time management

4 Shovels to Dig Out from an Avalanche of Work










You've go deadlines looming, events approaching, and new opportunities popping up at every corner.  Can a crisis or two be far behind?

When you're buried in work it can be hard to see a way out.  Here are 4 shovels you can use to dig yourself out of overload:


What can you get off your plate by delegating it to someone else?  Think not only about the big projects that are taking up most of your time, but of the smaller routine maintenance tasks that eat away around the edges of your day.


What can you put off by a week, a month, or a quarter?  Here is where you need to test some assumptions.  Just because you've been proceeding on the notion that you need to launch the rebranding effort in 2013 doesn't mean it has to be so.  Could it be launched in early 2014?  Can this week's brainstorming session be put off until next month, when 8 out of 10 deadlines have passed?


Delay is the less-proactive version of defer.  When you delay, you say (to yourself) -- I will get to this, but I will do it on my timeframe because I've got more pressing matters to deal with.  You say (to others) -- I am happy to help with this, and I will get back to you next week. Delaying is an effective tactic for dealing with demanding external partners who want things from you that aren't central to your primary work.  You don't have to be a jerk about it -- but you also don't have to stop what you're doing to attend to other people's requests.


What can you get rid of all together?  Look: you only have so many hours in the day, so many team members on your staff, so much funding and so much work you can do before your personal relationships, sleep and morale begin to suffer. What is off-mission, a time suck, not worth the time it takes do? Who would you need to engage in conversation to be able to let go of one or more projects on your plate?

Your 4 shovels:


And don't forget to breathe.

What are your tried-and-true methods for negotiating a heavy volume of work?  How do you dig out?

How to Take a Proper Lunch Break

When is the last time you took a proper lunch break during the work day? By proper, I mean:

  • You left your office building
  • It was approximately the middle of your workday
  • You ate something
  • You did not return for at least 30 minutes

The following do not count as a proper lunch break:

  • Scavenging leftover breakfast pastries from another group's meeting in the conference room
  • Eating in front of your work computer while doing non-work things (kitten videos, personal email, etc.)
  • Forgetting/neglecting to eat lunch and then going to Starbucks at 4pm

Reader, when I worked in an office I regularly did all of the above.   Many of my clients  - be they administrative assistants or executive directors - are also challenged by the seemingly  simple goal of taking a proper lunch break.

Why on earth would you want to take a proper lunch break?  Three reasons:

Enough convincing - here are some strategies for taking a proper lunch:

Start with once a week.  Commit to getting out of the office for 30 minutes one day a week.  Work up from there.

Make it a date with yourself.  Plan ahead of time to do something nice for yourself.  Put it on your calendar, go somewhere you enjoy being, and don't stand yourself up.

Make a date with someone else.  Plan to leave the office with a buddy - or meet up with a friend who works nearby - and it will be much harder to flake out at the last minute.

Leave your phone behind. Bring a book, a magazine, or maybe something from your "to read" pile, but give yourself a chance to unplug, get some fresh air, and disengage from your inbox while you eat.

Attach lunch to other outings.  Need to be out of the office for a morning meeting?  Tack 30 minutes onto the entry in your calendar and have a proper lunch on your way back.  Afternoon external meeting?  Leave 30 minutes early and arrive relaxed & fed.

Reframe lunch as increasing, not taking away from your time at work.  Nothing helps a productive morning become a productive afternoon like a break in the middle (see research above). And, much like when you get those great ideas in the shower, an unstructured and relaxed lunch can pay off in a creativity boost.

Start a lunch club.  Over at the National Organizing Institute blog, they have a great how-to on starting a lunch club, providing peer support and interesting meals, 5 days a week.

What are your strategies for taking lunch? What difference does lunch make in your day?

The Daily Coffee Check-In

'I'm too busy to plan' is one of the most unhelpful things we tell ourselves when we're overwhelmed with work. By buying into this mistaken belief we deny ourselves what we most need when we're buried in work: a little space to gain some control, perspective, and relief. It can take as little as 15 minutes to rise above the chaos and map out your day, and you don't need to lock yourself in a room with a whiteboard to make it happen.  I've written before about the morning meeting with yourself, which involves taking the first few minutes at your desk to get a handle on what's ahead.

Starting even earlier in her day, a client of mine does her daily planning ritual each morning during her subway commute. She calls it The Daily Coffee Check-In.  A parent who directs a national program on 3-day-a-week work schedule, she has to be strategic with her time in order to accomplish her work without it spilling over into her non-work days.  So, every workday, as she juggles her coffee on the train, she fills out this checklist:

The Daily Coffee Check-In:

1) What’s lingering in my mind?

