The Power of 5 More Minutes

Big tasks can really suck. Thinking about them, finding the motivation to start them, finding the time to finish them, all of it. But I found a not-so-secret way of dealing with them while running over the past few months.

I know what you’re thinking. “Really Emily? Another blog that has to do with running?” Let me remind you- I’m the least athletic person you know, So any principle, any advice, any system that makes me want to go outside and do semi-strenuous physical activity should, in theory, make you do whatever it is you’ve been putting off as well. So you’re welcome if you read this blog and then go on to invent time travel, or whatever your big goal is.

Going the Distance

Lately I’ve been trying to run longer distances, and turns out, it’s really hard. Here’s the thing though, it WASN’T hard in the beginning. My regular running routine was to run for 30 minutes and then stop. One day I thought, “Hm….could I do 35 minutes instead?” Then when that became my new norm I pushed myself 5 more minutes, and when THAT became the new norm I upped it 5 MORE minutes. Over the course of a few months I was capable of running 60 minutes- one whole hour- at a time.

But that, unfortunately, isn’t the end of the story because a funny thing happened when I started to run for an hour at a time semi-regularly: an hour started feeling like the absolute longest thing in the world. While you’d think it would be getting easier, it felt like it was getting harder.

A Mental Game

I started to look down at my watch, see that only 10 minutes had passed, and second-guess myself. “50 more minutes?! I can’t do that! How can I possibly do that?!” My legs seemed to take a cue from my brain and became tired. Not because they actually WERE tired, but because I was convincing myself that they should be. This hobby was quickly becoming un-enjoyable and I needed a new plan.

How do I harness that excitement from a few months ago when I was working up toward a goal? I wasn’t tired then, I was anxious to see if I could push through to a new milestone. I needed to bring back that thrill of “just 5 more minutes!”

5 More Minutes

….so I did. Here was the new plan: every time I went out running I had to start with 30 minutes and from there, all I had to do was commit to 5 more minutes at a time. At each 5 minute internal I gave myself full permission to stop if I couldn’t keep going and would not consider it a failure. This was a mental game for sure, but one that I knew would make running enjoyable again.

It worked! Inevitably, during the first 30 minutes I think “ok, I’m going to stop at 30. That’ll be it. I’ll be too tired, it’s fine” and once in a while I do stop, but most often I keep going. Sometimes I make it to 45, sometimes 50, sometimes 60, but when I do reach those longer distances I do it without the sense of dread I was feeling before.

Using It In Our Work Lives

So how does this apply to our Time Diet productivity in our work lives? Remember, everything we do is either a Meat (difficult) Vegetable (easy) or Dessert (fun.) If you’re putting off a giant Meat task that’s been on your to-do list for a while, maybe you wrote down something too big.

Step 1: Break up larger Meat tasks

We put up a mental block when we stare at a big task. Even though we KNOW the little steps that make up a big project, it’s really hard to see them through the enormity of the finished product. Don’t forget to break up your Meat tasks into smaller chunks. Yes, it makes for a longer to-do list but you’re much more likely to actually start a big task when you can easily see the smaller components you need to do. These smaller components are like the “5 more minute” chunks I started running.

Step 2: Give yourself permission to stop

When you’re in the middle of a big task, give yourself permission to step away. “Step away time” not only leads to less frustration, but if it’s a creative project, you may even find you get your best ideas when you’re not staring at a blank screen trying to think of them. An important note to remember, however, is that you lose the freedom of step away time when you choose to procrastinate. In the beginning, you have total control over when you start a project, but as the deadline gets closer and closer you have less and less control over your work timeline.

Step 3: Give yourself permission to keep going

Likewise, if you’re really “in the zone” of a task, give yourself permission to keep going, even if it wasn’t planned in your schedule. When you’re in a beautiful state of flow on a project, it can be really hard to get back into it a few days later so if you’re feeling the creative juices flow, run with it. You never know when you’ll get that motivation back.

