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5 Email Templates For Following Up On Action Items

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action itemsHave you ever walked away from a meeting with a sneaking suspicion that nothing discussed in the meeting will get accomplished? Were you right?

Early on in my career, I had too many meetings where followup items just didn’t get done.  It wasn’t because the people were incompetent or didn’t care… normally, it was just because they were swamped with stuff and the action item fell off their radar.

Being attuned to and empathizing with people’s busy schedule is one of the easiest ways to disarm a potentially awkward conversation (nobody likes feeling like they have done a bad job). Whenever I talk with someone about missing an action item, one of the key things I try to keep in mind is, “The person has not done anything wrong, the action item has just not been accomplished yet.”

Here are 5 email templates that you can use to followup on action items (hopefully, without seeming like a jerk):

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7 Questions For The Productivity Pro

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The best way to learn about any subject is to study the leaders of that particular field. For this week’s post, we had the pleasure of speaking with Laura Stack about different ways to increase productivity in the workplace.

Laura Stack is America’s premier expert in Productivity. For over 20 years, her seminars and speeches have helped leaders improve output, execute efficiently, and save time at work. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides workshops around the globe on productivity, potential, and performance. She’s the bestselling author of five books from major publishers, most recently. To invite Laura to speak at your next event or sign up for her free monthly newsletter, visit www.TheProductivityPro.com.

1) What inspired you to become a productivity expert? What helped you make the jump and apply the principles in your daily life?

My father is a veteran, a retired colonel in the United States Air Force, so I moved around quite a bit. Today, when people ask me about my childhood “home,” I think about the pink bedroom in Colorado, the yellow kitchen in Ohio, the whitewashed porch in Texas. I’ve moved nearly 30 times in all and hated every single one of them. So I survived by taking control of what I could. I became a master at packing and organizing.

My friends used to laugh at my perfectly clean bedroom, my compulsive list making, and my overwhelming urge to organize. But these experiences helped me with my life plan. The upheaval of my childhood taught me how to create order out of chaos, which laid the foundation for my work today. My background helped me build the systems I use today as The Productivity Pro, teaching professionals how to spend their time moving closer to their goals in work and life.

At my core, I don’t think of myself as an author first. What I really love doing is getting up on a stage and speaking. Being a professional speaker really floats my boat. I speak at professional conferences, meetings, retreats, training events…actually anywhere someone will hire me to talk. I knew that books would be the best vehicle to get my message into the hands of a mass market, prompting them to pick up the phone or email me with an inquiry to speak.

2) We encounter people that know they could be making better use of their time, but ironically never make the time to actually improve on their unproductive habits. How do you typically get those people to start finding the time to make positive changes?

Start small. Think about how productive you are right before you go on vacation. Everything inside of you supports your desire to leave! The unimportant things magically disappear, and you focus on higher-value activities. Similarly, you can pick a single day, perhaps Thursdays, to be “the” day you leave work on time. To support this decision, you will automatically begin to be more productive on Thursdays and work your day more carefully. Even though you work a normal workday on Thursday, you don’t get any less work done.

After you sense what it’s like to have Thursday nights to yourself, you benefit from a system of self-reinforcement, because you enjoy the rewards you created. Then add another day, like Monday, and do the same thing. Keep working on productivity skills and adding more days, until you’re working reasonable hours again and accomplishing even greater results.

3) What is the most common problem you typically hear in regards to poor meetings? How do you solve it?

The biggest problem people complain about is an unclear agenda.

People need to know why they’re meeting and what you expect to accomplish as a result.

Distribute the agenda and associated materials at least 24 hours in advance, preferably 72. At the end of the meeting, have someone distribute the minutes, which should list what decisions were made, who is responsible for what, by when. Rather than invite too many people, send the minutes to those who might be interested but don’t have an integral part in the meeting.

4) As technology continues to play a bigger role in the business world, do you think more companies will look to software to help solve their productivity problems?

