I have been blessed with good organisational skills, or cursed depending on your viewpoint. Being organised in Ireland is like being loud in Japan, it’s just not culturally appropriate. People in Ireland don’t seem to like things to be well organised, it takes the fun out of it – ‘Sure it’s only a bit of fun it doesn’t really matter if it starts on time / ends on time / achieves any of the agreed objectives’.
Of course this view is never actually expressed, it’s just something that Irish people seem to ‘know’, which is why I think I’m genetically German or Japanese. Now those people know how to organise! Interesting that they both ended up on the wrong side of World Wars, wonder what that means for me ……
When I started writing this article I intended it to cover multiple aspects of organisation but it just became too long so I’ve decide to split it and I’m starting with time because, let’s face it, you can’t organise anything if you don’t have time to do it.
First things first, let’s clear up a few time management myths;
- A to-do list is not a time management tool. A schedule / diary, set to times and dates is a time management tool!
- Prioritising tasks is a waste of time because really what does it matter once you get them all done! And if you’re not getting your daily tasks completed then your over-scheduling your time and time management is impossible.
- Multi-tasking is a fallacy. Most people don’t get frazzled from having one big thing to do, it’s having to juggle millions of different commitments concurrently that leads to a frantic mind. Do one thing at a time and give it your full attention. (That’s not to say that collating tasks isn’t a good idea and I’ll talk about that later)
Planning your Time
Like land, time is finite. You only get so much in one life and how you spend is up to you. Mostly.
You will only need three tools to plan your time; a schedule / diary, a list of goals / objectives and a to-do list.
Schedule / Diary – You can buy fancy notebooks to use as your schedule / diary, or an electronic device or simply jot them down on a sheet of paper . Whatever option you use it must be something that you can carry around with you at all times.
List of Goals/ Objectives – I like to have a list of goals, otherwise I just drift from task to task with no real progress towards anything. I tend to write these goals in January or whenever I feel aimless. In my opinion it’s best to limit goals to 5 or less, otherwise it can be overwhelming. Once you’ve decided on your goals you need to break them down into intermittent milestones, i.e. what do you need to achieve in the next 1 year, 6 months, 3 months, 1 month. These milestones will help keep your progress on track and ensure you reach your goal. Next you need to write out all of the steps required to achieve each one of these milestones on a week by week basis. You can do day by day but I think this too much detail can be paralysing so i prefer my targets to be weekly.
A To-Do List – This is an open-ended list of EVERYTHING (not linked to your goals) that you need to do, and anything that you can’t do in 1 min flat where you are is added. If you want you can categorise the list under headings; health, hobby, work, family etc, but for me the less work the better so I don’t bother.
These three tools are what I use to plan my week, every week. Here’s how I use them.
- I don’t use a notebook or electronic schedule / diary so every Sunday I grab a used bit of paper and list the days of the week. I don’t tend to schedule my day hour by hour but if it’s looking like a particularly busy day I’ll do this to check I have enough time to get everything done.
- Next I check my calendar and on my paper schedule / diary fill in all of the appointments I have for the next 7 days.
- Next I add in all of the regular daily duties that don’t change week to week; shopping, cooking, exercise, homework,
- Next I check my To-do list and put in all the tasks that must be done that week.
- Next I add in less-urgent to-dos that make sense to do at the same time as the urgent ones added at step 4.
- Next I add in the tasks required to achieve my current goals. I have found that one task per week per goal works for me but it depends on how many goals you have and how busy you are. If I don’t have any space for these tasks I’ll see if I can drop a t0-do. Delaying working on a long-term goal is okay now and again but if done regularly just leads to stagnation and a sense of failure.
- Finally I review the schedule and if I’m over-scheduled on one day I see if I can share tasks out across the week better. If not then I’ll see if I can drop some non-essential duties, like cleaning, or speed up others, like having omelette instead of stew for dinner. It’s okay to do this from time to time but if you do it to often you risk living in a hovel eating a bag of crisps for dinner!
Time Management Tips
As I said above no amount of time management is going to help you if your over-scheduled (I’ve outlined below how to check). That said there are some tips that can help us become more efficient. Here are my favourites;
Do it tomorrow – This is the best piece of time management advice I ever received. If you act too quickly two things happen; firstly more people will start asking you to do things instead of sorting them out themselves because they know you’ll do it quicker, and secondly a lot of things resolve themselves over time, giving something 24 hours often means it stops being an issue. I’ve also found that giving something 24 hours before acting on it allows my brain to mull over the issue and come up with a better solution.
Default Diary Entries – I pre-populate my calendar with regular daily / weekly duties that don’t change week to week I find this prevents me over-scheduling myself because when someone asks if I can do something on a particular day I have a much more accurate sense of how much free time I actually have. It’s also helpful in getting stuff done that we often put on the long-finger. For example when running a small business some things always seems to get dropped from the list of daily/ weekly tasks, like marketing or bookkeeping. However if you schedule every Thursday afternoon for marketing or bookkeeping and don’t allow yourself to accept any appointments for that slot you’ll get into the habit of doing it. It also means you don’t have to think about it until the assigned day and time, freeing up the mind to think of the task at hand. BTW this is much handier to do on an electronic device that has a repeat function.
