(photo by Sonny Abesamis)

 

The Ol’ Day Timer

My father used to carry around a Franklin day timer.  Something about it was interesting to me… a way to organize your thoughts into blocks of time.

I first got serious at the subject after reading “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by the late Stephen Covey and his subsequent book on time management, “First Things First.”

Covey’s book encouraged everyone to carry a day timer, (in fact, his company bought out Franklin, who specialized in day-timers, to become Frankin-Covey).

While it would have been easier (and surely more efficient in time-management terms) to just buy a Franklin-Covey Day timer, I set out to design my own.  Using graphic design software (Adobe Freelance, I think) I simulated the layout the best I could, on two 8 1/2 by 11 sheets of paper, which would form all 7 days of the week when set side by side.

I then took the design down to my local Kinkos and printed it on double-sided card stock.  I would either put a year’s worth of sheets into a 3-ring binder, or have it spiral bound.

I took a huge amount of pride in my creation and the day I walked home with a fresh day planner was a special day full of excitement and possibilities.

 

Visions of The Future

Escaping to my favorite quiet thinking spot, I would spend a few hours immersed in dreaming up my future and documenting my plan of action in the new time management tool.

Per Covey’s suggestion, the first few pages at the beginning would typically be reserved for a mission statement and yearly “roles and goals”.

I would take several hours to craft the perfect mission statement.  While adaptable over time, the mission statement was supposed change the least among time-management elements.

I carefully considered each word, trying to make it inspiring.

The mission statement then flowed into to the “roles and goals”.

The idea is that you have several roles in your life, for example, student, parent, employee, etc; and each role should have a goal.  From the goals flowed daily tasks that could be placed in blocks of time on the weekly pages.

 

Covey’s Quadrants

Covey’s big point in his writing was the concept of “Big Rocks”.  His explained the concept by using a square divided into quadrants.  On the top axis was “urgent” and “non-urgent”; on the left axis was “important” and “non-important”.

According to Covey, most of us spend our lives in the first quadrant, “urgent and important” which is best described as “putting out fires.”

What nags us most tends to get the most attention.  This often comes at the expense of the “important, but not urgent” quadrant two.  These tasks tend to give us the most leverage toward accomplishing our goals, but are not necessarily nagging at us.

merrillcoveymatrixPeople who are always in quadrant one and never get around to quadrant two, tend to get stuck in an endless cycle of putting out fires, but never really making much meaningful progress toward their goals.

The answer, according to Covey, was to “put the big rocks in first” by blocking out time for quadrant two in your week, and allow the little rocks to flow around; instead of filling your week with small rocks so that the big rocks no longer fit.

At the time, this was one of the most brilliant insights I had ever heard.

I felt a great sense of satisfaction after I had spent several hours filling out my new life planner.  My mind was able to relax knowing that I had written down my plan so that I would not have to constantly access my memory.

Thoughts on my future were “crystallized”, meaning that they had gone from the ether between my ears to taking shape in the form of words on a page.

 

Execution

For the 1st week or two, I would try as hard as I could to stick to the regimen as lined out in my planner until an unexpected temptation took me off course.  A friends’ invitation to “do something fun” was usually the impetus to go off script and have a little fun time.

The next day, or maybe several days later, I would return to the planner and attempt to re-organize my time to allow for the previous lapse.

There was some disappointment mixed with renewed resolve each time I would “reset”.

This cycle of optimism and disappointment was the mark of my early time-management years.

At some point in the year, I would usually forget about my daytimer for long stretches of weeks or months all together, until I decided to start fresh again.

 

What Went Wrong?

Every time the system came crashing down, I tried to figure out the flaw in my system.  Was it lack of discipline?  Should I have been able to use my willpower to resist the temptation?  Or maybe, I should have anticipated my body’s need for a break and scheduled some fun time, so that I would be less likely to go off script.

Were my expectations too high?  Should I have set lower goals, and put less tasks on my schedule to increase the likelihood of getting them done?

What was the answer?

In the years since, I’ve learned that this cycle is pretty common among people, and especially so among creative types.  Creative people have strong visionary skills, which allow them to see into the future and create perfect universe.  Unfortunately, this skill often comes at the expense of the contrast: follow-through.

 

Personality Types

If you’ve never taken a personality test based on Myers-Briggs, I would highly recommend it.  It helps to identify the muscles in your brain that are influencing your actions.  It’s the last letter (P or J) that explains whether you are a visionary (perceiving) or an executor (judging).

I’m a strong P, which means I’m fantastic at filling out a planner, but horrible at executing the plan.

The first step is recognizing your mental strengths and weaknesses.  Understanding that you are wired to excel in one area (vision or execution) and struggle in the other means you can stop blaming your will power and start taking a more practical approach to time management.

Instead of swimming upstream by expecting yourself to be good at something you’re just not, shoot for small victories in the area of your weakness and allow yourself some time in your schedule to do what comes most naturally for you.

 

Here are 10 time management tips for creative people & enterpreneurs that have helped keep me on task over the years:  

 

1. Knock it out early

Have you ever heard of the Law of Complexity, which states that the tendency of matter is to become more complex over time?  I believe the same to be true with each individual day.

