Over the last few months, I’ve been planning out a major professional, creative, and somewhat personal project that I’m going to take on in 2016. I’m not going to share the details of it quite yet, as the finished project is going to be much more interesting than promises that I may or may not be able to fulfill, but suffice it to say that it is going to require me to pick up a boatload of new skills and it’s also going to eat up a fair amount of time.
That time is largely going to come from my choice to step down from a couple of my other personal responsibilities, but more than that, it’s going to take a real commitment to be more organized with my time use.
Don’t get me wrong, I know how to be organized with my time. I launched and built up The Simple Dollar while simultaneously raising an infant and working at a full-time job that often required additional hours and travel. I’ve also experienced many years of very unstructured working time where I have basically been able to define my own working hours and working conditions as long as I met certain deadlines and goals.
In other words, I know how to manage my time. The real question, then, is how exactly do I continue to have free time while also taking care of all of my projects and responsibilities when I’m adding more to my plate?
Here’s my game plan, carved out of many years of learning how to manage my own time in an unstructured environment.
Get It Out of Your Head
Any piece of information, task to complete, appointment, or anything else that’s rattling around in your head because you need to remember it or take action on it later is a bad, bad thing, for two big reasons.
First, if you keep it in your head, there’s a good chance you’re going to forget it. It is very rare for someone to have a good enough memory to remember an unrelated piece of information or a task while working on something else completely unrelated and be able to call that information afterward every time. I certainly can’t do it and I don’t know anyone who can. While I can do it sometimes, it’s nowhere near reliable enough to fully trust it.
Second, even if I do manage to remember it, that means I wasn’t giving my full focus to the task at hand. Whether I’m consciously aware of it or not, keeping a piece of information in my head takes away from my focus on whatever it is that I’m trying to do. The result of that split focus is that the task at hand doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
The solution to this double problem is to get things out of my head and as soon as they pop into my head. I do this by writing them down, usually in a pocket notebook that sits on my desk, but also sometimes in Evernote. Then, when I’m done with the task at hand, I check my notebook and/or Evernote and deal with whatever thing I wrote down.
The five seconds during which I’m pausing my task at hand and writing down the thought or idea in my head isn’t long enough to really break my focus on the main task at hand, which means that after I get that stray thought out of my head, I can come right back to the task at hand and focus intensely on it.
This strategy comes from the brilliant book Getting Things Done by David Allen. In fact, Allen suggests a brilliant first step for all of this: a complete brain dump. Essentially, you spend a day or so getting everything out of your head – ideas, things to be done, appointments, and so on – and into some sort of trusted system usually including a calendar and a to-do list manager. That becomes your starting point, from which you can start jotting down things and adding them into this system as described above.
Have Tools That You Trust and Know How to Use
Of course, the idea of “getting tasks out of your head” doesn’t really help too much if you’re losing track of the place where you put those tasks. It only helps if you fully trust the system into which you’re putting that information. Without the complete trust that you’ll check that pocket notebook later in the day, there’s no point in writing it down.
So, another key part of my system for keeping everything organized and managing my time well is to make checking my pocket notebook a frequent habit. I leaf through it and take action on whatever I find in there at least two or three times a day.
What do I mean by “take action”? It means that I do something useful with each item that I’ve jotted down.
Maybe it winds up in my ongoing to-do list of tasks that I need to take care of. Maybe it winds up in my calendar so that I get a reminder of something I need to do at a specific time and date later on. Maybe it’s an idea for an article that I’ll write in the future, so I jot it down for later use in my master list of ideas. Maybe it’s a really quick task that I just take care of right now.
Basically, for each of those things I jotted down, I need to do something. It doesn’t mean necessarily that I have to dive into that big task that I came up with right now, but it does mean that I need to at least put myself in a position that I’ll be reminded of that task later on. Most of the time, taking care of that move is really obvious and quick.
Break the Big Tasks Into Smaller Chunks
While a lot of the things I jot down take just a minute or two to handle (and so I do them immediately), many of the things I come up with are tasks that are going to take at least a couple of hours to complete. Some of them are actually really big projects that will take many hours to complete.
What I’ve found is that when I break these big tasks down into pieces that are about half an hour in length, I get a lot more done. I just keep a to-do list of a lot of tasks that are about half an hour in length. During my day, I bear down on a task and complete it in about half an hour, take a short break to do something else (check email, check social media, check texts, go to the bathroom, get something to drink, etc.), and then grab the next task in line.
I do prioritize those tasks because, yes, some are higher priority than others. Again, I use a “priority’ tag in my to-do list manager so that I can easily rank things by priority. A lower priority doesn’t mean I can “skip” something, but that I’m not going to face immediate backlash if it’s not completed by the end of the day.
Why half an hour? This comes from a well-known productivity strategy called the Pomodoro Technique, where people are encouraged to work in 25-minute spells with fie-minute breaks. My simple take on that technique is to just define tasks that take 25-30 minutes so that I can check something off of my list before taking that short break.
Break the Regular Tasks into Small Chunks, Too
One thing I’ve found really useful (when I’ve used it in the past) was to also include regular tasks as “half-hour tasks” in my to-do list. I even include things like housework on there, with tasks like “do all the dishes and clean the kitchen” or “clean the bedroom and do a load of laundry” or “fold the unfolded laundry on the laundry room table” as great half-hour tasks.
To really make this work, I spent some time breaking down as many of my regular household chores as possible into half-hour blocks. Then, I draw from those half-hour blocks by adding them to my to-do list when I see something needs to be done or I know a maintenance window is coming up.
For me, half an hour devoted to a specific household task is enough time to do it pretty well unless it’s a major job like cleaning out a closet. Treating household tasks in this way lets me add a couple of these to the schedule each day and keep ahead of the mess (most of the time).