2) What do I need for meetings today?

3) What must I accomplish that can’t wait until the next day in the office?

4) When can I devote time to this? Should I reschedule anything?

5) When do I need to leave today? What time may I have tonight/tomorrow if absolutely necessary?

With these five questions, she enters her day with clear intention, a sense of her bigger picture, and a plan for getting her work done.

Inspired by my client, I set out to design my own Coffee Check-In.  I came up with this:

Sarah's Coffee Check-In:

1) What's on my schedule today?  How do I need to prepare for each appointment?

2) Which non-urgent project(s) do I want to make some progress on today?

3) What must I do today in order to feel today was a success?

4) When will I take a lunch break?  When will I complete my work for the day?

5) What one thing have I been putting off that I will finally address today?

What questions would be on your morning coffee check-in list?

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.

Drawing Digital Boundaries in an Always-On World

If you’re like most people, you’ve responded to work email while on the grocery check-out line, on vacation, and in bed. Increasingly we are always at work unless we make a conscious decision not to be. As a workflow coach to busy professionals, I get to see both the benefits and challenges of our ever-shrinking, instantly-syncing and always-buzzing technology.  The plus is that we can work from anywhere, anytime; the drawback comes when we are working everywhere, all the time.

The truth is that your inbox will still be accepting emails when you die. Will you choose to live in your inbox 24/7, or will you step away from time to time and be present in the messy, physical, relational world?

We have to get really good at choosing when we’re working and when we’re not. The radical act of unplugging – of intentionally turning off our devices for a few hours, days or even weeks – can have profound effects:

  • Coworkers will see that you place boundaries on your time and adjust accordingly.  By not responding to work emails after a certain time of night, on the weekends, or on vacation, you signal that you respect your own time and that of your colleagues.
  • Loved ones will appreciate your undivided attention. A dinner without text messaging and a day outside without email will not go unnoticed.
  • You will grow to enjoy the alertness, calm, and productivity that comes from focusing on the present moment without attending to a blinking device.

If turning off your devices for even an hour seems like an impossible feat, here are some questions to get you thinking:

  • What parts of your life could you experience more fully if you were to unplug?  What are the consequences if you don’t unplug?
  • What one technology habit, if you changed it, would make the biggest positive impact on your life?
  • Where in your day, week, or year, is it most important to you to you carve out time to disconnect from technology?

No one else will draw these boundaries for you.  The only person who can stop you from answering email 24/7 is you.  So, where will you draw the line?

Perfectionism and the 90% Solution

Perfectionism is a common psychological obstacle to productivity.  In the perfectionist's mind, the product, email, report, etc. she is trying to produce is not quite good enough just yet.  The perfectionist has a sense that her ideal is attainable, if only through more work.  Making things worse, she likely believes the sky will fall if she is not successful at attaining perfection.

The problem is that somewhere along the pursuit for 100% perfection, we face diminishing returns.  We wait to send an email until we get the wording right, and an opportunity passes us by.  While we're stalling on completing a project to our own exacting standards, our boss or funder is wondering where it is.  And when we ask our staff member for the fourth revision on that fundraising letter, we can see their morale take a dive.

When I see perfectionism of any sort cropping up in myself or in a client, I've begun to ask:

[box] What would 90% look like?

Are you at 90% good enough/complete enough?

If yes - you are done.

If no - strive to get to 90%.  [/box]

For most of us, doing a 90% job is good enough - great, in fact.  (I admit for some , it may not be good enough -- I have had surgeons as clients.  But for most 90% is just fine.)  Further, a conscientious perfectionist's 90% may be 100% acceptable or even outstanding to her colleagues and supervisor.

Give it a try: let go of the 10% that exists between what you must do and how perfectly you imagine it can be done.  Then look around and see if the sky is falling.

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]




7 Strategies for Less Stressful Work Travel

A busy work travel schedule can throw even the most balanced of us out of whack.  Forget jet-lag -- just being away from the office, our families and our own beds can be seriously disorienting. And then when we return, we face an avalanche of work left behind.  Good news: you can take action to prevent travel hell before you even leave for the airport. Here's how you can set yourself up to take a more sane, less disruptive work trip:

1.  Schedule smartly It can be tempting to book yourself solid while you're on the road.  Don't do this.  Leave yourself some breathing room to take care of business (answering emails, returning calls, etc.) back on the homefront during your away-workday.  A solid hour a day of attention devoted to your home-work will make life a lot easier when you return.

