No two people have identical time-use issues. Some of us tend to overcommit, others are prone to procrastination, and still others suffer from excessive perfectionism. In each case, the end result may be high stress and long hours as a deadline approaches, but those are just the symptoms. To solve the problem, you need to look at the root cause, and then tailor the solution to your specific issue.
Too often, we think of “getting organized” as a one-approach-fits-all endeavor, which leads people to accumulate calendars, planners, and journals. In a burst of determination, we use them for a short period of time and then set them aside when it turns out that they don’t actually help.
So instead of going shopping for the latest planning tool, take the time to identify your biggest time-use issue.
As a first step, I recommend time tracking to gather data on how you are spending your days. However, many people seem to have an aversion to time tracking and never make it past that step. If you’re one of those people, you can also start by simply thinking about how you feel about your time. Do you feel overworked but essentially in control? Or is the feeling more of being overwhelmed by the work you need to do? Do you feel like you can’t catch up on your to-do list? Or do you have all the necessary balls in the air, but feel worried that you’re going to drop a few?
Once you’ve teased out the type of time-use stress you’re feeling, think about how you might solve the problem.
- If you are worried about dropping a ball or two: Maybe you need to make sure that you’ve truly captured everything you need to do in your planning. Update your to-do lists and calendars. Sketch out when you need to do each task — and in what order — to make sure you keep all those balls in the air. Also ask yourself if you’re trying to juggle too many balls at once. Maybe you would benefit from limiting the number of tasks you have under way. Look into the idea of limiting your work in progress, borrowed from the Kanban management process, and give it a try.
- If you are feeling like you can’t catch up: Ask yourself why. Are you procrastinating and creating extra deadline stress for yourself? One technique that might help you is the Pomodoro method of working in short sprints. Another technique for procrastinators: Take the work you’re avoiding and break it down into small tasks. Keep breaking those tasks into smaller and smaller jobs until you have something that you feel like you can do right now. If you are not procrastinating, are you instead being pulled in too many directions and therefore not making progress on any one thing? Here again, limiting work in progress might be a good technique to try.
- If you are feeling overwhelmed: The most likely problem is an underlying weakness in your planning system. If you use a to-do list, perhaps it needs more structure. Some people get overwhelmed if their list is too long. Instead, try breaking your to-do list into multiple levels. I use a three-part system: (1) a long-term to-do list in Trello that can grow as long as it needs to, in order to capture all of my ideas; (2) a mid-range list on a physical kanban board; and (3) a daily list of specific tasks I intend to complete in any given day. If you’re more of a calendar person, you might also try separating levels of planning between different systems. For instance, you could use a physical calendar for sketching out your long-term plans, thereby reserving your electronic calendar for firm deadlines. Or perhaps you can take advantage of the ability of electronic systems like Google calendar to toggle the display of multiple calendars, and put your different layers of planning into different electronic calendars.
- If you’re feeling overworked: That may be the most difficult time-management issue to solve, because to solve it, you have to find a way to take a break, despite the long to-do list that drove you to overwork in the first place. If you are feeling overworked, you probably are overworked. Our culture encourages people to work long hours, and it is common for people to routinely work more than a standard 40-hour week. I believe, based on research and on my own experience, that dialing back your work hours to a more reasonable number will actually allow you — in the long run — to get just as much (if not more) done, without the exhaustion. However, getting to that point can be tough. You may have to slog through the long hours a little longer to reach a place where your deadlines allow you a break.
My approach when I find myself feeling overworked — and yes, it still happens to me on occasion, usually caused by my tendency to overcommit — is to take a hard look at my upcoming deadlines. If I can find one that can be delayed without causing large problems, I delay it. Years as a project manager have taught me that it is far better to tell someone that the thing I promised in a month will actually be delivered in six weeks, than to allow the pressure to build and risk a meltdown that leads to missed deadlines without warning.
I also invest a little more time in planning. When I’m worn out, my efficiency suffers, so I rely on my kanban board and my daily to-do list to help keep me focused and making progress. I also use the procrastination-busting techniques I mentioned earlier, even if I’m not truly procrastinating. When I’m already overworked, I can’t afford to waste even small amounts of time.
Using those techniques, I clear some space for a real break — ideally, a full weekend. If I can’t manage that, then I take as much time off as I can. Back when my children were younger, child-care duties and household chores could make my weekends feel less restful than my weekdays. I usually couldn’t get a full day’s break from both work and home duties, but I could schedule a half-day off on a weekday. Leaving my kids at daycare, I would slip out to a nearby mall with a good book, have a leisurely lunch, and then find a comfortable spot to spend an hour or two reading. I offer these details merely as an example. The point is: Find a way to take a real break from all of the things on your to-do list, and take it, guilt free. You’ll return to work after that break refreshed and much more productive.
Whatever motivated you to try to “get organized,” once you’ve resolved that problem, stop and reflect on why it happened. Does this sort of problem happen often? If so, it is probably the weakest point in how you approach time.
So shore it up. Think about what systems you could put it place to keep the problem from happening again. That could be the technique you just used, or it could be a different approach you identify to head off the problem before it has a chance to recur. Pick one or two things to try to improve, and then consciously practice them until the new system becomes habit.
Unfortunately, you will not then be in time-use nirvana. Instead, you will probably now recognize a new problem, which is the next weakest point in your approach to time. There is no such thing as perfect time-use system. It is a never-ending process, but the rewards are great: less stress, more meaningful work completed, and more time for the other things you enjoy in life. And fewer barely used planners cluttering up your office.