Time Management Paralysis

Sometimes, when we have so much to do that we become overwhelmed with all of our impending deadlines, we freeze up and end up accomplishing nothing. This is what I call Time Management Paralysis and it is a huge hurdle to overcome in our Time Diets.

Time Management Paralysis is a problem because it causes our stress level to rise and our productivity level to sink. It isn’t caused by laziness or disorganization. It’s caused by a hectic schedule and a lengthy to-do list where everything seems of equal importance.

This week, I had to overcome a serious case of Time Management Paralysis. I went up to my office, sat down at my computer, looked at my list of tasks…and froze. I didn’t know what to do first. I’m staring down a jam-packed month of seminars, conference presentations, deadlines and projects. Everything I needed to do seemed like a big, daunting task that had to be a priority. When everything is a priority, nothing gets done.

Here is how I regained my productivity.

Four Steps to Fight Time Management Paralysis

1) Calm Down
It may seem simple, but a huge part of Time Management Paralysis is all in your head. If you spend too much time thinking about the huge stack of work you have to do, you psyche yourself out for failure. Don’t let yourself spend precious energy on self-doubt. (Loyal readers know my favorite story about the two cows that illustrates this point.)

2) Write it Down
All of our deadlines and obligations can get tangled up in our heads. Take the time to write down everything that needs to be done, even if it doesn’t seem very organized. Just putting it all down on paper can free up valuable brainpower, allow us to think more clearly, and bring back that feeling of control.

3) Break it Up
When writing down all of your big “Meat” tasks, be sure to break them up into smaller more manageable pieces. For example, I am giving a presentation in Texas next month. When I see “Create San Antonio Presentation” on my list, it sounds difficult and daunting. Instead, I broke that task up into smaller chunks and wrote, “sketch out speech,” “create slides,” “make hand out,” etc…Those smaller tasks are easier to complete and remove the anxiety of tackling something huge.

4) Set Yourself Up to Win
We know our strengths and we know that some tasks are bound to give us more frustration than others. When you are trying to overcome a case of Time Management Paralysis, start off with a task you know you’ll be able to finish. Experiencing some productivity success will give you the momentum to tackle the tasks that are more likely to pose a challenge.

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Photo Credit: David Castillo Dominici

How to Jump Start Your Energy

In order to have excellent time management skills and complete everything on your daily list, you need three things: 1) Time 2) Motivation and 3) Energy. If you’re anything like me, that third ingredient, energy, is sometimes hard to come by.

I’ve been in a real energy drought this week, mainly because I had such a relaxing holiday break that jumping right back into 100% productivity is a shock to the system. It’s felt like trying to go 0 to 60 in a broken down station-wagon.  I certainly don’t have the magic energy solution (or I’d be enjoying early retirement on a beach somewhere in Hawaii) but here are some things that work for me.

1) Fight Boredom
Boredom is one of the worst energy zappers.  If you aren’t interested in what you’re doing, your energy level will plummet. Make boring days more interesting by changing up your routine. Try switching the order you usually complete your tasks. Turn your work space around, or my personal favorite, open a window! Getting a little sunshine is a great change to a dull workspace. This article suggests some other ways to make small changes to find more energy such as taking a different route to work.

2) Drink Water
I can’t function without my morning cup of coffee, but I also can’t function without a few refills on my water bottle throughout the day.  Drinking water keeps you alert and hydrated. When my energy level starts to fade mid-afternoon, a few gulps of ice water is the first thing I try.

3) Move Around
We’ve all heard that exercise gives you energy, and that’s great, but when I’m on a deadline I don’t have the time to hop in my car and go to the gym. Instead, try standing up and walking somewhere briskly, even it is just across the room or around the corner. When I’m trying to knock things out and work in the afternoon, I’ll get up and go to the mail room to check my mailbox, even though I know there is nothing there, just for the energy boost.

4) Fake it!
When I stumble into my car to drive to work at 6am, I’m always amazed at how peppy the announcers on the radio are. Here I am still trying to wake up and they have already been at work for the better part of two hours. Then it occurred to me: when your job depends on having energy at the crack of dawn, you must get pretty good at faking it. Sometimes just pretending to be awake and energetic can be helpful, rather than sulking in your tired state. Pretending may not work all the time,   but wallowing in your lack of energy does nothing for your productivity.