2.  Plan for recovery Schedule your post-trip recovery time ahead of time.  Depending on the length of your trip and what happens at home while you're gone, you'll likely need some time to process all the new information you got while you were away and catch up on what you missed.  Block off between a couple hours a full day within the first couple days of your return.

3.  Manage expectations Let key colleagues know you'll be on the road and less available than usual.  Set your "out of office" message on email to say that you will return emails on the day AFTER you return to the office, not the day-of, to give yourself a little breathing room.

4.  Pack healthy snacks Between the airport food court and the conference buffet, it can be hard to eat well on the road.  Play defense against Danishes by packing portable and healthy alternatives like instant oatmeal, almonds, dried fruit, and energy bars.

5.  Plan to maintain healthy rituals If you exercise regularly at home, research the hotel's gym situation (or load up some fitness podcasts) and bring your workout clothes so you can exercise while you're away.  If you enjoy a cup of herbal tea before bed at home, make sure you bring your stash for your hotel room.

6.  Research the sights Plan to allow yourself at least half a day to be a tourist, wherever you are.  After all, you haven't really been to Georgia unless you've seen the world's largest peanut, right?

7.  Get clear about why you're traveling Like, really clear.  Why are you taking this trip anyway?  And how will you know if you & your organization have gotten your money's worth?  Before you go anywhere, make sure that you know the purpose, outcomes, and process of your trip.  Let this guide your decisions about how you focus your time and attention while you're gone.

What do you do to make travel less of an ordeal?  Share your tips in the comments.

Jim Henson's Kooky Take on Time

Last week I went on a Freelancer Field Trip to check out the Jim Henson exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image.  While there was plenty of Henson's inspiring puppetry (to say nothing of the myriad other attractions at this fantastic museum), the thing that stood out for me was Henson's 1965 experimental short film, Time Piece. In 9 frenetic minutes, this The Academy Award-nominated short tells the story of the everyman who juggles work and family, bounds between sickness and health, and wrestles with desire and obligation.  All the while, clocks tick and a relentless staccato beat marks the passage of time.  Our protagonist is constantly on the run, but never seems to get anywhere.

I couldn't help but think of this as a slightly kooky window into the work that I do with busy professionals who are trying to lead, love and live the best they can with the time they are given.  There is something timeless about this struggle.

For your amusement, and without further adieu, I give you Jim Henson's 1965 Time Piece:

(Note:  I would rate this film about a PG-13 for some tame-ish burlesque dancing... so keep that in mind if you are watching this in a shared office space.)

Can't see the video above?  Watch it here.

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!

3 Steps to Focusing at Work When It Really Counts

Are you able to focus when it really counts? When deadlines are looming -- when funder reports are due (or maybe were due a week ago), when you need to submit that important journal article -- how do you carve the time out of your already busy week to produce great work?

It's not like you can make the everyday emails, meetings, and work tasks stop while you work on this one really important thing.   You have to fit it in somehow.  Here's how.

Step 1: Identify The Conditions You Need to Do Your Best Work When, and under what conditions, do you get your best work done?  If trying to squeeze in a big writing project at the end of a busy day clearly won't work for you, what would work?  Some things to consider:

  • Time: Do you do your best work early in the morning, or  do you kick into high gear after everyone else has gone to sleep?
  • Place:   Can you do focused work at your desk, or do you need a change of scenery?  Consider taking a chunk of time out of the office if your everyday setting is too distracting.
  • Duration: At a certain point, you will face diminishing returns.  A 90 minute sprint of focused work (at your most productive time and place) may produce better results than a 4 hour marathon.

Step 2: Book It Once you know when and where you can get your best work done, schedule it.  Put it in your calendar in no ambiguous terms: "8 - 11 AM, report writing at public library."  This now represents a commitment to yourself.

Step 3: Do Everything You Can to Protect Your Focused Time This is the most important step -- because if you do the first two steps and then let the time disappear, you're back to square one.

  • Protect the time from others: Don't schedule meetings or phone calls during the time you've set aside for this important work.  Let others know you will be unavailable, and that they shouldn't disturb you.  If you are staying in your office, you might want to put a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside your work space.
  • Protect the time from yourself:  Before starting work, preemptively eliminate whatever distractions might pop up and pull you off course.  Turn off your phone and use web blocking software (I use this and this) to keep yourself from wasting time online. If you're working offsite, bring only the materials for this one project so that you won't be tempted to work on others.

Once you've taken the three steps above, you've created a solid container for doing your best work.  Now all that's left is to hunker down and be brilliant!

What have you learned about the conditions in which you do your best work? 

