You know the old saying about someone being like “a kid in a candy store,” where there are so many exciting things vying for their attention they don’t know which way to turn first? In a lot of ways, our lives are like that. We are bombarded with seemingly endless rivers of information from every possible direction. It’s hard not to get lost in the continuous streams of posts and pins on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, the 24 news stories, phone calls, texts and instant messages coming in our phones – and if you have ever surfed YouTube, you know how easy it is to get sucked into watching just one more video. And another. And another.
With all of those distractions clamoring for our attention, it should come as no surprise that it is hard to focus on the things that really matter. If you are one of those people who doesn’t get sidetracked and manages to plow diligently through your work pile without interruption, I take my hat off to you, but I suspect that I am not the only one who finds herself perpetually busy and wondering at the end of the day where all the time went.
This column is the perfect example. I spent two weeks trying to decide what to write about and, as I began to brainstorm ideas, I kept getting sidetracked. First, there was an important email that had to be answered and then I got busy surfing the web looking for new content to post on my clients’ social media feeds. One thing lead to another more times than I care to count, and this column kept bouncing off the front burner of my mind and landing back on my mental to do list. Even as recently as half an hour ago when I decided to just sit down and start typing, despite being in Florida visiting my awesome parents (hi Mom and Dad!), I found myself enjoying a delightful phone conversation with one of my married daughters, running out to take pictures of a magnificent sunset over the lake, and being distracted by six WhatsApp messages, despite the fact that none of them were actually important.
Given those realities, I am embarking on a mission to reclaim my life, adding some order and discipline that will hopefully give me more usable time within my day. Here’s the plan…
Step 1 – Don’t just write down everything that needs to be done – jot it all down someplace where it won’t get lost. I am a big believer in scheduling every event in my iPhone and then setting reminders so that those commitments don’t get forgotten, but any calendar, virtual or not, will work, as long as you remember to check it religiously. I can tell you from experience that getting the phone call that your grandson’s play started 15 minutes ago is more than a little embarrassing, especially when your other grandkids are there to witness your grand entrance. I also create a daily to-do list, either first thing in the morning, or better yet, right before I go to sleep so that I know what needs to get accomplished the next day. Sadly, if I don’t write things down, they invariably get forgotten.
Step 2 – Set realistic expectations. There is no better way to set yourself up for failure than by biting off more than you can chew. Figure out how many hours you have available to accomplish whatever it is that needs doing – either at work or at home – and then map your day out accordingly and reasonably, making sure that you aren’t scheduling too much on any given day. I can tell you that crossing something off your to-do list when it is done feels awesome, while adding something to tomorrow’s to-do list for the twelfth day in a row is far less satisfying.
Step 3 – Stop being a slave to your devices. Each of us has certain phone calls and messages that need to be answered immediately, but by and large most of them don’t. Decide for yourself which categories of communications and which people need immediate responses and only check the rest of them at regular intervals – every two hours or twice a day, whatever works best for you. Mute any non-essential WhatsApp chats so that you don’t get distracted by the latest inspirational video or by yet another political meme and set unique ring tones for the people whose calls you always want to answer so that you can ignore all of the other calls coming in while you are focusing on the work at hand.
Step 4 – Focus, focus, focus. Whatever the task at hand, devote yourself to it 100 percent and don’t allow yourself to be lured away by anything else. Feel free to divide the task into bite-sized manageable pieces, whether it be an hour of your undivided attention, or completing three items on your to-do list, but once you start, don’t stop until you hit the finish line. I promise you that the vast majority of the time, those other distractions and activities that come your way can wait until you are done.
Step 5 – Plan for breaks during your day. We all need those few moments of down time so that we can function more effectively. Make sure you have clear distinctions in your head – break time is for relaxing, checking your emails, making a call or grabbing a snack, while work time is for getting things done – paid work, housework, cooking, or other responsibilities that are on your head.
Step 6 – Make sleep a priority. It may seem counterintuitive to sleep to increase your productivity, but we’ve all had those days where we walk around bleary eyed because we are sleep deprived and can’t seem to get anything done. Figure out how many hours of shuteye you need and be sure to get it every night, setting a bedtime for yourself and adhering to it religiously. Besides, knowing that you have a deadline, even if it is self imposed, is an excellent way to keep yourself motivated.
Step 7 – Keep a log of how you spend your time. Much as dieters are told to document every morsel that enters their mouths in order to get a realistic assessment of their eating habits, the same goes true for time management. There is nothing wrong with spending an hour on the phone chatting with your BFF, but if you do that with three different people every day, it might be the reason why you aren’t accomplishing as much as you would like. Spend a full week accounting for your time and when you are done check your log and see if you can identify which activities are occupying more than their fair share of your attention.
Keeping those steps in mind, the time has come, at least for me, to draw a line in the sand and start proactively running my day instead of letting my day run me. So as I cross “write February column” off my to-do list, and replace it with “write March column,” I am reminding myself that if time is money, saving time ought to equal financial savings as well, making better time management a really spectacular idea.