When Everything Goes Wrong

On Friday morning, my alarm didn’t go off. As it turns out, this was technology trying to warn me of the day ahead. It’s easy to think that if we can plan well enough, have excellent time management skills and stay motivated, we can control our productivity. In reality, there is a limit to how much we can control. The rest lies with how we adapt to the speed bumps we encounter. Let me tell you about Friday…and how you too can deal with your most insane days.

Into the Storm

Friday was supposed to be a wonderful day. It was the last day of teaching for the summer. I had finished a lot of my end-of-year responsibilities early. I had plenty of time for the few things I had left, and in the evening, I was looking forward to attending an outdoor concert with some of my friends to kick off the summer.

Then, my alarm clock debacle in the morning turned into countless other things that went wrong. This included, but was not limited to, chasing a scorpion around my living room for 20 minutes, a 5 minute phone call with my bank that turned into a 3-hour customer service nightmare, a maintenance issue at our rental property, a dying cell phone, an office chair not fitting into the back seat of my tiny Corolla, and a whole slew of other things that I need not go in to.

Surely you’ve had a day like this, where you feel that despite your best planning efforts, your time is slipping through your fingers and your day is spiraling out of control. These kinds of days are frustrating to everyone, but especially to those of us who are planners at heart and don’t like to feel as though we are losing control of our time.

3 Strategies to Keep a Crazy Day on Track

1) Keep Your Cool

When things go wrong, it’s easy to start stressing, but this only exacerbates the situation. Keeping a level head is the only way to keep moving forward with your day with any sort of efficiency.

2) Adapt

You can only do so much to control outside factors that will disrupt your to-do list. Rather than lamenting the fact that your day’s productivity plan is ruined, focus your energy on adapting the plan to fit the new circumstances. This includes prioritizing what truly needs to be done and what can be delegated. (For example, I wanted to be at the rental property to deal with the maintenance issues, but circumstances prevented me from doing so. As it turns out, everything was fixed without my being there.)

3) Don’t Forget Your Desserts

When it becomes clear that we must cut a few things from our day to keep all of the wheels spinning, it’s easy to put our enjoyable Dessert activities on the chopping block first. While this is an easy, short-term solution, it does nothing to help your long-term stress level. You need your Dessert time and you owe it to yourself to try to protect it just like you would protect any other important task.

This is why I was determined to make it to the concert with my friends Friday evening. I’m proud to say that I made it, and getting through the day’s events made that Dessert all that much sweeter.

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Tackling the I Don’t Wannas

There is something tremendously freeing about finishing something you don’t want to do. It’s as though a weight has been lifted from our shoulders and we suddenly feel so much more in control of our time management. The problem, however, is mustering up the motivation to actually finish these tasks, especially when no one else is checking up on you.

I’ve been putting off starting my next Time Diet book (this one is for teachers!)  I had everything planned and outlined, but I had been coming up with every excuse in the world to avoid sitting down with my computer and actually starting the first chapter.

A few days ago, I finally sat down and said, “OK, I’m not getting up from this desk until I have three pages finished.” It was tough, but I did it, and when I was done I wanted to shout it from the rooftops! I was so proud of those three little pages.

My Summer Plan

This has now become my summer mission. I was a little intimidated about summer’s rapid approach. I have no “boss” in the summer. If I don’t finish enough work every day to keep me on track with my goals…nothing happens. Nobody checks up on me and tells me to work harder. It takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline to stay motivated and I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be up to the task.

Now I have a goal: Six days a week, I will write at least 3 pages in my book this summer.

Here are three things to keep in mind as you’re planning to tackle your own “dreaded” task.

1) State Your Plan

I just publicly stated my plan of writing 3 pages per day this summer. I could have kept this goal to myself, but then I’d only be accountable to me. Now, I’m also accountable to all of you. Get a friend or family member on board with your plan too.

