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.


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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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

3 Reasons My New Puppy is Terrible at Time Management

This past week, we were adopted by a puppy named Molly, (who many of you saw on Facebook.) As with tiny humans, tiny dogs consume a good deal of your time and energy. In the past seven days, I have discovered that the new addition to our family is terrible at time management. I tried to explain to her that since her mommy is a time management speaker, this behavior would have to change immediately, but so far I’ve only received tail-wags and face-licks in response. I take this to mean she is deeply considering my suggestions. Allow me to explain what I’ve observed…

3 Reasons Molly is Terrible at Time Management

1) She is Easily Distracted

Molly was not potty trained, so I have taken on that endeavor this week. She goes outside with one mission: pee on the grass. When we leave the house, she is goal-oriented and focused. She prances proudly to the side yard, with purpose and determination. Then the neighbor’s dog barks…and she sees a leaf on the ground…and a bird flies by. Pretty soon, all sense of her original goal is gone and I’m left to stand outside for 20 minutes in the hot Arizona sun.  When we allow ourselves to be distracted, moving haphazardly from one task to the next, our work takes longer. We must approach our tasks with laser-like focus, tuning out distractions until we are finished. Short bursts of focused work are more effective than long stretches of unfocused work.

2) She Doesn’t Plan Ahead

Molly refuses to eat when I put her bowl down at dinnertime, but then whines during the night when she’s hungry. I tried to calmly explain to her that 6pm is dinnertime and 10pm is sleeping time, but sadly, they don’t seem to make calendars for puppies. We are all guilty of putting off tasks we don’t want to do. We become very skilled at rationalizing our procrastination, but that only worsens the problem. Don’t let yourself continually put off tasks, and then whine when you’re stressed right before the deadline.

3) She Panics in New Situations

The first night I put Molly in her crate, you’d think I had put her in mortal danger. She flailed about, barking and crying for hours. Her circumstance was clearly not changing any time soon, but she continued to expend her energy complaining about it. This blatant waste of energy upsets me. When we’re faced with new situations, or a sudden change of circumstance, we must keep calm and adapt quickly.  To do anything else is a waste of our time. We are the most productive when we can keep a cool head in stressful situations.

Molly will get better at all of these things because she has humans training her, however, we will only get better at time management if we train ourselves to form good habits.

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The Big Picture Plan

A huge part of having good time management skills is getting things done in an efficient manner, however, it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day planning and lose sight of your overarching goals. Having a big picture plan can help refine your focus and give you the peace of mind that you are on track.

This week I started to get antsy. I’m juggling multiple projects right now and I was starting to feel increasingly worried that I didn’t have a handle on how everything was going to be finished. I was being productive each day, but my days felt disjointed and haphazard. (Sound familiar?)

I knew I needed a clear, big picture plan. I sat down with a calendar and mapped out which projects I was going to be focused on each week. I sketched out my plan all the way through August. Now, I must say, I feel far less anxious about my workload.

Rules for a Big Picture Plan

1) Use a New Sheet of Paper

Your big picture plan can’t be on the same calendar you use to keep track of normal deadlines. That is far too cluttered.

2) Don’t Write Down Every Single Obligation

The purpose of the big picture plan is to show you broad projects to focus on. This is not the place to script out exactly which hours you’ll devote to which project.

3) Try to Pick 1-2 Focus Tasks

No doubt you will still need to juggle multiple tasks at once, but choosing one or two tasks that will be your priority during a set time period really helps to rein in your focus. This doesn’t mean you can’t work on other things. It just means you’ll know what your priorities are.

Here is an example of the tasks I put in my big picture plan for May.

May 1st-5th: Prep Time Diet Workshop

May 6th-14th: School concerts

May 15th– 25th: Record online class videos

May 26th-31st: Work on summer class

What tasks will you add to your big picture plan?

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Technorati Keywords Time Management, Efficiency,

Photo Credit: Chanpipat

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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How to Get Ahead

A slow workday is a great time to try to get ahead with your time management in hopes of easing the burden of your busy times. “Getting ahead” can mean doing things like organizing, planning, creating new systems and getting a jump on important Meat and Vegetable tasks. Think back to your most stressful weeks at work or school:
What were the tasks that took a majority of that time?
Is there anything you can do now that will make those tasks easier later?

I asked myself those questions this week.

I am a teacher and just finished the first week of school. I know that if I don’t start the year organized, I will never be able to catch up once the semester gets rolling. My husband works in travel and he knows that once the busy travel season hits, he’ll be knee-deep in work. We brainstormed some ways that we can use our slower times to ease the stress of our busy times. This is what we came up with:

Finishing Vegetable Tasks Early

This semester I am teaching an online class. I know that once the class starts, I will be spending a majority of my time grading and answering questions. To help ease that stress, I did as many of the organizational “Vegetable” tasks this class will require in advance so I won’t have to worry about them later. This included setting up all of my contact sheets, grading rubrics and supplemental materials. Now I won’t have to worry about all of that mid-semester!

