“People will start seeing you as an expert, if you have a real point of view that reflects how you actually work.” – Great advice from Julie Morgenstern – time-management and organizing expert.

Julie Morgenstern, dubbed the “queen of putting people’s lives in order” by USA Today, is a professional organizer and productivity expert. Julie and her team provide practical solutions for your space, time, information, projects and teams.”

So, Julie, the first question I have is, you went from theater and drama to becoming a time-management, organizing expert. How did that happen?

Well, in a funny way, being in the theater . . . I was mostly a director, and directors, in a way, a project manager.

There are many parts to organizing theater. You’ve got a script. You have actors. You have a designer. There’s the lighting designer, the set designer and the audience. It really is a form of project management that requires a lot of organizational skills. So, when I got divorced and I had a little kid, I could no longer afford the theater hours, which are evenings and weekends, as a single parent, or theater money, to tell you the truth. You can’t quite raise a family theater hours. So, I, kind of, transferred those skills to organizing people’s lives.

Oh, wow, when I read it, it was such a unique transition. That’s great.

I think a lot of times, skills can, surprisingly, transfer from one industry to another. I think in today’s economy, sometimes, it’s a little reassuring to know that you can change industries and you’re going to bring your full skill set to it and there are some surprising transitions that can be made.

When I was looking you up, there are so many things that you do, that are so relevant to project managers, like the presentation that you have, taming the chaos so you can make a unique contribution. If you ask project managers, their life is pretty chaotic. But, the question I have for you is, why do you think we get into a chaotic state in the first place?

Well, I think it depends on who were talking about. I do think project managers are also responsible, they’re people whose job it is to tame the chaos and to orchestrate many different people and parts and get everybody focused and doing things on time, coordinating a lot of different elements. So, I think that the reason why there is so much chaos is that, people’s workloads are huge and their time is short and their attention is, kind of, diluted or dispersed. So, clearly, a project manager’s job is to get people to focus their energies on the task at hand. It’s hard; everybody’s got so many things to pay attention to, in today’s world. Then, there is a lot of junk to pay attention to.

There is a lot of distracting nonsense out there. I do also believe that people are now so overwhelmed, that procrastination is, a little bit of, a coping device for people when they’re very overwhelmed with conflicting priorities, and they don’t know what to do first. They procrastinate. They start first on the Web, and going online or rearranging their pencil drawer or walk around and bother their coworkers. There’s a lot of ways in which we procrastinate. I think it’s because it’s hard to decide where to spend your energy, and so you end up doing none of the above. I think those are some of the reasons for our chaos. There are no boundaries on the workday anymore, or the work week. Everybody can work 24/7. It’s a little chaotic to organize yourself in a world where there is so much happening.

It is, and I can tell you, as a project manager, sometimes you have so many projects going on, it is hard to focus on what you need to do. There are so many conflicting priorities that come at you. I want to jump to the next question, actually, which is, you talk about never checking email in the morning, and this is to do with that we’re talking about. Most people do that. For project managers, that is one of their most commonly used communication vehicles. Why should we not check email in the morning, and how can we get away from that habit?

The key here is, you want to get away from mindless habit of checking email, instead of doing more focused thinking or problem solving. Checking email, first thing, for many people is just a bad habit, that instead of doing anything else productive, its like, “Let me see what’s in the email mailbox.” It’s very hard to break that habit, and so, I highly recommend, in my experience, that the best way to break mindlessly checking email is to reserve the first hour of every day, to be completely email-free. And, that means if you use your smart phone as your alarm clock in the morning, first of all, change to a regular alarm clock.

Because it’s really hard to not check, once the alarm goes off, on your smart phone. So don’t check it when you first wake up. Give yourself at least an hour to just be quiet in your mind, and focused, and centered, and think about your priorities for the day, or think about your first major project that you need to work on for the day. Just get centered. And I actually think we get to the office, if you can avoid that first hour and just do a high-level focused tasks, and then roll your sleeves up for business, and see what the world needs from you.

Now, for project managers, depending on if they’re working within a corporation or they’re working independently, there can be exceptions, where you need to find out, first thing in the morning, what happened overnight on a project, in order to know what to do next. So, I want all listeners to take that advice in-context of their workload, but make sure that if you’re checking email in the first hour of the day, it is mindful, it is thoughtful and it’s not a knee-jerk reaction, because you don’t know what else to do.