As for me, I think I’m going to stick with this new running plan for now. I really want to sign up for a half marathon in December, but I have to figure out a different chunking strategy before then. If you’re curious if I’ve personally found benefit in applying this mentality to other things, the answer is “yes” I definitely have. I’ve been knee-deep in presentation design recently and if you’ve ever stared at a one paragraph description of an amazing training you promised to give….and then looked back at your blank PowerPoint slides you know the feeling I’ve been up against. But the “5 more minutes” strategy has really helped push me through, by breaking up the work into tiny bite sized tasks and tackling them systematically.

Has it ever worked for you? Let me know!

For speaking engagements or public speaking coaching, contact Emily@TheTimeDiet.org

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The One Thing That Makes You Jump Out of Bed Early

Time management snooze buttonIn my time management coaching, one of the most frequent complaints I hear is, “I just can’t seem to get up in the morning!” Hitting the snooze button 15 times can make us late to work, skip breakfast, and stress us out before our day even starts. It would be easy to get up earlier…if sleep weren’t so darn enjoyable. That’s why I had to find something else to motivate me to jump out of bed at the first alarm. Here is what I did…

I’ve had my eye on a Keurig coffee maker for the better part of two years, but I just couldn’t justify the expense of the daily coffee pods when I can already make good coffee for pennies a day. However, my husband got one for me last month and I have to tell you, my mornings have never been the same.

Excuses

When my alarm went off, I used to sit in bed thinking of which excuse I could use to rationalize hitting the snooze button a few more times. Now when my alarm goes off, I sit in bed thinking which flavor of delicious coffee I’m going to go downstairs and make. It’s an extra motivator to get out of bed and start my day.

What makes you happy in the morning? Is it a run? A special breakfast? A few minutes of quiet time reading the news? It’s no wonder we don’t want to get out of bed when the only thing awaiting us is some sort of work. Scheduling something enjoyable into your morning gives you motivation to get out of bed and starts your day off on a happy note.

I’m not going to pretend that the thought of a delicious cup of coffee makes waking up early instantly enjoyable, but if you can give yourself a little extra motivation to start your day earlier, why not take advantage of it?

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How to Wake Up Earlier

Time management morningWhat would YOU do with an extra hour in the day? Would you exercise? Spend it with family? Clean that room you’ve been meaning to get to? One of the easiest places to find more time in your day is in the morning. Unfortunately, we aren’t all chipper morning people who easily bound out of bed at 5am, ready to start the day.  Try these three tips to start your morning before the sun does:

1. Schedule a morning appointment

Getting up early is easier to do when you’re accountable to someone else. Try joining a networking group, exercise class, or book club that meets early in the morning. When I chose a Toastmasters club last spring, I almost opted for the 11:30 lunch break meeting, but instead chose a club that met at 6:30 in the morning. Not only does this force me out of bed earlier, but it leaves my afternoon hours free for other things!

2. Look forward to breakfast

Aren’t you much more eager to get out of bed when you know that a gourmet cup of coffee and delicious omelet are in your immediate future? A luxurious breakfast need not take a lot of time. Take a few minutes before bed and cut up some veggies and chicken to throw into a pan with some eggs in the morning. Or just spend the extra few bucks and spring for the “good” cereal or coffee. Having a delicious breakfast to look forward to can provide an extra boost of morning motivation.

3. Lay off the Snooze Button

Set your alarm clock for the time you “no really” want to be up. Setting it earlier and allowing yourself to hit the snooze button 4 times will just decrease the amount of restful sleep you get and allow yourself to linger in bed for longer than you planned.

Like most things in your schedule, getting up early only becomes part of your routine when you do it regularly and form a habit. Don’t be discouraged if it’s difficult the first week or two. Just stick with it, and enjoy the new-found time in your day!

