Posts Tagged ‘priorities’

Learning To Work Together

When Matt and I first got married,  I was highly anal-retentive about my living environment (big surprise!) I wanted no visible clutter anywhere. My hubby on the other hand, while far from a slob, had a much more relaxed attitude about putting certain things away — like the clothes he would change out of at the end of the day. He left a trail of wardrobe items around our house that used to drive me up the wall. I tried everything to get him to hang up his clothes as soon as he took them off (pleading, cajoling, threatening, bribery), but nothing worked — because that simply wasn't important to him.

Now if I had kept pushing and he had kept resisting, this could have very well ended our marriage (I've seen breakups happen over less!) But we decided that it was silly for us to get so worked up over something so relatively insignificant. However, we also realized that it would be unbalanced for one of us to simply “give in” (God knows that when a spouse surrenders a single battle, it feels as if you've lost the war!) We talked about what we each valued. I wanted a tidy-looking home without piles of clothes everywhere — but at the same time, I didn't want to be constantly picking up after him in order to achieve that. He on the other hand, wanted to come home from work and immediately relax, without having to worry about spending his precious down-time putting things away (this was back in the day before self-employment!) — but he promised he would get it all where it belonged once or twice a week.

Fortunately, we each had a divided closet — so we agreed that when Matt shed his skin at the end of the day, he would pile his clothes in the floor of his side (rather than the floor of the bedroom or living room or bathroom) and shut the door. That way, I didn't have to see it or deal with it. And when the pile got to big for him to stand, he'd hang everything up (or do laundry) and start over again fresh. It was the perfect solution, because both our needs were met at the same time. And that arrangement has followed us into the Airstream and around the country — of course, it's a smaller closet, but we still each have our own section, and Matt's got a series of “cubbies” where he can easily stow his clothes as he takes them off. A good system (one built on give-and-take) is adaptable enough to last you forever!

I always say that compromise is the soul of family harmony — and it's doubly true when you're talking about getting organized. The best way to fail at your organizing efforts is for one family member to lay down hard-and-fast rules, expecting everyone else to just fall in line — ain't gonna happen! Instead of each person insisting that it be done “their” way, recognize that there is no one “right” way to organize. Talk it over, discuss each person's needs and expectations, and find someplace in the middle where you can all be happy. It works with kids, it works with life partners, it even works with mothers-in-law!

Efficient Versus Effective

There's a lot of confusion out there about what it means to be “efficient” — some see this as the holy grail of time management. But there's more to using your day wisely than just how much you accomplish. Efficiency means getting a lot done in a short time — effectiveness happens when you also invest your energies in projects that matter to you.

Think back to a time (maybe yesterday) when chunk of your day was eaten up by a menial task, like checking email. You may have gotten through hundreds of messages, even emptied your in-box, yet still felt vaguely dissatisfied with your effort. It didn't seem as though you actually accomplished much — because it wasn't a task near and dear to your heart. As the old saying goes, you can run as fast as you want, but if you're going in the wrong direction, you still won't end up where you intended.

Good time management helps you find your way. I'm a caver, and I really enjoy crawling around in dark holes underground. I don't know if you've ever been in a real cave before, but it is PITCH black — you can't see a thing. And without my caving light, it wouldn't matter how fast I went — I still wouldn't have a clue where I was headed. I might be going in circles, I might be going backward. However, as soon as I turn on my light, I can see where I am, the passage ahead of me, and any obstacles I'll need to go over or around. And most importantly, I'll be able to recognize it when I'm nearing the end of my journey — getting close to accomplishing my goal. That's what good time management is all about.

Where Does Your Time Go?

How much of your life is spent on “time wasters” — activities that do nothing to enhance your quality of life, and actually prevent you from accomplishing more important goals? Facebook has become my major time-waster these days. While I get a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction from staying connected to all the people in my life, if I get distracted into playing Mafia Wars or taking any of their stupid “what kind of tree would you be” quizzes, I'm in trouble!

Each person has his or her own “time traps” — but you know you've been seduced by a time waster when you find yourself:

  • watching TV shows you don't really care about
  • checking email over and over throughout the day
  • surfing the internet or cruising chat rooms with no purpose in mind
  • endlessly checking status updates on social networking sites
  • wandering around stores, just looking for bargains
  • spending a few hours every day running errands
  • shuffling the same papers back and forth on your desk

Drawing The Line

Some days it can feel as though, despite your best efforts, you haven't accomplished a dadgum thing. Quitting time rolls around and all you have to show for it is hours and hours down the drain, blown on activities that gave you little or no payoff — not to mention the fact that your to-do list is still sitting there staring at you, waiting to be tackled tomorrow!