If you can postpone it for an hour, and do something that takes deep thinking, you’ll find that you’ll be able to check it later in the day. Another point is, when you really need to focus on a task, strategic planning or problem-solving, or some analytic work, it’ll be easy for you to get off email for an hour, get your work done and then get back on. That’s the goal.

Yes. Even I have experienced this myself. I come in to work and the email, sort of, defines my agenda for the whole day and I lose track of what I had to do today. You get so sucked into that flow.

You do. I always question our motives when we do that, because the day before you checked email and that set your agenda and you didn’t finish everything. You had things that were already on your schedule for the day, and so why openly invite a million things to derail you from what you’ve already determined are high priorities, from the previous day, or the previous days?

I think some tools can help, because it takes about three days to break your habit. Everybody should know that. It’s not going to be instant. So, the first day that you try to not check email, for the first hour, you’re not get anything done, because you’re going to be so anxious about what you’re missing, you’ll just be distracted. And, by the third day, you’ll realize, “Wow, you know, there’s nothing in that email box that could not have waited 59 minutes for my attention.” So, having email tools that will block their access, when your habit is to open it up anyway, helps reinforce your commitment to stay off and do something else.

The other thing that I think is really important, very helpful, Samir, for people to succeed in weaning themselves off of email in the beginning of the day, is to end every day, by deciding in advance, exactly how you’re going to spend that first hour. What project are you going to work on, what task, what piece of writing, what spreadsheet, and I have found that the choice between email and something vague, that you don’t know what you’re going to do, email will always win. If you have a very specific task to get done, a very important, high-value, big contribution, and you’re like, “I can either complete this spreadsheet, or I could check email,” you’ll complete this spreadsheet. So, give yourself specific alternatives and decide those the day before, and you’ll find it much easier to resist.

And one other thing that project managers struggle with is meetings. People call you to project meetings and you have to organize meetings and sometimes, I feel that all I do some days are just attend meetings, and do nothing else. Do you have any suggestions for that, on how, maybe, we can either make the meeting productive or have less meetings?

Both are worthy causes. Having fewer meetings is definitely worthwhile. There are a few things I would recommend. If someone says, “Oh, let’s have a meeting,” make sure that it’s something that is best accomplished in a meeting, in some kind of face-to-face meeting. A lot of people do telephone meetings now, so what is the best way to get this particular task done? Is it in meetings? Is it via a document that we send around? Is it through a phone call? What is the best way to achieve this goal?

The second thing is, for every single meeting, this is probably one of the best strategies to boost your productivity, effectiveness and focus of the meeting, if you were the one that called the meeting or you requested the meeting, ask not just what the agenda of the meeting is, but what the outcome of the meeting is. When we are finished with this meeting, what will have been accomplished? What’s the outcome?

Outcome-based agendas prove to be very effective. For example, it may be that we want to solve X problem. We want to work out our staffing issue. That would be a specific outcome, and we’ll need to come up with an alternative staffing solution, it may be to come up with three possible paths to pursue. It could be to decide something, come up with ideas, but know, specifically, what the outcome is and send that in advance to everybody attending the meeting, and let them know what role you want them to play. So, a lot of times, people come to meetings and they don’t know why they’ve even been invited. So, let people know, here’s the outcome of the meeting and this is the role I need you to play. We need your expertise on X. We need you to share your experience with Y, etc.. So, outcomes and roles help enormously to keep everybody focused, and kind of excited about getting something specific done.

That’s a good one. Usually, everyone has an agenda, but focusing on the outcome can really focus people towards the work you want to achieve.

That’s right. And then, when tangents come up or side paths . . . Because, when you get a group of people together, one idea leads to another, and then another, and having that outcome can help everybody quickly determine if that’s a tangent, that’s going to help us get to the outcome or that’s going to derail us from what we are trying to do today, so let’s park it. We had a separate meeting about that topic at that came up. We quickly focused.

One of the topics you talk about is becoming a go-to expert. I read your brief on that and it was more oriented to entrepreneurs and business owners, but I was wondering if the same concepts apply to project managers, and they becoming expert in that discipline or practice, or maybe even in their domains. Do you have any specific suggestions for PMs, so they can be seen as a go-to expert in their field?

