Archive for the ‘Time Management’ Category

SchedulePerhaps the biggest lesson I am learning this year is one that I’ve known for a long time, yet must continually re-learn. While it has been good and helpful for me to spell out my many goals for the year related to body, mind and spirit, and to post monthly progress updates here, I have increasingly felt as the year has progressed that I simply have too many of them. I did not allow myself time to relax or to do many unplanned things for fun either by myself or with others. I’ve been busy and I’ve accomplished most of what I set out to do. I suspect all but my two reading goals will be met by the end of the year.

But being busy doesn’t prove that any of that time is meaningfully spent. Filling all of one’s waking hours with activity is no guarantee of significance, either in the short term or long term. So, in a nutshell, here is the lesson I have had to learn again for the umpteenth time:

Do not equate busyness with significance.

This applies in any area of life…

In work, are you doing a lot of things that keep you busy and seem to keep the boss happy? If so, that’s good in a way, unless you have a sense that your time could be better spent doing something with greater significance and long-term impact. Different people can find satisfaction in about any kind of work, so what others consider significant may vary from what you consider it to be. Do what you think is significant.

In education, we can spend so much time studying, pursuing degrees, and learning more for that next certification or license. A real danger is that we eventually look back and wonder where the time went and if it was all worth it, especially when so many graduates don’t even end up actually working in fields that they spent years and tens of thousands of dollars preparing to do. Is such an education a smart path, or could a more significant path be chosen?

In home and family life, busyness can easily be the enemy of relationships. With everyone in the household having their own busy schedule, little time is left for each other. That can’t be what is best for the relationships and for modeling healthy families to the next generation.

In volunteer involvement with other organizations, it is possible to get so busy that we do harm to ourselves in our perceived effort to serve others. I see it all the time in the church when calendars are filled with activities and people feel like they must participate in as many as possible to be a good church member or faithful Christian. Trust me when I say that being super busy inside the walls of the church may be the worst thing for Christians, keeping us from being salt and light outside the church walls in a needy, dark world. Certainly many avenues of volunteer service are significant in improving the lives of others, but it can also be an unhealthy drain on the one giving all the time as well as a potential distraction keeping you from doing something more significant.

Whether the busyness that fills our lives comes from work, school, extracurricular activities, or even volunteerism, we must evaluate the significance of how we spend our time and not just assume we are making a positive, significant difference in our world just because we’re busy. A genuine analysis on that basis might lead some of us to radically change our involvement in activities and organizations. It might cause us to alter our schedule so that we do what is most important instead of what we or others deem to be the most urgent. It might help us actually move from mere busyness to true significance.

And somewhere in that schedule change there must be some down time for rest, relaxation and personal renewal. Without it, you will wear down and burn out unnecessarily. How will you continue to be significant at all if you allow that to happen?

spinning plateWhen I was younger, it was common to see acts on TV variety shows where entertainers would keep multiple plates spinning on poles.  At some point, plates would start to wobble and the person would have to rush to get them spinning safely again before they fell.  There was a bit of drama at that point where you just couldn’t imagine it doing anything but fall, yet the person usually found a way to keep it going.

It is an ongoing challenge to keep a lot of plates spinning in our lives.  However, what is important may not be the same as what is urgent.  Intervening to keep a plate from falling is urgent.  It may or may not be important compared to what else needs to be done in a limited amount of time.

The subject comes to mind as I find myself over the last couple of weeks spending more time focusing on the wobbling plates than on those which my better judgment tells me are most important.  Got a presentation due in a couple days?  Better get to it.  Have a deadline creeping up?  Get to work on it.  Said ‘yes’ to one or two out-of-the-ordinary requests to help some friends out?  Can’t let them down now, no matter what.

Concentrating on the most wobbly plate is a clear signal that I have too many plates spinning.  The situation is in part my fault for being ambitious in setting certain goals for the year that I am struggling to achieve.  Part of the issue is that I have more to do at work than my mere 50-55 hours per week can get done.  Add to the mix some unusual, temporary personal obligations that could not have been foreseen, and all of that adds up to a plate spinning act that is going on for longer than I wish.  In fact, I made a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes at work this week that, while minor and inconsequential, still bother me since that isn’t the norm for me.  Even though others may not have noticed or cared, I felt like I let a couple of plates fall.  I don’t like that.

What to do about it?  There are a few possibilities:

  • Recognize that some of the spinning plates aren’t important enough to keep spinning, and let them go;
  • Plead my case at work for more help in some matters (tough to do when others on the team are also overworked and more new hires are unlikely);
  • Get better at saying ‘no’ to some requests.

Only a week remains until my next monthly update on how I’m coming on my goals for the year, and it isn’t looking like I’ve done more than barely maintain this month.  I certainly haven’t made up ground on any delinquent goals.  Near the mid-year point, there is still time to achieve them, but now it has to be done with the end nearing – not my preference.

I have several wobbly plates in front of me this week.  It will be crazy busy and somewhat frustrating.  All of them are hard commitments that must be followed through on.  Allowing any to drop is not an option, so I’ll do what it takes.  Beginning in July, my calendar looks more clear than it has been in June, so there is reason to believe that I can start to make up some ground next month.  I know it will eventually take some vacation weeks to have time to make a serious dent in some personal goals lagging behind, and I can do that in the Fall.

Meanwhile, for this week, it looks like I’ll keep spinning plates.

