Our Unhealthy Obsession with Due Dates

One of the tenets of The Time Diet is that stressing out and worrying wastes our time. Half the stress of getting it all done comes from worrying about getting it all done. This attitude comes from our unhealthy obsession with deadlines and due dates. We are bombarded with deadlines in our lives. Bills are due! Projects are due! Paperwork is due! This is the kind of stuff that keeps us up at night and we’d be far more efficient if we spent that energy developing a plan of attack to actually complete this work. You see, every deadline you write in your calendar has a corresponding date that is much more important: your start date. While deadlines are often set by other people, the more important start date is set by you.

This past week was the first full week of the ASU spring semester. There is no better time to witness the stress of deadlines than this initial week of school (except maybe finals week, which has some pretty intense deadline stress too). You see, this first full week of classes is when all the course syllabi are handed out. As the professors carefully walk the class through their expectations for the semester, the students are frantically flipping through the syllabus looking for words like “20 page paper” or “Final Exam: worth 50% of your grade.” Those deadlines then take their place in the part of students’ brains reserved for stressful things where they will loom for the rest of the semester. When you multiply this process by the number of classes a student is taking, the resulting state of mind is the student version of deadline-stress which I like to call, “syllabus overload.”

Syllabus overload is a perfect example of the dangers of stressing out about deadlines with no regard for start dates. Rather than allowing deadlines to pile up in their brains, students should immediately get out their calendars, write down the deadline and then also write down the date they intent to start that project. Does your syllabus say you have a 15-page paper due half-way through the semester? You’ll want to allow 5 days to write it (3 pages a day as a general rule of thumb) plus a buffer of a few days to allow for unexpected things to come up. I would pick a date in my calendar no later than 10 days before this paper is due and write “start paper.”  Do this for every due date in all of your syllabi. Now, you still have a lot of work to do, but the deadlines don’t have to freak you out. All you have to do is look at your calendar and you’ll see your whole plan of attack all laid out. No more worrying about how in the world all your work will be done. You know when it will all be done. You just planned it!

The importance of start dates applies to more than just students. Anyone who has deadlines in their lives needs to also plan out their start dates. Take taxes for example. April 15th does not often invoke thoughts of happiness because it is ingrained in most people’s heads as the day taxes are due (except of course this year when they are due April 18th.) If you do your own taxes, you’ve likely stressed about this deadline many times. Instead of just writing “taxes due” in your calendar, pick a date that you will begin working on them and write “start taxes.” The simple act of designating a start date will do wonders for your stress level. Looking at a calendar of only deadlines makes us feel powerless. Looking at a calendar of self-created start dates makes us feel in control. The Time Diet is all about being in control. Good-bye deadline-stress!!

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Hitting The Wall

This week, I was reminded of why it is so important to plan Desserts into your day. My husband was gone all this week in Italy for business (poor guy right??) so I decided I was going to get as much of my work done as possible while the house was empty so I could relax a bit when he got back. The first few days were great! I was plowing through tasks left and right! Keynote presentation? Finished! Book proposal? Edited! Garage? Organized! I was a productivity machine.

Then, by day 4, I started to hit a wall. I could feel it coming, but I ignored all the warning signs. I should have noticed my lack of focus, picked up on my growing frustration and took an evening off, but I continued to plow forward. By day 6, it was all over. Halfway through Saturday morning, somewhere between editing an article and gathering research, I hit a wall so hard I’m pretty sure even my dog picked up on it. The exhaustion became too much and I just wanted to scream. I slammed my laptop down, grabbed my Snuggie and curled up on the coach to watch 3 hours of The Food Network (in my next life, I’m pretty sure I want to be a cake decorator). In other words- it ended up being pretty much the most pathetic waste of an afternoon ever.

While sometimes it’s tempting to work until you can’t work anymore, once you’ve gone until you can go no further, you’ve gone too far! It’s why many diet experts tell you to stay on top of your hunger. If you wait until you’re starving to eat, you’ll just end up stuffing yourself at mealtime. A different approach is to have smaller snacks throughout the day to keep yourself going. The same is true for The Time Diet. Rather than keep pushing forward with my work, I should have planned a few Desserts each day to keep my stress level in check. I was so focused on the one big Dessert at the end of the week (my husband coming home) that I forgot to plan smaller enjoyable things throughout the week to keep me sane.

