Posts Tagged ‘priorities’

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.

Asking The Big Questions

In everything that you do throughout the next 24 hours, take a second to ask yourself “why.” For example, as I was organizing one of my clients on Monday, I caught her folding up each piece of mail she had opened and putting it back in the ripped envelope, before then placing the envelope in her action files. Not only was her to-do stack was twice as thick as it needed to be, but she had added three steps to her process — re-stuffing the envelope, having to empty it again when it was time to tackle the to-do, and throwing the envelope away. When I asked “why?” my client stared at me with a blank look. The response was, “I don't really know.” I pointed out that she could save time and effort if she tossed the envelope immediately, and kept only the important part. I watched the lightbulb go on over her head as she said, “You know, you're right!” My client is not stupid, she had just gotten into a habit, doing things the same old way every time, without questioning whether or not that way made sense.

We have so much to accomplish and stay on top of these days that weoften run on autopilot, engaging in behaviors without recognizing the purpose behind them. But the key to REALLY simplifying your life is awareness. You have make conscious decisions about what you will do (and not do) — otherwise, you're sure to get off track and find yourself wasting precious energy on activities don't actually do anything to improve your quality of life. Do you find yourself flipping channels, completely zoned out, not even paying attention to what's on TV, when you could be engaged in a more rewarding pursuit? Shuffling the same pile of magazines around your office  month after month without ever actually reading them? Stashing more and more boxes of junk in an expensive storage unit, rather than cleaning out the stuff you don't use? Running out at the last minute for a missing dinner ingredient because you didn't planahead? Picking up after your kids when you could put that energy into teaching them to be responsible for themselves? Why?

What Benefit Do You Get?

If you can't identify a specific benefit you get from that behavior, it's quite possible it isn't serving any purpose in your life. For example, if I ask why you brush your teeth every morning, you will respond by saying, “so I don't get cavities” — good! But if I ask why you clip coupons that you never remember to take with you when you go shopping (that subsequently expire and have to be thrown away 2 months later) — and you tell me, “I might use them someday,” that just doesn't cut it. You're not getting any value from the time and energy invested NOW, so you have two choices — either stop that activity and put your resources into something more meaningful, or change your habits so that you DO get some form of payoff. It's really that simple.

So in this example, you could set up an expandable wallet with individual sections for the different types of coupons you collect (groceries, household items, personal items, eating out, car care, whatever). After clipping, you could file them in this wallet and stick it in your purse or car so you always have it with you. When you plan your weekly shopping day, you could go through the wallet as you write up your list, pulling out those coupons that you know you will use. Then each week, you could also toss out those coupons you ended up not needing. In an ideal world, you would never forget to use a coupon again, and you would save at least a little money at the store. But it sounds like a lot of work to me. Is all that effort really worth the $5.86 you will save? Perhaps, after looking at the time investment versus the payoff, you'll might determine (like I have) that coupons simply encourage you to buy a lot of stuff you don't need (just to get the discount) and give up on the whole activity altogether. Or you may find that you pocket an extra $150 every week and systematizing your clippage is the best decision you ever made. The point is, it will be a conscious choice, based on your values and goals.

Is There An Easier Way?

Finally, ask yourself if there isn't an easier way to accomplish the task that you're performing. Do you really need to spend a half an hour in the morning arranging 27 decorative pillows on your bed, or would simply smoothing the comforter be good enough for the room to feel “tidy?” Then let 'em go! Does it take you 12 tries to get out the front door, because you always forget your keys? Then hang a hook by the door so your keys have a home from the moment you walk in — and they are always right where you expect them to be. Why run a different errand every day (dry cleaning, returns, the library, getting that picture framed) when piling all of your to-do's into a “going out the door” basket and making one trip a week (an organized, geographically-planned trip, complete with directions and confirmation of the store hours) would be much less time-consuming? And why do you keep throwing away the same solicitations and catalogs over and over again, when one phone call would get you off of their mailing list?

I'll end with another favorite quote of mine from “The Mosquito Coast” — “For Father there were no burdens that couldn't be fitted with a set of wheels or runners or a system of pulleys.” That's sort of how I feel about simplifying your life. There is no challenge so overwhelming, no time-waster so ominous, no frustration so severe that you can't find a solution. Of course, the solution may involve setting up a simple system, or it may require you to rewire your brain and rethink your lifestyle — but it's always worth it in the long run!