I think so. One of the things to keep in mind, know how your results are being measured, as a project manager. Is it about getting things done, high-quality, and on-time? Know how you’re being measured in terms of your effectiveness. That’s number one. And then you need to really organize your time to make sure you deliver. People basically measure results. People respond to results, so if you produce, you will become the go-to expert. You’re the person who people are going to rely on when they need something accomplished.

When I talk entrepreneurs, and small business owners, and professionals about becoming a go-to expert, there’s a couple of things to keep in mind, one, is to develop something substantial to say. I think the way that translates for project managers, is to know your field and have your own particular opinion, or philosophy, about project management, that makes your system work, or makes you effective, for example, what’s your philosophy. If you can really articulate that and share that in meetings, with groups or with bosses in the beginning of a project, and you start out by saying, “Look, this is my job as project manager.” This is my philosophy about how we can be very successful,” and if you have a real point of view that reflects how you actually work, people will start seeing you as an expert. So, reflect on and distill down what your philosophy is as a project manager, and share that openly.

Then, of course, you need to deliver. Communicate and let people know that things are progressing, communicate out. I think what happens is that the people we support are so overwhelmed, themselves, that they can’t possibly keep track of what you’re achieving. If you communicate benchmarks and achievements, and let people know, and you actively communicate in a really clear way, they will recognize what you are doing. If you don’t communicate it, no one knows, no one has any idea, until something goes wrong.

That’s true. That’s a great suggestion, to articulate your philosophy and opinion. Now, as I’m just thinking about it, very few people do that.

It’s true. In a funny way, everybody is looking for somebody to be an expert, because most people don’t feel expert at all, or they feel expert in their particular job, but not in the overall situation or circumstance, or if they have a piece of a project, the project manager’s there, and says, “This is my philosophy and it works best when we do XYZ, and I’m going to keep you posted. This is what I want you look for when I send back my little reports, with green and yellow.” If you just make life easy for the people that you’re supporting and make the path clear, people will really find great comfort in that. They can relax, because they can count on you, and they know what to expect.

Shifting focus a little, who are some of your role models or the people you admire?

So many, really. You know what, I just am a student of life and I cross a lot of different fields, and so I mostly look for people within each industry that I touch, kind of, top-tier professionals. More with organizing and management, probably, one of my best mentors is a woman named Barbara Hemphill who is one of the early pioneers of this industry and she’s just always pushing the envelope and adapting to changes in the world and finding ways to add value. I’ve watched her so closely and she is a friend. I’ve learned so much about being super-connected to what’s going on in the world, and adapting. Adapt. Keep transferring those skills. Don’t get locked into anything, other than to serve. So, I would say that she’s one.

Other than consulting, and the business that you do, and speaking and all the other stuff that you do, what are some of your other hobbies and interests? Do you still do drama?

I don’t do drama anymore, but I do go to the theater a lot. I love theater. I love the arts. I love to go to museums, and go in for one exhibit and really study, thoroughly, the life or work of a particular artist. I enjoy the city and travel and dancing. I’m very big on music.

I have a pretty rich life. I have a very full life, and I do keep it balance, and that’s something that I developed, as skills, over time. The harder you have to work the more thoughtful you have to be about how you’re spending your time off, so that it quickly recharges you, and renews you, and gets you off of thinking about work, and gets you thinking about something completely different. And, brain science actually supports that when you step away from work, you often are better able to solve problems more effectively and more efficiently. When you come back, the things that you learned have crystallized, when you have stopped thinking about them all the time. But you need to take those mental breaks. You’ll actually be a much more effective worker.

Any exciting projects or new books in the hopper for 2012?

Yes. For 2012, I’m working with Levenger, which is an online company that sells products that are for readers and people with offices, and small offices, and they have a beautiful line of products, and I’ve created something called “The Balanced Life Planner,” which is a planning tool. That’ll be out in mid-2012. So, I’m very excited about that. It’s a time management planning system that coaches you on how to create a very balanced work life, and personal life, and to plan your days effectively, and get that feeling of excitement when you wake up in the morning, and accomplishment by the time you go to sleep at night.

And, the other thing is Open Sky. It’s sort of an organizing shopping website, with all kinds of experts on it. People can check that out too, at http://www.opensky.com, and can choose to follow me. That’s been ongoing. I launched that in 2011, but it’s continuing through 2012.

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About Samir Penkar

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