Organising your time honestly and flexibly (with a digital diary)

Our work time is regulated by hours, weeks, and months. Organising our work activity temporally (that is, by time) is a challenge that can be conquered with a diary (of the datebook kind, not the daily record of experiences). With a digital diary, it becomes easier to manage an emerging or changing schedule, such is the nature of modern work practice that attempts to include inherently changing acts of creativity and innovation.

When I was an employee in a large organisation, our digital calendars were visible (with some concessions for privacy) to other staff members. As a dedicated user of the calendar, I often found others commenting that according to my calendar, ‘You are so busy’. I was bemused and wondered: Were people with empty calendars considered to be ‘not-busy’?

Tom Peters (in his “Mother of all Presentations”) says: ‘You ARE your calendar. You ARE how you spend your time. Calendars NEVER LIE.’

The technique explained in this blog is about making visible how-you-spend-your-time, and enabling flexibility to better manage what, where and when factors of your activity.

Managing your temporal space

From Shutterstock

My diary is my temporal space made visible. It enables me to map my intentions about time. I create and shuffle around blocks of time to firm up what my schedule will look like, while also experimenting with what it could look like. With a digital diary it’s particularly easy to drag and drop entries; and to append extra information to capture the meaning I have given certain entries, for example: Tentative, (In) CBD. Then my diary appears clean, and (re)organised – no whiteout or erased pencil lines in sight!

Putting entries in my diary gives me a schedule to follow for the day. While my days might not have a regular routine, I am assured a degree of order as important things needing my attention are factored in.

Many of my entries are not appointments with others, but simply an entry for me to work on a specific activity. Rather than work from a general To-do list during the day, I work from my calendar schedule of activity. Many of these activities have an associated and specific To-do or next-action list which is my exclusive focus during the allotted time.

Entries in my diary are an agreement with myself about what I am going to focus on, and help me to focus on one thing at a time. I’m not a fan of multi-tasking, but on occasion my thoughts are scattered and I free them from the leash, within a boundary of ‘Planning’ time or ‘Admin’ time – simultaneous chaos and order!

Making diary entries also enables me to more accurately forecast how much time activities will need, particularly those that are spread over multiple days, and to ensure sufficient time is reserved. In addition, I can better evaluate when to sequence individual activities in context of other things, e.g. other activities, my location, and my anticipated energy level or attention capacity.

While not an Activity per se, I’ll often add entries to my calendar for deadlines or time-sensitive milestones. Because I am following my schedule for the day, it’s handy to have time-sensitive things co-located with my actions, in case I need to re-evaluate action priorities.

If you are following an Activity-Time Budget, you could assign colours to each Budget category and apply these colours to the items you have in your diary. With a quick glance you’ll be able to see how well your projected budget matches your actual budget. (See Calendar 2 below.)

Being honest about your time

Every day we have activities that use time (and attention and energy) but are not typically accounted for in our calendars. Some examples of ‘invisible’ use of time: travel (on foot, by train, parking the car); general administration (filing, processing correspondence/incoming email, paying bills, etc); reading (correspondence, articles); preparation for meetings; processing note; preparing task-lists; lunch breaks; etc. (Hopefully you’ve created your own Activity-Time Budget that allows for such time.)

Start to put this time in your calendar. Particularly when entering linked activities. For example, after creating a Meeting entry, add Travel time to either side of the Meeting entry. Or, when creating a Meeting entry, add entries for Prep/Reading time and Note Processing time in close proximity to the meeting entry. See examples in Calendar 2 below.

There are two screenshots of my sample Calendar here. Calendar 1 is the typical calendar of most people, and reflects the events or appointments I have that involve other people – often because the appointment is linked to their calendar, or because it’s important to be ‘on-time’ for these. Calendar 2 extends Calendar 1 showing the activity of ‘invisible’ time, as well as colour coding to align with an Activity-Time budget (and no, I haven’t explained my colour coding – it’s meaningful only to me.)

