And The Oscar Goes To…Time Management?

Time Management OscarOh, The Oscars. That yearly tradition when many of us sit down to see our favorite movie stars, then collectively look at our watches around 9:30pm, realize we’re 3 hours into the show, the “good” awards haven’t even started, and we all have to work in the morning. We may groan at the lengthy Oscar telecast, but don’t we all have tasks in our lives that seem to go on far too long? Follow these three tips to keep your lengthy tasks in check.

Give Yourself Deadlines

Many people contribute to the success of a film, and the directors of the Academy Awards know, if given the time, actors will thank each and every one of them. Just like award winners have time limits on their acceptance speeches, you must give yourself deadlines for your tasks.  According to Parkinson’s Law, work expands to fill the time we give it. If you give yourself a week to finish something, it will take a week. If you give yourself a day, it will take a day. There will always be “one more thing” that can be done, just like there will always be one more person to thank, but at some point, it just needs to be finished.

Leave A Buffer

If you plan for everything in your day to go perfectly, well, you’re likely to be disappointed! Sometimes things take longer than they should. Mistakes happen, we hit a wall, we have a technology mishap, etc…Setting your own deadline a few days before the real one creates a valuable “buffer zone” to plan for these things. After all, when Ben Affleck gets snubbed for best director, and then ends up on stage anyway, you just let him talk. As long as he wants to. Make up the time somewhere else.


One of the easiest ways to instantly make your work take longer is to lose your focus. Constantly checking your email, sneaking a peak at Facebook, looking at all the other tasks still waiting on your to-do list –– all these things distract us from our primary objective: finish the task at hand as efficiently as possible. We lose all hope that the Oscars will be anywhere close to three hours when they start showing seemingly un-related musical numbers and the presenters start deviating from the script. Focus, people, focus!

By forcing yourself to focus and get your work done efficiently, you’ll find that some of your most dreaded tasks really don’t take as long as you once  thought. You’ll spend that extra time thanking yourself for having the discipline to stick to your schedule…and of course, thanking The Academy.

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No, You Won’t Just Remember

The Time Diet Writing“I don’t have to write it down, I’ll just remember it.”  We’ve all heard someone repeat this famous line as an excuse for not keeping a calendar or written list of tasks. Sometimes, we need a reminder that no matter how good our memory is, we can always use a little help remembering it all. I definitely got that reminder this week. Check out my story, and the three excuses we tell ourselves to avoid putting pen to paper.

My Mistake

On Saturday, my husband and I hosted our annual holiday party. We had everything in place – appetizers, dinner, dessert – except one thing: a list to keep track of it all. We host a party every year and I never write down a menu, so I didn’t think it was important.

After the last guest went home, and I went up stairs feeling satisfied with our gathering, it hit me. I went to the fridge to be sure, and my suspicion was confirmed. We forgot to put out one of the side dishes. The vegetable salad with the tri-colored peppers my husband had meticulously chopped into tiny pieces sat untouched in its Tupperware.

The anger I felt was perhaps unjustified given the situation, but this was not about the salad. In my Time Diet workshops, I reinforce the importance of writing things down, and here I had not taken my own advice. A simple written menu would have ensured we remembered to put out all the food in the hustle-bustle of hosting a party. I’m reminded of the three reasons to write things down:

1) You always forget just when you “know” you’ll remember

I keep a detailed calendar and pride myself on staying on top of my deadlines. This party was not something I was worried about. It’s six different food items, how hard could it possibly be? I “knew” I’d remember everything, but that is exactly when things started to slip my mind. In the heat of the moment, even the simplest things become easy to forget. It’s important to take a few seconds to write down your tasks so you’re sure you meet your deadlines.

2) Just because it’s worked in the past, doesn’t mean it’ll work forever

Each time you don’t write down a deadline, but manage to remember it anyway, you train yourself that it’s OK. You build a false confidence that you don’t need to write anything down because your memory is excellent. Inevitably, you reach a point where you don’t remember it anymore, and now you haven’t trained yourself to be organized. I had myself convinced that I could throw a party for 50 of our friends without writing anything down. That was silly.

3) Writing things down doesn’t take a ton of time

We have all seen those people who make immaculate to-do lists that look like works of art. We’re convinced that it took longer to make the list than accomplish anything on it and we tell ourselves that list-making is a waste of time and it’s better to just start doing than to waste time organizing. If you set out to waste time making a list, you certainly can, but it doesn’t need to be like that. Organization only takes a few seconds. It doesn’t need to be fancy or elaborate. It just has to be consistent.

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Mind The Gap

When we take a look at our workday, it may seem as though our schedules are packed full. However, if we look closely, there are hidden pockets of untapped time that we let go to waste every day.

These unused moments are hiding in the gaps between our scheduled events. For example, if you have a conference call that ends at 11:30 and a lunch meeting that starts at noon. Or a 20-30 minute break between two classes. Our natural inclination is to look at that gap of time and think to ourselves, “That is too short to get anything major accomplished.”

Instead, we fritter away the time trying to tie up a few loose ends here and there. We may check our email, browse the internet, or make a phone call. We may be busy, but we are really just filling the time before our next big obligation begins and not being terribly productive.