Keep Well Ahead of the Minimal Pace on Big Projects
Whenever I have a big project in front of me, I usually develop some kind of timeline for it. I identify some key milestones and dates for deliverables and then come up with a timeline that has me a little bit ahead of the pace on getting those things done so that I have a bit of breathing room in case of problems.
Then, I identify tasks for myself to handle that project that have a little bit of additional breathing room, as they lead toward reaching milestones even earlier than my project plan suggests.
Keeping ahead of the pace on all projects means that I don’t fall into a crisis mode if things don’t go perfectly. If my daughter falls sick again (which, believe me, is a pretty real risk), I need to be able to take care of her appropriately without every project I’m working on going off the rails. If something else happens in my life, I may need to have some time to take care of unexpected problems and having some breathing room in my professional life makes that possible.
Thus, I try to get ahead and stay ahead of the pace on every project that I’m involved with. Usually, that means that I crunch pretty hard on it when I launch the project to establish a “lead” ahead of the plan, then I try to stay that far ahead.
For example, I try to keep articles written for The Simple Dollar at least a week ahead, though sometimes that buffer dwindles to nothing (and sometimes it’s bigger). I do this by maintaining a normal writing pace that’s faster than what appears on the site so that I can take time off for emergencies when needed.
Allow Plenty of Space for Others to Fall Behind Without Wrecking Your Ship
Sometimes when you’re working on a project, you’re going to be relying on the progress of others in order to make any forward progress on your own. For example, I participated in a podcast as a co-host for years, but there were always delays in waiting for the sound guy, the other hosts, and so on to produce the things they were responsible for.
Another example: At my previous job, I was constantly collaborating on things with my coworkers and even with people in different locations and I often hit stopping points where I couldn’t move forward due to needing information or work products from them.
This is yet another reason why I try to be ahead of the pace on any project I take on. Inevitably, some of the people you rely on for parts of a project are going to be slow, so the best thing you can do is plan ahead for that. Get them the materials they need as early as you can. Then, expect that they’re going to be slow to deliver things back to you.
It’s such a simple thing to do, but it’s so easy to fail on. It’s easy to put off delivering things for others if you’re busy. It’s also easy to fall into a trap where you need to get some things done but you’re waiting on others. The best solution I’ve found is to give my parts of the shared task priority and try to get my part done quickly.
I also tend to plan projects in such a way that I have plenty of time after receiving their materials to finish what I need to finish. That way, even when they’re inevitably late, I still can make deadlines without too much trouble.
Make Room for Getting ‘In the Zone’
In the end, the number one most productive strategy I have in my life is simply getting “in the zone.” By that, I mean I get so engrossed in a task that I completely lose track of time and end up snapping out of it a couple of hours later having completed a ton of work. How does that experience relate to the strategies I describe above?
It’s simple: I make sure to take on tasks that can be really open-ended and easily merge into the next task at the start of periods without any other appointments.
For example, I usually sit down at my desk to write at eight in the morning and I start in on my first writing task. Ideally, when I turn off my phone and other distractions, I slip into a zone where I don’t even notice what time it is. Since I usually don’t have anything scheduled in the mornings, I just ride that experience until I suddenly snap back to reality and I’ve usually knocked out a ton of writing during that time.
This doesn’t always work and I don’t really rely on it so much, but it has happened often enough that I know that it is really valuable to take advantage of it and it often gets me way ahead of the pace on big projects when I can achieve it.
The secret is to know which tasks are really open-ended and can keep going and going and going if you’re able to do that and to take on those tasks when you have a few hours of really flexible time ahead of you. That way, you can slip into a focused state without any real worries about the broader picture of your life. You can just do great work really efficiently.
The Tools I Use
So, what exactly do I use to keep this system rolling?
First of all, I use a pocket notebook and a pen to jot down things on the fly most of the time. I find that it’s just so fast and flexible to write things down in that way that nothing electronic compares to it. I personally prefer to use Field Notes pocket notebooks and a Uniball 207 ultra micro gel pen, if you’re looking for specific tools, though any scratch paper and pen on your desk and/or in your pocket will do the trick.
To manage my ongoing to-do list, I use Todoist. It provides the core features I need – cross-platform usage so I can use it on my desktop and on my smartphone, the ability to set due dates and prioritize tasks, the ability to add tags to tasks so I can look them up by tag, the ability to group tasks into projects, and a really straightforward interface.
For pieces of information I want to save for later, I use Evernote, for many of the same reasons as Todoist. It’s cross-platform, I can tag any note that I create, and it’s really easy to use. It also helps that I have literally thousands of notes stored in there, so I kind of have the momentum thing going on when it comes to Evernote. I even use it for simple project planning, though I’ll often move to a spreadsheet if it gets too complicated.
For my calendar needs, I use Google Calendar, again for many of the same reasons as the tools above. It’s cross-platform, it’s easy to use, and I can easily find things once I’ve entered them into the tool. I also like the fact that I can get early reminders of upcoming tasks and events.
On a day-to-day basis, those tools take care of everything I need. I have a tool for jotting things down, a tool for managing my tasks that I need to take care of, a tool for storing pieces of information I’ll need later on, and a tool for keeping track of upcoming dates and events. Between those four tools, everything I need to store and every idea that pops into my head has a place to be.
For some of you, pieces of this overall strategy will seem familiar because I’ve used them and described them in a more piecemeal sense in the past. However, with the demands of the coming year, I’ve come to realize that I need to really put together all of the things that work at once so that I can make my new projects into successes.
Right now is the perfect time for you to get on board with these kinds of changes, too. For many people, the days between Christmas and the new year are very light in terms of work responsibilities, so it’s a perfect time to learn some of these tools, do a “brain dump,” and get yourself on track for the personal and professional challenges that lie ahead.