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Managing Time with Database

Managing Time with Database

This Palmtop user accomplishes her goals and manages her life with a custom ToDo Database

By Joy Soto Kocar

I became obsessive about time management when I decided to start my own technical writing and consulting company part-time, while working full-time as an engineer, volunteering at the local cancer institute, studying for a licensing exam, and sandwiching a personal life in there somewhere. Juggling all my activities really tested the theory of forced efficiency: the more you have to do, the more efficient you become to accomplish it all. Of course having a loving and supportive spouse goes a very long way in achieving a goal. I couldn't have survived it with just a Palmtop.

Unmanageable paper organizer

Like many Palmtop users, I started out with a paper organizer. Over time the organizer got thicker and heavier, and I got paranoid about losing the information it contained. Knowing how important my organizer was to me, my husband would jokingly suggest that we get an insurance rider for my organizer. But that would be of little help if the data was lost. Finally, I decided to switch to an electronic organizer so that I could back up ALL my data. Another problem with a thick paper organizer is that its sometimes hard to find the information you want. Going electronic would give me the ability to search my information quickly and organize it better.

In addition to the paper organizer, I had been keeping prospect and contact information in spreadsheets and a database on my desktop computer. I wanted to consolidate all that in an electronic phone book. I also had been collecting a multitude of other information important to me, including tips on how to do certain things and lists that ranged from reference books to read, to gift ideas. I wanted to have that information with me all the time.

In short, I wanted a powerful, ultra-portable personal information manager with significant internal memory to store all that information. I wanted it to be expandable and flexible, and I wanted to avoid expensive proprietary accessories. Since I used spreadsheets to store much of my information, I wanted a spreadsheet program. I also wanted to be able to do engineering calculations, track expenses, do cash flow projections, billable hours and income linked to estimated taxes. Finally, with the investment I had made in entering information on my desktop, I wanted the electronic organizer to be able to communicate with the desktop.

I didn't think I was asking for too much, but when I finally started to shop around with my wish list in hand, I was quickly disappointed. The Sharps and Casios were toys! After giving up on ever finding just the right machine, I stumbled across an EduCALC catalog and discovered this wonderful, infinitely flexible, and ultra-portable machine the HP Palmtop. Its one of the best investments I've made and the most used tool I have.

Life managements underlying principles

I purchased an HP 200LX and began inputting the data to see if it would really fit my lifestyle and fulfill my needs.

I began using Appointment Book to track appointments and ToDo's, but quickly found that the ToDo list was getting large and unwieldy. I ended up creating a custom Database not just for my ToDo list but as a means of life management, hence, I named it LIFEMGMT.GDB.

My whole time management scheme revolves around the underlying concept of a master ToDo list. I first learned this technique from Stephanie Winston's book, The Organized Executive. The books main principles relating to time management are as follows:

  1. 1. Record in a master list every idea, call, project, task as it arises -- large or small, minor or important.
  2. 2. Review your master list daily and divide large projects into manageable components.
  3. 3. At the beginning of each day, or at the end of the previous day, compile a Daily List of the 10 tasks that you think you can realistically accomplish, ranked in order of importance. Try to have at least one high-payoff activity on your Daily List.
  4. 4. Schedule your high priority items during the time of day you're most effective.



At first I was skeptical of the technique working. It seemed that I would spend more time making lists than I would save being organized! It took some initial effort and getting use to, but I've since become a convert. Having a prioritized master list of the goals you need to accomplish really helps put things in perspective.

Prioritizing is definitely the secret to getting the most important things done. The emphasis is on important goals and not just the urgent things to do. When prioritizing ToDo's, I quickly go through the following questions.

  • Is this ToDo going to help me reach an important goal?
  • What are the most important ToDo's for me to handle today that would allow me to call this a successful day?



I believe that by taking care of the important things now, you minimize the effect of urgent ones later.

The most important underlying principle in time management is to structure major goals, not just a lot of little things to do. You structure the individual ToDo's to get you to the major goals. Efficiency is meaningless without them. When setting goals, I keep in mind the acronym SMART. The goal has to be Specific with a positive tone, be Measurable so I know when I've achieved it, be Action oriented, be Realistic, and be Timed with a due date and schedule. They also have to be balanced and congruent with personal values, in other words, support my personal mission.

Goals, of course, are flexible and make up the network of roads that will help anyone get to where they want to go. The map that these roads represent is each person's life mission.

I use the Category field to distinguish the important areas in my life and use LIFEMGMTs second Planning Screen to schedule and achieve my goals (more on this later).

I've used this system now for almost a year, and so it has passed the test of time and usability.


At first blush, my master Database seemed complicated and daunting. Id structured in lots of ways to organize, categorize and sort the list. But that required making decisions about each ToDo as I entered it. I quickly discovered that the best way to deal with a new ToDo was to enter it and worry about categorizing and prioritizing it later. I created a macro that let me enter the ToDo description along with a low priority, D, and Undecided category. I can modify the priority and category as I enter the ToDo, or wait till later to look at the whole and make those decisions. Many ToDo ideas used to slip between the cracks. Now I just hit the macro, enter the ToDo, and think about it later.

