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Want to Manage Your Time? Get Real - Part 1

Want to Manage Your Time? Get Real
1st in a Two-Part Series
Copyright © 2001 Dr. Valerie Young, Time/Design

You know the drill - the ridiculous deadlines, the relentless barrage of email, voicemail, phone calls, all those "got a minute" interruptions, the constant worrying that one of those many balls you're juggling is going to unexpectedly drop.

When you're on total overload, all you want is relief - preferably the fast and easy kind. So you try the latest organizing software or gadget. Or maybe you read another book, take another course on time management or listen to a tape by the latest time management guru. Things might go pretty well for a couple of days. But before long you're right back where you were - snowed under with no realistic way to dig out.

Where the Rubber Meets the Sky

Lots of things work - in theory. Take the "handle each piece of paper only once" technique. The idea is basically a good one. But practically speaking, how many people are really able to do it on any consistent basis? Suggestions to have your secretary screen your calls or to close your office door to discourage interruptions leave secretary-less cubicle dwellers everywhere scrambling to add "get secretary" and " get door" to their To-Do lists!

The latest approach to time management is the Values Clarification method. The general idea is to identify what you value most, write a personal mission statement and then plan your time accordingly. Again, the overall idea is a good one. Individuals and organizations alike can greatly benefit from the exercise of clarifying values and establishing a mission statement.

In its practical application though, the approach too often falls short. That's because once you've laid out your values and established a personal mission statement, you then have to do something. The action part of the values approach still relies on a traditional three-step system to planning and managing your day.

The first step in the traditional system is to take out your calendar and list everything you want to accomplish that day. Step two is to prioritize each activity from most-to-least important. Step three is where you complete all of your high priority items before working your way down your list handling all of your lower priority tasks. It's now the end of the day. Having achieved everything you planned to do, your day ends with that warm, satisfying feeling of knowing you have successfully managed your time. That's how it works for you, right?

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Let's review the traditional "calendarizing" approach. Is it a good idea to plan your day? Yes. Should you write things down? Absolutely. Is prioritizing essential? Clearly. Ideally then, the three-step process should work. And, in simpler times, it no doubt did. In today's jam-packed world however, even with the clearest of values, this formulaic approach is in many ways more idealistic than realistic.

A more realistic approach is one that takes into account the reality that you have to juggle a lot more than a To-Do list. In fact, there are three things that must be first organized and then managed:
1. Commitments (to yourself, to others, and others to you),
2. Communication, and
3. Information.
Staying on top of commitments, communication and information is no easy task either. That's where the realistic part comes in.

Workable solutions are those that are firmly grounded in reality. Whose reality? Preferably yours. Take a look at these five Work/Life Reality Checks. If you find that you share a similiar view of what it's really like to try to manage a too full work and personal life, take advantage of some real tips for real people.

REALITY CHECK 1: Simple challenges call for simple solutions.

How would you characterize the nature and quantity of commitments, communication, and information in your life? On the commitment front, would you say that compared to five years ago, the demands on your time both at work and in your personal life have

a) increased,
b) decreased, or
c) remained about the same?

What about communication and information? Do you have e-mail? Voicemail? An in-box on your desk? Congratulations - you now have three in-boxes you need to manage! Compared to even one year ago, are you now receiving

a) increased,
b) decreased, or
c) remained about the same?

If you answered either "a" or "yes" to any of these questions, chances are your challenge doesn't fall into the "simple" category.

The search for simple, easy solutions is appealing. Yet when it comes to managing something as complex as your life, there simply is no magic bullet. Does that mean the solution has to be complex? Not at all. The solution you use though does need to be up to your challenge.

Real Tip 1: If your challenge is anything but simple, make sure you have a system in place that is sophisticated and comprehensive enough to absorb the level of complexity you face. That means setting up whatever organizer you use to be able to manage all three types of commitments, communication and information.

REALITY CHECK 2: Life is too short not to have one.

At times the idea of a actually having a personal life probably seems more theoretical than realistic. This brings us back to commitments. One of the most important commitments you can make to yourself is to build in time for you and your life outside of work.

Sometimes your choice of organizer can actually prevent you from managing the personal side of your life. Organizing software like Outlook, Lotus Notes or Tasktimer tends to be used at the office only. The portability problem was one reason many people turned to a handheld device. Yet, if you're using a company purchased PDA you may find, as many have, that you're reluctant to use it for your personal life, since unlike a paper organizer, at some point you will likely be asked to return it.

Real Tip 2: Regardless of what type of organizer you use, make sure you have a way to capture and manage not only personal tasks like "buy birthday card" but your larger goals and dreams as well.

REALITY CHECK 3: Your brain - don't leave home without it.

A popular American Express commercial warned you not to leave home without your charge card. That's not all you shouldn't leave behind. To be truly effective, your organizer needs to function as your "second brain." Yet, how often do you head to meetings, lunch or home and leave your second brain at your desk?

