Time-Management and Productivity-Boosting Tips for Busy Professionals

The late Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Randy Pausch offered valuable lessons for managing our most precious commodity.

As a topic, time management is about as exciting as watching flies buzz around a no-pest strip. But would you be interested in learning about time management from someone with only months to live?

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The time management expert in this case was Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon who passed away on July 25 at age 47 from pancreatic cancer. Along with his now-famous "last lecture" about achieving your childhood dreams, Pausch also delivered a lively, inspiring speech on time management to the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science in November 2007. You can watch a video of the lecture or read the transcript.

Pausch's comments weren't revolutionary, and he admitted to adapting some of his points from Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson's The One Minute Manager.

But Pausch's talk combined practicality, compassion and self-effacing humor, peppered with the wisdom and bravery of a man whose days were numbered. I highly recommend his speech to anyone who feels time-starved—and who doesn't these days?

By now you're probably wondering why I'm writing about Pausch and his speech in a column called "Mobile Computing." The reason: Efficient time management is especially challenging for mobile professionals. You spend a lot of time in airports, in the air, or driving long distances. In addition to these time constraints, you're got the constant waves of e-mail, voice mail, and other interruptions everyone else has. So it's more challenging—and therefore more important—for mobile professionals to maximize their time. If you don't, you forfeit time you could have spent with people you love, something Pausch understood all too well.

Here are some tips Pausch offered in his talk, along with a few of my own.

Use Multiple Monitors

Set up multiple computer monitors on your office desktop, Pausch recommended. He had three screens connected to his computer. One displayed his To-Do list; on the middle monitor was his e-mail program; and on the third, he displayed his calendar.

Pausch argued that you save time by not having to toggle between multiple programs all day on one screen. Having all that screen real estate is like "the difference between working on a desk...and trying to get work done on the little tray on an airplane," Pausch said.

Most laptop users can easily connect one or more external monitors to achieve this effect. Read "Step-by-Step: A Three-Screen Workstation for $230 or Less" for tips and how-to advice. Also read fellow PCW contributing editor Steve Bass's blog, "Dual Monitors—The Only Way To Go."

Encourage Callers to Leave E-Mail

Pausch's outgoing voice mail message used to say, "Hi, this is Randy, please send me e-mail." The idea was to minimize the frequency and length of daily interruptions.

That's good advice. I would add that encouraging callers to leave e-mail instead of voice mail can save mobile professionals time on the road. Instead of having to check both voice mail and e-mail, you could often just check e-mail (provided you've got an e-mail-capable phone). Also, it's much faster to read the typical e-mail than to listen to the typical voice mail.

Services like GotVoice and Vonage Visual Voicemail convert voice mails into transcribed e-mail. I've tested these two services, and I recommend them, for the most part.

Reclaim 'Down Time'

Pausch's oncologist recommended he maintain an exercise routine. So Pausch spent an hour a day riding his bike, as often as possible. Keenly aware that this would be time away from his family, Pausch often spent that hour on his cell phone, getting work done. In fact, Pausch's did much of the work on his book, The Last Lecture, during those hour-long bike rides.

Pausch's bike rides raise an interesting question we should all ponder: How can we reclaim time that would otherwise be unproductive? There are lots of ways to do this, and just as many tools.

For example, one tool I've come to rely on is a Sony digital voice recorder. I will sometimes dictate parts of this column into my Sony ICD-MX20 while taking a brisk 45-minute walk. When I'm back in my office, I connect the recorder to my PC and launch Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software. The software does a great job of transcribing my recordings into text (unless there was a lot of background noise while I was dictating). The text is added to a Microsoft Word file.

Stay Focused on What's Important

I'll leave you with Pausch's conclusion to his time-management talk.

"The last thing is...make a note for 30 days from today...and ask 'What have I changed?' If [you] haven't changed anything, then we still had a pleasant hour together. If you have changed things, then you'll probably have a lot more time to spend with the ones you love. And that's important. Time is all we have. And you may find one day you have less than you think."

Your Tips?

How do you stay productive and organized on the go? What tools or strategies help you the most? If you've got tips or stories to share, please send me e-mail.

This story, "Time-Management and Productivity-Boosting Tips for Busy Professionals" was originally published by PCWorld .

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