I schedule time to look at the list and adjust priorities each week. I keep in mind the Pareto Principle that 20% of what you do produces 80% of the results. Lots of ToDo's don't get done, but knowing that I have made the choice to do something else more important helps to get rid of feelings of guilt about not accomplishing every little ToDo.

Life Managements Main Screen

The ToDo data displayed in LIFEMGMT's individual Data Item screen is divided up into two pages: the first page displays the Main Screen and the second page the Planning Screen. (Select the desired ToDo in the All Items screen and press (ENTER) to go to the Main Screen. Then press (Fn)- (DownArrow) to toggle between the pages.) I spend most of my time in the Main Screen, and only visit the Planning Screen when I'm planning a project that has a timeline.

 LIFEMGMT's Main Screen displays the title of the ToDo, Priority, Category and other organizational information, and part of the Note field.

 The Main Screen shown above is divided into the following fields:

ToDo -- Contains a brief description of the activity you want to complete. I enter a key word followed with a modifier, allowing me to quickly locate a ToDo item by typing the key word. For example, I entered ToDo's for writing a few articles. The ToDo for this article was entered as Article, Lifemgmt. An engineering article was entered as Article, friction factor. To quickly jump to these entries, I start typing A-r-t-i-c-l-e until Database finds the first matching occurrence.

 LIFEMGMT ToDo database. All ToDo's list view sorted by Category type.

Priority -- I use this field to sort the most important tasks at the top, so they get done first. You can use any alphanumeric value. I use A (for the highest priority), B, C, and D (for the lowest one). For the hot activities I want to complete for the day or week, I use the numbers 1-9, since Database sorts and displays numbers before letters. You can also use a combination of the two. Alternatively, you can use Stephen Covey's Quadrant classification system. Covey's Quadrant 1 is important and urgent tasks/goals. Quadrant 2 is important but not urgent. Quadrant 3 is not important but urgent. Quadrant 4 is neither important nor urgent. (For more on Coveys system, see page 40 of the May/June 94 issue.)

Category -- I use the Category entries to organize ToDo's around areas that are important in my life plan and goals. The categories I use are:

CAR = career

FIN = finances

FUN = fun stuff

HEA = health HOM = home and family

MEN = mental/spiritual development

UND = undecided

I like to add a 3-digit project identifier so I can keep track of related tasks. For example, all ToDo's relating to a specific project, or a specific business client might have the category CAR 100. I keep miscellaneous ToDo's related to my career categorized as CAR999. The screen at the top of the page shows my ToDo list ordered by Category type.

The previous screen sorted by Category gives me some kind of idea of whether or not my life is balanced. At a glance I notice that the current list is dominated by CAR ToDo's. My activity is too career oriented right now, but I'm starting up a company and that kind of focus is necessary during the infancy of any business. I just need to make sure I interject some personal goals into the mix, and aim for more balance in the future.

Entered and Due dates -- I use the Entered date to not only track when I entered the ToDo, but to determine a discard date. If the activity is not completed by a certain number of months after the Entered date, I delete it from the list. The Due date can be used to prioritize the ToDo list by urgency. I don't recommend using this as an exclusive way of prioritizing and selecting action items. It can lead to a management by crisis mode which is more reactive than proactive.

When -- I use the When selection or group box to further focus the ToDo list. When I am prioritizing and organizing a ToDo item, I'll select Now for items I think I can realistically accomplish within a specific time frame. All the others are by default not-Now. I have a Subset that displays only the Now ToDo's. The Later option is used when I can defer a Now item to some time in the future.

What -- I use these choice boxes to group similar tasks together, so I can do them at the same time. For example, all my phone call ToDo's have the Fone checkbox marked. When I get some time to make phone calls, I select a Subset that only displays these ToDo's. My other What options are Read (for reading I need or want to do), PC (for things I have to do on a PC) and Audio (for audio tapes I want to listen to).

Where/Who -- I use these choice boxes to group ToDo's by location, department, or by the people involved. For example, if I'm going into town, I would look for all the Pgh checks, or, if I worked with Jane on a project, I would have a Jane check box and could see all the action items I have with Jane.

Note -- Enter any pertinent notes about the activity. For example if it is a project, I maintain a dated journal of my activities relating to it.

Life Management's Planning Screen

I understand more and more the importance of not only setting long-term goals, but scheduling them. I created my Life Planning fields on the Database's second page, to help with this (see graphic, top of this page).

 LIFEMGMT's second page Planning Screen, used to help schedule long-term, goal-oriented ToDo's.

 I use this page to schedule large projects for clients, and personal development goals for myself.

I have too many of these longer term goals/wishes. This part of my database forces me to be more realistic about scheduling my time for these activities. It also reduces my level of disappointment when long term goals are not met, because I can see what tradeoffs I've made.

The Sched group box with its Yes/No option buttons is for the Year Review and Life Plan subsets. Yes indicates that a ToDo has a timeline associated with it; these subsets only display ToDo's with the Yes button selected.