2) Set Aside Time

Saying you’ll do something is only half the battle. Saying specifically when you’re going to do it turns a goal into a plan. As you’re crafting your schedule for the day, don’t just add your task to the end of your lengthy to-do list. Set a specific time that you’re going to work. Think of it as an appointment with yourself.

3) Recognize Excuses

When you don’t want to do something, it’s very easy to start making excuses. Learn to recognize when you’re doing this and stop. Making excuses is easy. Finding a way is rewarding.

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A Puzzling Time Management Dilemma

Do you remember doing jigsaw puzzles as a kid? We frequently had one going on our dining room table growing up and my sister and I used to love taking a few minutes to put a couple pieces together every time we walked by. Little did I know that I would long for that same sort of casual productivity in my adult working life!

Every kid knows the most productive way to do a puzzle. You can’t just start randomly fumbling with the pieces, you start with the edges first because they are the easiest to find. Then, once you have a good outline started, you can start slowly building pieces toward the middle. It doesn’t take very long for kids to figure this out, but we adults tend to forget this process as we dive into tasks.

Set Up Your Outline

This week, I had frequent 30-40 minute chunks of time open in my evenings that I really wanted to use to be productive. The problem was that every time I sat down to tackle a task, I got overwhelmed because I didn’t really know where to start. I have so many new projects on my plate right now, and yet I was struggling to figure out how to use these short bursts of time.

Then I realized, I would be able to put these small chunks of time to much better use if I first set aside a larger chunk of time to outline what the components of these projects needed to be. I was trying to start the middle of my puzzle without my edge pieces.

Taking Time to Plan

This weekend, I sat down and planned. I have very little concrete product to show for my work, but that’s OK. The product is going to come later. The product will come when I have my next short burst of time available and instead of wasting it, I’ll be able to consult my project outline and start tackling it, once piece at a time.

When we get excited about our work, or feel stressed that we’re falling behind, it can be tempting to just start doing something so we feel productive. I urge you to step back and sketch out your plan. Unless you were one of those kids who liked to do the puzzle without looking at the picture on the box, in which case, you’re on your own!

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Busy, Busy, Busy!

Our attitude toward time management greatly affects our productivity, and that attitude starts developing very early. This week, I overheard an interesting conversation between two 11-year-olds. It went something like this:

Kid 1: “Oh my goodness, I am so tired, I don’t even know if I can do anything today. I got no sleep last night.”
Kid 2: “Oh I KNOW! I was up until 1:00am and I had to get up at 5:00am for school.”
Kid 1: “Well, I’ve actually been up until 2:00am all week”
Kid 2: “Well, I kind of have it worse because I have a teacher who gives way more homework than you do…”

I listened to this conversation in amusement as I pondered two things:

1) Imagine how brilliant these children would be if I actually thought they were using all of this time to study efficiently and

2) How perfectly they will fit into the adult world where this kind of dialogue happens on a routine basis.

The Busy Battle

I like to call these kinds of conversations “busy battles” and the one-upmanship that occurs during them is extremely detrimental to our time management. We all have lots to do. Some of us, admittedly, have more to do than others, but when we make it a point to focus on how little time we have and how busy we are to the point that it becomes a competition, we are only creating an environment that breeds negativity and seeks pity. These of course are not the conditions that lead to motivated and efficient work.

In this recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Laura Vanderkam makes some interesting points on the subject. At times, she seems to insinuate that everyone is exaggerating their busy level, which I do not entirely agree with, but I do agree with her suggestion that we change our language. She writes, “Instead of saying ‘I don’t have time’ try saying ‘It’s not a priority’ and see how that feels.”

Saying that something is ‘not a priority’ shifts the control of our time back to us, not our schedules. In the competitive society we live in, it’s only natural that we’ll get sucked into a busy battle from time to time. Wouldn’t it be cool, however, if that battle were about things we’ve actually accomplished with our time and not simply how many hours we fill with things on a daily basis.

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