Beating the February Blues

Well Time Diet readers, we all made it through another February. Is there something intrinsically un-motivating about this month or is it just me? Maybe that’s why it only has 28 days, because making this month any longer would just be cruel and unusual punishment. It’s a weird month. The “magic” of the winter/holiday season has officially worn off. Our excitement about our New Year’s resolutions has faded away and we are just ready for spring to get here and for it to stop being so cold. As a teacher, I really feel it because if there is anything worse than trying to motivate yourself through a slump, it’s trying to motivate a bunch of 10 and 11 year olds who seem to also have a major case of the “February Crankies.”

Finding the Motivation for Time Management

So what are we to do? We can’t reasonably expect ourselves to be 100% motivated all the time, but when we fall into a slump like this, productivity falls off the deep end. We become unfocused and our work seems to take three times longer to complete and that only worsens the situation. Unfocused work can throw your whole Time Diet off!

This is the perfect time to restate your goals. We’ve all heard the quote, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” I believe that a plan without a goal is just as bad. Why are you going to work every day? What are you trying to accomplish? Having a clear-cut goal gives your day direction and keeps you on the right track. It’s not good enough to simply have goals. You have to constantly remind yourself of them. I recommend writing your goals down and posting them in a prominent place so you see them frequently throughout the day.

I revisited my goals this week, wrote them on a piece of paper and posted them on my desk. I wanted to share with you what I wrote on my paper:

Emily’s Goals

1. Be “Dr. Schwartz”

2. Treat each of my students like they are my favorite student

3. Book 20 new Time Diet presentations in the next 12 months.

4. Save enough money to buy our dream home

5. Finish my book

6. Make band the most meaningful part of my students’ education

Writing these all out caused me to reflect on why I do everything that I do. It gave my day purpose and led to the most focused, inspired day of work I’ve had in a long time. A lack of focus is the enemy of time management. Having defined goals is the first step toward regaining that focus.

So what are your goals? Make a public commitment to one of your goals by sharing one either in a comment or on Facebook. I can’t wait to hear what you’re working toward!

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Scheduling Creative Tasks

If you’ve been following your Time Diet, you’ve already become an expert on scheduling a good variety of Meat tasks, Vegetable tasks and Dessert tasks into your day. However, you may have encountered a problem. Sure, it’s easy to schedule tasks that have a finite completion time. If I give myself half an hour to respond to some emails I’ve set aside, I know I can sit down and knock those out in the time allotted. When I sit down to finish my grades for school, I know that as long as I stay focused, I will have them done by the end of the afternoon. But what about those tasks that require more creative thinking?

Sometimes when you sit down to complete a creative task, it goes very quickly because you think of an idea right away. Other times you can spend what seems like hours just figuring out how to start because the ideas just aren’t coming to you. How in the world do you plan for that?

In one of my graduate classes at ASU, we read about a guy named Graham Wallas who explains why “planning” to be creative is such a problem. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are tons of theories out there about how creative thinking works, but this one really spoke to me. Wallas wrote about the 4 steps he believes make up the creative process.

Step 1: Preparation- This is when you gather information about the problem you are trying to solve (or in this case, the creative task you are trying to complete.)
Step 2: Incubation- This is when you step back from your task and allow all the information you’ve collected to sink-in and gel.
Step 3: Illumination- The moment of “illumination” is when a great idea comes to you. It’s that creative spark when a great idea pops into your head.
Step 4: Verification- This last stage is when you take this new idea and do something with it. This is when you test it out and see if it’s an idea worth sticking to.

When I read all this, I thought, “Ah ha! This explains why creativity doesn’t always mesh well with time management!” When we’re planning out our day, we need to take these steps, especially the one about incubation, into consideration. We can’t say, “I’m going to be creative between the hours of 4pm and 5pm today.” It doesn’t work like that! Instead, here are 3 ways you can make creative tasks work with your time management.

3 Strategies for Time Management of Creativity

1) Go do a Vegetable task. Taking your mind off of your creative task for a little while can help ideas come to you. This is that “Incubation” period Wallas talked about.  By doing an (easy) Vegetable task you can still be productive while waiting for inspiration to strike. (One of my fabulous professors says that you can always tell when she’s working on a big creative project because her garden looks amazing. Working in her yard is her “Vegetable” task she does when she’s searching for a creative idea.)