Calendar 1 (Partial)

Calendar 2 (Complete)

Scheduling serendipity (or Planning for the unplanned)

While I am advocating filling a digital diary with entries, I am not advocating filling every waking moment with scheduled activity. Leave space for the unexpected that might better deserve your attention, or for spill-over when you’ve underestimated the amount of time needed or things have emerged with unanticipated complexity.

You might need to schedule ‘contingency’ or ‘open’ space in your calendar, simply so you (or others if you are sharing a calendar) don’t mistake it for Free-to-schedule-any-Activity time.

Dov Frohman (with Robert Howard) in the book, “Leadership The Hard Way: Why Leadership Can’t Be Taught—And How You Can Learn It Anyway“, advocates scheduling ‘day-dreaming time’ where you engage in “loose, unstructured thinking with no particular goal in mind”. An approach they recommend for dealing with complexity and ‘fuzzy’ problems.

One of my students shared this technique: she schedules a calendar entry called ‘Lucky Dip’ – the time is reserved but the activity is unknown. She has a bag in which various activities, both delightful and necessary, are written on strips of paper. When the appointed time arrives, she dips into the bag without looking, selects what she will do, and does it.

Another type of time you might consider scheduling is disconnected time, i.e. time when you don’t access the internet, read your email, look at Twitter or other social media sites. A practical way to support day-dreaming time!

Organising your temporal affairs effectively means you can utilise your time wisely and for greatest benefit. Effective use of time requires knowing what you spend your time doing, as well what you don’t spend your time doing. Hopefully the suggestions in this blog can help you better align your reality with your intentions.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.

Managing your Attention capacity with 4Cs Attention Filter

An important personal resource for knowledge workers is Attention. It can be difficult to decide what gets attention and what doesn’t. In an information-rich world, there is more and more competing for your attention.

The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention.
~ James Gleick

Quick and confident decisions about your Attention can be particularly difficult when you want to be open to what is emerging around you. Common advice to minimise overload is “Just say No”. However, a simple “Yes” or “No” doesn’t work when things aren’t black or white but rather shades of grey.

Attention is a precious resource not to be squandered on trivial things that don’t matter to you – things that are distractions, or noise that unwittingly caught your attention. By setting meaningful boundaries, you can create criteria to aid purposeful decision-making about what is worthy of your attention.

What kind of attention to give

The 4Cs Attention Filter can be helpful for organising your attention by defining the type of attention to be given. The Filter categories are Committed, Contributing, Curious and Cease. Three of the Cs are shades of grey for when you want to say “Yes – with limits” and the fourth C is the classic “No”.

COMMITTED – Things that get ongoing deep attention; things to which you have a strong and pervasive commitment; things where the buck stops with you; things where you are actively scanning for new information.
CONTRIBUTING – Things that get momentary deep attention; things to which you have some strong attachment, however, you can care about with little or no responsibility.
CURIOUS – Things that get light and occasional attention, mostly when something crosses your path, not things you are actively pursuing.
CEASE – Things not worthy of any attention at all.

Think of the Filter as organising ‘Things I am interested in’ rather than ‘Things I am doing’, that is, ‘Topics’ rather than ‘Activity’.

Here’s an example of how my Filter is currently set (as at March 2012) for vocational or professional interests.

This is a reflection of where my interests currently lie; it isn’t a reflection of the depth of my competencies. With this filter, I can quickly make decisions about which meetings and conferences I attend, which groups I belong to, which blogs and books I subscribe or read, which conversations I contribute to, and to which people/conversations I’ll give priority.

With the Filter set, things that attract my attention pass through the Filter and stick to the category to which they match and therefore get the type of Attention associated with that category.

The 4Cs Attention Filter is not intended for planning or organising an action list, though it may contribute to setting some scope for a list of activities. For a technique to organise and prioritise your activities, read Mastering your workload.