Instead, I pushed myself too hard and hit a wall at the worst possible time- Saturday. Here I have the whole day free and I can’t even capitalize on it because I’m so worn out and frustrated that the thought of looking at my work again makes me want to say things that my Grandmother would not approve of.  I vow to never again forget the cardinal rule of The Time Diet- everything in moderation. It’s not about doing less work, it’s about interspersing your Meats and Vegetables with those fun Desserts that make life enjoyable. Now excuse me while I go chow down on a hot fudge sundae.

Did you miss last week’s video blog? Check it out here!

A Change of Scenery for 25 Dollars

One of the tricks in your Time Diet is to know when you’re unfocused during work and immediately take steps to become more focused so you can complete your work faster. Recently, my work at home had become increasingly unfocused for two reasons: 1) My workspace was cluttered and 2) it was filled with distractions. Because my husband and I both have laptops, we end up doing most of our work at the kitchen table. I’ve found that I like this better than being at a desk because I don’t have to face into a wall and I feel far less claustrophobic when I’m doing work. This had been working fine for several years, but recently I found myself getting distracted. I have a perfect view of the television from my seat at the table, which becomes all too tempting to turn on (and even more tempting to watch when my husband already has it on!) Also, it was becoming increasingly annoying to have to move aside kitchen clutter to have a space to work. I knew my work was taking longer than it should because of these distractions, so I needed a change.

Last weekend, I bought a used conference table for 25 dollars at a second hand store. It’s 8 feet long, solid wood and aside from a small knick in the side, looks brand new. Actually getting it into our office (which we barely used up until now) was quite an experience, but now I have the perfect workspace and the past week I have felt a renewed vigor with my work I haven’t felt in a while. It has all the things I liked about the kitchen table –it doesn’t face a wall, it’s a large surface and big enough for my husband and me to both work there — without any of the downfalls. I now can no longer see a TV from my work place and I don’t have to worry about clutter from other rooms of the house getting in my way.

A simple “change of scenery” can go a long way for improving your focus. Want to know a teaching secret? In college, teachers learn that if they want to have a really productive and attentive day to flip the students’ desks to face a different direction. Why does this work? Because the students now have a change of scenery! Their routine has been altered. Now, you don’t have to go buy a giant piece of furniture like I did to make this work for you. Any small change in your work environment can help shake up your routine and give you a more focused work session. Do not become so entrenched in a work routine that you let yourself become less productive without realizing it. Frequently re-evaluate how and where you’re working to make sure you’re getting the most out of your work time. Or just come over to our office. I’m pretty sure we have room for you down at the end of our enormous table.

Silencing Your Inner Time Waster

In our Time Diets, we all have to learn to combat that little voice in our heads that is just a bit too unrealistically optimistic. It’s that voice that creeps out when you’re just about to start some work that says, “Why work now? Look at that big wonderful television! You know you want to watch that new reality show. Just watch it! When you’re done you’re bound to feel much more like getting your work done!”  In a regular diet you might recognize this as the same voice who tells you it’s ok to grab that second piece of chocolate cake because you’ve “earned” it, or to grab a Big Mac for lunch instead of making a sandwich because it’s easier.

This voice is your Inner Time-Waster and it is your goal to make it as soft as possible. Your Inner Time-Waster can be very convincing. It is very good at finding any possible reason to put off doing your work. Sometimes it’ll try to tell you that you’ll feel more like doing work later, or that you work all the time and deserve a break. It’s particularly good at convincing you to put off easy tasks that should only take a few minutes until the infamous “later.” Do not be fooled. Do you really think you’ll feel more like working later? No. This rarely happens. Get started so you have less to do when “later” gets here. For short tasks, remember the 5-minutes rule. If it takes less than 5 minutes, do it now or else you’re likely to forget about.

Your Inner Time-Waster is right about one thing though- you do work all the time and you do need a break, but if you’re following your Time Diet correctly, you’re already scheduling in those Desserts for yourself.  So, when you catch your Inner Time-Waster trying to convince you to do anything but work, tell it to shut up and get lost! You have complete control of your workday and are planning to get your work done first so you can enjoy your Desserts worry-free. Take that Inner Time-Waster. I’m done with you.