2) Just write something. When trying to come up with a good idea for a creative project, we sometimes get hung up on perfection. We hesitate to write a sentence until we are absolutely sure it is the perfect combination of brilliant words. This not only wastes time but it puts a lot of pressure on ourselves! Got an idea? Write it down! It doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s what revisions are for. Not sure if your creative idea is very good? Who cares! Go with it for a little bit. See where it takes you. Maybe you’ll come up with an even better idea in the process.

3) Set aside a day for creativity. This doesn’t mean you have to sit around the whole day waiting for that magical spark of inspiration, but it just means that you can be slightly less rigid in your planning. For example, instead of planning to be creative during one specific hour of the day, take a look at all the times in your day you could devote to this creative task. If you have time at 10am, 2pm and 6pm, leave yourself a little flexibility as to which of those times you use for your creative work and which you fill with other tasks. This way, you are still able to schedule your time but you don’t have to force that creative spark into a specific time slot.

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Maximizing Empty Time

One of the biggest reasons people start a Time Diet is because they claim to not have enough hours in the day to finish everything they need to do. Of course, there is no magical way to add time to your day, but you can make better use of those scattered extra minutes that would otherwise be wasted. I’m taking about making use of little bits of empty time.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Emily, I don’t have a ton of empty time. If I did, I wouldn’t be so stressed!” I don’t mean to imply that you will all of a sudden find a 3-hour chunk of time in your afternoon that had been sitting there unused. I am talking about when you find yourself ready for work 5 minutes early, or you end up waiting for a bus a few minutes longer than expected, or you’re waiting for your boss to get off of a long phone call so your meeting can start. These little bits of empty time may not seem like much, but in the spirit of The Time Diet, let’s look at it like snacking.

Often times, when people write down everything they eat during the day as part of a diet plan, they are surprised to see how many calories they consume mindlessly between meals. These tiny snacks don’t seem like much – a few chips here, a cracker or two there – but they can quickly add up. The same is true for empty time. Those little extra minutes here and there may not seem like much, but if you add them all up, you may surprised how much time you actually have available to you.

The key is to be prepared for this empty time so you know immediately what to do with it. One of the reasons we waste little bits of empty time is because we don’t have a list of things we could do in a small bit of time like 5 minutes. So, here you go!
Things to Do in Under 5 Minutes

At Work:
1) Start a Vegetable Task: When we have a few extra minutes at work, we are sometimes hesitant to start a task because we think we won’t have time to finish it. Easier “Vegetable” tasks often take less time than you think. Keep a list of easy Vegetable tasks on your choose-to list and knock them out when you have a spare minute. Don’t worry about how long you think it will take. Just put your head down and “start grazing.”
2) Send a thank you note: When was the last time you thanked someone for a job well done? Next time you have a few extra minutes, jot a thank you note to someone you work with and let them know that you appreciate what they do. Gratitude doesn’t take a lot of time but it goes a long way in building positive relationships.
3) Relax: “Not working” is not the same as relaxing. If you are stressed and have a few extra minutes, don’t just putter around. Look away from your computer (even if that means having to walk outside,) close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.  Taking a quick break to just breathe is a “Dessert” we overlook too often.

At Home:
I found this list to be very helpful: 25 Things to Do in 5 Minutes or Less
This blog was written by a mom, but most of the things on this list are applicable to people without kids as well. My favorite one is “put in a load of laundry.” It seems so simple, and yet I never think of laundry as being something I can do in 5 minutes. Laundry is something I usually set aside a whole morning for, but why? I don’t have to do it all at once.

On the road:
Sometimes empty time occurs when we least expect it, like while we are waiting in line for something. To make use of this empty time, you need to be a little more creative.
1) Clean out your car: Arrive early to your destination? Clean out the clutter in your car or take it through the car wash.
2) Carry a notebook: I always carry a small blank notebook around with me so if I find myself with a few minutes to spare, I can sketch out a project or paper for grad school.
3) Run an errand: Did your outing take less time than expected? Run another quick errand on your way home so you don’t have to make a separate trip.
4) Keep a book in your car: It seems like no one has time to read just for fun anymore. Reward yourself with the Dessert of a good book when you’re held up unexpectedly. A book (or even an E-Reader) can be bulky to carry with you but throwing one in your car means you’ll have it more available to you than it would be sitting at home on your night-stand.