Most organizations don’t have a clear methodology to accomplish the distribution of agendas, minutes, decisions, and action items. Most use a haphazard approach, and meetings succeed or fail based upon the organizational skill of the leader. Cloud-based technologies and apps like Less meeting allow for standardization, consistency, and follow-through on promises made. Less Meeting becomes the collective “memory” to allow members to refer back to what happened and what actions items are required.

5) What is one productivity tip you wish you knew 20 years ago?

I wish I would have hired people sooner to help me. The more money I’ve spent on partnerships, outsourcing, agents, and employees, the more successful I’ve been in business. I should have looked to other experts sooner to “fill in the blanks,” rather than doing everything myself. Identify people who can do what you can’t, pay them to do it, and get out of the way.

6) In your new book ‘Execution IS the Strategy’, you emphasize empowering employees to achieve success; in what ways could we start empowering our employees tomorrow?

Rather than simply issuing orders and expecting team members to follow them blindly, encourage them to do what they already know they need to do. Accept the fact that, despite your leadership role, they’re the ones at the sharp end of the stick. Modern leadership is more of a partnership than ever before.

Work may not be a democracy, but it’s definitely not a dictatorship. Circumstances change too fast. So be the change leader when you must and the visionary when you can. Give your team all the facts they need to advance, and allow them a free hand to shift course and goals quickly. Let them tell you the best way to achieve your priorities and get out of their way. Maintain the conversation as a positive feedback loop. That way, they know that what works best is constantly added to and strengthens the workflow system.

7) We find a lot of individuals who try to implement meeting best practices, but can’t seem to get their team members on board. How do you recommend getting coworkers to participate?

You should create a joint meeting code of conduct. The next time you attend a staff or committee meeting, request the opportunity to lead an exercise aimed at making meetings more productive and less draining.

Tell the group you would like to discuss some guidelines and protocols about meetings. Standing in front of a flip chart, ask the group, “If you were king or queen of the world, what rules would you make about meetings, to make them as productive as possible? What makes you crazy about our meetings? How do we waste time?” and list the statements people make. Type these up, title it “Code of Conduct,” put it on a piece of 8 ½ x 11 paper, and take it to a print shop to be blown up into a poster-size piece of paper. Frame it and hang it in the meeting rooms to remind people about proper behavior in a meeting.

Some sample guidelines include:

  • If the leader or key decision maker no-shows, attendees may leave after 10 minutes.
  • Use a timekeeper (appointed by the leader) to keep the meeting on target and follow the agenda.
  • Appoint a scribe for the meeting. When something comes up that’s not on the agenda, the scribe records it on the flipchart. If there is time at the end of the meeting, those items can be addressed. If time runs out, they roll over to the next meeting agenda.
  • Action items are recorded as “who/what/when” on a flipchart. The scribe types these up after the meeting and distributes them within 48 hours.
  • Meetings will start and stop on time, unless all in attendance agree to extend the time.
  • Try to finish early if possible; don’t stretch the meeting.
  • Attendees may get up and leave at the stated end time.
  • Eliminate any discussion that involves only two people.
  • Don’t stop meetings to bring latecomers up to date.

 

What guidelines would you add to the list?

3 Project Management Tools

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Here at Less Meeting, we’re no strangers to the project management world. Many of us are former PM’s and many of our users are PM’s trying to find better ways to manage their always growing workload.

Along the way, we’ve picked up a few tips from users who are using software to help maximize their efficiency.

Here are our top 3 Project Management Tools:


Starting at $20 per month, Basecamp is one of the most common project management tools used by Less Meeting users and is built upon the principle of simplicity. 

Jason Fried (co-founder of Basecamp & 37Signals) follows the philosophy of “less is less” and allows users to form discussions, add to-do lists & files, manage calendars and keep track of projects in one very easy to use interface.

If you are looking for something easy to use without over complicating your current process, this is your tool.



Starting at $24 a month per user (for a yearly subscription), Liquid Planner is less complex than Microsoft Projects, integrates with Salesforce.com, and includes some convenient features that many other tools are missing (like analytics and reporting):

  • Unlimited projects
  • Free training and support
  • Software integrations
  • Phone and tablet applications
  • Document sharing
  • Regular feature updates 

 


Starting at $25 for 5 team members, users can share files, create group discussions, assign tasks, collaborate on writing, set reminders, track time, and manage tickets & milestones.