It can be very hard to curtail these time-wasting behaviors (isn't it always hard to break a bad habit?) Sure, it's fun to goof off on the internet when you have a few minutes and your brain needs a break — but how good are you at drawing the line and saying, “Okay, time to get back to work?” Do you automatically turn on the television when you get up in the morning or come home in the afternoon? Maybe it's time to give your remote control a rest! The good news is, it's easy to change these mindless habits — all it takes is a conscious choice to spend your time differently, and a little planning:

  • when you come home, leave the TV off and find a more meaningful way to decompress (go for a walk, read a book, play with your kids) — review the TV schedule once a week, find those shows you really care about, and record them to watch later without commercials
  • get into a routine of checking email no more than 3 times a day (morning, noon, and end of the day) — turn off the “you've got mail” alarm and program your system to only download emails on command
  • if you lose track of the world while web-surfing, set a timer to go off in 15 or 20 minutes — then make yourself get up and turn off the computer when it dings
  • for 30 days, shop only from a list — only go to stores that carry the item you need, and if you don't actually need anything, don't go to the mall in the first place
  • set aside a single “errand day” each week and sit down with your family to plan your list — put everything you need in one basket by the door, and plot your route in advance to avoid backtracking — if someone forgets an errand, either insist that it wait until the next errand day, or let them do it themselves
  • take 5 minutes to sort through incoming papers every day — put “to-do” papers into a tickler/action file, and set aside time once a week to file and handle to-do's — set up a spot for papers you're currently working on, and take 5 minutes to clear your desk before you leave each day

Look around your life and see what other daily routines and chores eat up your day. You may even want to keep a log for a week or so, recording how you spent your time and what sort of value you received from each activity (just don't let keeping your log become a time-waster!) You'll discover your own personal time “issues” (spending 2 hours trying on outfits before deciding what to wear that day, taking forever to make up your mind about the brand of orange juice to buy at the store, whatever) and find ways of dealing with each.

See if you can't trim some fat from your schedule — just a few simple changes will free up hours each week. But don't waste this bounty — be sure to put that bonus free time to good use. Block off room in your calendar for those important projects you've been neglecting — and don't allow anything to interrupt you. If someone asks for your time during that slot, let them know you can't because you already have another appointment (you do — with yourself!) And enjoy the satisfaction you get from spending your time effectively!

Getting On The Same Page

I spoke recently about the idea of setting up a “family calendar,” and I'd like to explain that concept in a little more detail — because it's really the only way to avoid scheduling conflicts and last minute scrambles. Start by setting up a wall calendarin a centralized place, so you can review the entire household's activities with one glance. You'll want to write each person's appointments, deadlines, and other responsibilities with a different colored marker — blue for mom, green for dad, red for Sally, and purple for Johnny. Keep this in a high-traffic area of the house (kitchen seems to work well, because everyone goes there daily) where everyone can see it.

However, hanging a calendar is less than half the battle — the most important step is to take the time to coordinate your schedules. Family members these days are often like ships passing in the night — you see each other for a few minutes at a time on the way from one activity to the next, and it's no wonder so many time-management conflicts occur! It helps if you have a “family planning session” at the start of each week. Ask each person what they have coming up in the near future — extracurricular activities, days that your kids need a ride somewhere (as well as days you have to work late and can't pick them up), school project due dates, parties, vacations, dentist appointments, meetings, social engagements, sporting events, you name it. Everything should go on the calendar. If you carry a personal planner or PDA, this is also the time to update your portable calendar with the current info (it doesn't do you much good to plan out the week if you can't see the schedule while you're out of the house!)