Minimizing feelings of overload with subsets

I constantly use Subsets to display my ToDo's in comprehensible groups. I use the Now Subset the most when I want to see the ToDo's I need to take care of this week (see screen top of next page). I have additional Subsets to display my Life Plan, my Reading/Audio list, my Year Review for 96-97 (see second screen, top of next page), all my ToDo's listed by Category, and more.

 LIFEMGMT's "Now" Subset displays the ToDo's you need to take care of this week.

 LIFEMGMT's "Year Review for 96-97" Subset lets you review the ToDo's scheduled for the next year.

 Macros and other shortcuts

As I mentioned earlier, I use macros to simplify my use of the ToDo database. I would have deserted this system a long time ago, if it weren't for macros.

The Sched (assigned to Fn+F2) macro creates a ToDo item, assigns it a low Priority, and an undecided Category.


The Sch-TD macro (assigned to Fn+F3) takes a ToDo from LIFE MGMT.GDB and transfers it as a ToDo item in Appointment Book.

{F5}y{Enter}{Appt}{F10}{Menu}at {F3}{Paste}{F10}{F3}{Shift+End} {Cut}{Del}{F10}{Paste}{Tab}

LIFEMGMT survives the test of time

Once or twice a year, I re-evaluate my long-term goals. I reschedule, create or delete goals as needed, to reflect changes in my life. I look at the Life Plan Subset to see if I've scheduled too much into any particular time span, and if I've scheduled sequential steps correctly. Its important for me to review my goals because it keeps me focused on the big picture and prevents me from getting too detail oriented. Life is about doing the right things, not just doing things right. This takes me a couple of hours, depending on how busy the year looks, but I only do it once or twice a year, around January and June.

During the January goal setting session I change the years on the Planning screen, and rearrange the columns in the Life Plan subset to get ready for the next year. For example, at the end of 1996, I rename the group box Y1996 to Y1998, exchange location with the Y1997 group box, delete Y96, move Y98 in its place, and create the new check box Y01.

Every month I look at the Year in Review subset to see what I need to do that month, and I mark them as Now activities. I take the opportunity to check again to see if I've scheduled too much into any particular time span, and if I've scheduled sequential steps correctly. This takes me about one-half to one hour, depending on whether or not I need to reschedule activities.

During this monthly goal setting exercise, I rearrange the columns in the Year Review subset by deleting the past month, and adding the 12th month. In other words, at the beginning of Sep96, I delete the column for Aug96, and add Aug97 as the last column. That way I can always see a full years schedule.

Every week I scan down the Now list and reprioritize the list so that the activities that I want to finish by the end of the week are at the top. This takes me about 15-20 minutes.

Daily I check my Now list and set the priority levels between 1 and 9 for activities that I would like to accomplish. I try not to choose more than 10. Any more would be unrealistic. Luckily, the Database screen shows only about that many items, so I don't get distracted by the rest of the list.

For me, the best time to do this is in the evening so that I know what to expect the next day. This only takes me about 15 minutes, not much time at all. In return for my investment, I feel like I have a direction for the next day, and I can hit the ground running. Time management gurus advise to schedule a time slot for the most important activities so that you guarantee that they get done. Some people feel most comfortable this way, but that's not my preference, its too constraining for me, almost robotic; besides, you can control only about 50% of your day anyway.

The items that are time critical are copied into the Appointment Book ToDo list using the Fn+F3 macro described above. If appropriate, I make them an appointment. I also use Fn+F3 to place a completed activity into APPT so that I have a record of it. I then delete the ToDo entry in LIFEMGMT.GDB.

Other items I use APPT for, are periodic, time-sensitive activities such as bill paying and birthdays.

When I go through the mail, and I come across something that needs action, I make an entry with the key information, and I toss out the paper. For example, if I get a notice for a conference or seminar that I want to attend, I make an entry and jot down the registration details. Then I can either throw the notice away or file it, and if my filing is less than perfect, I still have the key information available.

At the beginning of a project for a client that will last a few months, I give the project a number and break it down into the key steps. On occasion I've used mind-mapping techniques to create my list of activities (still paper based), instead of the linear, outlining approach. I make an entry for each activity, and check off the months on the Planning Screen. As the project progresses, I use the Notes field to keep dated journals of conversations and agreements, action items, general notes, etc.

Or lets say I need to go to the bank, I pull up the subset for that area of town, and look at all the errands I could do on this trip. I then start planning my route so that I make all the stops, and I prioritize them in the order I plan to do them. I also check the Notes field to see if there's anything I need to take along. This only takes me 5-10 minutes, but saves me a lot of time by making the most of every trip.

The times I listed are, of course, variable. It took me longer in the beginning when I was still establishing my routine, now its almost second nature. And maybe that's really the secret, stick to a system that works for you, get into a habit, and no matter what, it'll save you time.

The ultimate test

I've been following this routine for over a year now, and it has helped me achieve more this past year than I thought possible. It takes 1/4 the time to do what I use to do with my paper based system. The ultimate test is still to come ... the arrival of my first child. Seasoned parents have told me to forget about making a schedule, the baby makes it for you. Hmmm ... maybe I need a new Category?

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