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Photo Credits:
Idea Go
David Castillo Dominici

A Procrastinator’s Holiday

Happy Holidays from The Time Diet!

(sung to the tune of Jingle Bells)

“Dashing through the mall
More gifts are left to buy
My calendar’s so full
It’s bursting at the sides!

So much work to do
So much on my plate
Maybe this will be the year
I don’t procrastinate!


Calendars, To-Do Lists
Planning all the way
Next year I’ll be organized
And that’s the way I’ll stay (Hey!)
Time Killers, Distractions
They won’t bother me
2012 will be the year
Of productivity!”

Wishing you and your family a Happy Holiday and a Joyous New Year!

~Emily Schwartz

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The Slow Day List

During crunch time,  don’t you find yourself saying, “Why in the world didn’t I do this sooner??” That is why using a “Slow Day List” is so important.

We all have days that are busier than others. A Slow Day List is where we keep track of things we can do on less-busy days to help prepare for our stressful ones. During our most hectic times of the year, we’ve all thought to ourselves, “Next time, I’m going to do _______sooner,” but then… we forget.

A Slow Day List is a place to keep track of those things, so next time you have a less-busy day, you can easily remember exactly what to do to get ahead.

Crunch Time

The time between mid-November and mid-December is my “crunch time.” As a music teacher, I have six concerts to get my students ready for. As a student, I have papers to write and reading to finish. As a college teacher, I have assignments to assess and grades to prepare. As a person, I want to squeeze in time to enjoy the holiday season.

During this crazy time of year, I have added many things to my Slow Day List that I can hopefully do next year to ease my stress. I wanted to share some of those with you in the hopes that you too will start your own list!

Emily’s Slow Day List

1) Automate my Grading
I have 44 students in the online class I teach, and I made individual rubrics for each one of because I thought it was easier than figuring out the University’s automatic system…nope! On my next slow day I will figure out how to use the system so my grades are automatically tabulated. It will save me tons of time next year.

2) Make my Concert Programs on the First Day
I know my students save the programs from their first band concert, so I don’t want to leave any one’s name off. However, the small task of making this piece of paper always sneaks up on me and I end up rushing through it. Next time, I’m going to make the program on the first day of the quarter when I first set up my class roster. There is no reason not to!

3) Outline Papers Earlier
It is always easier to write papers from an outline, rather than from a blank screen. I may not want to write my paper too far in advance, since we’re not done covering material, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start sketching out my ideas.

4) Get Decorations Ready Earlier
I don’t need to put up my Christmas tree on Columbus Day, but making time for being festive once Thanksgiving is over is difficult with my other obligations. Next year, I will have my decorations ready to go before the holiday season starts getting busy.

What will you add to your Slow Day List?

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Time Management Leftovers

This week, many of us will surely be eating a ton of Thanksgiving leftovers, but what about your time management leftovers?

The days after Thanksgiving are famous for turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, cold sweet potatoes, the last piece of pumpkin pie, and all of the other food that escaped consumption on Thanksgiving. However, there is always that one leftover that never gets eaten. It ends up in the back of the fridge, alone and forgotten, until we eventually throw it out a few weeks later.

For me, that leftover is mashed potatoes. My family loves mashed potatoes, so we usually make more pounds of it than we could ever possibly eat. Then, we forget about them and end up throwing them away.

Perpetual Leftovers

If we’re not careful, we have this situation with time management too. After we take care of our priorities for the day, there are those few “leftover” tasks that keep getting rolled over onto the next day’s “choose to list.” We usually end up completing most of these leftovers within a few days…except that one task that never seems to make it to the top of our list.

We have two options with this perpetual leftover task.

1)      Decide to make it a priority
2)      Remove it from our list

If the task is important, set a date to add it to the top of your list. If your life is moving along just fine without the task, then why is it on your list to begin with? It’s an unnecessary leftover.

As for my Thanksgiving situation, I am choosing option number two and making far fewer mashed potatoes next year. For my time management leftovers, I’m choosing option number one and finally making my leftovers a priority. What will you decide?

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The ABC’s of Time Management

I frequently hear time management advice that tells us to prioritize our days based on the “ABC” system. A’s are things we have to do, B’s are things we’d like to do and C’s are things it’d be nice to do if we had time left over. I’m sure this system works for some people. Here is why The Time Diet works better for me.