The more time passes in your day, the more complex and distracting the circumstance.  Therefore, it’s much easier to knock out important tasks early in the day than later.

Think of all the distractions that have the potential to knock you off a productive course during the day, and I’ll bet most are more likely to tempt you as the time of day gets later:

A friend who wants to meet up for lunch or happy hour.

Can’t miss Sporting events on TV or in person

Recreational activities

Kids getting out of school

End of the workday deadlines

Fires that have to be put out

Co-worker emergencies

 

What works for me is to identify the task or tasks that I’m most likely to put off, and are important to my success, and knock them out as early in the day as possible.

When I worked in sales, that task was making phone calls.  If I didn’t knock them out 1st thing in the morning, I would find reasons to put them off until they never got done.

In the blogging world, that task is usually writing.  It’s sometimes hard to force myself to do it, but once I get going, it’s no big deal.

Exercise is another big one.  I tend to have much more success in following through with an exercise plan if it’s scheduled earlier in the day than later.  Given the choice of working out before or after work, the former is much more likely to be a successful plan that the latter.  (Just think of all the distractions that could potentially occur after 5pm)

 

2. Don’t set meetings before lunch

Once I identified the morning as my golden opportunity each day to knock out some productivity, I learned that I had to protect it at all costs.

I noticed that one of my major distractions was meetings and phone calls.  It seems like everyone in the business world wants to schedule meetings and calls at 9am.

First of all, let me just say that most meetings I attend are a complete waste of time.  Especially in large groups, it seems like people just want to socialize, hear themselves speak, and convince themselves that they did something; when in reality, nothing gets done at meetings… only talk about what needs to get done.

To make matters worse, 80% of the meetings I’ve been to run late, which screws up the rest of the day.

To reconcile this, I stopped making myself available to meet before lunch, and I was suddenly more productive.  It’s a simple as telling someone that your only openings are at 1:30 and 4:00pm.  There’s no need to explain yourself or tell them why; just don’t give them the option.

I also try to keep attendance at my meetings to as few people as possible.  Unnecessary attendance slows the process down, and if you ask me, reduces the creative energy.

If I’m having a creative meeting, I’d rather have it after 4pm, because brainstorming meetings tend to run long and nothing sucks the will to work out of you than a 3 hour intensive meeting.

I also try to meet online instead of in person to reduce time.  You can typically knock out a meeting that would have taken 3 hours of your day (when you account for travel, socializing, etc.) in about 1 hour online.  Also, I use screen-share and voice ONLY, electing not to use the video chat options.  Video only adds unnecessary stress about how you appear and adds little to the content of the meeting.

 

3. Turn off all ‘noise’ before lunch

Creative types tend to like background ‘noise’ such as television, talk radio, cable news, social media, email, texts, etc.  All of these tend to suck mental bandwidth which can be especially harmful to your productivity.

Think of it this way: your brain has only so much processing power for media that requires thought.  Plus, I’m only good for about 3 hours of concentrated productivity per day for high-processing tasks such as writing, planning, and content creation.  After that, I’ve got to switch to lower-level tasks like checking email, research, etc.

Any background noise that requires processing power is diminishing your ability to get stuff done.  I’ve found that media with words (verbal or written) tends to suck even more mental bandwidth.

For example: listening to the news or music with lots of lyrics.  It’s almost as if the brain cannot resist deciphering language even if it’s in the background.

I prefer to play medium tempo, ambient music with little or no lyrics.

Examples are:
Thievery Corporation
Portishead
Thievery Corporation Pandora Station
Beach Bar Lounge Pandora Station
Hotel Costas
XM Chill (Sirius XM)
Classical

 

The music helps to foster a creative mental state without bogging down my left brain with words to process.  I turn the music on as soon as it’s time to work to help me switch mental gears.

 

4. Start your day with 15 minutes of organizational activity

As a creative type, my natural state is to be unorganized.  Left to my own devices, I’ll procrastinate organizational activities such as filing, cleaning, balancing the checkbook, etc. until they never get done.

At the same time, I feel so much better after taking the time to do those activities.  Even though I know there is a great reward for organizing, it’s very hard to convince myself to do it.  For example, having a clean workspace is very liberating and often leads to increased creativity and productivity; yet I won’t do it unless it’s part of my routine.

What I’ve found really helps is to start each day with 15 minutes of easy, painless organizational activity such as:

Cleaning the desk
Taking out the trash
Opening and filing mail
Cleaning the closet
Putting away laundry
Planning my week
Balancing the checkbook
etc.

 

The key is to keep organizational projects to 15 minutes or less and avoid large projects like cleaning the garage because otherwise, it tends to get put off.

The result is being able to start your day with a small victory and more mental clarity.

 

5. Set expectations low

Perfectionists… this one’s for you.

When I first started filling out those homemade day planners, I’d fill just about every waking minute of the day with something that I expected myself to do.

The result was day after day of disappointment when I was not physically able to keep up with the high expectations I had set for myself.

Since, I’ve realized that it is much more important to score small, steady victories than set the bar too high and fizzle out.