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.

Unpacking Procrastination

A few months back, a client (I'll call her Erica) came to our session in distress about an "overwhelming and totally intimidating" grant proposal she had been putting off  writing for months. With the deadline looming, she was becoming increasingly panicked, and increasingly frustrated with herself because of her "bad time management."  When I encouraged Erica  to talk more about what was going on, she described the following:

"Well first, I have to be able to write compellingly about myself, and  I'm  just not comfortable selling myself.  Second, I'll have to write a crisp, concise description of the project... which my colleagues will review and probably have criticisms of - and the thought of that makes me very uncomfortable.

Then, there is the fact that I've never written a proposal like this before, and will probably have to ask for all sorts of help along the way. And finally, deep down I worry that I might get the grant, and then have to spend the next five years of my life doing this project -- and do I really want to do this project?"

Clearly, this was not a matter of  bad time management -- though Erica had been beating herself up over this on that basis.  What I heard in her story were underlying fears that were keeping her from doing what she needed to do.  These not-uncommon fears were:

  • I'm afraid I'm not good enough (so why even start).
  • I'm afraid I won't do things perfectly (and others will find out I'm less than perfect).
  • I'm afraid of initiating difficult conversations (including asking for help, which for many of us is VERY difficult).
  • I'm afraid of what will happen if I'm successful.

For Erica, the key to getting past her procrastination lay not in doing a better job of managing her time, but in addressing the underlying questions that plagued her whenever she thought about the project.  Until she made time to address her self-doubt, she would never make time to write the grant proposal.

That feeling of being on shaky ground that sometimes accompanies procrastination can be a sign that you are on the edge of your comfort zone.  This is a temporarily uncomfortable state to be in but ultimately a good thing; once you push past the discomfort, your comfort zone will have been expanded.

Next time you find yourself procrastinating on something important to you, take time to ask yourself what is really going on.  In the process of intentionally unpacking your procrastination, you may find the key you need to move past it and get to work.

When you unpack your procrastination, what do you find lurking there?

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 doyourbestwork.net  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.

Golden Guidelines for Working from Home

Note: Student of Change is now Do Your Best Work.  Welcome! For seven years I had a full time office job -- and then I had none.  In making the transition from office worker to full time student/part time consultant, I had to learn a new way of working. Gone were the opportunities for casual interaction with coworkers, the sense that others noticed whether or not I was busy, and the pre-defined work hours.   Full days stretched out in front of me, and it was up to me to fill them productively.

Working from home -- whether it's your full-time gig, a once-a-week thing or a special arrangement with your boss to get that report done -- requires adopting a new set of behaviors.  Of course, having increased flexibility and the option to see a friend, bake a cake or go to yoga in the middle of the day is one of the reasons we choose to work from home.  Still, I find it useful to keep these guidelines in mind to make sure that I'm on track and as productive as I want to be:

  1. Get dressed in the morning. It really makes a difference.  Also: make your bed.
  2. Protect your time from others. It can be tempting, especially at first, to set up a lot of lunch dates with friends across town - just because you can.  But with that lunch date goes half of your day.  Schedule social engagements during work time sparingly.
  3. Protect your time from yourself. This is about setting boundaries between work and non-work.  Don't let household projects, non-work email or heaven forbid, TV, become procrastination devices.  On the flip-side, don't let work encroach on non-work relaxation & renewal.
  4. Worst/best first. Two ways to approach this: get the worst thing you have to do all day out of the way first.  OR, start your day with the best thing you have to do -- usually the most creative and thus most energy-consuming but also energizing.  I vary my approach depending on what's on my plate.
  5. Create colleagues.  Find at least one other person who is also a solo-worker and make a regular date to check in.  Gaining additional perspectives and support from others in your field is essential to your sanity and your growth.  And, your partner will appreciate not having to play the role of coworker at the end of his/her own long day.

Do you work from home?  What are your Golden Guidelines?

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.

Your Brain on Computers: A Do Your Best Work Roundup

This week the New York Times began a great series on computers and the brain, examining how our thoughts and behaviors (and frighteningly, our very ability to parent) have been altered by the multiple screens and data feeds that divide our attention.

Here at Do Your Best Work, we've spent the past 8 months exploring some of the same issues, only with fewer scientists and a smaller team of reporters (okay, it's just me).

If you've been captivated by the Times series, check out this roundup of Do Your Best Work pieces on related topics:

It's great to see some of these ideas taking hold in the mainstream media.  Have you read the Times series? What most surprised you?  Don't be shy, jump into the conversation by posting a comment below.

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.