An Easy Resolution for 2011

New Year’s Day is rapidly approaching, which means millions of people will be making resolutions for how they can better themselves in 2011. One of the most common resolutions seems to revolve around dieting to shed those holiday pounds acquired by indulging in a bit too much eggnog and Christmas cookies. I propose that your diet be of a different kind. What better excuse to finally hone your time management skills and start taking back control of your day? If you haven’t already, make January 1st the day you start your Time Diet.

Here are 3 simple things you can do on January 1st that will get your Time Diet off to a great start for the year:

1) Pick a time that you will sit down and make your choose-to list every day. Remember, having a daily list of things you are choosing to do for the day helps keep you focused and organized. Setting aside a few minutes at the same time each day to write down your choose-to list will help make it a habit and ensure you never start a day without a plan. Tell someone, whether it is your spouse, roommate, boyfriend, girlfriend, family member or other person close to you, when you plan to make your list so you are accountable to someone other than yourself. Telling someone about your resolutions makes you more likely to follow through with them.

2) Pick your worst Time Killer and eliminate it. Time Killers are those little things that waste our time without our permission. They distract us from our work and cause tasks to take longer than they really need to. Conquering all of your Time Killers at once can be overwhelming, so pick the one you feel is the biggest distraction and modify your routine so it no longer interferes. For example, if you just can’t resist texting with a friend or checking Facebook for updates while you are attempting to work, vow to silence your phone or put it in the other room while you do your work from now on.

3) An important part of the Time Diet is spreading out big “meat” tasks that require a lot of work over a longer period of time so they are more manageable. Pick one big task you already have planned in 2011 and write in your calendar when you plan to start it so that it will be done in time. For example, I already know I have a huge paper due for my PhD program in May. I am writing down a date in March that I want to have all of my research completed by, and I’m writing down a date in April that I want to have a finished rough draft. This way, I’m not tempted to save all of my work for the end and I will have successfully spread it out over a more manageable time frame.

Good luck as your start your Time Diet! Feel free to leave a comment either here or on Facebook letting me know how your diet is going. Happy New Year!

Don’t Leave Your Meats Underdone

This past week was the last week leading up to my winter break off from teaching.  I finished up my last two school performances, turned in my last two papers and was finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel from this long and hectic semester! As much as I wanted to just shut down early, I knew that if I did I’d have an even bigger pile of work awaiting me when I came back in January. Even though my motivation was waning, I had a lot of meat tasks to get through like planning out my teaching time-line for the next quarter, designing worksheets for my students to help them with their new music and making further progress on an ongoing research project for grad school. Boy, I did not feel like doing any of this!

When we finally force ourselves to begin meat tasks we don’t want to do, we tend to start one, work on it until it gets difficult and then stop and move on to another task. Then we work on that one until it also gets to a difficult point and move on to another one. In the short term, we feel good about ourselves because we have mustered up the motivation to start all these tasks we really didn’t want to do, but in the long term we’ve made it much harder on ourselves. Now, all the easy parts of the meat tasks are done and we’ve got nothing but difficult parts left! If we thought it was difficult to motivate ourselves before, now it’s going to be doubly difficult because we know the easy parts are done and we’re left with the tough things to chew through.

It was very tempting to just do all the easy parts of my meat tasks before winter break and save the tough parts for January, but I knew that would just make me spend my two weeks off dreading going back to work. Instead, when I hit my first speed bump in a task, I forced myself to push past it and keep going. We all know what that’s like when we are beginning a big task and we hit that first major stumbling block. There is a pivotal moment where we can either stop, or push past it. When you catch yourself getting to that point, and you know you just want to stop and save the tough stuff for later remind yourself that it’s not going to be any easier to finish later. You don’t have to finish the whole task now, but if you don’t at least start on the tough part, it’s going to be so much harder to force yourself into “work mode” again.  Spreading out your meat tasks over time is important, but deciding how to break up the chunks is even more vital to managing your motivation.

