ve got to know why you do it

The motivation from knowing and understanding why what you do makes the world a little bit of a better place (we agreed) is absolutely fantastic. It helps you get your lazy arse out of bed. It helps you do that extra half an hour when you’re tiered. It helps you concentrate when you want to go out to play.

So why do you do what you do?


Open Space

Ever heard of it? No? Try here for an explanation from a Canadian OST guy… :)

Basically it’s a way of making meetings happen so that they deliver what the people in the room need – not necessarily what the agenda says they want… and it’s a new string to our bow. New member Lydia Bates (okay, bios to follow, we promise!) joined with Northumbria University to run a whopper of an open space session just last Friday.

The image, by the way, is one of the sessions after lunch (and thanks to everyone for permission to use it!).

How did it go?

“Gosh, it wasn’t what we expected… but it was exactly what we needed.” Personally, I’ll settle for that! :)


Time Management – deadtime tools

We ran a half day workshop session recently on Time Management – and many of the usual issues came up… There’s no magic bullet and it’s about self discipline… any system for time management works better than no system so stop prevaricating and pick one…Pomodoro, JDI, whatever feels right for you is more right for you than random nothingness! :)


But one slightly unusual question did make its way to the top of the pile: how do I best use my downtime? The answer is, of course, that you don’t. Downtime is downtime for a reason and if you try and work for too long without downtime you’ll become inefficient and your work will be more and more error-prone.

The reason is simple – downtime is not the same as ‘dead time’ and the real question should be ‘How do I use my dead time?”.

Dead time is time when you’ve got enough energy (or whatever) to be productive but some logistical problem is stopping you. It might be that your laptop battery has died so you can’t access the local cafe’s wifi or it might be that your phone has no signal on the train you’re on or… you get the idea. The issue is simply a logistical one, whatever the cause of the problem.

First things first – check whether you aren’t confusing downtime with deadtime. It might be simply better to stop, rest and take downtime. In fact, if you don’t you might end up with your ‘doing-time’ being so unproductive it becomes deadtime!

Given that deadtime is 99% of the time a logistical issue, the solutions lie in simply being organised enough to keep on top of your logistics. I can’t promise these ideas will make every single moment of deadtime massively productive, but they work for me…

  • A kindle – mine has a cover with a built in light so no matter where I am, I’ve always got something useful to read. If you’re traveling with it a lot, I turn of my wifi connection to save on the battery life. The life’s fine but if I’m away for a week, every little helps.
  • A laptop – I’m meeting someone for a coffee/meeting in a cafe; I’m ten minutes early – where do you think I’m writing this!? Again, battery life can be an issue, but my Macbook lasts for ages. I make a point of charging it while I’m packing, if I’m going away, so that I know it’s fully charged as I leave the house – a simple trick but one that’s saved my a lots hour or two over the last few weeks as I travel up and down the country by train.
  • iTunesU (and podcasts) – subscribe and they’re on your phone. Pack headphones and you’ve got the possibility of a lecture from some of the world’s leading experts in your ear as you’re sitting on a buss! If you’re not familiar with iTunesU, it’s hidden at the back of the iStore but it’s a massively useful resource of some amazing material (and some dross too, of course!). Take a while to check it out and you’ll see what I mean. By the way, comfy headphones are a must if you’re trying to understand tricky stuff! :)
  • Your phone – personally mine’s an iPhone but whatever you’re using, learn how to use it! You don’t need a notepad an pencil with you any more to jot down those moments of genius you have! There are plenty of apps that will record your voice so you can just talk to it, set the time and have it speak your notes back to you when you’re in the office. No excuses for not capturing your bright idea!
  • A good diary set-up – pretty much anyone with a busy job/lifestyle can benefit from a good calendar app on their phone and I’ve taken this one step further by syncing mine with the calendar on my laptop and my office computer; there are plenty of ways to do this, but personally I use Google Calendar for extra backup. What’s more, with a few tweaks of the settings, friends and staff can see when I’m busy, when I’m free and book me in… only those few I trust, of course!
  • Training shoes and a skipping rope – okay this is an odd one, I admit, but when I’m traveling this all I need to make my hotel into a gym for half an hour. (I don’t skip in m room – I find somewhere quite outside to do this). Other people run, but I’m too lazy! I’m also experimenting with a yoga DVD to pop into my laptop for that time between waking up and going down for the hotel breakfast…… but I can’t tell you how well that’s working, yet.
  • In-car radio thingy – now I have to confess I don’t know exactly what to call this little gadget. It sits in my car and broadcasts to a very short range radio signal (a metre or so) which I’ve tuned one of the stations of my in-car radio to… By attaching my an MP3 player (in my case my trusty iPhone) to this gadget, I can listen to my iPhone in the car. Books, lectures, podcasts and just plain ol’ music. The beauty of this, of course, is that I don’t need headphones, so I stay legal and safe!

So there you go – a quick run through a few of the ways I’m combatting my deadtime. Your mileage will vary of course, and they won’t all be useful to you, but a couple of ‘em might be.

Let me know… … and if you’ve got any useful tips yourself, let me know that, too!