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monday morning manager

Mark Woods thinks you can colour your way to better productivity. All you need is to apply a "traffic light" mentality to your day – and carry six "time buckets" with you.

Mr. Woods is a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based productivity expert (and son of legendary time management expert and Day-Timer spokesman Trapper Woods), who says we have to get away from the notion that we manage time and instead see ourselves as managing activities.

Each day, we are presented with a host of possible activities; we need a system to prioritize them and hold distractions at bay. He offers traffic lights as a useful organizing metaphor:

Red activities

Stop what you are doing and take care of this item right now. Red activities are high payoff and urgent, requiring immediate action. Examples include a computer network going down, a project deadline, or an urgent meeting.

Green activities

When we drive, we hope to keep flowing steadily through green lights. During our work day, most of our activities should fit in this category of ongoing vital, but not urgent, tasks. Your attitude should be the same as when you have a green traffic light: keep going. You should aim to handle as many of these tasks as possible through the day. "Green is where the money is made. Green activities are taking our goals to life," Mr. Woods said in an interview.

Yellow activities

A yellow traffic light means you should show caution, and that applies to work as well. Many issues clamour for your attention, but they may not require immediate action and may not add much value. "Yellow activities have to be done but don't have to be done today, tomorrow or next week. Most activities facing you are yellow," he notes.

Attack Your Day, a book Mr. Woods co-authored with his late father, carries this warning: "Sometimes yellow activities come to us wrapped in the context of artificial urgency, like when an associate drops in and claims our help is needed right now. One of the challenges of modern technology is that it can create counterfeit urgency. An e-mail or instant message announced with a beep or an alarm on your cellphone signalling a text message or missed call are examples."

Grey activities

There are no grey traffic lights, but there is grey water, waste water, and Mr. Woods advises that you pay no attention to the wasteful activities that grab your attention: gossiping, complaining, junk mail, surfing the Internet, and too much Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and game-playing. "This is a complete waste of time. Don't even put them on your lists. You just need to be aware when you are falling into the grey zone," he said.

Once these colour codes are in your mind, set up a second framework to organize activities and information. Mr. Woods suggests using six "time buckets" to manage things:

1. Monthly calendar

Your calendar, which can be paper or electronic, is a master control panel that collects all your future events and scheduled activities. He uses Google Calendar, as it synchronizes with his iPhone and iPad, but those Day-Timer paper calendars his father promoted, and FranklinCovey or other equivalents, will also work.

2. Catch-all list

This master task list captures activities you will do, but aren't sure when. Many paper planners have a space at the back entitled "To be done." Mr. Woods uses Evernote, an online application.

3. Daily tracker

This is your most important bucket, the one that keeps track of today's appointments, list of activities, and things that come up during the day. He uses PriorityMatrix on his iPhone, which has four squares (which he has coloured to the traffic lights format). The similar Eisenhower App is popular, but you can also use a paper planner.

4. Memory jogger

This is the place to note important information that comes to you during the day and you feel you may need in future. You can use a daily journal for this; the key is to have dated pages, which can help you check back later. He uses Evernote, because a lot of information comes on the Web.

5. Fingertip data

There is some information we need at our fingertips at any possible moment. Traditionally, this was kept in the tabbed index section as the back of planners, but today he finds mobiles are a handy alternative, with documents, images, phone numbers, fact sheets, and the like.

6. Communications

Many people use e-mail and voice mail to keep ongoing messages. But don't be like those folks who store 10,000 messages in the inbox and then call for help. Create a filing system. Mr. Woods has e-mail folders for different projects, and "archive" for other general material. He purges his inbox at least once a week.

You may already be carrying similar buckets, but his suggestions may help you be more effective. "There isn't a right or wrong way to do this," Mr. Woods added. "We leave it up to you to choose the tools you prefer."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter