10 Things You Can Start Doing TODAY to Feel Less Overwhelmed

Best practices gleaned from Getting Things DoneThe Power of Full Engagement, 7 HabitsThe Fire Starter Sessions, and my brilliant clients. 1.  Identify & make space for your top priorities first. Identify your major priorities and make time for them in your schedule first. Then, make your lower priorities fit in around the big stuff. If you fill up your time with the little things, it becomes impossible to fit in the big things later.

2. Get everything out of your head and into a trusted system. As David Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Get every nagging thought about something you have to do out of your head and onto a list or calendar.

3. If a task takes less than 2 minutes, do it now. Don’t put off a small task for later if you could get it done now in 2 minutes or less.

4. Keep a list of next actions & start every next action with a verb. Keep a list of the very next things you need to do. Each item should be as specific as possible and start with a verb. You are more likely to take action when you see “ask David about timeline for final report,” on your list than when you see something like “final report.”

5. Have a daily meeting with yourself. Once a day (preferably at the start of your day), take 15 – 20 minutes to check in with your top priorities next actions list and calendar. Identify the 3-5 things you must do today to make the day a success.

6. Review everything on your plate weekly. Take 60 - 90 minutes a week to review all of your commitments, assess the past week, and look ahead to the coming weeks. You will catch things that would otherwise slip through the cracks.

7. Use your “power hours” for your most brain-intensive work. Figure out what time of day you are most alert, sharp and energetic. Do your hardest work then & save the mindless tasks for when you’re spent.

8. Charge your electronic devices outside of the bedroom. Get your inbox out of your bed! Purchase an alarm clock if you’ve been using your phone & put your devices in the other room when you turn in for the night.

9. Create intentional time and space away from technology. This can look like: blocking your internet access when you are writing, unplugging from all technology for 24 hours once a month, not looking at your phone between work and when the kids go to sleep, or sitting and focusing on your breath for 5 minutes a day.

10. Do what you say you’re going to do. You’ll gain the trust, respect, and admiration of others – and yourself.

Workshop: Create the Work Life You Want

I am really thrilled to announce Create The Work Life You Want, a workshop for entrepreneurs I'm co-leading in NYC on December 16th January 27th.  This workshop is the product of months of inspired collaboration with Liz Dahmen of Make Space. Below is the workshop description, and you can register online here. Please spread the word!

[box] Create the Work Life You Want invites you to discover how to manage your time and workspace in service to your unique entrepreneurial vision.

Over the course of this 4-hour workshop, you will assess your current time management practices & workspace set-up, explore strategies for improvement, and craft an action plan for change.

This workshop is for you if you:

  • Are an entrepreneur, freelancer, independent worker, or otherwise work for yourself
  • Are overwhelmed by your to-do list, email inbox, messy desk, or just how much you have to do
  • Want to find better systems & strategies for organizing your time and your workspace

This workshop, the first in a developing series, is being offered for the introductory price of $55.[/box]




Make Purging Clutter as Easy as 1,2,3 (Guest Post by Liz Dahmen)

[box]This summer I've been collaborating with Liz Dahmen, professional organizer and project manager extraordinaire at Make Space.  With Liz's focus on space and my focus on time, we are essentially helping folks with two sides of the same coin.  Nearly all of my time management & workflow clients also need some help corralling their physical stuff, so I am sure that Liz's guest post below will resonate.  You can read much more from Liz on her blog.  Enjoy!  - Sarah [/box] How To Purge With Ease by Liz Dahmen of Make Space  

Problem: It’s time to conduct a major wardrobe/ junk drawer/ garage/ under-the-bed/ you-name-it purge but the thought of sorting through all of that stuff terrifies you.

Solution: Use the rule of threes! Whenever you want to purge, limit yourself to three categories at a time.

Example 1: Junk Drawer

Either pull out the drawer or empty it into a box or bucket. Choose your three categories, I like to start with:

1) Trash (it’s amazing how much trash we keep in our drawers! from bits of string to broken rubber bands)

2) Misfiled (items that actually have a home somewhere else and you know where that somewhere else is, like pens- why are there 7 pens in this drawer when I have an entire cup devoted to just pens over there?) WARNING: Resist the temptation to go put them away in the right place, this will lead to major distraction. Just pick up the pen, note that you know where it lives, and put it in the “Misfiled” category.