ActiveCollab has a great mix of straightforward features, but also has additional features for teams that tend to do a lot of writing / collaborating. 


What other tools are you using to help manage your projects?

Productivity Tools You Need To Be Using

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The old saying, “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” is a mantra for mediocrity. If you could be doing something more efficiently and save time doing it, isn’t that something worth fixing?

By very definition, good technology is intended to make your life easier. With the invention of the internet, smart phones, and other handy gadgets (august locks, nest), old processes have been completely revamped to be more efficient, more convenient and even more fun.

Imagine if electricity was never invented because carrying candles from room to room worked just fine. It’s easy to laugh at now, but think about how many inefficient things we hold on to just because we are familiar with them already.

It’s no secret that the staff at Less Meeting geeks out to productivity tools. We have seen the positive results of good technology and wanted to share a couple of our favorite tools that make our lives easier:

1) Mailbox

  • We used to get a lot of mail in our front yard mailbox and now we get it all in our email inbox. Mailbox helps organize / prioritize the emails you need to answer first, to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

2) Trello

  • I love checklists. My wife will make fun of me for excitedly checking items off my list immediately after they are done. With that said, Trello enables the staff at Less Meeting to easily see what each person is working on, as well as add new items in real time. “Trello is anything you want it to be—a lesson planner, a community bulletin, a repository for inspiration.”

3) Ducksboard

  • We set up a monitor in our office that displays important metrics that are useful to know throughout the day. I can simply look up and see any new app purchases, twitter followers, site visits, youtube views, etc. all in one easy / nice-to-look-at interface.

4) Yammer

  • Communication can easily get lost in lengthy company email threads. Yammer allows employees to collaborate on ideas, share information, and organize projects in one place. Event coming in town? New idea for a blog post? Share them on yammer.

5) Evernote

  • Whenever I have a new idea or simply don’t want to forget something important, Evernote is always there for me. I used to keep several notebooks- one on my nightstand, one on my desk, and one at work. Now I have everything conveniently located on my phone or laptop (and I don’t have to re-copy notes over and over). I even use their web clipper to cut out images from websites I like for inspiration.

What other products help your productivity?

First Up on my To-Do List: Keep my To-Do List

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Have you seen any of the posts lately calling out to-do lists as Productivity Porn? They want us to give them up, go cold turkey, and – I know this sounds crazy – start relying on our brains to remember what to do.

This would be awesome, right? Freedom from that layer of post-its taped all around your monitor. Deleting all those to-do apps cluttering up your smart phone. And no more guilt over delayed and unfinished tasks that linger on your lists forever.

Yet while it’s sexy to trash talk to-do lists, it’s time to come back to reality and remember why to-do lists do matter.

To do so, let’s focus on two flaws that are left out when trying to convince us to ditch our to-do lists.

To-do Lists aren’t a Substitute for Process

Jeff Atwood says this, when referring to the to-do lists in his life:

As for the things that didn’t matter in my life, well, those just tended to pile up endlessly in the old to-do list. And the collective psychic weight of all these minor undone tasks were caught up in my ever-growing to-do katamari ball, where they continually weighed on me, day after day.

Ouch. That sounds rough!

If that’s happening though then the problem isn’t the to-do list. Remember, to-do lists can’t replace process, can’t exist without a process, and can’t add more “stuff” to your process.

So what is the process? Well, it’s simple:

    1. Prioritize – Steven Covey’s Time Management Matrix is one way
  1. Divide & Conquer – Break up projects into small, manageable tasks
  2. Update & Purge – Constantly prune your to-do list; if a task has been sitting overdue for weeks, get rid of it. It’s clearly not that important!

The point is, just because to-dos are piling up on your list doesn’t mean the list is the problem.

Quitting Doesn’t Get your To-Dos Done

Remember when Jason Fried suggested that the way to fix meetings was to stop having them?

Same principle here. Instead of quitting to-do lists altogether, there’s a better solution. What if we just had awesome to-do lists instead? (Ok I know that last sentence is a bit ambitious, but bear with me.)