How to Make Use of The Gap

1. Start a Big Task

The longer we put off big Meat tasks in our Time Diet, the more we build these tasks up in our head to take a long time. Pretty soon, we find ourselves saying, “I can’t possibly start that now. I’m going to need the whole afternoon!” Don’t think that you have to complete the whole task in one sitting. The next time you have a small chunk of available time, start a piece of a big Meat task! Even if you only have 20 minutes to devote to the cause, getting a jump start makes the task easier to come back to later.

2. Consult Your List

Keeping a written list of your goals for the day makes filling the gaps in your schedule much easier. If you find yourself with some unexpected down time, immediately consult the list. Transition times from one task to the next are when Time Killers are most likely to steal our attention. Don’t give yourself the opportunity to become distracted and get lost scrolling through Facebook or your inbox for 30 minutes without realizing it. Move swiftly to the next task on your list before your Time Killers have the opportunity to distract you.

3. Take a Break

Filling the gaps in your day doesn’t mean you have to work for every spare minute. If you find yourself with an extra 15-30 minutes between tasks, rather than trying to fill that time with busy work, take a purposeful break! Step outside and get some fresh air. Call a friend or family member to brighten your day. Our lives are so hectic and busy, that it’s easy to say we don’t have time for these Desserts in our Time Diet. Making use of the gaps in your day can help you find time you didn’t realize you had.

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The 26-Hour Workday

When we are faced with a mountain of work, we frequently long for more hours in the day. “If I only had more time!” we cry in despair. We assume that if we simply had more time available to us, it would be far easier to accomplish all of our necessary tasks. Unfortunately, this isn’t always true.

For the last few weeks of the school year, I was counting down the hours until summer. I had so many projects I wanted to start and was thrilled I would soon have 6-8 hours a day to devote to the cause. However, summer is now here, and while I have crossed many things off my to-do list, I can’t say as I’ve been the productivity machine I thought I’d be. I have more time available now, and yet I seem to be accomplishing roughly the same amount each day that I did during the last month of the school year. Why?

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” When presented with more time, it is easier to allow our current work to expand than to actually utilize our extra hours to get more done. Having more time in your schedule only actually helps if you’re able to focus and use that time effectively.

After analyzing my schedule, here are three things I’m going to do to better utilize my summer time:

1) Get up earlier

During the school year, I get up at 5:00am. In the summer, since I have a more flexible schedule, I’ve been getting up at 8:00am. Not only that, but I take twice as long to get ready in the morning since I’m not strictly watching the clock. This all adds up to losing about 4 hours of my precious, energetic morning time that I could spend doing something meaningful; like getting in the workout I swear I “never have time for.”

2) Shrink my to-do list

In anticipation of my summer schedule, I added many more items to my to-do list that I never found time for during the year. However, I didn’t stop to think if those extra items were necessary. I found myself trying to move in ten different directions at once, and then wondering why I was losing my focus. Instead of adding tasks to my to-do list, I should have been looking for ways to add more time to the items already on it!

3) Focus

One of the benefits of my hectic schedule during the school year is that I didn’t have much time for distractions. Now, with a little more time, I find myself out of practice with fending off Time Killers. I have to retrain myself to stop checking my email constantly and picking up the phone every time it rings, even if I’m in the middle of something.

More time doesn’t always mean more accomplishments. Make sure you have a clear focus and aren’t wasting your time with unessential or unimportant tasks before trying to add more hours to your workday.

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Photo Credit: Graur Codrin

Living In The Blur

If you ever work from home, whether it is just a day here and there or whether it is part of your permanent schedule, you know about the blur that occurs.

It happens when you could have sworn you were at your computer, but suddenly you’re doing your second load of laundry. When you realize it’s 10:00pm and you’re still working. When you draw the mailman into a twenty-minute conversation because it’s the only social interaction you’ve had all day.

Working from home requires careful time management skills to keep the blur between work and home life under control.

Many people find working from home to provide greater flexibility in their day, but that flexibility can be a detriment if not managed correctly. When personal tasks and work tasks become too mingled during the day, the work tasks have a tendency of taking over, thus turning your 8-hour work day into a 24-hour one. The following three strategies can help remove the blur from your life and keep work squarely in its place.

1) Designate your Work Space

When your work is spread out over the entire house then you’re never able to escape it. Designate one or two places in your home as “work spaces.” This way, you can feel like you actually leave work when you’re done for the day and won’t be tempted to just work from sun-up to down down. Remember: you work from home; you don’t want to live in your office.

2) Plan Time for Personal Tasks

It can be tempting to let personal tasks distract you when working from home. For example, you could be on your way to the bathroom and see a pile clutter of that needs to be put away, or a dish that needs washing. If you stop to take care of those things, pretty soon, you’re no longer working and instead you’re cleaning your house. This just makes your work day stretch on forever. Designate a separate time during the day to take care of these things so they don’t distract you while you’re working.

3) Make Time for Networking

Working from home can be extremely isolating. Invest some time in finding opportunities to network with other professional in your field. This allows you to find out how other people work and bounce ideas back and forth. You’ll never find better, faster or more efficient ways to do things if you never branch out and observe life outside your home office.