Knowing What's Really Important

We often focus too much on the daily grind (paying bills, keeping the house clean, writing reports, etc.) and too little on our real priorities. Those many details may seem urgent at the time — but if you look at the bigger picture, that they really aren't all that pressing. And it's sad when we end up missing out on the important things in life (experiences and relationships) because we're so caught up in the minutiae. Do you really need to be organizing the garage, or spending time with your kids at the park? Is it a higher priority that you decide how to arrange the chairs at the upcoming sales meeting, or that you develop a strong agenda and provide guidance during the group discussion? Will you benefit more from zoning out in front of the television, or taking a walk around the neighborhood with your spouse? Ask yourself where you will get the biggest bang for your buck. That should be where you focus your attention, and let someone else handle the rest. A not-to-do list helps identify those chores, errands, and daily responsibilities that can (and should) be delegated.

Keep a notepad handy, and record your activities for a week. You don't have to log every second of your day (“8:00 — got up / 8:05 — used bathroom / 8:15 — had breakfast” isn't going to help you be more effective and efficient!) But if you can start tracking your work responsibilities (a paid job, housework, or whatever fills your day), travel time to and from activities, and any other external responsibilities (committee meetings, carpools, volunteering), you will begin to see places where you can trim and tighten your schedule through delegation. Make a note of what you are doing — such as “checking e-mails” or “cleaning oven” or “buying groceries.” Then, estimate how much time you have spent on that particular chore (don't forget travel and prep time). Later we'll look at whether this action needs to be done at all (!!) and whether it needs to be done by you. But for now, that's the start of your “not-to-do” list.

Once you've made a list of items that you would love to delegate — who do you hand them off to? You have so many options! Just remember, you aren't in it alone. You simply have to decide whatyou want to delegate and then be willing to ask for help. At home, you can get your family involved in the act (see my dear hubby doing dishes?) Kids and spouses are just as capable of handling those daily chores as you are! At the office, don't be afraid to ask a co-worker for some assistance — and offer to help out the next time he or she needs a little bit of a break. Also make use of your support staff (administrative clerks, assistants, and other assorted minions) — that's what they are there for. If you don't have these sorts of support networks to call upon, hire an independent contractor or freelancer to help with household and business tasks that you don't have time for. You might also think about developing a local co-op for sharing those time-consuming domestic (trading off on cooking, cleaning, errand-running, or child care) — or set up an informal swap with a neighbor.

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!

An Epidemic Of Assumptions

People simply assuming that you are free to help with a project or attend a meeting, without asking first. Folks dropping by your home or office to “chat” during work hours, not giving a thought to the fact that you might be busy. Your kids expecting to be chauffeured around all weekend, never once imagining that you might have other plans. And technology has made it even worse — quick, drop everything and deal with each request as it comes in, lest you make the other person wait even 30 seconds for a response! But what about your time? Isn't it just as important?

There is one hard truth out there that most people don't want to face — you are responsible for the fact that other people either respect or don't respect your time. There is no one else to blame but yourself. You have to be the one to set some boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not. The only reason that folks take advantage of you, expect too much from you, or don't allow you the room for personal free time is that you have let them behave that way in the past — and they've gotten used to it. But if you draw a different line in the sand — develop some “time management ground rules” and stick to them — you will be amazed at the change not only in yourself, but in the people around you.

Set Aside Time For You

When we talk about “me time,” most people think of lounging in the bathtub, a lazy Saturday with a good book, or a week-long retreat in which you re-discover your inner child. But “me time” is any time spent doing the things that keep you sane. That might mean exercise or meditation, a hobby or lunch with a neighbor. You could choose to organize your closet, paint the kitchen, or finish up an important professional project. The only rule is that “me” time should move you closer to feeling balanced, caught-up, calm, and in control of your life. For my own personal sanity, I need to have one day a week in which I take care of “administrative work.” I might return phone calls, answer e-mails, pay bills, buy groceries, or clean house. Or I could choose to get my hair cut, attend a yoga class, have a massage, work on an art project, or call a long-distance friend I haven't talked to in weeks. I use my “admin time” to get caught up in all the different areas of my life.

The point is, whatever you enjoy doing with your “me time,” treat it like it is sacred. Once you commit to an admin day, mark it on your calendar and guard that time with your life! If you use a paper planner, physically draw a line through the entire day with the word “Occupied” written across the top — leaving no room for you to accidentally stick in any other appointments. On an electronic calendar, set an appointment called “Occupied” that fills the whole day — and assign it a pretty font or background color as a reminder that you're taking care of yourself during that time. Nothing short of a medical emergency (or a vacation!) should get you to give up your “me” time. I often have a client ask me if I can get together on a day I have planned for admin activities.  My answer is always, “No, I'm sorry but I'm not available that day.” I can't tell you how long it took for me to become comfortable saying that! How dare I turn down an appointment with another person when I don't have anything else in my schedule that day?! Ah, but I do. I have an appointment with myself. And that's the most important appointment of all! Approve

Balance Your Free, Focus, And Buffer Days

A number of years ago, I was introduced to a way of viewing time (developed by personal coach Dan Sullivan) that really resonated with me. It offers a very simple system for using your time in the most efficient way possible. He suggests that you break your schedule into three distinct segments:

1) “focus days” — days in which you do nothing but focus on your job, on those activities that bring home the bacon (seeing clients, making sales calls, writing, painting, crunching numbers, whatever earns you a living)

2) “free days” — you do no work at all (you take that entire day to simply rest, relax, have fun, and recharge the old batteries)

3) “buffer days” – for all of those little chores that have to be done, but don't really make you any money (administrative work, personal errands, dentist appointments, trips to the library, etc.)

