So much gets written about the overload of an average person’s life—information overload, email overload, “to-do” list overload. And most time management experts seem to have the same message: get a system for determining what’s truly important and then ignore the rest of it (or at least put the rest of it in its proper place).
There is a personality type that will never be satisfied living this way. I know because I’m one of them. I’m a list-maker who lives by my lists, and I can’t go to bed at night without seeing most, if not all, the items on my list crossed off. In the parlance of the Gallup organization’s Strengths Finder 2.0 assessment, I’m an “achiever.” And being an achiever doesn’t mean that I must achieve big important things with my life, but rather, that I simply have to be getting stuff done all the time. I can’t ignore things without feeling unsatisfied. And because I’m fairly detail-oriented, the stuff I can’t ignore often falls into a category all those time management experts would label as unimportant or not a priority.
I once had a job where it was impossible to get everything done. You know, the kind of job that most people have these days. I learned that it just doesn’t work for me. I had to restructure my life so that I could get most everything done every day, and that meant having my own business so that no one but me gets to decide what’s on the “to-do” list. I realize not everyone has the ability to do that; but this is an option that gets left out of the time management dialogue altogether.
If you’re one of those people who just doesn’t feel good when you have to prioritize and ignore, start by asking the big questions about your current life. Do you have a job where overload pretty much guarantees that you will never be satisfied, no matter how much you get done? If so, can you do anything about that? Can you start your own business or change jobs? Have you made too many commitments socially, or taken on too many projects or hobbies, or set the bar too high in any other way? For me, I had to ask some huge questions many years ago. Should I have kids? Nope, absolutely not. Your life is no longer your own once you do that.
Here are some tips for managing the smaller, day-to-day stuff:
- Invest time in making things go away permanently. Once a month or so, I pick a day when I’m actually going to open every junk email that comes my way (except for the ads for Viagra and that ilk) and hit the “unsubscribe” button on anything I’m no longer interested in. Otherwise I feel like I have to read all those newsletters and announcements.
- Rather than keeping your to-do list as one huge list, keep it in calendar format with tasks scheduled for particular days. Then organize your day according to your energy level. Projects that will take lots of brain power, or that I really really don’t want to do, are reserved for the mornings. Then in the afternoons when I’m tired I start picking off all those little tasks that don’t take much concentration. By the time I quit for the day, I really do have the feeling that I got everything done I was supposed to do that day, and I can truly relax.
- Carry your to-do list, whether it’s electronic or paper, with you everywhere you go. You never know when you’ll get a chance to knock a couple things off it, e.g. when you’re sitting in the dentist’s office or waiting in line at a store.
- Think constantly about efficiency. What’s the best time-saving order to do your errands in? How can you get the proverbial two birds with one stone every time you do something? I actually think about things as minuscule as what order I’m going to unload my car in, or how to move through the house so as to minimize back-tracking.
- Stay out front on email and phone communications. If you’re waiting for something, email reminders to people a day or two in advance. Be the first to initiate contact with someone you need to work with. Trace your calendar for upcoming dates when people owe you a piece of information or a response. When you’re out front, you have more choices about timing and a better chance of feeling in control. When you’re always reacting to other people’s communications instead, you feel constantly behind schedule and out of control.
Time management experts would tell you that some of these tips are surefire ways to drive yourself crazy. And for many people that’s undoubtedly true. But what so many experts ignore is the vast and varied needs of different personality or behavioral types. One system can’t possibly fit all, and the real trick is to find what works for you.
And now I can cross “blog entry” off my to-do list for today!