HourglassEvery now and then a phrase jumps out at you and won’t let you go.  That happened to me yesterday when I saw the following tweet from Resurgence (@theResurgence):

“You have enough time to do everything God wants you to do.

Wow.  How often do I bemoan the fact that my daily task list is too long to complete?  How many nights am I frustrated that some things I really wanted to get done will carry over yet another day?

As a goal-driven person in areas of body, mind, and spirit, the notion that I actually have enough time to do what God wants me to do is very sobering.  If I’m not getting things on my list complete, it begs the question, “What is on my list that isn’t on God’s list for me?”

I’ll have to think about that.  If I figure out the answer, I’ll let you know.

Sticky Note ListIn the unending challenge to juggle more things to do than time to do it, I tried something different this week.  I always work with short to-do lists, but this week I tried a different tactic.  I kept open in a window in front of me on my computer a simple prioritized list using the Windows Sticky Notes program, and determined to tackle the items in order, getting as many done during the work day as possible, then setting up the list for the next day before leaving work.  That’s basic to-do list management – nothing new or special.

I’ve used Outlook’s task list for a long while, but the problem is that so much time in Outlook is spent in the inbox or calendar that the task list can get lost in the competition for attention.  Sticky Notes allowed me to keep another window prominent throughout the day as a reminder.  (The fact that I used Sticky Notes is irrelevant.  A simple list in any program will do.)

However, since a crazy quantity of incoming emails usually distracts me from getting as many to-do list items completed as I should, I also made an item on the daily to-do list of spending just one hour cleaning up emails.  I limited time in my inbox to that hour daily this week.  If I was to actually take the time to handle all the emails that have come in to my inbox the past few days, it would take several hours per day of my time to address them.  The problem with doing that is that spending so much time handling emails keeps me from doing the more important work that I’m really hired to do and must do in order to make my greatest impact.

Here is a key lesson: Email is a to-do list that others create for you.

We can’t allow others to create our to-do lists.  We must make them ourselves and not let others change them.  Of course, those we report to always have the option of mandating a change in our priorities; that’s understood.  But especially for information workers in an environment where interruptions are frequent, we must set up some boundaries and processes that help us keep the focus on doing the most important things.

Have I accomplished everything requested by others this week with this approach?  No, I haven’t.  But I’ve completed some very important items that have been on my to-do list for too long, and that were previously shoved aside by spending too much time on email.  My inbox has consequently swollen in size as I write this, growing daily as unexpected items come in that others want my help with or feedback regarding.  Sadly, most of those will have to wait.  I intend to keep on getting the big-ticket important things done, devoting no more than one hour per day to responding to the other kinds of emails.  I suspect the world won’t end, even though some sending those emails may think it will.  Ultimately, I know it will take an additional body on my team to do everything that is expected of me, so I have to get the important things done first and let the rest slide.

Bottom line: don’t let others create your to-do list or divert you from the one you’ve created.

The title of this post really is a question to you, the reader.  I want to know what your criteria are for knowing when you cross that line from just being busy to being too busy?  When does living an active, fulfilling life morph into having so many commitments and expectations that you begin to wonder if you are in an unhealthy zone?

As you might suspect, since I’m pondering the question myself, I am not quite sure where I am on that continuum at the moment.  I set a number of goals for the year that I blogged about on January 1.  So far, they are going well and I am enjoying the attempt at well-rounded goals categorized into areas of body, mind and spirit.  Where it gets a little old, though, is when I find myself on a Sunday night (like right now) wishing I could just veg in front of a TV for a while and relax, but I have a number of things I still want to cross off my list before going to bed and starting another work week tomorrow.  Does that mean I set too many goals, or am I just battling with a desire to be lazy?  I’m not sure.

Part of what drives me to try to accomplish a lot is a sense of purpose.  I don’t think I was put on this earth just to enjoy myself.  I can do more than that in making a difference for others, so it seems reasonable that my time – both at work and personally – should be given to that cause and not just for selfish pursuits.  Scientists tell us we use a small fraction of our brain capacity.  I also think we tend to use far less of our productivity potential than possible by thinking, for example, that work should be 40 hours per week and the rest is “free time” to do as we please.  Of course, parents with children at home know the “free time” concept in theory only, but now that it’s just my wife, my dog and me in our home, we have many more options in how we spend our time.

In my lazier or more physically tired moments, I want to spend time doing something rather mindless that isn’t on a to-do list.  I want to find a book to read for pleasure or take a nap or play with the dog or channel surf for a show or movie to watch without the guilt that usually accompanies such leisure activity.  I would love to spend time occasionally doing things just because I enjoy them and not because they are on a checklist.

Today, for example, I decided to stay home from church this morning (a once or twice a year rarity) and sleep later than normal, then catch up on some reading.  The reading was on my to-do list, though, and since getting up at the very late hour of 9:15, I’ve been busy tackling to-do list items ever since.  I still have reading about half of a new book, finishing out 10,000 pedometer steps for the day, plus another couple of items on the list – actions that would take me more hours combined than there are remaining tonight if I am to get a decent amount of sleep.  That’s discouraging.

So, back to my question to you, dear reader.  What is your criteria for knowing you are on the healthy side of the busy vs. too busy continuum?  For me, I’m thinking the physical criteria are far too little sleep or the appearance of other negative physical side effects, and the emotional criterion is a sense of being overwhelmed and trapped, neither of which are true for me yet.

What about you?  How do you know you’re too busy?  Tell me in a comment.