Then from that point forward, every time someone brings home a birthday invitation or permission slip for a field trip, write it down. Every time the school sends out a calendar of upcoming days off, transfer it to the family calendar. When your boss asks if you can work late or your child's piano teacher wants to switch from Tuesday to Wednesday, change the calendar. Add the week's chores to the calendar. Get in the habit of putting EVERYTHING related to your family's schedule in one place. You're trying to accomplish two main goals here — to address any conflicts and to avoid last-minute rushing around. So when you know that mom's got to work late and Jimmy needs a ride home from the game, you can instruct him to make plans to go with a friend, rather than having him sit around waiting 3 hours for mom, when she has no idea she's supposed to pick him up. When Susy agrees to bring cupcakes for the school party, dad knows that they've got to go grocery shopping at least a day or two before so there's time to do the baking. When Bobby (don't ask my why I've chosen such Brady Bunch sounding children's names) has to put a diorama together for history class, he's not popping up at the eleventh hour, asking for shoe boxes and paint after all the stores are closed. Your stress level will drop by a factor of ten, just having each person's to-do's and responsibilities written down in one visible place.

What Are We Teaching Our Children?

As this tenth-grader rattled off her list of daily activities, the problem was apparent. She rose at 5 AM for school and stayed 1-2 hours late each day for a different extracurricular club. She then had either soccer practice or dance class, and spent 2-3 hours a night on homework. She would fall exhausted into bed around 11 PM, get 6 hours of sleep, and start all over again the next day. By Friday night, she was so wiped out that she slept all weekend, just trying to recuperate.

Does this sound familiar? Are you inadvertently pushing your kids too hard, asking that they fit more than is humanly possible into a 24-hour day? I'm sure you don't mean to, but you can't help it. As adults, we aren't very good at recognizing our limits — and we're passing this disability on to our kids. We try to do too much, set unreasonable expectations for ourselves, and walk around feeling overwhelmed most of the time. Our children see us in action and mirror our behavior — they're just doing what they're taught.

What most kids are mirroring is overload. In simply raising our offspring, we're creating a newgeneration of stressed-out, overcommitted adults — but we have theability to change this by consciously adjusting our attitude toward time. Start by recognizing that you can't do everything, no matter how hard to try. Take a second to figure out your own priorities, then bring your behavior into alignment with those values. The key to teaching your children good time management skills is for you to learn them, first. “Do as I say do, not as I do” just doesn't cut it with kids. You have to show your children that you are in control of your schedule (not the other way around).

Re-Evaluating Your Child's Schedule

When you want your child to have every opportunity, it's easy to go overboard. But when their days are filled with structured “enrichment,” there's no time to explore, daydream, and just be a kid. I find it disturbing that children can't even knock on a friend's door and ask if so-and-so can come out — they have to schedule a “play date” in advance. I'm not sure when society collectively abandoned the idea of goofing off as part of growing up, but it's not a bad tradition to try and bring back. Leave some unscheduled time in your child's day, even if you have to limit the extracurricular side to do it — they'll thank you for it later when they grow up to be more balanced adults.
If you tell your kids that family is important but find yourself working 80 hours a week, they will get the message — just not the one you intended. Do you really want to live your life like a cheesy Harry Chapin song? Set aside at least one evening and one weekend day as “family time” – no one is allowed to schedule anything else so you can actually enjoy each other's company. Even you just order pizza and play board games, you will be teaching your kids  how to make room for life's true priorities.

Getting Organized As A Family

Have you ever had one of those frustrating days when no one in your family knows what anyone else is doing? At the last minute, Tommy asks for a ride to soccer practice, and Susie needs 3 dozen cupcakes for the class party tomorrow — but Mom has a meeting that she can't get out of and Dad has to work late tonight. Chaos! Sit down together as a family once a week and plot out each person's schedule for the next seven days. Hang a wall calendar in a high-traffic area like the kitchen, and record each person's activities in a different color pen (blue for Tommy, red for Susie, green for Mom, purple for Dad). You will immediately be able to see and correct scheduling conflicts, plan ahead for upcoming events, block off your “family time,” and even plan the week's meals. Just be firm about your policy. If it isn't on the calendar, there is no popping up at the last minute expecting everyone else to rearrange their schedules. When Tommy forgets to tell you that he has a ball game on Wednesday night and you've already planned to go to your book club, don't cancel on his behalf.

Remember that old saying, “Your failure to plan ahead does notconstitute my emergency.” It's his responsibility to arrange a ridewith a friend or he will just have to miss the game. And next time,he's more likely to put it on the calendar. I know it sounds mean, butit's time for a little tough love!

