I decided to spend the lull at the end of December working on my time management skills. What has happened, though, is I have merely gained a deeper understanding of why my time management has fallen apart.
Here are three strategies that everyone should be doing that I am not:
1. Do the most important thing first.
I have interviewed at least ten productivity experts who have said that this is one of their essential pieces of advice. So I decided to start doing this. But for the past week I have followed through on this commitment less than half the time.
Here is the cause for my failure: Fear. The most important thing of the day always matters the most, or is the hardest for me to do. Otherwise, I would have done it earlier. I am thinking that if I tell you this, then I will see how obvious it is that I have to plow through the fear or I’ll get nothing done.
But here’s a secondary reason I am not doing my most important thing first: I am addicted to the immediate gratification of blog metrics. I love that I can watch my achievements hour by hour. Minute by minute if I am particularly dreading my to do list and the traffic is particularly interesting.
I have a feeling I need to change the way I’m thinking about this problem. Dan Markus, one of the guys who told me how important it is to do the hardest thing first, gave me a suggestion: Treat yourself like you’d treat a kid. No dessert until you eat your dinner. No television until you clean your room. No blog metrics until you write your column.
2. Keep your email organized.
I know you’re supposed to use folders, and Merlin Mann can talk forever about how it’s important to keep your in box empty. So I have a filing system that empties my in box, but it involves arcane routines of renaming files that I transfer to folders I forget about.
So when I was buying the Lifehacker book I noticed that the book people most often bought with it was Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook. So in a vote of confidence for the Lifehacker community, I bought the Outlook book, too.
Some people learn visually. I do not. And to me, the hundreds of screen shots in this book look like one of those puzzles where you try to find what has changed from one picture to the next. Besides that, just renaming one Task category took five pages. (Not that I got to the end, but I did skip ahead to take see where the end would be.)
I decided that my problem is not my task list so I stopped trying to adjust it. And according to the book, having a few more folders for moving mail quickly out of my in box will help. What a relief. Because I really like writing my to do list by hand.
3. Stick to a schedule.
If you don’t have a plan for how you’re going to meet your goals, then you probably won’t meet them. This advice is about to do lists, but also about schedules. You need to control your time so that you are spending it in a way that reflects your values.
I used to be really good at this. One of my strengths, for example, is that I block out 1pm to 8pm for my kids, and I can count on one hand the times I have made an exception to this rule in order to get more work done. But my schedule took a turn for the worst when I started blogging.
I told myself I need to remake my schedule where I block out time to blog each day. (Full disclosure: My posts take me more than three hours each. When I was first investigating blogging I interviewed Dervala Hanley, who is known for lovely writing. She told me she spent two hours on each post and I thought she was crazy to spend that much time on a blog. But now, look who’s crazy.)
Mysteriously, I figured out Outlook’s calendar without reading a book. So I started a calendar in Outlook. I scheduled every minute so I wouldn’t have time to sneak in visits to other bloggers’ metrics. I built in time for all the stuff I am not making time for lately — like getting my columns in before the deadline and spending enough time at the gym to feel like I’m actually doing something there.
My days were looking really good until I saw that I need three days every day to get my stuff done. Then it became clear why I am not sticking to a schedule: I’m not willing to give stuff up. (My husband says, “Give up the blog. That thing is like an online lottery ticket.” This comment, of course, is true. I will ignore it, but its a word of caution for anyone who is thinking of blogging.)
Parkinson’s Law says that our tasks expand to fit the amount of time we allot. (Thanks, Andy) This rings true to me because if I didn’t have kids I would swear that I had to work in the afternoons in order to survive. So I decided that I am not going to cut things out, I’m going to do things faster.
But to be honest, this has not been a rip-roaring success so far. For example, I told myself that I could only spend an hour on my post today. I went to Jason Warner’s blog, Meritocracy, and started thinking about his great statement of purpose that he posted this week. It is full of ideas about where we are with recruiting and what the workplace should provide people, and how we should treat each other. It’s an important post that would take me at least three hours to blog about. So I skipped it.
But believe me, this post that I wrote was no quickie, either.