Those "Eureka" and other productive moments don't always happen while sitting at your desk. You can get a great idea, check voicemail, communicate with others, find out about schedule changes, or get a mental reminder anytime, anywhere.

Compact-size binders and handheld devices make it easier to always have your organizer handy. But there are times when a PDA or even a small paper organizer isn't enough. Some very productive moments happen while you're in wait mode - waiting for your dentist appointment, a train or plane, the meeting to begin. These are great times to write a memo, mind map a project plan, or sketch out the new addition to your home. To take advantage of these golden productivity moments, you often need a larger amount of writing or screen space than a small organizer offers. And have you ever tried typing messages from voice mail into a PDA? It's all but impossible.

Real Tip 3: Be prepared to capture and act on ideas, changes, communication, and inspiration wherever or whenever they happen make sure your "second brain" is as ready and able as you are!

REALITY CHECK 4: Most interruptions are in your mind.

It's not easy getting things done when you're contantly being interrupted. But, guess who interrupts you more than anyone else? If you came up with anyone other than YOURSELF, it's time for a reality check! In fact, the average person talks to herself up to 50,000 times a day!

That's because your subconscious tries to act like the RAM, or Random Access Memory, on a computer - the place where current work is being handled. But unlike a computer, your brain doesn't know it should store all the other "incompletes" - plan meeting agenda, write report, buy cat food - elsewhere until those reminders are needed. That's why, while you're in the middle of one thing, like talking on the phone - your subconscious breaks in to remind you to pick up your dry cleaning. All these self-interruptions can make you feel overwhelmed and scattered. And, that's not all. These mental distractions make it hard to stay focused on the task at hand.

Real Tip 4: To start, do what you'd do with a too full computer - but instead of downloading files off your hard drive, "download" all those To-Dos off your mind into one big list. From here you can begin organizing your commitments into the appropriate "files." Use your calendar for date-specific commitments only. For everything else, create lists based on logical categories. For example, you'll want a list called Current Goals and Projects. to help you staty focused on your most high-impact activities such as create new training program, plan office relocation, or research MBA programs.

REALITY CHECK 5: If you want the right picture, you need the right lens.

The download exercise gives you perspective on all of the things you need or want to do. Now it's time to get perspective on those commitments that have defined due dates. When it come to getting perspective on time specific commitments it is useful to think of a camera. If you want to get a broader picture, you'd use a wide-angle lens. To see more detail, you'd want to zoom in for a close-up view.

Sometimes you need to plan for the next few days or weeks. Other times you need to look out a few months by doing some mid-range planning. Still other times you need to look further down the road by doing some long-range planning. Depending on what type of planning you're doing, you need to adjust your view of time accordingly.

To differentiate the forest from the trees is to clearly separate the big picture from the details. If your organizer - whether paper or electronic - consists of 365 daily pages, you're trying to see the forest by looking at 365 "trees." Without a useful way of seeing a broader picture of time, you can end up reacting day-to-day. Getting that wider view helps you see what's coming. That way you can take a more planful and proactive approach which will save you a lot of time, not to mention headaches.

Real Tip 5: If you need to do short, mid and long-range planning don't rely on a daily calendar alone. Instead, make sure you have the right view for the job. A daily or weekly calendar is great for short-term planning. For mid-range planning widen the lens with a monthly view and use a yearly view to get a really big picture of time.

If you want to effectively manage your time you need to get real. Next time we'll look at five additional Reality Checks and offer five more real tips to help you stay on top of everything you need to - with less stress.

Click here to read Part 2.

About the Author

Dr. Valerie Young is an internationally known workshop leader and public speaker specializing in helping people focus on results.

Valerie has conducted Time/Design's "Staying on Top of Your Workload" seminar for managers and professionals at such diverse organizations as IBM, Pizza Hut, Novartis, Digital, Wella, Merck, Mobil, Fleet Credit Card Services, the US Navy, the National Guard, Northwest Community Hospital, TransCanada Pipeline, Abbott Labs, Smith & Hawken, Nortel, Patagonia, Presbyterian Hospital, SmithKline Beecham, QVC, and many others.

Valerie's work on this and other topics has been featured in such publications as The Guardian (London), The Edmonton Sun, The Wall Street Journal, USA Weekend, The Boston Globe, The Oregonian, Dallas Morning News, Reader's Digest, Entrepreneur's Business Start-Ups, Management World and The Executive Female. She has been a guest on People Are Talking (ABC), Chicago's WMAQ and The Wall Street Journal's nationally-syndicated radio program "Work & Family." Valerie joins Rosabeth Moss Kanter and others as a contributing author to Not As Far As You Think: The Realities of Working Women.

Valerie earned her doctorate degree in the field of training and development from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Tags: Wisdom and Life Skills



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