When Perfection is a Waste of Time

Even those of us who don’t label ourselves a “perfectionist” have our moments of obsession with getting something just right. We generally think that being a perfectionist is an admirable quality. However, in The Time Diet, it can also lead to massive amounts of unnecessary wasted time. There are times when perfection matters and there are also times when “good enough” truly is good enough. Knowing the difference is important in time management.

This week I have a research paper due for one of my grad school classes. Completing an entire original research study in one semester is generally considered to be an impossibility so my professor has asked for a rough draft to grade us on. She has stressed that this paper does not have to be close to final form yet, she just wants to see our progress. The perfectionist in me has had a difficult time with those instructions. I have declared myself  “done” with this draft no less than 8 times over the past week. I have saved the document, opened up an email to send it to my professor, and then decided I want to add one more quote or change one more word.

No Such Thing As Perfection

The problem is that this kind of perfectionism is a giant waste of time. In this case, my work does not have to be perfect and the relentless pursuit to make it so is not worth it. My time is far better spent finishing up other work. While I made countless edits to my draft, my other equally important work sat on my desk untouched.

No work will ever be perfect. There will always be something you can change, something you can add, or something you can fix. At some point, you have to just say enough is enough and move on. As I’m posting this blog, my draft is sitting in my professor’s inbox waiting to be read. It is not perfect. Even when I fix it up and submit it to a journal, it will still not be perfect. However, it is “good enough”, and right now that’s good enough for me.

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Using Time Buckets

When we’re faced with 24 hours in the day and a long list of things to do, figuring out when to accomplish those tasks can be a bit overwhelming for our time management skills. Breaking your day up into 3 or 4 “mini days” is much easier to manage, helps you organize your time and keeps your Time Diet on track.

I like to call these mini days “Time Buckets.” A Time Bucket is a chunk of time in your day that you have available to complete tasks. In my head, I picture myself picking up a task from my “choose-to” list and actually putting it into whichever bucket it belongs.

When figuring out your Time Buckets, it’s best to look for natural divides in your day. They may vary from day to day or week to week depending on your schedule. For example, let’s look at what tomorrow, Monday, holds for me. I get to work on Mondays at 7:30am and I see my first class at 8:45am. This time is my “morning prep” and I call it “Time Bucket #1.” After my classes start, all of my time is devoted to teaching my students, so that time is already accounted for. I try to keep my lunchtime open and only use it for work if I really need to. I call my husband at lunch and chat for a few minutes. It is the “Dessert” in my day.

After the kids go home, I have until 4:00 before I need to leave to get to class at ASU. This chunk of time is “Time Bucket #2” When I get home from class, it will be 8:00. I then have a chunk of time from 8:00 until I go to bed. That is “Time Bucket #3.” I used to have 24 hours to figure out what to do with, but now I’ve narrowed that time down to 3 distinct Time Buckets that I actually have available to complete work.

Putting Tasks in Your Time Buckets

When deciding which tasks to put in which Time Buckets, you have to consider what your energy level is like during each of those times. You want to avoid completing your most difficult tasks when you have the least energy! I have the most energy in the morning during Time Bucket #1, so that is when I complete all the essential work for my job. During Time Bucket #2, I’m usually pretty exhausted, but I eventually catch my second wind. That is why I start off Time Bucket #2 with easier things, like catching up on the day’s email and/or phone calls. Then I move on to more difficult work for grad school. By the time I get to Time Bucket #3 in the evening, my energy is gone. I spend this time unwinding, eating dinner and doing a few easy household chores.

How are your Time Buckets divided? Yours will probably be very different from mine. Just remember to take into consideration your energy level during each chunk of time. We all have times in our day when we feel more alert. Make sure you are using that time to your advantage!

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Planning for the Unexpected

For the past month, I have been loath to touch any door handles, high-five any of my students, or take so much as a walk around the block without my hand sanitizer. Why? Because every single person I know has been sick in the past few weeks.  (That statistic may have been slightly inflated for dramatic effect.) We all know that getting sick is a huge drain on our time management and can definitely disrupt our Time Diets without careful planning. Never fear! Catching this year’s virus du jour doesn’t have to mean a pile of missed deadlines.

First of all, the time to start planning for getting sick is not when you are already bed-ridden with a temperature of 104. Part of maintaining a successful Time Diet involves creating your own deadlines so you aren’t waiting until the last minute to start an important task. As an elementary school teacher, I have to assume that I am going to come in contact with pretty much every germ imaginable on an every-day basis. This is why I try to finish any task at least 2-3 days before I actually need to. That way, if I get sick and am out of commission for a few days, I have less of a chance of missing any deadlines.