Again, here’s Jeff:

If it matters, if it really matters, you’ll remember to do it. And if you don’t, well, maybe you’ll get to it one of these days. Or not. And that’s cool too.

All right here’s the deal: Jeff’s right that if you can’t remember the three most important things you need to do today, then there’s a serious problem. What he’s forgetting, though, is that there is so much more to your day, and that’s what to-do lists are for.

The easiest way to explain this is by walking through what belongs on a to-do list.

1.  Assignments

The bread & butter for to-do lists. Assignments, action items, basically anything that you gotta do for someone else.

There’s a key difference with these. With an action item, you really don’t get to determine whether it’s important or not (at least after it’s been agreed upon by everyone).

So even if you don’t think it’s important – actually, especially if you don’t think it’s important! – a to-do list for action items is a must. To-do lists keep action items on your radar even when they’re not on your mind.

By the way, looking for a great action item tool? One that integrates seamlessly with your status meetings and syncs with tools like Google Tasks and Outlook? Check out Less Meeting.

2. Chores

Call these chores, checklists, regular routines, whatever you want.
Yes, each individual item isn’t that important. BUT! A) There’s typically a lot of them, and B) There is an annoyance factor if forgotten.

I have all of these things to get done everyday. Will I remember to take out the trash? Probably. Will I remember to pick up the dry cleaning? Possibly. But do I want an earful from my spouse when I forget to pickup groceries for dinner tonight? Heck No!!

3. Your Important Projects & Goals

These DO NOT belong on a to-do list. Well that was easy!
But seriously, you shouldn’t need to add a task like “build awesome iPad app for Less Meeting” to a to-do list. This is where Jeff and the other authors get it right.

As Vivek Haldar puts it,

If you really deeply care about something, you will do it. You will do it without needing a list or a system or a reminder.

It’s that simple.
Aside – You could still argue that you should take your projects and list out all the next actions in bite-size tasks, but that’s an entirely different topic.

Use But Don’t Abuse To-Do Lists

All this being said, Jeff and the other authors are right. To-do lists are abused. Lifehacker’s Law is a prime example:

Lifehacker’s Law: A new To-Do list app will be released every 24 hours.
— Lowell Heddings (@howtogeek) August 27, 2012

 

By themselves they won’t help you actually get anything done.
However, if you limit your to-do lists to the right kind of content – namely action items & assignments – and continually prune your list to keep it under control, you can get away from all this Productivity Porn and get back to simply being productive.

image via branimir

Why I Want This Calendar…And You Do Too

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Last week a couple of us in the office caught up with one of our startup neighbors from down the street, James Martin.Whether you realized it or not you might have seen his awesome design work before at TripLingo or iamjamesmartin.

In any case, among some good conversation and strong coffee he told us about this calendar he designed last winter. And I want it. Don’t worry, you’re going to want one too.

I’ll Take One
This thing is smooth, simple, and elegant. It’s not over-the-top, or too bare bones, but rather just right.

It’s Physical
To add an appointment or task, I have to get up, walk over to the calendar, and physically write it in. That might not sound like much, but it’s a heck of a lot more than instantly clicking to accept something on my computer. This gives me some needed extra time to ask myself, “Do I really need to do this?”

It’s Got Perspective

I can now see months, my whole year even, at a glance. This lets me see trends that I’d otherwise miss, maybe telling me just how mismanaged my schedule is. Yet it’s also compact enough to not take up an entire side of my house.

It’s Beautiful
Their site says it for me: “It combines functional features with brilliant aesthetics. In Making Ideas Happen, author Scott Belsky says “the design of your productivity tools will affect how eager you are to use them. Attraction often breeds commitment.” You’ll be eager to use this attractive calendar.”

So yeah, that’s it. Head over to NeuYear to get your own calendar.

Disclaimer – there’s no benefit in writing this post for us other supporting the local startup community and giving our Less Meeting users one more tool in their meeting arsenal.

And if you haven’t tried Less Meeting yet, then you’re missing one of the best meeting tools you can have. Sign up for free to see for yourself.