Making better use of empty time is not meant to keep you working constantly. Rather, it’s meant to make more efficient use of time you’ve already dedicated to work so you can have more time to enjoy your Desserts later. Enjoy your newly found time!

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The Best Technology for Time Management

In The Time Diet, having an organized way to manage your tasks and deadlines is essential. There are two components to a good system of time management: A choose-to list for daily tasks and a calendar for long term deadlines. (If you are new to The Time Diet, I don’t like to use the word “to-do list.” I prefer to call it a “choose-to list.” Choosing to do something puts YOU in control. Read more about this concept here: The Choose-To List)

Those who have heard me speak know that even though I am far from a tech-phobe, I prefer the pen and paper method for my choose-to list and calendar rather than technology. This is because pen and paper give me more control over how I write things down than any phone app or online program. I can star things, cross things out, draw arrows, circle things etc…without being limited to the constraints of a computer screen. This is especially true for my calendar. I prefer my paper pocket calendar to the calendar on my phone because I can actually see what I have written on every day of the month without having to click through individual days.

That being said, a choose-to list is worthless if people don’t actually carry it with them. If the only way you’ll ever keep your choose-to list or calendar with you is if it integrated with technology, then you need to make sure you are using the best software out there.

Here are 5 popular time management apps or programs that allow you to keep your list and calendar for your Time Diet synced with the technology of your choice.

Time Management App and Program Review

1) Evernote This is an extremely popular app that you can use on both your computer and your phone. It does not have a calendar, so it can’t really stand alone as your only method of time management, but what makes Evernote stand out is its ability to capture pretty much anything you’d want to keep track of. Is “make dinner” on your choose-to list? Add the link to the recipe and your shopping list to that task. Evernote allows you to categorize photos, web pages, notes, voice memos…pretty much anything you can think of. Because of its flexibility, Evernote can be a great enhancement to your time management system. Check it out here: Evernote

2) Remember The Milk In addition to its adorably quirky name, Remember The Milk is a really cool application. You can access it online or on your phone. Lists are extremely easy to manage and the interface is fairly intuitive. Remember The Milk syncs easily with other applications you may already be using such as Gmail, Google Calendar and iCal so it doesn’t really need to feel like a “new” application, but rather a helpful add on to things you already know. One of my favorite features is that it can alert you of deadlines via text message, email or instant messenger- whichever works best for you. Like most time management software, you are limited with how your tasks actually look when you enter them. You can change the priority of a task, but this just adds a different color exclamation mark next to it. Overall, it is a very helpful and easy to use product and great for your Time Diet. Check it out here: Remember The Milk

3) Astrid This is a time management app for the Android platform. The interface is a little cumbersome, but adding a task is extremely easy. You just start typing! Astrid also syncs with the Android calendar so if you are already using the calendar feature, Astrid is a great app to complete your time management system. The interface has three basic screens: Summary (what the task is) Dates (when the task is due) and Alerts (when you want to be reminded of the task.) Astrid advertises that it also syncs with RTM (Remember The Milk) but in my opinion, if you’re already using RTM, Astrid is superfluous. Astrid is a great tool if you wish to keep both components of your time management system on your android phone. Check it out here: Astrid

4) Google Calendar Yes, I know it seems that Google is slowly taking over the world, but their Calendar feature is really great, especially if you want to share your calendar with others. You can use the “task” feature for your choose-to list and sync your work calendar, personal calendar and spouse’s calendar all in one place. I like that the whole calendar is visible in a “month view” and you can see what tasks fall on which day without having to click through individual days. You can also set up email reminders for upcoming deadlines. Google Calendar is free and works great on my laptop, but doesn’t show up very well on my Android Phone. Check it out here: Google Calendar

5) OmniFocus The program, available for Mac products, is usefully for everyone from business professionals managing multiple projects to college students who just want a simple way to keep track of all their homework deadlines and their book list for each semester. It is a bit expensive (40 dollars for the iPad version) but many of the people who use it swear by it. The interface is extremely sleek and easy to use and you can sort your lists by priority or deadline (or by Meats, Vegetables and Desserts if you are properly following your Time Diet!) My favorite feature is the “forecast” screen, which shows you all your deadlines for the next few days. For me, the steep price tag is not worth it, but if you’re a Mac person and the free-ware just isn’t working for you, this is the way to go. Check it out here: OmniFocus

Have any of these products worked for you? Leave a comment and let me know!

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