Put the ball in others’ courts: In my experience people are often too polite to decline an offer of help so you could be wasting your time and energy on something that’s unwanted so if I can help someone, I’ll offer and then ask them if they could send me an email outlining the problem or start the ball rolling with some research / minor task. Nine times out of ten people won’t do the first step and you’ve just saved time for those that do genuinely appreciate your time and help. Of course this doesn’t apply to individuals on fire!
Collate similar tasks – It’s much more efficient to carry out a task immediately after a similar one, particular if they exist in the same space or use the same skills or tools. I am militant about this which is why I don’t tend to work very well with people who are disorganised. Because I collate tasks it means that there might be a delay before it suits for me to do it, i.e. drop something off, visit X. This suits me fine as i tend to plan so far in advance that it’s not an issue. If you’re working with someone who does things at the 11th hour you will end up running all over the shop to complete urgent tasks that could have been tackled much more efficiently over weeks.
Dealing with procrastination – I’m lucky in that I don’t suffer from this. In fact I’m the opposite, when I need to get something done I want to start yesterday. If you do tend to procrastinate a good way to deal with it is to intentionally leave one task undone to finish the next day. The mind hates incompleteness and will be raring to finish it, and sure while you’re there you might as well start a new task. Another tip is to tell your brain you’re only going to do ‘insert dreaded task’ for 5 minutes and then stick to that, don’t do any longer. You’ll find it much easier to start it the next time.
Feeling Overwhelmed – Sometimes we don’t start big tasks because they’re just so daunting, so just break them down and only spend a small amount of time on them regularly. You’ll be surprised how quickly it becomes manageable. I also find it useful to plot out all of the work so that I can see an end-date and then I can say to myself by X all of this will be done, it’s like an advance on the feel-good factor of completion. Also make your task achievable, clearing out an office in an afternoon is nuts, whereas clearing a desk is do-able. Set yourself up for success, not failure.
Don’t let to-dos take over – This is my downfall. I fantasise about empty to-do lists, email boxes, laundry baskets etc and tend to want to clear all outstanding tasks before starting a new project. But naturally I never achieve an empty to-do list and so the start of the ‘new’ thing gets delayed and delayed. This is why I only refer to my to-do list once a week (other than to add things to it) when I’m drawing up my schedule. If I didn’t I’d know that mentally I’d be trying to clear it every day, which would drive me crazy.
Use Closed Lists for Backlogs – If a particular type of task has got the better of you, like emails while on holiday or trade magazines you need to read then create a to-do list specifically for the backlog and close it off, i.e. don’t add anything else onto it. Then schedule a specific time every week to dealing with it and before long it’ll be cleared.
Schedule Catch-up Days – After a trip away or a particularly busy weekend. Try and schedule a day to catch up on things, otherwise you’ll be running to stand still.
Don’t let Goals Slip – Time management is a skill and like any skill it gets easier with practice so in the beginning you may find you’re not getting to your non-urgent but very important goals. If this is the case, don’t worry just aim to do something, anything, on it every day, even if it’s only for 5 minutes. Eventually it’ll become 10 minutes, then 15 and then whatever it needs to become. Just don’t let it slip from the schedule completely because out of sight, out of mind.
Now before you start
Twice now I mentioned the issue of being over-scheduled and that’s because most people don’t need to manage their time better at all, they simply need less to do.
To check if you’re over-scheduled here is a simple exercise. Just list all of the tasks and urgent to-dos for one day, assign a duration to each, i.e. 10 or 20 mins, and add them all up. Does the total amount add up to more than you amount of time you have. If so, and this is a typical day, then it will always be impossible for you to get on top of your tasks – unless you change something.
And that something is to start saying no. The single most powerful time management tool is this simple word and if you find it hard to say try ‘not yet’ or ‘i’ll think about it’ and then don’t. The less commitments you have the less your workload will be, it’s as straightforward as that. It’s also means you can concentrate deeper on a few things rather than having your brain to cope with multiple – often competing – demands.
A Parting Note from a Workaholic
A word of advice, don’t schedule every minute. I still have a tendency to give things 150% so I have to be very careful with the commitments I take on. I like being busy, it makes me feel useful but in my experience busy-ness can be detrimental to creativity and kindness, both of which I want to develop this year. So one of my current goals is to learn the practice of being ‘unbusy’. I was inspired to try this when I discovered the website Becoming Unbusy. It’s full of helpful articles on how to learn to become unbusy and there is a Facebook community connected to it. After all what’s the point in freeing up time if you’re just going to fill it with more stuff!