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Photo credit: Freedigitalphotos.net

Schedule Your “When”

Time Management Start NowOften when we say we “haven’t gotten around to” something, what we really mean is that we haven’t committed to a deadline and tried. When a boss or supervisor is checking up on us, we’re forced to finish our tasks, but when we are only accountable to ourselves, we can sometimes allow too much leeway. This is why creating a deadline and making a commitment are half the battle. Make this the week that you schedule your “when.”

“When” before “How”

When our schedules are already bursting, we don’t like to add more things to them. It doesn’t seem like we’re able to fit anything else into our day, so we wait. We put off tasks that are important to us at the expense of tasks that we owe to other people. It’s difficult to figure out how you’ll find time to do something if you don’t first set a goal of when. Once the when is established, the how comes much more easily.

My Deadline

As part of my doctoral degree, I have to take three written exams. There is no set date these are offered. Students are supposed to schedule them whenever they feel “ready.” I have been waiting for the day when I wake up and feel “ready” to regurgitate all of the knowledge I’ve acquired in the past three years, and that day has yet to come. My days are full as they are and I don’t have large blocks of time at my disposal to study for these exams. This week, I realized the only way I’ll ever finish these tests is if I just schedule them.

The last week of January, I will be taking my first doctoral written exam. My “when” has been established. Over the next month and a half, I’m going to figure out the “how.”

Schedule Your When

Have you been putting off something that’s important to you or that you know needs to be done? What are you waiting for? Take out your calendar, pick a day, and make a commitment. Putting it in your calendar makes it real and forces you to start constructing a plan. Until you add it to your schedule, your task is just an idea. Turn your idea into an obligation.

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Photo Credit: Free Digital Photos.net

Why, Hello Motivation!

Have you ever been suddenly motivated to complete a task that isn’t on the top of your priority list for the day? In a perfect world, we’d always be motivated to complete the most pressing task of the moment, but we know that’s hardly ever the case. We are all well-versed in the process of trying to dig up motivation to start a dreaded task, but what happens when we suddenly find that motivation at the wrong time?

My Sudden Motivation

I hate cleaning. I know I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who truly loves the chore, but I feel as though I have a particularly difficult time motivating myself to throw out my useless clutter. You can imagine my shock when I woke up this morning thinking, “I really want to clean out the garage today.”

Here is my problem: cleaning the garage was not terribly high on the priority list. I have a few big projects to wrap up before Thanksgiving weekend and I had a productive day planned to make progress on all of them. As I sat down to work though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should really pounce on my sudden motivation to organize.

Do I choose the more “important” task that I have no problem motivating myself to do, or the less important task that I usually dread?

After careful contemplation, I chose the latter.

The Right Decision

For three hours this afternoon, I sorted, threw away, cleaned, stacked, shredded, etc… I was definitely on a roll. As the third hour came to a close, a sudden feeling of frustration came over me. “I kind of hate this,” I said out loud. As quickly as it had come, my motivation was now gone. It was at that moment I realized I had made the right decision for the day.

Finding an extra hour or two over the next few days to squeeze in a little more work would be easy. Waiting for cleaning motivation to strike again could be endless. With just a few short hours of work, I could now walk into my garage without bumping into things. If I hadn’t been motivated, that could have easily taken the whole day.

Your Turn

Sometimes it’s best to do the task you are most motivated to do. You work most efficiently when you’re motivated and motivation is hard to conjure up. Notice I didn’t say it’s always best to make this decision. If I had a huge deadline coming up tomorrow, my cleaning crusade would have had to wait. Will you choose motivation or importance this week? Can you find a balance?

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Training Your Eye to See Progress

When we sit down to work, we feel most productive when the task in front of us gets smaller. We thrive on the satisfaction of watching it shrink. But what happens when the task seems to get bigger as we work? This can be a huge de-motivator in our time management if we don’t make a few easy alterations to our expectations.