Determining your Attention Capacity

Your capacity for purposeful Attention is a factor of breadth and depth. To use a scuba diving analogy: the oxygen you have available in your tank is a factor of how deep you dive as well as how long you dive. Deeper dives require more oxygen than shallower dives, even if the duration of the dive is the same. With a finite underwater oxygen capacity, a diver makes life-dependent decisions about how many dives can be made and to what depth.

So it is with your attention capacity. You need to factor how many things you will give deep attention (i.e. Committed) in relation to the breadth of things to which you will give attention.

Set limits for each ‘Yes’ category about the number of things to which you can purposefully attend. Typically there will be less items in categories characterised by deeper attention, i.e. Committed, and Contributing. To get started, a useful rule of thumb might be 3 things in Committed, 4 in Contributing, 10 in Curious.

The Limit is designed to help you maintain a sustainable Attention load. Be sure not to add items to a category without first considering what must be subtracted from that category.

What kind of attention you have been giving

Check where your attention is, and has been going, with a quick audit. Of the things that currently have your attention, in which Attention category do they fit?

Look at your list. If you have been feeling overwhelmed, you may have too many things in the Committed category which need a depth of attention you can’t give. Or maybe you have too many things across all categories which need a breadth of attention you haven’t got.

To reduce your attention load, downgrade items to another Attention category, either permanently or for a defined period of time.

To control attention means to control experience, and therefore the quality of life.
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Attention is a precious personal resource. So manage it in a sustainable manner, and be sure to spend it on what matters to you.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.

Focusing attention with In-Out Focus Circle

With many things trying to get your attention, it can be difficult to find and keep focus on the activities that are important to execute. This blog is about a simple technique for finding and keeping your focus for work activity.

Consider this photograph …Sunflowers in and out of focus
(c) Microsoft Office Images/mp900178459

How many flowers are there?
How many flowers are in-focus? How many are out-of-focus?
Why would a photographer create a photo that is simultaneously in and out of focus?

Like the photographer, we use our physical eyes to control what is in our field of vision. So too with our conceptual eyes, we can bring clarity to what we choose to bring into focus.

The need for focus

What we focus on determines experience, knowledge, energy and fulfilment. It can be easy to squander attention on just whatever captures your awareness. Which isn’t to say: don’t scan your environment for new or intriguing things! It is to say: for things that you know to be important – make sure these get your attention.

The In-Out Focus technique is a simple idea to provide structure, balanced with flexibility, so you know what is truly worth your focus, and are able to refocus easily as needed.

The technique described below started with a need for a strategy to overcome states of procrastination or feeling scattered. I’d ask myself: What should the focus of Today be? What are 1 or 2 most important things to achieve? I’d write this on a sticky note and put it in my direct field of vision. Then I focus my attention on that, and give myself permission to ignore other things for the defined time period.

What determines ‘important’? I define it as things that will assist and advance my current situation to my preferred future. It can be as simple as making a phone call to enhance a relationship, or making a decision about whether to go to an event.

The technique has further evolved to a long-term view, i.e. What is most important for This Week, Month, Quarter or Year? And also evolved for use with a team, not just an individual: With a declared team foci of attention, individuals can better align their personal focus.

Using the technique

  • You can change focus anytime you want, but something must move out of focus. Don’t add unless you subtract, to maintain quality attention.
  • The granularity of the important items will differ depending on the focus horizon, i.e. Day, Week, Year, or Life. Don’t mix the granularity; rather have different Focus Lists or Circles for different horizons.
  • Focus on the right things (not senseless things). Is your attention consumption empty calories or nutrient rich? Eliminate what isn’t helpful. Cultivate attention-health.
  • Know what is most important even when the territory is shifting and emerging; there is always stuff that could be done – know what should be done.
  • Just because something is not IN focus doesn’t mean that it isn’t there or that it isn’t important. It’s simply not the current focus of attention.

Making it happen

1. On small sticky notes: write a project, group/organisation/committee, collaboration, interest that currently occupies your time and attention (present and future content). One per sticky note.