A number of things attracted me to this philosophy. First of all, it becomes incredibly easy to draw clear boundaries around your time. You are simply going to focus on one type of activity all day long — no confusion and no waffling about what to do. If someone asks you to do work on a “free day” or do some mindless chore on a “focus day” — the answer is “no,” plain and simple. Second, it creates an automatic sense of balance between the many activities in your life, requiring you to spend some of your time at work and some at play. Third, you really do use your hours more efficiently when you settle into one mindset for the entire day. It's the mental (and physical) switching of gears that slows us down, eats up so much of our time, and distracts us from really enjoying what we are doing at that moment.

Best of all, it's not a rigid system. You can label as many days in a week as “free” or “focus” or “buffer” as you need to, and you have the freedom to change a day's activities around at will. I've even broken it down further, counting my time before lunch as a “focus” period, and the time after lunch (when I'm sort of brain dead) as a “buffer” zone. Although you may not have total control over your schedule — especially when you work a 9 to 5 job — you can still apply these principles to your life, making weekdays “focus” days, setting aside one day a week for “buffer” activities, and saving at least one weekend day as “free.”

Healthy Boundaries

Most folks have no clue how to draw the line with people who ask too much of them — unfortunately, it's not something you really learn in school (why don't they offer a class called “Boundaries 101″?) In fact, parents and teachers often instill the exact opposite values in kids — expecting them to cram more and more and more into their schedules, teaching them to automatically say “yes” to any request under the guise of being ambitious and accommodating (and we wonder why they turn into overwhelmed adults!)

We're always so afraid of offending another person by saying “no” — even if acquiescing is going to stress us out or keep us from being able to take care of other more important tasks on our list. But you need to learn how to tactfully dodge a request if you ever want to regain control over your time. The best way to do this is to offer another alternative.

If you can't participate right now because you are too busy, but you would really like to help at a later time, say so. “I'm sorry, I can't do it just this minute — but I'll be free Friday afternoon, if you still need some help.” Or you might suggest another, more appropriate resource. “I'm too busy, but I have a friend who has been wanting to get involved. Let me give you her number.” And finally, if you are asked to do a job that really doesn't interest you or is outside your area of expertise, offer to assist with a different task. “That's really not my strong suit — but I would be happy to help out with ________.” You will assuage your guilt and feel as though you are still making a contribution, when you follow that “no” with a suggestion for getting the job done another way.

Healthy boundaries also mean letting go of the idea that you can (or even should) do it all yourself. We like to imagine ourselves as indispensable — falling prey to the “no-one-else-can-do-it-as-well-as-I-can” syndrome. We become unwilling to delegate jobs to other people, to ask for help, or to simply say, “I'm not going do that.” That leads to frustration and resentment — we blame other people for heaping too many responsibilities onto our plates, even though we're the ones who said, “pile 'em on!” Just understand one thing — as far as everyone else in the world is concerned, you are replaceable. I don't mean as a human being — of course you are a unique individual and we would all miss you if you were gone. Wink I'm talking about the tasks you complete, the responsibilities you take on, the favors you do for other people. It's amazing how often we think, “If I don't do it, it won't get done.” Not true — if you can't do it, they'll find someone else.

Stick To Your Guns

It's not going to be easy to change people's behavior, especially if they've grown accustomed to your being at their beck and call. But this battle is well worth fighting — if you want to survive in a crazy world with out-of-whack priorities about how we use our time. You'll hear comments like, “You were always available to babysit at the last minute before” — or, “You never had a problem working weekends in the past.” So what? You don't have to explain yourself or justify your decisions to anyone — it's your time, apportion it as you see fit! It's unfortunate, but most folks out there believe that feeling stressed, pressured, overloaded, and trapped is simply the status quo. You will have to convince them otherwise by your good example.

So if other people don't understand at first, they will when they begin to see the positive changes in your life. Suddenly, people will be asking, “How is it that you can have time for a hobby (or reading for pleasure or travel or spending a day at the park with your kids)? Can you tell me your secret?” And that's an amazing day — because you get to help one more person regain control over his or her life. You are spreading the gospel of “setting boundaries” — you touch one person and he or she touches one person and soon we have a society that's regained a sense of perspective about its priorities. Hallelujah!