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Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

Filtering by Tag: Time management

Being Committed Is Not A Straitjacket: 3 Steps To Smarter Scheduling

This is the second part in a series of posts intended to lay out my basic thinking on getting your work done more effectively and sustainably, in a way that leaves you room to have a healthy life of your own alongside the building of your best work.

Today I wanted to talk at a slightly higher level about understanding how and why it can be so challenging to schedule things accurately, and how to avoid overcommitment so that the things we say we care about don't become straitjackets.

Don't Be This Guy

Being intelligent about your commitments is really a three part process--as with most worthwhile things, it's simple, but not easy. You have to make real commitments, you have to keep your commitments, and you have to guard your commitments. Stay with me here.

1. Make Real Commitments

Some years ago I realized something about myself: in my day-to-day speech I'd been doing a lot of bet-hedging.

If I was given the opportunity to join a campaign group planning a direct action, I would say "yeah, I can probably help with that." Who likes to say no to their friends and comrades, especially when we're doing work we believe in? But here's the problem--I'd say "yeah, I can probably help."

I wouldn't:

  • check my calendar to get a sense of my availability
  • try to get a bigger picture sense of whether I had room for a whole new set of commitments
  • take the time to map out what my role would be
  • figure out what my involvement would demand from my time and energy.

What started as a People Pleasing tendency--"yeah, I can help"--would end with exhaustion, work undone, and comrades in a lurch. Don't blow smoke. If you don't think you can realistically handle the demands of something new in your life, if a real peek into your availability shows that you're in fact really busy, be honest with yourself and the people you work with: say no.

Make real commitments. Figure out what you can really devote to a project by looking at your calendar in context before you jump on the next project bandwagon. Don't say yes to earn a smile. Say yes because you know you can make it happen, and you can look at a calendar and say "this is when it is gonna go down."

2. Keep Your Commitments

Here's the other side: all your best-laid plans (god, that calendar is pretty) earn you nothing if you don't keep your commitments. This is the real key, and though it might sound obvious, if you're used to making Mumbly-Mouthed Maybes all the time then you might be a litle out of practice with making sure you hold to your promises too.

I'm just sayin.

If you're hitting the end of your calendared time for Item 1 and it's time to start Item 2, stop item 1. Make a note of where you are if you need to, and then move on to item 2.

Thanks to Hofstatder's Law you'll probably quickly discover that you aren't budgeting yourself enough time to do the work you need to do. That's ok. You're making progress, and you're getting a better sense of the true time costs of what you do. Once you have that, you'll know how to plan even more effectively going forward. On top of that, you're strengthening your discipline at moving from one kind of focused work to another kind of focused work on your own terms.

3. Guard Your Commitments

This is all great advice if you work by yourself in a cave on a mountain in Tibet, but the reality is that you work with people--and people. will. walk. all. over. you. If you let them.

That means that to whatever extent you can, you have to guard the commitments you make to yourself. Obviously if somebody with a fancier tie and a longer title than yours comes in and drops something heavy on your desk and says "I need it a week ago," you have to make allowances and tradeoffs, and maybe shift the commitments you make to yourself. The key is that you make people--even Manager Fancy Tie--aware of the relevant tradeoffs: "Sure, I can get on this--I'm workin on the TPS reports now, so those will have to be a little late while I handle this here hot potato. Is that ok?"

If you start building a pattern of behavior this way, people might even come to see you differently. You'll no longer be Captain Overcommitment, the guy who says yes to everything and winds up with 30 broken spinner plates and a buncha hurt feelings.

You'll be the guy that knows when to say no--and the guy whose Yes really means things will get done.

starting to break out of the sand

Thus far I've been doing an awful lot of namby-pamby self-helpy "CARE ABT YR STUFF" writing here, but it's time for the rubber to meet the road. If you're buried in tiny tasks, organizing meetings, and action planning, it can feel an awful lot like waking up buried in sand on the beach: how did all this stuff land on me? How did I not notice that I'm stuck? This is a warp-speed set of tips to get you thinking about how--and more importantly why--you want to get better at managing your time and energy. This isn't a step by step how-to, but a framework for thinking through the ways you might be able to make room in your life for the machinery required to get the shit done that you need to get done.