2. On large piece of paper (suggest A2 or A3 size), draw a large circle.

3. For ‘This Week’, what will be the focus of your attention?  Assign your notes to inside the circle. That is In-Focus. Anything left over remains outside the circle or Out-of-Focus.

Consider: If you organised for ‘This Month’ (instead of ‘This Week’), what items would you move?

4. Set a depth of field, i.e. Today, This Week, This Month, Year.  Set a number for the maximum items that can be in focus for the chosen depth of field, i.e. the breadth of attention you can simultaneously maintain, e.g. 2, 4, 10.

Expect to do some fine tuning to see what works best for you in terms of depth of field, and number of items in focus.

I no longer use the paper/sticky notes method in my everyday practice.  I use the digital Sticky Notes application for Daily/Weekly Focus lists which sit on my computer desktop. And I keep a page in my digital Notebook for longer-term Focus lists.

HINT: When you are starting out, I recommend using the paper/sticky notes method for at least a couple of months.

5. In your regular planning time, add an action item to Review and Adjust you In-Out Focus circles.  (In accordance with my Activity-Time budget, I have set aside weekly planning time.)

6. Live and work according to the Focus you have set.

Best wishes with implementing this technique.  Let us know what worked and didn’t work for you in your context.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.

Planning and guiding Professional Enrichment

To plan how I might develop into a more satisfied and effective knowledge worker, I asked: What would enrich my professional life?

My first responses were predictable: knowledge, skill, experience, and resources. With deeper reflection, I also saw the role of relationships, collaborations, energy (mental and emotional), attention, awareness, perspectives, and discipline. These all contribute to my value and viability as a knowledge worker.

Traditionally, purposeful action to develop oneself professionally starts with a Professional Development Plan. I already had one of those, but the traditional content didn’t strike the right chord for my values of knowledge work, and valuing knowledge work and knowledge workers.

So in the tradition of reusing knowledge, I did a conceptual Save As, and made some changes to transcend the concept. Enter, the ‘Professional Enrichment Plan’.

Planning for Professional Enrichment (PE)

The purpose of actively enriching one’s Professional life is to
– have a positive affirming work experience
– improve the quality and quantity of knowledge work
– nurture the person (the ‘engine’) that does knowledge work
– enhance an individual’s professional value and practice

What’s Professional Enrichment about?

In addition to traditional content like Attending training courses, or Being mentored, PE is:

  • Activities that have no inherent professional productive value, or no clear goal or specific destination. e.g. Exploratory, experimental activities like tinkering; Social activities like chairing social club.
  • Meaning! Activities about making meaning, having meaning, and sharing meaning in the professional space. Meaning is the source of our beliefs and actions.
  • Conditions and opportunities to generate serendipitous encounters and discoveries.
  • Creative activities that replenish mojo and energy as part of my professional schedule, e.g. Attending art or music exhibitions; Decorating my workspace; Playing golf
  • Mental rest, and change of scenery within the professional schedule.  e.g. Honouring digital and professional Sabbaths; Working from surprising locations like  art gallery or park.
  • Activity and schedules that best honour own temperament and strengths, e.g. Planning in morning, executing at beginning of the week; Partnering up to draw upon other’s expertise
  • Nurturing self holistically in all aspects (body, mind, soul and spirit), e.g. Meditation before and after challenging meetings
  • Activities that are difficult or not possible to measure yet have intangible value , e.g. Cultivating meaningful relationships; Mentoring colleagues
  • Accessing a diversity of resources for inspiration, insights and information, e.g. Blogs, social media, podcasts, seminars, books, newspapers

Professional Enrichment Method

The objective of developing and executing the Plan is to enrich work with purposeful activity in acquiring, cultivating and sharing knowledge, experience and perspectives.

1. Create – Reflect what enrichment and growth you want; Define some activities to achieve this; Document these in the Plan

The Plan is emergent and dynamic. Entries to the document are made pre and post activity as they are a mix of the ‘planned’ and ‘serendipitous’.

2. Use – Draw on the Plan to determine regular and ad hoc activity to schedule; Do the Activity; Reorient self to the Plan, when professional life seems to be chaotic and without order.