Changing Your Expectations

These types of expectations aren’t just reserved for working. I discovered a similar scenario when pulling into my driveway yesterday. In Arizona, you need two types of grass on your lawn during the year: summer and winter. The summer grass can withstand the triple digit temperatures, but won’t do well in the winter. When I came home yesterday, I noticed that my front yard was a disaster. All of the grass was brown and it looked like the gardeners were tearing it up. My whole community looked like a barren dust bowl.

To an outsider, it would look like we had a gardening nightmare on our hands. But a trained eye knows better. A trained eye, who has lived in a desert climate, knows that this is a sign of progress. You must let the summer grass go dormant before you over-seed for winter, even though the process might look a little ugly.

Training Your Eye

A trained eye knows what progress looks like, even if the initial stages of progress look a little…messy. Once you’ve completed a big task a few times, you’ll start to recognize what the early signs of progress look like. To an untrained observer, it may look like a messy disaster, but you’ll know differently. You’ll know that sometimes tasks need to look bigger before they can look smaller and that if done correctly, it’s all part of the process.

Patience

This of course takes patience. Sometimes we get frustrated that a task doesn’t appear to be going away and we’ll try to rush the process. Imagine if my community gardeners didn’t get the summer grass out of the way before putting the winter grass down. Initially it might seem that everyone’s lawns look neater, but we’ll be stuck with brown piles of straw when winter hits. Don’t skip steps when completing your big tasks in an effort to make them look “done” faster.

Know that progress doesn’t always look like we think it should and sometimes tasks must seem bigger before they can get smaller and eventually be completed.

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Stop Setting Yourself Up To Fail

“I’m just not that good at time management.” “I’m not an organized person.” “I’m a born procrastinator.”

These are some of the things I’ve heard people say to account for missed deadlines or a lack of productivity. However, when we attribute our productivity failures to a seemingly unchangeable personal trait, we don’t leave ourselves much opportunity or hope for improvement.

In order to change our productivity trajectory, we must first realize that we have the ability to change it. Otherwise, all of the time management advice in the world doesn’t stand a chance of helping.

Analyze Your Effort

During my time teaching elementary school music, one of my students was almost pulled from my program due to failing math grades. I took him aside and said, “What’s the deal? I know you are a smart and motivated student, but your math teacher tells me you don’t put forth any effort on your math homework.” He replied, “Mrs. Schwartz. I’m bad at math. Why in the world would I waste my time trying when I know I’m bad at something?”

He was stuck in a perpetual cycle. He said he was bad at math, so he put forth little effort…which in turn, made him continue to get worse!

When we label ourselves a “bad time manager” we can’t help but try less. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, and everyone will not be equally stellar at all tasks, but we must take an honest look at whether or not we mask a lack of effort with a label of failure. Instead of saying “I’m bad at time management” tweak your thinking to be, “Time management doesn’t come as easily to me, so I’m going to have to try harder than most to meet my deadlines.”

Change Your Strategy

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Few people would disagree with that famous quote, yet we often let ourselves get trapped in a perpetual cycle of failure anyway. If you’ve tried to manage your time with the same calendar, the same to-do list, and the same strategies for years and they aren’t working, then you’re long over due for a change! Some methods work better for different people. Perhaps the reason you haven’t found time management success is because you’re struggling to use a method that just doesn’t work for you. Try changing your approach instead of instantly labeling yourself a productivity failure.

Stop the Comparison

The quickest way to get stuck in a motivational rut is to compare yourself to others. Having role models is important, but there is a difference between a constructive admiration of someone’s ability, and a constant comparison of yourself to everyone around you. This leads to only seeing the good in others and only seeing the bad in ourselves.

We might beat ourselves up over the fact that our colleague always finishes projects three times faster than we do, or that a friend finds time to be involved in countless hobbies while we struggle to maintain one or two. What we might overlook is that same colleague may never spend time with her family or that friend may be cracking under the stress of all his obligations.

Don’t strive to be better at managing your obligations than others. Strive to be the best time manager you need to be to accomplish your goals.

