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Keeping Things Focused: my top 4 productivity tools & why I love them

Posted by on Nov 23, 2015 in Creativity, Ministry

Startup Stock Photo

Startup Stock Photo

I have a love-hate relationship with productivity tools.

There was a time in my life that you could accuse me of ‘dating’ to-do list management systems. Things, Toodledo, Wunderlist, and good, old-fashioned pen & paper… I’ve used all of these.

You know what I’ve discovered? There is no magic-bullet. There is no perfect system that eliminates my need to stop, identify what’s most important and create space to work on what’s most important.

Now, there are certainly tools I use to help me manage the big & little ‘rocks’. But…. at the end of the day… it all boils down to actually using them.

There are seasons I use my tools well.

There are seasons I don’t.

When I don’t use my tools well, I ‘feel’ frantic. Like everything is spinning around me. I just can’t seem to grasp anything. The vortex of the latest & loudest is too great to overcome and I feel trapped and unable to focus on anything else.

When I do use my tools well, I end my day with a sense of satisfaction knowing that my time and energy were well invested. I can’t say that I feel ‘in control’ of what’s happening in my world. I think control is an illusion. But I am satisfied with where my time and focus are applied.


Here are list of tools I love to use to help me manage my day-to-day, week-to-week expectations. I’ve quit ‘dating’ these tools. I’m committed because they’ve made a huge difference in my ability to produce quality work.

I’m another Evernote fan. I keep everything possible in Evernote. From the kids’ school syllabi to team meeting notes. I love that I can access my Evernote files from my phone or any computer connected to the interwebs.

Evernote is a great bucket for research, documents, meeting notes and other things I need to hang on to for a while. Using the tag feature, notes and documents are easily searchable and categorized.

I used to use a paid subscription of Toodledo. I liked it. Used it for 3 years. But recently shifted to Wunderlist. I prefer the user experience of Wunderlist of Toodledo, yet both are great tools to help me manage and prioritize tasks.

This past year I participated in a GTD workshop. I’d read the book several years ago and loosely applied the principles. But they didn’t stick. The workshop was a huge benefit to me. I’ve incorporated about 60% of the system. And as I gain competency, I’ll incorporate more.

The aspects of the GTD system that I love are:

  • Email Inbox processing
    Action Folder: for emails that require an action for me.
    Read Now Folder: for emails I need to read for information and have a time frame attached.
    Read Later Folder: for emails I want to read but the clock isn’t ticking.
  • Physical Inbox processing – I’ve always had a physical inbox. And it was really just a place where papers piled up that I didn’t know what to do with OR simply didn’t want to deal with it! Now I have time scheduled each week where I clear out that Inbox. I do something with the document. Either I turn it into an Action, add it to a Project, Trash it or it goes into the Someday/Maybe file.
  • Someday/Maybe – This is a notebook in Evernote. It’s my home for all those things I’d love to do… but just don’t have the time, budget or margin to do right now. At least I have a home for it until margin is available.
  • Brain Dump – I think GTD has a different name for this. But I’ve dubbed the process ‘Brain Dump’. It’s intentional time carved out once a week where I just write out all the things that are on my mind. It’s crazy how freeing the exercise can be.
    This is one activity I don’t do consistently enough. I see a big difference in my creativity on the weeks that I’m faithful to Brain Dump. Creativity suffers the weeks I opt out of the Brain Dump.

Pomodoro Timer
I really love this tool. You can read about the technique here. But for someone like me who is EASILY distracted, this tool is pretty invaluable. It helps me to focus in concentrated bursts of time. When I know I need to get a project moved forward, using my Pomodoro Timer helps me to focus, produce, then intentionally take a break.

There are a variety of Pomodoro Timers available. I use the PomodoroPro app on my iPhone or Tomato Timer on my web browser.

From a productivity standpoint, these are the tools that I’ve found help me to manage the day-to-day crazy. But… at the end of the day… if I don’t use the tools, they don’t do me a bit of good. A tool is only helpful when you actually take it out of the toolbox and use it.

As we enter a new year, now is a great time to decide which tools you will use to help you focus on what’s most important in 2016.

What do you use to help you focus on the Big Rocks first?

This post Keeping Things Focused appeared originally on ginamcclain.com

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Writing Better Goals Today

Posted by on Nov 18, 2015 in Leadership


‘Tis the season of goal writing.

The annual review of the past 12 months… the wins… the growth… the learning points.

The look ahead to the coming year when you ask yourself, where are we headed, where do we need to grow, and how do we get there?

Goal setting is a non-negotiable for leaders. Like mile-markers set out to guide us on our path, goals help to ensure we are focused on a prescribed destination. Goals ensure we focus on the right outcomes. Goals ensure that we steward our resources successfully.

But goals are tricky to write.

I’ve led in ministry for 16 years and I’ve written goals every year.

Personal growth goals.

Professional growth goals.

Fitness goals.

Spiritual-discipline goals.

Leader-development goals.

All for the purpose of posturing myself to grow.

I’ve learned in recent years how to write more effective goals. Ones that are measurable and closely aligned with Organizational values so they truly advance us toward our mission.

But this past year, our team has refined our goal setting to a greater degree.

Like turning the dial up, the format we are using can increase focus and accountability 10-fold.

And it’s uncomfortably exciting.

Taken from the methodology taught by the Studer Group, goals are written in a very specific way.

They include:

  • an intentional action (i.e. Increase, Decrease or Maintain)
  • what you want to measure (i.e. team collaboration)
  • from (current performance; i.e. 5.3)
  • to (target performance; i.e. 7.5)
  • by what time period (i.e. weekly, monthly, annually)
  • by what measuring tool (i.e. Collaboration Survey)

Here’s an example of a completed goal statement:

Increase Employee Engagement from 5.3 to 7.5 by 4th Quarter 2016 as measured by Employee Engagement Survey.

The way in which the goal is stated is specific as to what I want to grow (Employee Engagement), by how much I want to grow (>2 points), when I want to achieve this (4th quarter next year), and how I plan to measure.

Here’s what I like about this format:

It’s so clear what I set out to achieve. There is no ambiguity. Time has taught me the value of clarity. In the past I preferred goals that left a lot of ‘wiggle’ room so I could adjust as the year progressed. But using language that creates ‘wiggle’ room can produce a goal that is so broad, you’re not sure you’ve achieved.

The goal targets the desired outcome without defining the process. I’m left with the freedom to maneuver and adjust as the year progresses. If one action doesn’t score points on the board, I have the freedom to adjust my tactics and try something different.

In the past, I’ve been known to make a tactic my goal. i.e. Increase brainstorming sessions with Creative Team. Yet tactics are intended to achieve a greater end (i.e. increasing collaboration among the team) which achieves a greater outcome… Engagement. And ultimately, it’s the greater outcome that I want to accomplish, not the tactic.

Understanding the difference between a goal and a tactic is where I’m still deep within the learning curve. But I’ve enjoyed this process, nonetheless.

How do you form your goal statements? And how effective have they been moving you closer to your mission?

Want to know how to turn the up on effectiveness? Check my next post on prioritizing your goals.

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