3) Homeless but Important (you don’t know where it should live, but it’s important- like that necklace with the broken clasp that you have been meaning to take to the jeweler, or the gift certificate to the local movie theater you got for watching your neighbor’s dog)

Now, your first pass is complete! Congratulations! You know what to do with theTrash category. The Misfiled group can now be returned to their actual homes, and all you have left is the Homeless but Important group which is way simpler to tackle than an entire junk drawer. Here we make a second pass and choose three (again, just three!) more categories for our Homeless items, for example:

1) Worth Money (gift certificates, punch cards, coupons)

2) Office Supplies

3) To-Dos (items that are awaiting your attention, like that broken necklace, or something you borrowed that needs to be returned to someone)

As items get whittled down they become easily manageable and you can have fun with your categories, or just let them be inspired by what you see in front of you.

Example 2: Clothes Closet Purge

Go through every single item in that clothes closet and relegate each piece to one of three (no more!) categories. Generally, we always start with the following:

1) Keep (it fits, you love it)

2) Donate/ Recycle (it doesn’t fit, you haven’t worn it in a year)

3) Trash (it’s unwearable, soiled or otherwise unfit for donation)

At the end of the first pass you can expand to three more categories (again, only three at a time!), but now instead of dealing with everything in the closet, you’re just going to sort through the “Keep” pile. For example you may choose to sort it into

1) Off season (if it’s warm, you pull out the cold weather close and store somewhere else)

2) Special occasion (why keep that dress you wear once a year with your work clothes?)

3) Workout wear (finding your gym clothes will be a snap)

By this time, your clothes will be feeling manageable instead of daunting, and you’ll be able to allot the appropriate amount of space in your closet to your different categories.

Read more from Liz Dahmen over at Make Space!

The Most Important Meeting of Your Day

My clients often struggle to balance busy schedules that are packed with meetings.  So, it may come as a surprise that many find relief by adding one more appointment to their day. What is this magic meeting?

It's the morning meeting with yourself, and it may be the most important meeting of your day.

The morning meeting with yourself can be short - 10 to 20 minutes.  It should be the first thing you do when you start your work day.  Here's your agenda:

  1. Assemble Your Tools:  Start with a blank piece of paper, your calendar, your task management system (to-do lists), and your browser open (but don't go into your email yet).  Take a deep breath.
  2. Eyeball Your Calendar:  What's on your schedule today?  Is there anything you need to do to prepare for today's appointments that you haven't done yet?  If so, make a note of it on your paper.  Now glance at the next two days on your calendar.  Anything coming down the pike that you need to prepare for?  If so, make a note of what you need to do, or block off time on your calendar to prepare.
  3. Review Your Tasks:  Look over your task lists (if you practice Getting Things Done, this would be your Next Actions and your Waiting Fors) .  What absolutely must get done today?  Make a note of it.  What should get done today?  Make a note of these things too.  If you have open blocks of time, what will you work on?
  4. Scan Email and Voicemail:  Do a quick once-over of your email for "hot" items and listen to your voicemail.  Take note of anything that changes your plans for the day (a cancelled lunch or an emergency conference call) or that contains an action that absolutely must be done today. Note these.  Do not answer emails or return phone calls at this point (you're in a meeting, remember?).
  5. Start Your Day:  Take a deep breath and think about the day ahead of you.  Review your cheat sheet of must-do's once more, noting anything you neglected to capture in the steps above.  Take another deep breath, and get to work!

The reason this meeting is magic is that it gives you a chance to set your own agenda for your day before the madness begins.  Unlike overly detailed work plans, it allows you to adjust to shifting priorities day-by-day.

This meeting won't take things off your plate or clear your schedule, but it will enable you go into your day with a sense of clarity about what's ahead.  With this clarity, you'll feel more grounded in saying "no" to people and distractions that would derail you from your priorities.  And, you'll be less likely to suddenly remember that thing you meant to do today when it's 5:30 PM and you're getting ready to wrap up.

You will find that once you start your day this way, it will quickly become habit and soon you'll intuitively know what you need to review to feel good about starting your day.  This meeting is not a substitute for doing a regular, in-depth review of everything on your plate, but it is the best way to make sure you are on track for today.  It's a great way to start your day.
Subscribe to Do Your Best Work.  Paste the URL in your favorite feed reader, or use the box at the top right of this page to receive posts by email.

Guard Your Time with Defensive Scheduling

Sometimes it feels like our schedules happen to us.  What seems like a relatively calm week on Monday gets jammed with meetings and phone calls by Thursday, and all of a sudden there's no time to do all the work we know we need to get done. Most often, it is the "important but not urgent" tasks like planning, relationship-building, and big-picture thinking that get squeezed out when schedules get tight. This can create the feeling that we are flying by the seat of our pants and not really attending to everything that needs our attention.

While none of us has complete control over our schedules (we must cede time to superiors, funders, and unexpected events), we could all find a little more wiggle room in our calendars if we practiced proactive, defensive scheduling.  Here's how.

Time Blocking Block out time in advance for the important projects that you would otherwise neglect in the rush of everyday work.  If you have a board meeting in six weeks, schedule two hours of prep time three weeks from now so that you don't find yourself scrambling to prepare the day before the meeting.  If a conflict arrises, be sure to reschedule this time block as you would any other meeting.

Meeting with Yourself It's impossible to keep work flowing without stopping from time to time to step back, take stock, and course correct as necessary.  Most of us will need to review our current work load weekly and take an even bigger-picture look every month or two.  Schedule this meeting time with yourself -- a weekly hour or 90 minutes to review your current work, and a bi-monthly big picture check-in -- and then defend against all who would seek to impede upon this time.

Time Batching In any given week you may have  work to do on 7 different projects.  Rather than flitting around from task to task, project to project, give yourself chunks of focused time each day to work on a single project.  Maybe on Monday you devote time solely to projects 1 and 5, Tuesday is all about project 2, Wednesday it's 3, 4 and 7, and so on.  Rather than staring down 7 projects at once and scattering your attention amongst all of them, you will make significant progress on one or more project each day, adding up to a much more productive week.

Playing Nicely With Others Meetings scattered throughout the day and throughout the week can leave little solid time for at-desk work.  To remedy this, set scheduling boundaries on meetings, such as: no meetings on Tuesdays, (or, all meetings on Tuesdays), no meetings after 3 PM, or only phone meetings on Friday.  You won't be able to hold to these structures in all cases, but you will probably be surprised how much agency you do have once you start asserting your meeting boundaries.

Give Yourself A Break No more back-to-back meetings!  After every meeting, you need time  to capture, process, or reflect upon the outcomes of your last meeting before starting the next (if only for a few minutes).  What's more, your body needs to stretch, eat, use the restroom, take a walk and generally renew itself after a period of intense focus. Give yourself 20-30 minutes between meetings to take care of these essential tasks.  Otherwise, you risk losing ideas and actions generated in your last meeting and you compromise the quality of your attention going into your next meeting.

Say No Probably the #1 thing that you can do to defend your schedule and create more time for yourself is to simply say no.  No to attending that meeting when your colleague could do so; no to that extra committee; no we cannot pursue this funding opportunity given our current workload.  The incredible thing about saying no is how much it frees you up to do a better job at fulfilling the commitments you say yes to.

What are the biggest time-eaters in your schedule?  What strategies do you use to defend your time? 

Subscribe to Do Your Best Work.  Paste the URL in your favorite feed reader, or use the box at the top right of this page to receive posts by email.

The Good News and The Bad News about Getting Organized

What does it really mean to get organized at work?  Let's break this down:

First, the bad news:

You actually have to deal with everything that shows up. You can't ignore anything (papers, emails, phone calls, tasks).

What happens when you ignore stuff?

  • Work (literally) piles up
  • You piss people off -- "Why didn't you respond to my email/phone call?"
  • You lose people's trust -- "She never gets back to me, I'll ask someone else."
  • You miss opportunities -- deadlines, events, meetings, etc. due to poor scheduling, but also the opportunities that flow from showing up in the world  focused and ready to go.

Now, the good news:

You don't have to DO everything. You just have to decide what needs to be done (and then do some of it).

Getting organized really means:

  • Getting in touch with all the "incompletes" in your universe.
  • Deciding what to do about each incomplete -- it could be "do it," but it could also be  "give it to someone else to do," "delete it," or "defer it until I have more time/information/resources."
  • Capturing your "incompletes" in a system (calendar, online to-do list, pen and paper) you trust and like to use.
  • Reviewing and repeating, on a regular basis, the three steps above.

This, at its essence, is how I understand Getting Things Done.  It's no magic bullet, but it's a great place to start.

Subscribe to Do Your Best Work.  Paste the URL in your favorite feed reader, or use the box at the top right of this page to receive posts by email.

Snow Day! (Or, How to Use "Found Time")

With a foot of snow outside my window right now, it seemed like a good time to revisit a favorite post from last year: how to use a snow day. Whether you are snowed in today or not, check out these ideas for how to use the gift of extra unscheduled time.

8 Great Uses of a Snow Day (or Other "Found Time") originally posted on February 10, 2010

My former boss used to talk about the wonderful feeling brought about by “found time.”  Found time is when you unexpectedly gain free time — because of a cancelled meeting or a postponed lunch date — and get to decide how to use it.   As over-scheduled as most of us are, a few hours of found time can feel pretty luxurious.

Many on the East Coast are getting some found time today in the form of a snow day.  Why not make the most of it? While I wouldn’t suggest doing ALL of these things in one day — after all, you should relax — I guarantee that taking on two or three of these activities will make you feel more energetic and accomplished than, say, a whole day spent watching HGTV (ahem).

  1. Do one task you’ve been putting off. Crossing something off your list will feel so good, you might even be inspired to do something else. For me, this will be finding out how to change the address on my driver’s license.  I moved two years ago, so I expect that finally doing this will feel pretty good!
  2. Plan your charitable giving for the coming year. Many of us only make donations at the end of the calendar year or when disaster motivates us to give.  But nonprofits need our generosity year-round for the work they do day in and day out.  Think about how much you are able to donate this year, and consider donating now or in installments over the course of the year.
  3. Pick a small area to declutter. What space in your environment aggravates you, embarrasses you, or slows you down? It could be your desk drawer or your sock drawer, the pile on the kitchen table or that black hole where you toss instruction manuals.    Pick a manageable area that you can declutter in an hour or less, and get it done.
  4. Check in with your New Year’s resolutions. It’s a few weeks into the new year: how are those resolutions going?  It’s okay to refine your resolutions or  drop one altogether.  Just be intentional about it!  If you did any end-of-year reflection, revisit your notes from that process.  What’s changed already since the year began?
  5. Do a brain dump. When was the last time you got everything off your mind?  Sit down for 15 minutes and write down everything that is taking up your attention right now – from upcoming birthdays to grocery lists to the broken dining room chair.  Then, identify the next action needed on each item, and put it in your trusted system (a sure-fire process brought to you byDavid Allen).
  6. Create something. Make soup from scratch, build a shelf, assemble homemade Valentines, crochet a scarf for your dog.  There is little as satisfying as creating something from start to finish in one sitting.  Short projects provide instant gratification and don’t hang over your head like that sweater you started knitting two years ago.
  7. Set a date.  Not to get married (though a blizzard engagement would make a nice story) but to get together with that person you’ve been meaning to see.  Look at your calendar, find three dates that would work for lunch or for coffee, and suggest to that long-neglected colleague/cousin/college buddy that you finally get some face-time.
  8. Write down ideas for how you’d like to use your next block of found time and put your list in a find-able place.

Bonus activity: Subscribe to my blog, via the email box on the top right, or by pasting  into your feed reader of choice (I use Google Reader).

What are your favorite uses for found time?  If you have a snow day today, how will you use it?

My GTD Second Year Review - What's Stuck?

A year ago, I wrote about my first full year applying the Getting Things Done methodology to my life and work.  For the uninitiated, GTD is a system created by David Allen for organizing all of the "stuff" that comes at you in life -- all the to-dos, projects, things other people owe you, etc. (The best entry point to GTD is to read the book.)  GTD was a revelation for me, helping me gain control of a lot of loose ends and allowing me to clear both desk space and head space as I left a longtime job and went back to school. So, a year later, has it stuck? In large part, yes.  While I'm less regimented/disciplined about the way I employ GTD these days, its principles are what guide the way I stay on top of everything going on in my life.  Here are a few of the ideas that have been most central to my implementation of GTD in the second year:

First things first, it's not about the technology. David Allen says this, but most of us have to figure it out on our own.  I, like my time management coaching clients, spent a good deal of time looking for the "right" technology to implement GTD.  Is it Remember The Milk or OmniFocus?  A simple list on my smartphone or a pen-and-paper list in a notebook? And should I be using Evernote?

My learning here is that there is no "best" technology for GTD - the best technology is the one that works for me.  Further, what is best for me may change, and that's okay.  There are weeks when I need to have everything on my phone so I can access it anywhere.  And there are weeks when I need to have a handwritten list staring up at me from my desk.  Both are okay, and I adjust for what will work for me at any given time.

Second, GTD is not about perfection. When I first started doing GTD, I wanted to do it perfectly: everything captured on the appropriate list, email inbox and desk inbox empty at the end of each and every day (no exceptions), a weekly review chiseled into my calendar.  What I've learned is that I don't have to do GTD perfectly for it to work for me.  I fall off the wagon for weeks at a time, start to feel the disarray that results, and then get back on.  GTD is a very forgiving system -- and once you learn the basics it is there to help you clean up however messy you've let your life become.

But it is about the principles. The basic GTD principles are what have continued to work for me over the two years.  Among them:

The 5 stages of workflow: Collect, Process, Organize, Review, Do. When things feel out of sorts, it's usually because I need to jump back in on one stage of this process.  If you are still thinking of the things on your plate as just "done" or "waiting to be done," the 5 stages of workflow will be an eye-opener. Chapter 2 of Getting Things Done, which explains the five stages, is something I return to again and again.

The inbox. Having ONE place where all incoming stuff lands -- my physical inbox in my home/office space and my email inbox in virtual space -- means that I always know where to put and where to find stuff I haven't dealt with yet.

The full capture. When I'm feeling an ambiguous sense of overwhelm, it's usually because I have stuff bouncing around my head that I have not yet captured on a list.  This will happen when I'm trying to focus on some big project but all the while feel a nagging sense of all of the other stuff that I need to attend to.  I've learned that when this happens I need to stop what I'm doing for 5 minutes and do a full capture -- or what D.A. calls a mindsweep -- of all the loose ends that are taking up space in my working memory. That list goes into my inbox for future processing, and I can go back to my project with a clearer head.

The review. This, along with the full capture, is the other instant stress-reliever.  Knowing that I will regularly sit down and review everything on my plate - big and small, from the recent past to the near future - allows me to relax into the moment and not worry about things slipping through the cracks. David Allen preaches the virtue of the Weekly Review of everything on your plate  -- and yes, ideally the reviews are weekly -- but I've allowed my review schedule to be a bit more fluid and driven by my internal sense of when I need to step back.

For those of you just thinking about starting GTD or something like it, my advice would be to first adopt, then adapt.  Jump into it with both feet -- listen to the man when he says to use only fresh file folders and to use a label-maker.  But then, once you've gotten a hang of David Allen's way, make it your way.  Modify it to fit your needs, and don't worry that you're not doing it "right."  What's right is what works for you.

How have you made GTD your own?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

Subscribe to Do Your Best Work.  Paste the URL in your favorite feed reader, or use the box at the top right of this page to receive posts by email.

Four Stunning Tools for Visual Learning

Learning styles may be a myth, but I will make the unscientific assertion that I am a visual learner.  I need to see things for them to sink in.  In the past month, a handful of stunning visual learning tools have caught my attention. 1.  Take Notes in a New Way At a leadership retreat I attended last month, the two group facilitators were joined by a silent but powerful partner: Nora Herting, a graphic recorder from ImageThink.  As the retreat unfolded, Nora drew images and highlighted key phrases to capture the spirit and content of what was said.  Posted on the walls, the drawings became a map of our time together and conversation pieces in and of themselves.  Here's a video of Nora and her colleague at work:


2.  Zoom Past Powerpoint A friend introduced me to Prezi, a zooming, nonlinear presentation tool which offers a welcome alternative to Powerpoint.  In Prezi, instead of making sequential slides, you create your presentation on a big blank (electronic) canvas using font size, images and framing of text to create variety and emphasis.  Come presentation time you literally zoom around your canvas, following a path that you set ahead of time or changing course as the mood strikes.  I've only played around with Prezi online and have not yet used it for a presentation.  I'd be interested in hearing from folks who've tried it out.

Joan Rivers and Twyla Tharp, Organized Artists

I saw the hilarious and disturbing  Joan Rivers documentary this weekend. One of my favorite parts was seeing Joan's low-tech joke library. Take a look:

Joan is onto something.  Though artists have a reputation for being messy and spontaneous, many have organized workspaces because their art demands it.

Organization is in part about being prepared for the moment when insight strikes.  It's about creating the conditions for creativity to flourish, so that when you enter into creation mode, your physical world is set up to support you. Being organized also creates the mental order that many people need to be able to put aside mundane things and enter a creative head-space.

An organized workspace, for artists an non-artists alike, needn't mean office-standard manilla file folders and labelmakers.  In her book The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp describes the  unconventional system she uses to support her creativity*:

Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files. I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me...

The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet... Most important, though, the box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn’t write it down and put it in a safe place. I don’t worry about that because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box….

As different as their systems (and their art forms) are, Joan and Twyla's methods are fundamentally similar.  When they are ready to create, neither the comedian nor the choreographer wants to spend time searching for things -- they want to be able to quickly access what they need and get down to creating what they want to create.  Both feel grounded knowing that their creative works-in-progress have a safe home outside of their heads.  That's one sign of a working system - it makes you feel better.

No matter what form it takes, a good organizational system supports you to do your best work by allowing you to put your brain power where you want and need it to be. For some people that system will be a cardboard box of ideas, and for others a card catalog of naughty jokes.

Do you have an unconventional organizational system?  If you're an artist, how do you organize your workspace?

*With thanks to Merlin Mann for introducing me to this passage.