Finding Balance

Let's start by determining exactly what “multi-tasking” is. Merriam Webster defines this as “the carrying out of two or more tasks at the same time by one person.” This kind of multi-tasking occurs, for example, when you're talking to someone on the phone while writing an article — or when you're adding up a column of numbers and also watching TV. I call this “consecutive multi-tasking,” and it's the sort of fractured mental activity that sets you up for guaranteed failure. Aside from “low load” behaviors that require very little attention and occur almost automatically, at a sub-conscious level without you thinking about them (like walking, talking, breathing, or chewing) — the human brain just wasn't built to do more than one thing at once (or at least do them well!)

The brain only has so much mental RAM to go around — so throughout the day, your capacity to focus is constantly being divvied up and re-apportioned among all the activities in which you are currently engaged at that moment. When you ask your mind to perform two or more activities that require a high level of conscious concentration (like reading, writing, listening, hands-on mechanical tasks, mathematics, or logistical analysis) at the same time, it's likely that you're trying to use more computing power than you actually have available — and your brain is going to end up overloading. Whenever you attempt to simultaneously engage in multiple “high load” behaviors like this, one of two things will happen. Either the brain will shut one activity out in favor of completing the other (this happens when you're trying to carry on a conversation while doing something else, and you find that you can't remember a word the other person has said!) Or if it does actually manage to struggle through both tasks, your brain is going to accomplish each more slowly than it would if allowed to focus fully on just one activity at a time. It's the same thing that happens with your computer — if you  tell it to run a search AND back up your documents AND perform a complex calculation at the same time, every task slows down to a crawl. And, as with your computer, concurrent multi-tasking is more likely to bring up an error message (or more likely, the “blue screen of death”) — you will find yourself making stupid mistakes, forgetting important information, and failing to fully complete a task when your mind is occupied with more than one thing at a time.

Stop Banging Your Head

But the dictionary also includes a definition of multi-tasking that is more in line with my way of thinking — “the interleaved execution of two or more jobs.” Interleaved — ooh, I like that word! This means “to perform two or more actions or functions in an ALTERNATING fashion” — working first on one, than switching to another, then switching back to the first again. I call this “consecutive multi-tasking,” and it's a great way to make progress on multiple goals while avoiding becoming bored, stuck, or blocked a project.

However, I'm not talking about the kind of mindless and unplanned bopping back and forth between activities that causes you to waste 3 hours surfing the web when you should be doing your bookkeeping. Wink Allowing your brain to become interrupted in the middle of a project, letting it lead you away from the task at hand toward another (usually less important) activity is “distraction,” not “multi-tasking.” It then takes time and mental energy for your brain to make the shift back into gear, to remember where you left off, and what you need to do next — that's when “multi-tasking” becomes unproductive.

But a planned shift from one activity to another (which occurs at a natural “stopping point” in your work and is accompanied by a few notes as a “memory jogger” to help you dive back in quickly when you return to that task) can often be the best possible thing for boosting your productivity and increasing your energy levels. Have you ever tried to force yourself to plow ahead with a project when you really just didn't have it in you to continue? Your brain is fried, you can't concentrate, and you're essentially banging your head against a wall — but dammit, you're going to “make” yourself get it done! Then you look up several hours later, only to find that you're still right where you started, and haven't made even one step forward during all that time.The better choice would be to walk away and do something completely different, giving your brain a chance to rest and re-charge. For example, let's say you're stuck trying to put together a proposal for a new client, and your thoughts just keep going in circles. So you quit what you're doing and devote a half hour to that pile of papers you've been needing to file. You're crossing an important to-do off your list, but using an entirely different part of your brain (giving the lobe that was starting to hurt a rest.) Of course, your mind will subconsciously continue to work on your proposal, while on a conscious level, you're busy accomplishing something else. Then when you finish that task and return to writing, you're seeing things with fresh eyes, and the words just slide out of your pen (or clack out of your keyboard, as the case may be.)

I use this technique myself all the time in order to stay productive throughout the day. If I try to spend 8 straight hours on any one type of task, I burn out much more quickly than if I mix things up — so I actively plan my day to include these sorts of shifts. I'll spend an hour writing a blog, then move on to some phone calls, then switch to color-correcting photos or even washing dishes, and back to writing again — but I'm still only ever doing ONE of these activities at a time. Consecutive, not concurrent — that's the key to success with multi-tasking!