Most of my things end up being A’s! I try not to waste my time doing unessential things, so everything ends up being a “have to do.”

I could easily spend my entire day doing “have to dos” and never have time for anything else. This leaves me stressed out because all of a sudden “everything” has become a priority. It also seems like anything fun or enjoyable in your day will become a “C.” It isn’t fair to ourselves to always place our own enjoyment as a last priority. That’s how we get burned out.

I prefer to think of my day in The Time Diet food groups of Meats, Vegetables and Desserts.

Meats: Thinking-intensive things that are difficult to accomplish

Vegetables:  Less thinking-intensive things that are easier to accomplish

Desserts: Enjoyable things

When planning your day, it’s important to plan a balanced diet of tasks so you balance out your difficult work with easier and more enjoyable things.

In The Time Diet, everything you have to do is “important” otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it! By balancing your work according to difficulty, you’re less likely to become overwhelmed and more likely to finish more work than if you’d simply tried to tackle all of your deadlines at once.

Is prioritizing important? Of course it is! However, trying to prioritize without taking difficulty into account is not being fair to ourselves.

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Photo Credit: Digital Art

Finishing Unwanted Tasks

This week, I had a presentation to prepare for my PhD program that definitely tested my time management. Completing this presentation was both the most important and least appealing thing on my “Choose-To List.” As you know, that is a common and dangerous situation. What do you do when the task you least want to do is the task you most need to do?

Stop Substituting

When faced with a task we don’t want to do, our first inclination is to just do something else instead. I caught myself doing that yesterday. I didn’t want to work on my presentation, so instead I did some grading, cleaned my house, worked on some different homework, and went grocery shopping. All of those things also needed to be completed, however, none were as important as my presentation. I substituted tasks I should be doing with tasks I’d rather be doing. That’s why at the end of the day, I didn’t feel as productive as I could have.

Make it Enjoyable

Sometimes we need to go out of our way to make a dreaded task more enjoyable. You all know about my love of Starbucks. I went out and bought myself a Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino to sip while I’m working on my presentation. Nothing seems quite as terrible when you have a delicious cup of happiness next to you!


The single best way I know to motivate myself to do something it to visualize it being completed. In this case, I visualized myself crawling into bed at night and thinking, “Wow, I don’t have to worry about the presentation anymore! It’s all finished.” It’s not going to become any more appealing to work on, so I might as well just finish it now and be done with it. Half the stress of finishing work comes from worrying about finishing it. I was going to worry about my presentation until it was done. The sooner I finish it, the sooner I can stop worrying about it and my stress level decreases.

This week, take charge of your unwanted tasks.  Visualize them being finished, do everything you can to make them more enjoyable and stop substituting them with other, less important things. Your productivity will thank you.

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Photo Credit: Naypong


Time Management Lessons from College Football

In the fall, the desire to watch college football all day long on Saturday really challenges my time management. Sitting in front of the TV, sporting my jersey and eating hot wings sounds so much more appealing than grading projects for class. However, yesterday I realized that we can actually learn a lot about time management by watching college football.

4 Time Management Lessons on the Football Field

1. Don’t Risk a “Delay of Game”
It may be tempting to wait until the last second to run a play, but if you wait too long, you’ll be charged a 5-yard “delay of game” penalty. With our work, we may have our reasons to procrastinate, but is it worth the risks if our deadline’s “play clock” runs out?

2. Play All Four Quarters
How many games have you watched where the team looks great in either the first or fourth quarter, but ends up losing because they played poorly the rest of the game? The same is true for our work. We need to spread out our energy. Push too hard in the beginning and you’ll burn out. Save it all for the end and it’ll be too little too late. Pace yourself, find your rhythm and ride that momentum in for the win.

3. You Can’t Always Wait for Perfection
If the quarterback doesn’t immediately see an open receiver, he has to quickly make the decision to either run the ball or throw it away, lest he get sacked behind the line of scrimmage waiting for the perfect pass to open up. When we are working, there comes a point when trying for perfection becomes a waste of time. If you consistently miss deadlines for your boss because you were striving for an unattainable level of perfection, you may find yourself being “sacked” as well!