Stay Calm, Prioritize, Delegate

But what about when we run into something more than just a little stomach bug? What happens when a major crisis falls in our lap? Something like a severe illness or family emergency? Life doesn’t stop and we still have tasks to complete. How do we cope?  Your Time Diet doesn’t have to go out the window when an unexpected emergency comes up. Just remember 3 things:

1) Stay Calm– This is huge. Remember half the stress of getting it all done comes from worrying about getting it all done. In times of unexpected crisis, remember to breathe and don’t panic. Everything you need to do will happen. Worrying just breeds more stress and that is the last thing you need!

2) Prioritize– An unexpected emergency can often devour most of your time and you must realize early on that you won’t necessarily be able to complete everything on your choose-to list and that’s ok. The world will keep spinning. The trick is to prioritize so you are able to devote the precious little time you do have to the most important things.  It is important to note that the most important things are not necessarily always the ones with the closest deadlines.

3) Delegate– It is all too easy to develop “super-human syndrome” in which we think we have to do everything on our own. This is especially true in times of emergency or crisis! Let others help you! Maybe some Meat tasks are things only you can take care of, but what about all of your Vegetables? When people know you are out of commission for a little while and offer to help, they really mean it. Ask a few willing friends and family members to help take a few things off your plate. (If delegating in general is something you know you struggle with, check out this article: How to Effectively Delegate )

A few years ago, my husband was in an accident that landed him in the hospital….on the other side of the country….a week before our wedding. One minute I was crafting a guest seating chart, the next minute I was on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. with a woefully under-packed suitcase. All of a sudden, the million things on my choose-to list didn’t seem so important. My number one priority became making sure the groom made it to the wedding in one piece. My family and friends back home clamored together to finish the things I would no longer be able to do. They tied up the favors in beautiful ribbon, confirmed everything with the venue and finished planning the rehearsal dinner, but you know what? If they hadn’t, the world would not have stopped spinning. I took care of what was most important.

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There Are No Vegetarians in Time Management

Have you ever noticed that when you have a big, difficult project looming over your head, you become suddenly motivated to do everything else in the world except your project? That pile of dishes in the sink? Let me get right on that! The stack of papers waiting to be filed? Sounds like a blast! Pretty soon, my home or office looks amazing, but my project still hasn’t been started. I surely can’t be the only person this happens to!

So, why do we do this? Big projects are Meat tasks. They are difficult, time consuming and require a lot of thinking. It is no wonder we often struggle to find the motivation to start tasks like these! However, most successful people can’t rationalize not working just because they don’t want to start something difficult. We want to be productive, we just really don’t want to start this Meat task. That is why we turn to our Vegetables! Vegetable tasks are much easier and more mindless to do. By filling our day with Vegetables we temporarily mask the guilt of not working on our more difficult Meat tasks. There is a great comic about this behavior here: PhD Comics (If you’ve never read PhD Comics, they are hysterical!)

The problem with replacing Meats with Vegetables is that feeling of productivity is only temporary. At the end of the day we still haven’t accomplished what we need to do. Remember, you need a balanced diet of Meats, Vegetables and Desserts every day in order to be productive.

The Time Diet to the Rescue!

So how do we fix this? Well, since we often view Vegetables tasks as a more desirable alternative to Meat tasks, use that to your advantage! When you sit down to start a Meat tasks, set a small goal for yourself. For example, if you’re writing a paper this could mean finishing the first page. When you’ve finished that goal, go do the most mindless Vegetable task on your “choose-to” list. This will keep you in “work-mode” but give your mind a break. Then, return to your Meat task with another small goal to work toward. Pretty soon, you’ll be far enough in to your difficult task that you’ll be in “the zone” and won’t need to take breaks as frequently. Remember, the hardest part of completing a Meat task is starting it. Once you’re on a roll, nothing can stop you!

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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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Our Unhealthy Obsession with Due Dates

One of the tenets of The Time Diet is that stressing out and worrying wastes our time. Half the stress of getting it all done comes from worrying about getting it all done. This attitude comes from our unhealthy obsession with deadlines and due dates. We are bombarded with deadlines in our lives. Bills are due! Projects are due! Paperwork is due! This is the kind of stuff that keeps us up at night and we’d be far more efficient if we spent that energy developing a plan of attack to actually complete this work. You see, every deadline you write in your calendar has a corresponding date that is much more important: your start date. While deadlines are often set by other people, the more important start date is set by you.

