Weekly Thought vol. 46 - How much time do you have?

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Most people are busy these days -- from the start of their day to the end, there are seemingly endless tasks to be done, projects to be moved along, meetings to attend, errands to run, chores to be done, email and phone calls to handle, paperwork and other routine things to be done. 

Sometimes, I can’t even get to my personal Sabbath of a cigar and scotch!  Sacrilege!

It can be overwhelming. And typical time-management systems don't really help much -- writing all tasks and appointments and errands in a planner or task or project-management software just makes you feel more overwhelmed, and you feel guilty when nothing goes as planned and you end the day with a to-do list even longer than when you started.

So what's a busy person to do?  Well, you could throw out the traditional systems and learn a more focused, yet free-flowing system that changes with the situation and doesn't make you feel obligated to do everything on your list.   Throw out your schedule and you'll never feel guilty about not keeping it again.

Does that mean you won't get things done? Not at all -- in fact, if you learn to work effectively, you can simplify your time-management system, reduce stress, and yet accomplish more.

Here's how:

  •  Keep your schedule open
    Stop scheduling everything -- packing your day with things to-do just leaves you with too little time to do everything, and allows everything to fall apart when unexpected things come up and the schedule gets messed up.  And unexpected things ALWAYS come up.

    Instead, schedule as little as possible. Sure, there will always be some appointments that need to be plugged into a calendar, but everything else should be open. What do you do with that open time? Go with the flow, focus on important things, and take one thing at a time.  Want some examples? See the following items for more:
  • Go with the flow
    This sounds kind of like an old Eastern philosophy, and it is frankly. Basically you have to learn to adapt to each situation as it comes up, and respond appropriately -- not as if it's an emergency, but just what is needed. Sometimes that means dealing with the important task you need to complete right now, sometimes that means handling an urgent situation that comes up, other times that means dealing with unexpected visitors or phone calls. 

    There's no way to plan for the unexpected, so don't try. Just learn to deal with them as they come up, and figure out what's most important to deal with right now, and take everything in stride. Nothing is an emergency -- except for actual emergencies like heart and terrorist attacks. Everything else -- you can deal with it calmly and appropriately.
  • Fewer, high-impact tasks
    If you could only do three things today, and you wanted to really feel like you accomplished something, what would you do? Write those down each day and focus on them -- you'll do other things but try to ensure that at the very least, you get those three things done. If you could only accomplish one thing today and feel happy with your day, what would it be? Do that first, before anything else, including email.

    Try to reduce the number of tasks you do each day, but make each one count for more. Think of it as concentrating your productivity -- instead of spreading yourself out thin with lots of little, unimportant tasks, make the most of your time by just focusing on fewer but higher-impact tasks. Your time is valuable, after all.
  • One task at a time
    A lot of people ask me how I get done what I DO get done – this column, a researched weekly column that goes out to over 2000 people (which was admittedly compressed due to time constraints recently), Operations, Marketing, IT and Training duties here, Chairman of my Association, husband to one, Father to 4, Grandfather to 6, working on a book, and detailing growing legislative issues,  plus a personal life (the cigar and scotch, remember?), all at the same time.

    So how do I do all this?  I have no idea…
  • No seriously, most of the time it’s easy: one thing at a time. It's easy to get caught up trying to do everything at once, making phone calls and sending emails while checking emails and writing and doing Instant Messaging, all at the same time. And yet, it's hard to actually accomplish anything in this mode. I've found that it's much more effective, and much less stressful, if you focus on just one thing at a time, get it done, and move on to the next thing. I don’t always succeed, but you'll be amazed at how much you get done this way. 
  • Limit distractions
    As I said, there are lots of ways to get busy and get distracted. All it does is create chaos and pull you in a thousand different directions. Instead, just go along one path -- limit your time browsing the Internet, Instant Messaging, checking email, making phone calls, even going to meetings. Each of these tries to take you along a different path. Instead, shut them all off, clear them away, and focus. Get things done. Then do each of these things using limited time -- say 20 or 30 minutes -- and then stop yourself.
  • Reduce commitments
    How many things are you committed to? Each of these things take up time on your schedule, is a demand on your time and attention. Do you really need to be doing all of them?  (Please don’t look at me like that.  Do as I say, not as I do…)

    Instead, get out of commitments by telling people, honestly, that you don't have the time to do this right now. People might not be happy about it, but you have to be realistic with them and with yourself. Cutting back on commitments will open up your schedule and free up time for the more important things.
  • Simplify your to-do list
    Similarly, take a look at everything on your to-do list. Now, first of all, realize that this list will never be completely done, as you're constantly adding things to the list even as you're checking others off. So don't worry about getting it done. But do think about whether you really have time to do all of this -- if not, think of each task as a mini-commitment, and get out of it if possible, if it's not important. You'll feel relieved if you do. Simplify your to-do list just down to the important things.
Ok…you just used up 10 of your 20-30 minutes reading this.  Get out there and make the best use of your time and “git r dun”!

Have a good weekend!