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Shifting Gears from Plan to Do

Careful planners are often good time managers. They look before they leap, they aim before they fire, and they research before they implement. However, good ideas can easily stall out in the planning phase if we don’t eventually change gears into implementation. Knowing when to stop planning and start implementing is a key component of efficient time management. Don’t let these three factors hold you back.

3 Things That Slow Down Implementation

1. Fear of the Unknown

When we are trying something new, our lack of knowledge on the subject can be paralyzing. We may know so little about a new process or project, that we might not even know what we don’t know. In other words, finding out what questions to ask might be even more difficult than finding the answers to those questions. In this case, it’s important to set a goal for your background research so you don’t lose hours of productivity in unrelated Google searches. Set a goal of finding 5 essential questions you need answered in order to begin your task. Then, once you find the answers to those questions, move to implementation. When we know nothing it’s tempting to try to learn everything before beginning something new. However, much of the new knowledge you’ll acquire comes from the implementation process itself.

2. Fear of Failure

Sometimes when we get stuck in the planning phase, it’s because we are afraid of failing. The planning stage is safe. We feel productive without actually implementing anything. The “doing” is much scarier. I could sit here and recite oft-quoted, cliché advice about “failing forward” or how “the toughest journeys begin with one step” or how many times Thomas Edison failed before inventing the light bulb…but you’ve heard that all before. For me, I try to just embrace the fear rather than avoid it. Convert the fear to adrenaline. I’ve never parachuted out of an airplane before, but I would imagine that if people are afraid of jumping when they get into the plane, they are probably still afraid when they are about to take that first, big looooong step out of it. Do you trust your training, instructors and parachute and jump anyway? Or let the fear hold you back. (Parachutes…overcoming fear…oh goodness. I’m starting to sound like a motivational speaker)

3. Lack of Confidence

The final thing that leaves us stuck in the planning stages is our own lack confidence in our ability to complete the task. This is where I’m supposed to tell you that you can do anything if you just believe in yourself. Here is the thing: if you’ve done all your research, planned as much as you can and embraced the fear of starting something new, you now have three options:

1. Implement

2. Delegate

3. Abandon

Nobody really likes to talk about number 3 because it sounds like giving up. However, if after researching a new project, you come to the conclusion that your skill set is better suited for a different kind of task…then find that new task! Not all ideas are good ones and not all people will be successful at all things. The more time you waste on a project you’re never going to finish, the less time you can devote to pursing a task that is much more suited to your goals, abilities, and desires.

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Photo Credit: Flickr

Which to Sacrifice? Time or Money?

Your time is your most valuable resource you have. It is your own “productivity currency” of which you only have a limited supply and must ration carefully. However, sometimes we are faced with situations in which we must quite literally put a dollar amount on what our time is worth. If we always sacrifice money to save time, we’ll end up broke. If we always sacrifice time to save money, we’ll end up not accomplishing our goals. Finding the balance is key.

 My Dilemma

This year, when I went to renew my parking pass for ASU, I was faced with two options:

1. Purchase a cheap pass for a couple hundred bucks in a remote lot and take the free tram to campus.

2. Pay an additional $600 for a pass in the lot right outside my office.

My Solution?

My gut reaction? Buy the expensive pass. I had the luxury of having that money in savings already, and I felt that my time was too valuable to spend sitting on a tram every day. I wanted the convenience of being able to waltz right from my car into the building at any time of day.

Then I stopped to weigh the value of the pass versus the convenience of the pass in terms of “dollars per hour.”

Dollars Per Hour

I actually only needed the pass about three days a week. The tram takes about 15 minutes each way. I calculated that if I didn’t buy the expensive pass, I’d be saving $12.50 for every hour I spent on the tram. Now I had a decision to make:

If someone approached me on the street and said, “Hey, I have a part time job for you. It only requires 90 minutes a week, and I’ll pay you $12.50 an hour. All you have to do is sit in an air conditioned space and do nothing” I’d have a hard time saying no.