Treat the plan as a declaration of intention to act.  For me, scheduling PE activities happens on a weekly or monthly basis, when planning how to spend the PE time allotted in my Activity-Time budget.

3. Update – Review the content of the Plan and make updates (change the purpose or activity; Add to the activity; Refine the measures);  Record progress in the Plan

Professional Enrichment Plan – Template

The main content of the plan is formatted as a table with the headings: Purpose (WHY), Content (WHAT), Activity (HOW), Measures/Evidence (HOW MUCH) and Status (HOW FAR).

The reason for some purposeful action; the outcome of acting.
Verbs to describe purpose include Gain, Lose, Enhance, Be, Experience, Sustain, Create, Extend, Produce, Contribute, Prepare, etc

A short description of the content area for which you seek enrichment.

Actions that will achieve the purpose.
Examples include watching podcasts, attending seminars, writing blogs, following blogs/tweets, corresponding, reflecting, playing, meeting others, experimenting, attending meetings/seminars/courses, reading books, establishing and building relationships

Whatever is meaningful evidence to track and evaluate progress.
General measures might include:
Quantity – Count of the number of knowledge products created, knowledge events completed, etc.
Quality – Estimate of the degree of fitness for purpose
Impact – Estimate of the degree of difference achieved (gap between before and after)

Whatever is meaningful comment about your progress to date.

Sample Content
Here’s a extract from my real plan: Professional Enrichment Plan Extract.

May you have a more enriching professional life!

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.

Making and applying an Activity-Time budget

I manage work with a knowledge focus [1].  I manage teams with a knowledge focus because I value the knowledge members create, acquire, share and cultivate.  Therefore I value the activities that are knowledge generating. Here’s a technique I use in management to better support and promote knowledge activity: activity-time budget system.

The concept – overview

Promoting and endorsing particular knowledge cultivation activities, while  quantifying and qualifying the time expended on activities per week. A systematic method to maintain new mindsets and behaviours in professional practice of managing knowledge.

Why the technique came into being

As a Team Leader,  I wanted empowered team members who had effective personal knowledge work practices. Specifically, I wanted:

  • To address work-life balance: Setting realistic expectations and reasonable conditions so knowledge workers could do good work, then truly and deeply rest their knowledge engines switching off from work.
  • To address the tendency to overlook and under-do important but ‘boring’ or ‘passive’ knowledge activities like  record keeping, organising, planning, reporting and reflecting;  to treat these items as necessary, not discretionary work.
  • To reign in the tendency to over-do some work achieving a quality not valued, or to drain resources for little return: To invoke the principle of ‘good enough’ given the available resources and time constraints.
  • Better decision-making about work priorities and energy expenditure with definitive yet flexible guidelines that would continue to be useful in professional practice.
  • A culture of autonomous creative action and approaches that didn’t require my specific input or endorsement; to enable opportunities to make a personal mark on work, or develop lateral professional interests. Staff could do what they believed was vital work without my permission as long as they could justify it against expectations.

So I mused about ways to address the underlying issue of finite resources (time) and expenditure of resources (energy and time). This triggered childhood memories of the personal power and discipline that came from receiving and spending pocket money; from there the concept of activity-time budget system seemed obvious …

How it works

The normal number of employed hours per week is the 100% activity-time allowance.  Percentages for 5-6 categories of activity expenditure  are assigned, with explanation about the kinds of activity each category represents. Individuals then autonomously allocate their activities and time to meet budget.

It is important to monitor expenditure against allowance. If there is significant variance (it’s an accounting thing!)over a 2-4 week period then a closer look is warranted, with adjustments made. Maybe the budget breakdown isn’t right, or the employee has insufficient skill or resources to be effective, or there is simply too great a volume of work expected.  A key reason for setting the allowance and the budget, is to ensure that an activity-time debt doesn’t mount up, for then you risk the quality of the person, and the quality of the work.