Distractions and unexpected events are just a reality, and it’s better to keep that in mind when you’re planning your week.

Instead of booking my entire day with to do’s, I only put pressure on myself to stick to the script during the first three hours of my work day.  After that, I may have general expectations of what I should be doing, but I am much more flexible.

It’s important to dial down the expectations as low as possible and start building on achievable goals. Maybe just start with one simple goal like exercising four times a week, or doing 15 minutes of organizational activity four times a week, and build from there.

Also, don’t be so hard on yourself if screw up the schedule.  Every week is a new opportunity to get better.

(TIP: I use a app called “Happy Rituals” to set small, achievable weekly goals.  It keeps things simple, which is important for longevity.)

 

6. Script the 1st half of your day

We are all creatures of habit, and if you don’t have a daily ritual you’ve consciously set for yourself, you’re probably acting out a ritual that isn’t moving you toward your goals.

The morning is the most important time of the day to script because it sets the tone for the rest of the day.  And, as discussed above, it tends to have less distractions.

Here’s my current daily ritual:

Wake up around 7
Hit the bathroom
Get the paper
Make coffee
Make breakfast
Zone out till 8..

At 8am I force myself to get to work.  It’s usually painful to get to my desk, but once I’m there, it’s no big deal.

My “sacred” hours are from 8 – 11, when I knock out the hard, mental bandwidth-hungry activities with minimal distractions and low-lyric ambient music in the background.

At 11, I break for an hour of exercise, shower, and have lunch.  After lunch, I take any meetings that are set and work on any other projects that need attention.

If I end up sleeping in late, instead of getting wrapped up in self-loathing about not following the script, I simply push back the sacred hours… 8:30 – 11:30, 9-12, etc.

If I get a major distraction and have to chop something off the schedule, it will most likely be something from the afternoon.

I give myself even more slack by only asking myself to pull this ritual off four times a week.  This allows for a long weekend, or one day during the week when everything goes to hell.

(For some great ideas on daily rituals, check out “Daily Rituals, How Artists Work“)

 

7. Don’t think… Just do…

The hardest part about getting something done that you don’t want to do is simply getting started.  It’s almost never as bad as you think once the ball is rolling.

I go through the same thing every morning… Complete misery thinking about having to get to work.

I consider how tired I am, how I haven’t had a break in awhile, how I’d rather watch TV.

If I let my brain continue down this rabbit hole, I’ll end up on the couch all day.  If I’m going to get anything done, I have to shut down the thinking and just get up and walk to the office.

Once I’m at my desk, it’s never as bad as I thought it was going to be.  Once I get into a work rhythm, it’s almost enjoyable.  Since I only commit myself to three “sacred” hours, it doesn’t seem like a drag. Plus, I feel like a hero when I’ve knocked out some important work before lunch.

 

8. Schedule disengagement time

If you’ve made it this far in the article, I’m going to guess you’re an overachiever.  In addition to setting expectations too high, overachievers tend to forget about scheduling fun time.

I didn’t realize this until I was past my twenties, but recreation time is a very important part of productivity.  I used to have the attitude of “I’ll have fun after I’ve reached my goals,” and it just about burned me out.

I like to golf to blow off steam.  I went years without golfing more than a few times a year until I started forcing myself to try and go once a week.  Getting out and forgetting about work helps to keep me fresh and ready to go the next day.

The same goes for vacation (especially in the U.S.)  It turns out that 57% of American workers end the year with unused vacation time.

Really???

What’s the point of working hard if you never take time to enjoy it.  I try to block out my vacation time at the beginning of each year.

If you don’t block out the time, chances are: you’ll never go.

(For more information, read “The Power of Full Engagement”)

 

9. Isolate yourself

When it comes to doing high mental bandwidth requiring activities, I can’t think of a place that I would rather not be than in a crowded office with people constantly knocking on my door.

Several years ago, I was in charge of internet marketing for a medium-sized company.  I came to work every day in an office with about a dozen other people.

After the normal “hellos” and “how was your weekends”, I’d retreat back to my office to try to get some work done.  I find that it takes ten to fifteen minutes to switch mental gears from one task to another, especially when the task requires a lot of mental bandwidth.

It seemed like every time I would finally get into creative mode and start cranking out some productivity, I’d get interrupted by someone who wanted to BS, or had a non-urgent question that they could have figured out themselves.

By the time they left my office, my mental gear would be completely shifted and it would take another ten to fifteen minutes to get back into the zone.

After that experience, I started working from home for at least the first half of the day.

You may not have any control over where you work, but if you do; I would suggest finding a quiet place to work during your three sacred hours.

 

10. Talk to a “J”

If you’re a “P” on the Meyer’s Briggs test, it’s best to just realize that your natural state is to pretty much suck at time management.  It comes much more naturally to a “J.”

Instead of trying to force yourself to do something that’s not natural, you might just want to get a “J” on your team to balance you out… maybe even handle your schedule for you.

 

Conclusion

Time management is a constant battle for creative people and those who work for themselves.  Different people have different rituals that tend to work for them.

Hopefully, one or two of the suggestions above will ring true for you.  Good luck in your quest for more productivity.