This past week was the first full week of the ASU spring semester. There is no better time to witness the stress of deadlines than this initial week of school (except maybe finals week, which has some pretty intense deadline stress too). You see, this first full week of classes is when all the course syllabi are handed out. As the professors carefully walk the class through their expectations for the semester, the students are frantically flipping through the syllabus looking for words like “20 page paper” or “Final Exam: worth 50% of your grade.” Those deadlines then take their place in the part of students’ brains reserved for stressful things where they will loom for the rest of the semester. When you multiply this process by the number of classes a student is taking, the resulting state of mind is the student version of deadline-stress which I like to call, “syllabus overload.”

Syllabus overload is a perfect example of the dangers of stressing out about deadlines with no regard for start dates. Rather than allowing deadlines to pile up in their brains, students should immediately get out their calendars, write down the deadline and then also write down the date they intent to start that project. Does your syllabus say you have a 15-page paper due half-way through the semester? You’ll want to allow 5 days to write it (3 pages a day as a general rule of thumb) plus a buffer of a few days to allow for unexpected things to come up. I would pick a date in my calendar no later than 10 days before this paper is due and write “start paper.”  Do this for every due date in all of your syllabi. Now, you still have a lot of work to do, but the deadlines don’t have to freak you out. All you have to do is look at your calendar and you’ll see your whole plan of attack all laid out. No more worrying about how in the world all your work will be done. You know when it will all be done. You just planned it!

The importance of start dates applies to more than just students. Anyone who has deadlines in their lives needs to also plan out their start dates. Take taxes for example. April 15th does not often invoke thoughts of happiness because it is ingrained in most people’s heads as the day taxes are due (except of course this year when they are due April 18th.) If you do your own taxes, you’ve likely stressed about this deadline many times. Instead of just writing “taxes due” in your calendar, pick a date that you will begin working on them and write “start taxes.” The simple act of designating a start date will do wonders for your stress level. Looking at a calendar of only deadlines makes us feel powerless. Looking at a calendar of self-created start dates makes us feel in control. The Time Diet is all about being in control. Good-bye deadline-stress!!

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Motivation Management

Sometimes I think the phrase “time management” can be a little bit of a misnomer. I mean sure, there are plenty of times when we have too much to do and truly need to figure out how to prioritize our workload and squeeze twice the work into half the time. But then there are times when, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we know we have the time available to us to finish our work but we just don’t want to! This becomes less about “time management” and more about “motivation management.”

Have you ever seen people on a diet tape a picture of what they want to look like on their refrigerator so they see it every time they go to get food? Why do you suppose they do that? To stay motivated! When you’re on your Time Diet, you need to stay motivated to do the things you don’t want to do. Whenever you sense the dread coming on from a task you don’t want to do, rather than just putting off the task and prolonging that feeling, imagine how good you’ll feel when it’s over with. Visualization is a powerful motivator. Visualize yourself crawling into bed at night not worrying about finishing that thing you don’t want to do. Visualize how relaxed and proud you’ll be that you no longer have to worry about it.

Also, never discount the power of the “picture on the refrigerator” example. Write out your long-term goals and put them somewhere visible that you will see them frequently. Why are you working so hard? Do you want straight As in school? A better job? A cleaner house? Write it down! Frame it on your wall! It’s easy to become un-motivated when you’re staring down a bunch of things you don’t want to do without the constant reminder of why you’re doing them.

Telling Time Killers Who’s Boss

Time Killers are those little addictive things that waste our time without our permission. They can be different for everyone. They are things like T.V., Facebook, email, snacking, texting, you name it. They seem harmless enough, but they cause us to lose our focus and make work take longer than it needs to.

My Time Killer this week has been Facebook. To save paper, I’ve started doing my reading for grad school on my computer so I don’t have to print anything out. The problem with this is that my computer is full of distractions! I’ll be 10 pages into my reading and then BAM! Suddenly I’m scrolling through Facebook instead of reading. How did that happen? It’s like my fingers just took me there without even thinking about it. Well, now that I’m here, I better at least see what my friends are up to…and so it continues. Pretty soon, a reading assignment that should only take me half an hour has taken twice that. What a waste of time!

The trick is to remove your Time Killers before they are able to steal your focus. If your Time Killer is snacking, don’t do your work near the kitchen. If your Time Killer is texting, leave your cell phone in the other room. For me, I’ve started turning off my internet connection on my laptop when I’m doing my reading. This way, I can focus on my work and get it done in a shorter amount of time. Then I can allow myself to go on Facebook to my heart’s content!