4. Make Time for Motivation
Do you think football coaches spend every single second they have with their team running plays? Of course not. Coaches recognize that their players need inspiration and make team building and motivation part of the locker room experience on game day. Make time for your own motivation. Take time to connect with your “team.” It will make your work time infinitely more enjoyable and productive.

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Picture Credit: Ron Almog

The Productivity Solution Everyone Needs to Try

What is the best way to improve your productivity? We know that it’s important to remove distractions and Time Killers, plan your work in a calendar, stop procrastinating, etc… But what if you are doing all of that already? What next? Solution: Try changing the way you work. I looked for ways to change my work this summer and ended up finding a free program called Zotero that saved me hours of time.

People get stuck in a productivity rut when they get in a habit of doing their work a certain way and never stop to think if there is a better or more efficient way. If you are not constantly re-evaluating how your work processes could be better, you could be wasting loads of time.

Here are three ways to make sure you don’t get stuck in a bad productivity habit:

1) Be Aware of Changing Circumstances:Just because a process worked last year doesn’t mean it’s the most efficient way to do things this year! Circumstances change.

2) Don’t Work in a Vacuum: You don’t have to figure everything out by yourself. Talk to people in your industry. What resources do they use to get work done efficiently?

3) Be Open to New Methods: Sometimes, a better work solution is staring us right in the face but we don’t want to use it because, “That’s not the way we do things.” Be open to new ways of doing things, whether it is a new technology, new process or new idea.

How Changing My Process Saved me Hours

I was guilty of a bad productivity habit for the past year until I used the summer as a chance to re-evaluate the way I do academic work. In my master’s program, I frequently wrote papers and had my process pretty much down to a science. Now, in my PhD program, I also write papers frequently but they are much more research-based than before.

My circumstances had changed, but my process remained the same.

I was having a difficult time managing all of my research sources and citing them correctly in my paper. I asked one of my friends in my doctoral program how she handles it all. (Remember, don’t work in a vacuum!) She said, “Oh my goodness, I don’t do that all by hand! There are programs that manage all your sources for you.”

My first reaction was, “I like to do things by hand. That’s how I do things.” Besides, those programs were probably expensive and difficult to use. Then I realized that wasn’t being open to new methods.

I did a little digging on Google and found a great program called Zotero that is not only free, but easy to use. I no longer have to type all of my sources into my bibliography or try to sort them all by topic on note cards. The program does all of that for me. I have now saved myself hours of formatting work.

This week: I urge you to re-evaluate how you work. Once you open your mind to new ideas and methods, you may find yourself wondering how you ever worked “the old way.”

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(Photo Credit: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=721 by Renjith Krishnan)

What is Parkinson’s Law?

This summer, Parkinson’s Law has had an interesting effect on my time management.

Parkinson’s Law:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Basically, the more time you have available to do something, the longer it’s going to take. Oh so true!

I went into this summer expecting to be very productive, and I was! However, if I take a serious look into how much concrete work I accomplished, it isn’t too much more than what I would have accomplished during the school year. This of course, is because of Parkinson’s Law. I have more time to work in the summer, so the work takes longer.

However, there is something to be said for how much more enjoyable and less stressful my work has been this summer. During the school year, I’m up at 5 to get to school. I try to cram in some work over my lunch break, then squeeze in a few more hours between when school gets out and ASU evening class begins. It’s rather exhausting, but it works.

In the summer, I don’t have to get up that early. I can work much more leisurely. I can take frequent breaks and I also have the flexibility to take a mid-week day off if I need to. Sure, I may not be completing triple the workload that it may seem like I’d be able to, but I’m enjoying my work much more. As long as I’m not flat out wasting time, I’m willing to sacrifice a few productivity hours to make my summer a little more relaxing.

What Counts as Wasting Time?

The key difference between working leisurely and wasting time is your use of Time Killers (or as Lifehack calls them: Cockroaches of Time Management. Ha!) As long as you aren’t getting lost in those little things that waste your time without your permission, there is nothing wrong with choosing to let yourself work a little slower once in a while if your schedule allows it.

Focused work is always better than unfocused work, but staying “focused” doesn’t mean having your nose to the grindstone 24/7. Finding that balance is the ultimate time management secret to success.

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