3 Simple Steps to Better Manage Your Time

Why would anyone want to explain the difference between a to do and a project? The simple fact of the matter is, there is quite often a misconception about the two.

I’m sure you would agree that the redesign of a website is a project, a big one. But purchasing a gift for a friend… most likely not.

Let’s have a closer look at the two terms and see what qualifies as a project and what qualifies as a to do. Is the following a project or a to do? Buying a present for your best friend? The answer: it depends, and here is why.

It’s a to do if:
You know exactly what to buy, where to buy it and that it’s in your budget.

It’s a project if:
1. You don’t have a clue what you want to buy and need to do some research.
2. You have to figure out where you will get what you’re looking for.
3. You don’t know if it’s in your budget.

David Allen, who created the methodology “Getting Things Done,” came up with a clear and simple distinction:

To Do: If only one action step is required to reach the desired outcome.

Project: If the desired outcome requires several action steps.

Why is this important? Because it helps you think differently about your planning and time commitment. There is a big difference between ordering something online vs. having to do some research and then moving on to the purchase. Sounds kind of obvious, doesn’t it? But that’s not necessarily the way we think about it. By not being specific about the various steps (of this little project) we tend to greatly underestimate the time it will take to get it done. Our mind deceives us. Buying a gift for our friend equals to: “not a big deal” and “done quickly.” If, however, we consider the various steps, our mind changes from “done quickly” to “it’ll take a bit of time.”

If you look at the bigger picture it can turn into a vicious cycle. Because you underestimate the time you’ll need to accomplish something you constantly feel “behind” or playing catch-up which in turn results in stress. Something we all have enough of.

If this sounds like you and you feel you’re always behind and chasing time, there are three simple steps you can take to improve your time management.

Step 1 – Make a List

Make a list of all the things you want or need to do, either on paper or electronically.

Step 2 – Note All Necessary Steps

Determine what requires only one action step to be completed and what requires two or more action steps. Note all the necessary action steps required to finish each “project.” Remember, everything that takes more than one action step is not a to do but a project.

I’ll use my example “go grocery shopping,” something everyone can relate to. Here my process before I get into the car: 

  • Plan what I will make for dinner.
  • I may have to check a recipe for ingredients and add any missing ones to my shopping list.
  • I’ll also check what I have to restock in the fridge and/or pantry. I add these items to my shopping list as well.
Step 3 – Block Time in Your Calendar

Blocking time in the calendar. What is the best time to work on my project? Again, let’s use the project “go grocery shopping” as an example. I like to go shopping when stores are not crowded, i.e. not on weekends and not around the time school ends. Having said that, in case I’m on the road and pass a store, especially one that is a little farther away, I’ll do the shopping en route.

After all, the whole point of this exercise is to make the best use of your time and eliminate as much stress as possible.

If you have recurring action steps, keep an eye on the time for future planning. The more you learn about the time commitment for various tasks, the better for your planning. Being more conscious about your time will help you make better decisions of what to do and when to do it.

Last but not least, let’s have a quick look at some electronic task management and project management systems. You’ll find quite a few. Whichever tool you choose, keep it simple. Use tool(s) that appeal to you, that are intuitive, and fit your work style. The process is the same, but instead of writing things on paper you collect your to dos and projects with sub-tasks in a task management tool.

My repository for projects and tasks is the Microsoft To Do task manager. I find it’s intuitive and easy-to-use, and it synchronizes over all my devices (laptop, cell phone, office computer, tablet). No matter where I am, I always have my phone with me and can easily add something. This way I don’t have to worry about anything falling through the cracks. Other task managers I have used in the past were:

Now over to you. What are you doing to keep track of your to dos and projects? Do you prefer a paper list or are you more an electronic kind of person? What tools are you using? Do you have any tips? Or are you struggling to keep track of everything? Let’s talk or let me know in the comments below.

See you next time.

Dream Come True or Nightmare – Working from Home

For many the idea of working from home sounds like bliss. You get up in the morning, brush your teeth, put on a sweater and jeans (or stay in you PJs), grab a cup of coffee and bang, ready for work. No makeup or shaving, no dressing up, no stressful morning commute.

Before you say a wholehearted “hell yes, that’s for me! I’d love to work from home,” hold on for a sec. Have you ever given it some thought what the “perfect” work environment is for you? As tempting as it may appear, working from home has its challenges as well, and it very much depends on your personality and/or work situation if this dream is a dream come true or turns into a nightmare.

Join me on a little imaginary tour and have a look at some of the most common situations I’ve encountered or heard of to find out more and help you make the right decision.

The Detour Morning

You’re ready to start your day. You have your coffee and go straight to your computer and start planning your day… and out of the blue you realize you have to wash your gym clothes because you want to go to the gym later that day. You quickly get up, put your gym clothes in the washing machine, and while you’re at it, you also sort the rest of your laundry. It will be so much quicker to put it in the washing machine later, and it’ll only take a minute or two. 