Visualizing Your Success

I’ve talked recently about using visualization as a tool to find the motivation to finish something, and that technique really saved me this week! This was one of those “crunch time” weeks with both work and school. Concerts to direct, grades to fill out, papers to write, etc… Now, unfortunately, this is also December- my absolute favorite time of year- and I wasn’t going to give up some of my favorite holiday traditions to sit and write a paper all day. Last Sunday, I had a marathon Christmas cookie baking session with a few friends. We had so much fun and ended up baking about 12-dozen cookies. What a blast! But, I had a 15-page paper due the next week and as soon as they left, I knew I had to get to work. The problem was, after a whole afternoon of baking, I wanted to curl up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate, not my laptop.

It was very tempting to tell myself that I could just finish the paper later. I started to think through my week and figured that if I worked through all of my lunches and skipped out on my husband’s work party I could still get the paper done and not have to work on it right then. When we don’t want to do something, we do a pretty job convincing ourselves that we’ll somehow feel more inspired to do our work later. I knew there was no way I was going to feel any more like writing the paper on my lunch breaks than I did right now. I visualized how great it would feel to climb into bed that night knowing my paper was done- to be able to go to work in the morning and not worry about finding any spare moment I could to keep writing. Armed with that delightful vision of a completed paper, I sat down and got to work.

After about 5 pages though, the urge to flop down on the couch and watch TV was creeping up again. I could hear my inner voice say, “Good for you! You got 5 pages done! You’ll do the rest later.” No. I didn’t want a partially done paper. I wanted a finished paper. How often have you started something, decided you’d do the rest later, and then wished so badly you had just finished it while you were on a roll? Every time I wanted to stop, I visualized starting my workweek completely free from the pressures of this paper, and kept going.

I got it done. All of it. It took about 5 hours, but crawling into bed that night knowing it was done and that I wouldn’t have to worry about it was even better than I’d imagined.

The 5-Minute Rule

So we all know that a day rarely goes by when we don’t have to add something to our choose-to list by mid-afternoon. That is all part of being flexible. However, in some cases adding something to the list is a bad idea. When a new task pops up during the day, if it takes less than 5-minutes, don’t add it to the list. Just do it now. You’re not going to feel any more like doing it later and it’s better to just do it right now before it sits on your list forever. These little few-minutes tasks are usually vegetable tasks, and as any 7 year old can tell you, putting off eating your vegetables doesn’t make them disappear! It just makes them that much more disgusting to eat.

This happens to me with paperwork at school all the time. I’ll check my mailbox and there will be some new tax form the district needs me to fill out, or a quality survey or some other sort of paperwork. It is really tempting to just grab it, put it on my desk, and add it to my choose-to list for another time. I know if this happens, it will just get covered up with other things and I’ll completely forget about it until the school secretary has to call me and ask why I haven’t done this simple thing yet. Since I couldn’t say I’ve been too busy, (because- let’s face it- everyone has at least 2 spare minutes in their lives to fill out a form) I’ll have to tell the truth and just say I didn’t feel like it. This makes me look really flakey and wastes the secretary’s time. Instead, I never let paperwork like this touch my desk. I fill it out as soon as I get it and it’s done. It never takes more than a few minutes, and I don’t have to worry about it.

The 5-Minute Rule is especially important if the task you need to do directly affects someone else’s ability to move forward on a project. For example, the other day I was working on some homework when I noticed a professor had emailed me asking if I could write a 2-3 sentence quote for a grant proposal he was writing. My first thought was to email him back and say that I’d have it to him by tomorrow. I’d finish my homework, have lunch and then sit down and figure out what I wanted to say. But then I realized that he was probably working on the proposal right now. It would only take me a minute or two to figure out something to say and send it back. Grant proposals can be lengthy and have firm deadlines and I didn’t want to hold anything up. So, I took a few moments away from my paper, wrote out a quote for him to use, and sent it off. Done. Now I can get back to my work and he can send off his proposal. Nothing is worse than having to delay a deadline because you’re waiting on things from other people. Especially when you know that the thing you’re waiting for doesn’t take very long at all.