In the next few posts I do I'll be breaking these out and expanding on their purpose, relevance, and implementation for people trying to do work that matters.

Adopt a set of rules for dealing with incoming stuff

Eliminate the 'what do I DO with this?' problem

Some people will say you need a "productivity system" like David Allen's Getting Things Done. I like GTD, and there are lots of great lightweight introductions to it available, but it can take time and work to get started with. If you're looking for something you can adopt quickly so you can begin to see results and decide whether or not it works for you, I'd start with something simpler, like the Do/Defer/Delegate framework of Inbox Zero. In essence: if you see a thing, and it can be done in less than 2-3 minutes, do it. If not, put the time required to do it on your calendar. If you have someone in your life or circles or team who can help you, see if you can farm it out.

Then, maybe try GTD for more control.

Make (and keep!!) commitments to yourself

When you put something on your calendar (the 'defer' part), do it.

If you're hitting the end of your calendared time for Item 1 and it's time to start Item 2, stop item 1 and do item 2. You'll probably quickly discover that you aren't budgeting yourself enough time to do the work you need to do. That's ok. You're making progress, you're getting a better sense of the true time costs of what you do so you can plan more effectively going forward, and you're strengthening your discipline by moving from one kind of focused work to another kind of focused work on your own terms.

Guard your time like it's your last slice of bacon

People. will. walk. all. over. you. If you let them.

To whatever extent you can, you have to guard the commitments you make to yourself. Obviously if somebody with a fancier tie and a longer title than yours comes in and drops something heavy on your desk and says "I need it a week ago," you have to make allowances and tradeoffs, and maybe shift the commitments you make to yourself. The key is that you make people--even Manager Fancy Tie--aware of the relevant tradeoffs: "Sure, I can get on this--I'm workin on the TPS reports now, so those will have to be a little late while I handle this here hot potato. Is that ok?"

Keep a Journal

Capture, Review & Reflect

Throughout the day, as you make notes, add them to a running journal. As the day goes on, review items you've "captured" and (as in 'do, defer, delegate') and either put them on to-do lists for the projects they're relevant for, find a place on the calendar to put it (affinity group meeting at 4!), or send the necessary communications ('hey john, how's the dooblybop coming?'). As you accomplish things, move them from to-do lists to my Completed list. In the last few minutes of the day I like to look at my journal to see a list of the things I've gotten done that day. I use that list to generate about 75-100 words of reflection on the day. It lets me clear my head, think through the progress I made and opportunities for improvement, and jogs my mind to get thinking about tomorrow. Here's a sample of what I'm talking about. I highly recommend it.

Think About Tomorrow Today

Get A Framework Down & Review It AM

The last thing I do before I leave is be sure I have time blocked out tomorrow to work on the things I know--from my daily review, my reflection, and my overall understanding of my day--will be important tomorrow. Transfer that skeleton schedule to a place you'll be able to look at it in the morning, on your way in to work. I like to put it on my Google Calendar so I can review it on my phone as I ride the train in to work, but maybe just jotting down a little list on paper works for you. Whatever you need to do, the important thing is that you A) have a sense of what you'll do tomorrow and B) look at it in the morning to remind yourself of what you've decided is important.

Bonus Tip

Jumpstart Critical Thinking

Here's little bonus brain hack-y thing to get yourself sharp in the mornings: before reviewing your calendar, read something short that you disagree with. Cognitively speaking, the act of mentally questioning and interrogating something ("wait a minute, that's BS!") is connected to the critical thinking lots of us have to do in our daily work. By massaging your brain out of the fog of sleep into the act of thought, you'll be prepared to look at your calendar for the day and examine it critically, so that when you get to the office you'll be ready to hit the ground running, deal with stuff effectively, strengthen your discipline, and generally wreck shit. That's a technical term.