Delegating to Technology

My husband works in travel. Each account his office processes has numerous deadlines to keep track of- deadlines for air, deadlines for hotels, deadlines for visas, etc…When many groups are traveling at once during the busy season, it can be a lot to keep track of by hand. That’s why this week, in their slower time, they set up a program that automatically calculates all of these deadlines and sets up reminders based on the expected travel date. They wouldn’t have had time to set this up during the busy season, but now their work will be much easier!

Organizing Differently

A large part of my time as a band teacher is taken up with keeping track of which students have their music and instrument on a given day and finding materials for them to use when they forget. There is nothing more frustrating than just beginning a rehearsal only to have to stop when a student walks in without his music. To fix this, I used my slow time to set up a binder for each instrument with a set of music for students to use when they forget. This binder also includes a piece of paper for them to sign their name when they need to use it. Now I don’t have to worry about stopping to mark down who forgot their materials. The students do that for me!

What things can YOU do early that help you in your busy times? Leave your idea as a comment! Maybe it will inspire someone else to do it too.

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Photo Credit: Michael Marcol

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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Technorati Tags: Time Management, Productivity,

(Photo Credit: by Renjith Krishnan)

Stop Being Busy

One of the single biggest time management mistakes people make is to confuse being busy with being productive. When you are busy, all you are doing is filling time. You are working, so it gives the temporary illusion that you are getting something done, but you’re not.  If you want to actually make progress on a goal you have to be productive.

(Check out my video about being busy and productive Here)

When school let out last week, several of my colleagues asked me how I planned to keep busy this summer. I don’t plan to “keep busy” this summer. I plan to be productive.

This summer, I have many goals but my biggest one is to prepare my book for publication. My manuscript is finished but as I’m quickly finding out, writing the book is one of the easier parts of the publishing process! I’ve decided that the only way I’m going to finish this summer is to find time every day to devote to the book. I could spend this time reformatting all of my headings and playing with the cover font. I am technically “working” on the book, but I’m only being busy. I’m not taking concrete steps to move toward my goal. Sure, the cover font needs to be dealt with at some point, but the more pressing issue is finding an editor and researching publishing outlets. If I want to be productive on my book right now, I need to work toward those goals. (On that note, if you know of a trusted editor, let me know!)

Busy is Easy, Productive is Hard

The problem we have is that being busy is easy. Being productive is hard.   Here are three simple steps to make sure your work sessions are productive:

1)      Have a Goal- Without a goal, our work has no purpose. Have a concrete goal that you are working toward.

2)      Have a Plan- Your goal is worthless if you don’t have a plan to get there. What small thing can you do each day that will move you toward your goal?

3)      Re-assess Your Plan – After you create your plan, you can’t blindly continue down your path. If something isn’t working, re-assess and change your approach.

Remember, sometimes your plan won’t always work and it might feel like you are taking a step backwards, but that’s OK. A step backward means you’re learning from your mistakes and sometimes that’s part of being productive. When you’re busy, you’re only taking steps sideways. You’re still moving, but you’re not going anywhere. Only productivity actually moves you toward your goals.

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Knowing When to Stop

Not everything goes according to plan. Few people would disagree with that statement, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to deal with! Planning out your day in advance is an essential part to having great time management skills, but we have to be prepared to quickly adjust the plan when unexpected speed bumps arise in our day.

On Thursday, my husband had a dinner to attend for work. I had a lot of work to finish up so I was really looking forward to having the house to myself and enjoying a productive evening. I had a whole “itinerary” of tasks planned out.

First on my list was editing a track for the school talent show next week (oh the things on an elementary music teacher’s to-do list!) I sat down with my laptop, but quickly became frustrated when I couldn’t get the microphone to work. I should have just stopped and moved on to the next thing on my list but did I? No. Instead, I spent the next hour fighting with technology, Googling tutorials, and restarting my computer. When I finally decided to give up for the evening, I was so frustrated that I ended up watching reruns of the “The Office” to help fight the urge to throw my laptop out the window. So much for my productive evening!

Avoiding Frustration

We work most efficiently when we are motivated, not frustrated. This is why when we hit a major point of frustration with a task it’s sometimes best to walk away, give it a rest, and start something else. However, there is a difference between something being frustrating and something being difficult. If we stop each task when we get to a difficult part, pretty soon we’ll only have the hardest parts of all our work left on our choose-to list. Frustration is different from difficulty. When you’re frustrated, it’s not necessarily because something is hard to do, it’s because something just isn’t clicking. I had used my microphone setup a hundred times, but for some reason it wasn’t working this week. Maybe your technology isn’t working either, or you have a headache or you’re getting irritated with your co-workers. In this case, it’s best to just walk away and come back to it later before your frustration consumes all of your desire to be productive.

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