I shared last week on social media that the theme for that week had been "too much to do". That was the case not only for me, but also for a number of people I talked to across all walks of life; this sense of having too many priorities to work on, problems to solve, or fire drills to put out.
Books on time management, productivity, and organization routinely top best-seller lists, with the message that this way of managing your time, improving your focus, or taking breaks will be the catalyst needed to help you organize and manage your time. I think there is value to these time / energy "optimization" methods, to being organized, and to finding what works for you. But it goes beyond that.
The other day, I RSVP'd for a wedding online rather than through the mail for the first time. Once I clicked a couple boxes, I immediately had the option to visit the couple's registry and send a gift. Two minutes later, the gift was en route to them. Ten years ago, this same task would have taken an hour or two of my time; I would have sent a reply back in the mail and then taken the time to go to an actual store where I printed off a gift registry and wandered the aisles deciding what to give the couple. Then I would have purchased the gift, perhaps wrapped it, and delivered/shipped/or dropped it off at the reception.
What astonished me most about that experience was the realization that so many things have become faster and easier, and yet many of us still have more to do than there are hours in the day.
I thought about it. I talked to people about it. Why was this happening, and how could we think about our time and energy differently?
I realized there are two aspects to all of this - there's the "capacity" side of how you have the focus, time, and energy to get things done (and what many people think about when it comes to time management) and then there's the "input/output" side, which is determining what you want to accomplish and how you'll accomplish it in the best way. This is the aspect that isn't given as much attention, but is just as important. Here are four tips to help you aim to do the right things.
1. What you say yes to is just as important as what you say no to. It's important to start with a clear definition of what is most important and what activities contributes to your measure of success. For example, if you own a business, net income is one of the common measures of success, so it's important to understand what activities most favorably impact net income (while not coming at any ethical expense, of course) and then to focus on doing those activities and measuring the results of them compared to what results you expect.
Over the past six months, I've said "no" to a lot of things for myself and my family when I realized that I wasn't getting the results on the metrics or measures that are important to me. One simple example: I signed my kids up for too many activities last fall and it was negatively impacting our time, energy, and behavior (lots of whining, stress, and tantrums). We moved to one activity per kid per season for now and added independent playtime to give them more space to decompress. Another example: some of my growth ideas for J. Margaret Weaver were inappropriate based on our business stage so I adjusted my growth timeline which allowed me to let go of some unnecessary work right now and to focus on what matters in the next quarter rather than a year from now. I've adjusted my approach to consulting projects to simplify the work while still yielding the same or better results, I've delayed superfluous projects around my house (and finally brought in an expert to help me refresh my office), and I even let go of a strong opinion I had on a particular situation that was zapping my energy and time as I tried to build my case for why I was right. I realized that it didn't matter enough.
While it can be incredibly challenging or look different in practice when leading a team of people or in a situation where it seems like you have to say yes, it's all about coming back to defining what actually matters and how can you accomplish what actually matters in the simplest way possible. That might mean tuning out some of the noise that accompanies the topic, fostering a relationship so you can set better boundaries in the future, or having some white space to identify the items that actually matter and create specific plans around them.
2. Identify and use constraints to your advantage. We face constraints and tradeoffs every day. Time, resources, energy, production capacity, and cash flow are all common constraints that can thwart a plan and require creativity to pivot. Can't get a meeting with a key decision-maker for four weeks but you need to finalize something in two weeks? Try a different route - whether that's another communication method (texting, email, dinner, breakfast, hallway conversation) or another decision-maker (can that person delegate decision-making authority to someone else or to you? The answer isn't to just throw up your hands and delay the project or to try and eliminate every constraint, it's to work within your constraints to find a creative solution.
3. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Not only is it a math fundamental, it's also good planning. The more comprehensive a plan is from the beginning, the straighter the line will be from concept to completion. How do you get a comprehensive plan? Start with what you know and pull in experts to help build it out further. Validate the plan with anyone who has decision-making authority or an impact on the outcome to ensure you heard then correctly and implemented their feedback. Finally, test to see if you really need to do something a particular way - perhaps it could be accomplished in two steps rather than five or in a day rather than a week.
4. Practice good stewardship of your time and energy. I started changing my approach to staying organized and managing my time when I framed it as practicing good personal stewardship. I steward my time and energy so I can give the right amount to the people and opportunities that are important to me. That might mean going to bed early, taking a short break, getting a babysitter for a date night, pulling in more resources to help with a project, or not doing activities that you, my wonderful customers, do not value and therefore I should not be doing. This approach has helped me avoid the trappings of feeling guilty or that I must justify how I am spending my time, as I'm aligning it with a bigger vision and definition of what it means to steward my time.