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Photo Credit: Sura Nualpradid

My Productivity Bracket

Have you filled out your bracket yet? Basketball? No. I’m talking about your productivity bracket.

We all know what it feels like to be pulled in a million different directions. When we accomplish work, it didn’t just…”happen.” It beat out many other priorities that day. This bracket is a tribute to the countless  time management battles we all fight each day. What tasks would you add to your bracket?

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Removing the Weight From Your Schedule

Having excellent time management skills requires a feeling of control. As soon as the feeling of control goes away, your stress level increases and you become far less productive. That’s why it’s sometimes better to devote time to the task that’s weighing on you the most, even if it isn’t necessarily the most important thing you have to do at the moment.

For example, I had a big presentation coming up that, for whatever reason, was weighing on me. I found that while I was trying to work on more immediate and pressing things, this presentation was all I could think about.

I’d been having extremely productive workdays, but I didn’t feel productive. I may have been accomplishing important things, but the one thing that was stressing me was still looming.

Even though it wasn’t my most pressing deadline, I needed to devote a little time to this presentation or I was going to continue feeling stressed and not in control of my day.

I finally just dedicated a few hours to sketching out ideas. Seeing my thoughts down on paper gave me so much more confidence in my ability to finish this project. Pretty soon, I had a solid outline of what I planned to talk about, and my stress level had significantly decreased.

My presentation was far from finished, but I now felt I had a handle on it and had a clear mind to devote to other more pressing tasks.

Do you have a looming task that is stressing you out? Carve out a little time to get started now, even if the deadline is far away. Otherwise, the pressure of this impending task will just continue to build and start to interfere with your ability to focus on other things. The best way to remove the stressful weight of a task from your shoulders is to just do it.

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Cutting Your Losses

The more hours of our day we sink into a failing task, the harder it is to admit that we may have made a mistake and move on. We continue to sink more wasted hours into the task in a fruitless attempt to make up for the time we’ve already wasted. The better plan is often to simply cut your losses, change your approach or scrap the task and make the most of the rest of your day.

Our brains don’t naturally work like this. When we have invested precious hours into something, we go into “loss prevention mode” in which we do anything we can to protect our investment. Unfortunately, in an effort to save wasted time, we just end up wasting more time!

It’s Human Nature

Here is an example of this concept using money rather than time from a study detailed in Psychology Today that says a lot about our time management:

In a hypothetical situation, participants were told that they had just invested 9 out of a total 10 million dollars developing a product when a competitor released a better and cheaper version. Knowing they could never compete with this new product, 80 percent of participants still said they would continue to invest the remaining 1 million dollars.

While logic would conclude it is better to lose 9 million dollars than 10 million, our natural instinct tells us to keep spending in vain in an attempt to recoup the lost money.

While this study had to do with money, I’m betting that if the study involved deciding whether or not to devote one more day, week, or month to a failed project, the results would be the same.

You’re Not Giving Up

There is a difference between giving up on yourself and cutting your losses when it comes to time management.

When a plan isn’t working, continuing to throw time at it won’t help. When you hit the pivotal moment in a task where you can either scrap it or keep going, ask yourself:

1) Will circumstances change in the future that will make my approach more likely to work?
2) Can I rework my plan without giving up on it entirely?
3) Is this plan the only way to achieve the results I want?  

If you answered “no” to these questions, then stop throwing more time at a failing task, cut your losses, move on, and try a different approach or a new direction altogether. You’re not “giving up” on yourself, but rather are making a calculated decision to make better use of your time.

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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 Rule of Three

Do you have more than three big things on your plate at any given time? If so, you might be overloading yourself.

This weekend, I stumbled across an article in a parenting magazine that I found surprisingly relevant to time management. (It should be noted that I am not a parent, however, when you’re on an airplane and forget to bring a book, you’re at the mercy of whatever reading material the person before you left in the seat-back pocket.)

The article was about how to make sure your child is engaged in enough activities with out being overloaded with too many things. The author referenced something called “The Rule of Three.”

The Rule of Three comes from the chain of command in the U.S. Marine Corps. Apparently, Marines are given no more than three things to worry about at any given time. There are three people assigned to a fire team with the fourth being their leader. Three teams are assigned to one squad and three squads are assigned to one platoon. The number “3” wasn’t just chosen at random either. The Marines experimented with a “Rule of Four,” and a “Rule of Two,” neither of which was as effective and efficient.

The point of the parenting article was to say that if you have your child involved in more than three activities (including school) you are asking them to keep track of more than a Marine, and that just isn’t fair!

When I read this, I couldn’t help but think that this is good advice for everyone, not just for parents of stressed-out children. Do we have the luxury of being able to limit ourselves to three things at a time? Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Often, if we want to go to school, or have a job, or make time for our families and friends, we will end up with far more than three things to keep track of.

Therefore, I think The Rule of Three applies to focus almost more than involvement. You may be involved with countless responsibilities, but recognize that you’ll have to scale back your focus on some while you increase your involvement in others. This type of balance is what The Time Diet is all about.

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Photo Credit: Teerapun