Specific steps to get started

1.  Decide how many hours a week you allow for ‘work’.[2] This becomes your 100% of work allowance.
2.  Define a list of activity categories against which work allowance will be assigned.  Define examples. Check that examples don’t overlap into other categories.
3.  Define how much work allowance (%) you want to assign to each activity category.
4.  Schedule time in calendar for each allotment of work activity (either individual or group of activities). Break into multiple allotments as is most useful.
5.  Monitor your expenditure against allowance, and adjust as necessary.[3]


Below are examples of the categories and assigned percentages for two work-place scenarios where I have applied the method.

Scenario 1: Team of fixed-term employees assigned to internal development project
10%    Administration
10%    Project planning and reporting
5%      Professional development
10%    Internal/team participation
65%    Project and client work

Opening and processing correspondence (including email)
Maintaining business records, including filing
Keeping desk and work space in order
Weekly or fortnightly 1-1 meeting with team leader

Project planning and reporting
NB: Not for a Project Manager but for personnel on project team
Reviewing and updating plan of work for coming week and coming 1-2 months
Reviewing progress and composing reporting content (for verbal or written delivery)
Contributing to project documentation, e.g. Risk and Issues log, Project Plan

Professional development
Attending courses and professional association meetings
Reflecting after attending courses, etc (including note taking or journaling)
Reading books, blogs, tweets
Networking with professional contacts outside organisation (including using social media)
Participating in mentoring or coaching activities
Preparing and maintaining personal Performance Management documentation

Internal/team participation
Attending and contributing to team meetings
Organising and leading team meetings when it’s your turn
Contributing to team well being (organising ad hoc social events, checking in with people)
Maintaining relationships with team colleagues
Contributing to team collective knowledge, participating in briefs and debriefs

Project and client work
Stakeholder engagement work (including discretionary coffee meetings)
Designing, organising and executing activities listed in project plan

Scenario 2: Single person self-employed
10% Admin
10% Professional enrichment
20% Business development
60% Project/Client work

Doing filing, invoicing, expense claims
Internal business meetings and discussions
Managing computing tools including backups and configurations

Professional enrichment
Activities that replenish my mojo
Reading professional books, blogs
Attending seminars, courses and conferences
Networking with professional contacts

Business Development
Networking with strategic contacts
Developing products and services for business
Developing and managing proposals for work
Developing and maintaining prospective client relationships

Project and client work (typically income generating)
Maintaining customer relationships
Project management for client projects
Providing services to clients


[1] I can’t take credit for the brilliant phrase “Management with a  knowledge focus” that goes to
[2] You could also apply the time budget system to your life, with 100% being the total number of hours in a week (n=168), then allotting how you want to apportion  where you spend your time.
[3] Consider allocating and monitoring your activity-time expenditure using an electronic calendar. For future time, make entries of how you intend to expend the time. Ensure your forecast is within budget constraints. For past time, make entries of how you actually expended the time. Compare the actual time against the budget, to determine the amount of variance.


Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.

Processing and organising information is real work

David’s Allen’s latest Productive Living newsletter [1] arrived in my email box with a pertinent reminder: (paraphrasing) processing and organisation information is real and valuable work, so make time to do it, and reduce your stress in not doing it. As David says “most people behave as if this stuff is relatively unimportant, and frankly a pain to have to deal with. I argue that it’s where much of their primary value lies. Knowledge workers are paid to bring their intelligence to bear on input, and improve things by doing that. The decision about what to do with an email and its contents, what it means in terms of the work and standards at hand, is knowledge work.”

And for the challenge of having too many flows and topics of information to manage, I remember the sage advice of John Naisbitt in his book, “Mindset – Reset your thinking and see the future“: Don’t add unless you subtract. As John says “Focus on what really meets your needs and interests … [the] goal should not be to create cemeteries of information but cradles of knowledge and inspiration.”

[1] “What do you consider your work”, Productivity Living, 2 June 2011, David Allen

Sign up for David’s newsletter at

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and ways to ensure  knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact.   With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.