You go back to work. Oh, where were you? Ahhh right, planning what you need to do today. You finish your list and are ready to get to work when you see today’s date. It’s Feb. 20th and your Mom’s birthday is coming up. Oh no! You wanted to get her that book she mentioned a couple of times. No big deal. You quickly go online and order the book. But stop, wasn’t there this book your friend mentioned the other day that you absolutely must read? What was the title? Something like…. You’re sure it won’t be difficult to find it, and off you go searching for it on Amazon. While searching you come across some very interesting titles. You quickly read their summaries and add them to your wish list.

Back to work. Darn, what was it that you wanted to do? It takes you a couple of seconds but finally you remember that you wanted to finish the copy for the newsletter and find some images for it.

By the time you start your day it’s not 7:00 am or 8:00 am, it’s already 10:00 am, maybe even later, and you may have wasted some of your most productive and creative time. Please don’t get hung up on the specific time. It could be any time of the day that is your best and most productive and creative time. It’s about getting distracted and taking a lot of detours before doing the work. It could be procrastination (more about that in a future post) or just plain lack of discipline.

I know, discipline is not a sexy word, but without it making progress will take much, much longer. Do you have what it takes to stay focused, even when the laundry or your conscience calls because you almost forgot your Mom’s birthday? A good policy I found is to plan for these interruptions. Set yourself a “focus time” for 45 minutes, an hour or an hour and a half. Whatever works best for you, and do the work. If a thought or idea comes up, have a piece of paper and a pen ready to jot it down and return to your work immediately for the remainder of your focus time. Then take a break. Wash your gym clothes, get that gift … and keep an eye on the time. You’ll be surprised how quickly ten minutes pass, especially on social media.

The Run-an-Errand Scenario:

Your spouse is at the office and sends you a text. She just remembered that she forgot to go grocery shopping. Unfortunately, she has to stay late and can’t possibly do it. Since you’re working from home, it surely isn’t a big deal for you to quickly run to the grocery store and get a few items for dinner.

Working from home does allow for a lot of freedom and flexibility, and running an errand may not be a big deal. Just make sure that your partner or spouse, or anybody else for that matter, don’t take it for granted or expect that you’re always available when they need you. You have to set boundaries and stay in control of your day. Remember, your work is equally important, and you may have to say no. You call the shots!

The Little-kids Scenario:

I found this to be the most challenging one. And as you can read, it’s based on my own experience. I have a room that is my dedicated office. Yes, I feel very fortunate and consider this an advantage. But – and I don’t write this lightly – I also have a son. Kids, no matter what age, don’t necessarily differentiate between you “being at home” and “working from home.” If something important happens in their lives, they want your attention, and they want it now. When they’re little they may need a hug, or someone to console them. When they’re older they may need to talk something over, help with their homework, or just tell you about the injustice at school, you name it.

There is no one-solution-fits-all to this type of interruption. At least I haven’t found it yet. It depends on your kids, their age and your type of work. With little kids I believe you have to take the time. If you try to rush them, you just prolong the situation. They instantly feel that you are not available to them, and that makes it even harder to console them. With older kids you can set rules. We only had a few, but these were non-negotiable. For example, when I was on the phone, no interruptions were permitted, except for emergencies. That worked pretty well. You could use a do-not-disturb sign or close the door. In that case, they’re not allowed to enter and/or disturb you. Plan your most difficult and important work when your kids are not around and reserve less intense work for times that may not be uninterrupted, and I’m not just talking about kids.

Let’s take a break here. There are a million other things that I could have mentioned: checking social media, getting something to eat, making a quick phone call… you name it.

The point I’m trying to make is, do you have the discipline not to fall for “quick” interruptions and detours? Can you resist the “call of your spouse” to go shopping? Can you arrange your day around your kids so that you can do the work you need to do? How about social media? It’s common knowledge that we greatly underestimate the time we spend on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn.

Take some time and consider your situation, your personality, and your work environment. What works best for you? What is your ideal workplace? What gets your creative juices flowing? When do you focus best?

Tell me about how you dealt with some of the challenges while working from home or what made you decide to go to the office instead.

See you next time!

The Why of Important vs. Urgent

Last year I blogged in depth about Urgent vs. Important work. I explained what urgent and what important means, why urgent occurs (at least most of the time), and how to deal with it in a better and more productive way.

Doing some online research, I happened to come across a blog written by Seth Godin with almost the same title. He also makes a case for Important vs. Urgent work in one of his February 2017 blogs, but he gave it a different spin. Here it goes:

 “You know you should be focusing on the long-term journey, on building out the facility, signing up new customers or finishing your dissertation.

But instead, there’s a queue of urgent things, all justifiable, all requiring you and you alone to handle them. And so, you do, pushing off the important in favor of the urgent.

Of course, everyone has this challenge, but some people manage to get past it. Even you, the last time you made a major move forward. Think about it–those urgencies from a few years ago: who’s handling them now?

The reason we go for urgent is that it makes us feel competent. We’re good at it. We didn’t used [sic] to be, but we are now.

Important, on the other hand, is fraught with fear, with uncertainty and with the risk of failure.

Now that you know why, you can dance with it.”

Which of the two is you? Take the time to find out and, I paraphrase: “Now that you know (..), (…) dance with it.”

If you don’t know Seth, here is his blog site. Check it out. It’ll be worth your time.

See you next time.