I ended up buying the cheap pass. I now appreciate the mandatory “break” I get in my day while being shuttled from place to place. I can even use the time to check my email or flip through the newspaper.

By looking at the situation in terms of dollars per hour, I was able to weigh convenience, time, and money to come to a rational decision. How much is your time worth?

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Free Arizona Event!

Check out The Time Diet at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe AZ, on Monday, September 10th at 7:00pm for the free program, “Time Management for Student Survival” Pick up your copy of The Time Diet: Time Management for College Survival, on sale now at Changing Hands and Amazon.com

Photo Credit: Phaitoon, Emily Schwartz

The Smallest Tasks Make a Big Difference

It’s easy to put off small tasks. Sometimes we put them off until “later.” Other times we put them off so long that we just convince ourselves they aren’t important and forget about them all together. However, sometimes it’s the smallest tasks that end up making the biggest difference.

Below is an excerpt from a story in my new book, Life in Cut Time: Time Management for Music Teachers. Even if you’ve never taught music, or taken a music class in your life, you can surely appreciate the value of making time to take care of tiny little tasks that end up making a big difference to others.

Available on Amazon.com

If it Takes Less Than 5 Minutes, Do it Now!

Brandon was the kind of student who made teachers cringe when they saw him on their rosters. This student had been a menace to the school since his early days of kindergarten.

I tried everything with this student. I met with his parents and his classroom teacher. I had behavior plans and incentive charts. Nothing worked and my time and energy were quickly draining. At the end of the first semester, after I started to receive complaints from other parents that Brandon was inhibiting their child’s ability to participate, I had to have a heart-to-heart with Brandon’s mom about dropping her son from band.

After a lengthy conversation, we agreed to give him one last chance. This was against my better judgment, but I just couldn’t say no to this parent who was obviously also at her wits’ end.

A few weeks into the new semester, Brandon actually had a semi-good day. He came into class without causing a disruption, got out his trumpet, played along the whole time, and even volunteered to answer a question. I was shocked! I praised him over and over for his improved behavior, but he seemed unfazed.

As I wrapped up my work at the end of the day, I wondered if the day’s experience had been a fluke. I considered calling Brandon’s mom to tell her about the positive change I witnessed, but when I saw the lengthy to-do list on my desk, I realized I didn’t have time for another half-hour talk with her. I left school without giving it another thought.

When I got home that night, after stepping away from the situation for a bit, I realized I was being ridiculous. I had all of my band parents’ emails in my address book. It would take less than a minute to drop Brandon’s mom a quick email telling her about his progress. I signed into my account from home and pecked out a few sentences.

Dear Sheila,

I wanted to let you know that I saw a complete 180-degree shift in Brandon’s behavior in band today. I knew there was a motivated student in there somewhere and he definitely let that side of him show today. Thank you for working with him. If this behavior continues, I am confident he will find great success with band in the future.

There. Done. Less than 100 words and 1 minute of my time.

When I got to school the next morning, I was greeted with a tearful voicemail from Brandon’s mom.

Mrs. Schwartz, you have no idea how much your email made an impact on my son and our family. I am so afraid to read letters from the school because they are always bad. I have never had a teacher take the time to tell me that my son actually did something good or would ever be successful in anything. When I shared your email with Brandon, he flashed a smile from ear to ear. Thank you. As a mother, that is the best thing I can ever hope for.

She also left the same message for my principal who promptly called me into her office and thanked me for making such a positive impact at the school.

That day marked the end of my problems with Brandon. From that point on, he was the model band student. I could not have been happier. Sure, he still had his moments of inattention or defiance, but nothing more than I would expect from any 10-year-old.

That short email – the one that took less than 1 minute of my time and I almost decided I was “too busy” to send – ended up providing one of the best teaching moments of the year.

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Photo Credit: Zirconicusso