Time tracking: two big rocks

Prior to this era of personal time tracking, if you told me I had two hours to myself, I would make a list of 20 things I hoped to get done in that time. Then one of two things would happen: I would either work frantically to accomplish as many of them as possible (and feel entirely spent at the end), or I would become frozen with the immensity of the tasks before me. i would waste the time and get none of the important things done. 

What I found myself saying this month is, “My priority in the next two hours is to get x and y done.”  It didn’t mean I stopped after I got those two things done. I often got much more done. But focusing on those two priorities helped me to feel less frantic, anxious and overwhelmed (surely, I could get two things done!), and I was less exhausted at the end of that time. I usually got those two priorities done, and they were the two Big Rocks in my mayonnaise jar. The rest of the sand and pebbles fit in around them.

The mayonnaise jar analogy, if you don’t already know it, goes something like this:

A professor brought a mayonnaise jar, some large rocks, some smaller rocks, some pebbles and some sand to class. He asked the students if those items could all fit into the jar. The students thought it wasn’t possible.

The professor then proceeded to put the big rocks in first, followed by the smaller rocks, the pebbles, and finally, the sand. It all fit, after he gave it a good shake and let all the small things settle inside the jar.

He told the students that time is the same way. If you start with all the small, piddly stuff, you’ll never fit the big, important rocks in. But if you get the big, important rocks in first, you can shake down the contents and find that the smaller, less important stuff fits into the smaller spaces.

May you get those two or three “big rocks” in today!

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Rigorous Time Tracking…sort of

This will be a short post.

You know all those New Year’s resolutions you’re breaking by now? Well, my time tracking has not been quite as rigorous as it was in the beginning.

First, my son had a violent stomach flu, and we both lost a night of sleep over it. Two days’ later, I got the same bug. We were both largely out of commission last week.

And then, I remembered that I had a provision for this. See, I knew it was impossible to catch everything I did in my time tracking. I knew at some point, I would fail to capture something because of sickness or some crisis or higher priority. But my husband reminded me from the beginning that even snapshots give more information than no tracking at all. My good friend, Lauryl, who is the Queen of Tracking, reminded me that capturing three days’ activities in a week was better than none. 

So last week, I captured some information. I wrote down activities almost every day. I have more information than I would have had before. In my next post, I’ll share what I learned in a week of imperfect time tracking!

Lessons from Rigorous Time Tracking: Timing of Interruptions

As you may know, I’m practicing a year of rigorous self-tracking: time, money and feelings. This morning, I had a great lesson come out of my time tracking.

I’ve been dog sitting for a friend for a few weeks now, and I arranged with her to pick up the dog at 10:00 “or any time after that.” I had a plan with my time before 10:00, then several things I wanted to get done that weren’t actual appointments after that. I figured since I was home and could work until she got here, it wouldn’t matter if she came at 10:00, 10:15, 10:30 or 11:00 – I would be able to get work done in the interim and would simply put myself and my work on “pause” while we met, got all her dog supplies back to her and checked in on the past few weeks’ experience.

At 10:08, I started to feel tense. I realized that what I wanted and needed to do involved writing (and, therefore, some focus on my thoughts), phone calls (which would require not answering the door while on them), calendaring (which involved focus on my overall schedule, goals and not losing my place while getting the items in). Basically, I found that I put my entire task list on hold and puttered on the internet because I felt I couldn’t dive in and get anything I wanted to do done right. 

The first thing I realized about this is that I did not value my time or take my own process into account here. My time was “flexible” when it really didn’t need to be. Why didn’t I just say, “I need to do this at 10:00 sharp, or we can reschedule for later in the day?” I wanted to please her and give her all sorts of lee-way (without any very good reason – she hadn’t asked for flexibility; I just offered it). 

I also realize I have some very ADD ways of approaching life. Distractions really distract me. I need to have blocks of time in place in which I can work without interruption. For whatever reason, I forgot that about myself, and I didn’t give myself the space I needed to work. I gave myself short-shrift this morning, and I did it not because there was some terrible crisis happening but simply because I thought my time was expendable and others’ was not.

It’s a small thing, but I can already extrapolate this because I know it will show up time and again, if I don’t change it. I can see that this is one of my huge time and energy “drains.”  It was a small thing today, but it happens multiple times each day, everyday. I’m beginning to consider how I might “capture” these potential interruptions and put them on hold until am ready, instead of putting myself on hold until others are ready! And I’m really looking forward to harnessing some of the bleeding energy and diffused focus and putting them back to work for me in 2014.

What’s it going to take for you to be successful in 2014?

What are your goals for 2014? What do you want to accomplish with your business, your creativity, your family, your health?

A lot of folks wait until New Year’s Eve to determine their goals for the following year. We all have a sense for how effective that is, don’t we? We all know that most New Year’s resolutions are long forgotten within the first 90 days of the year.

If we want our goals to become reality, we’re going to need to step up our game. If we want to reach our goals in 2014, we’re going to need to start planning. Now.

What do we need to have truly effective goals?

First of all, goals share certain qualities that differentiate them from dreams, hopes and visions. Goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Sensitive. Saying, “I want to make more money in 2014,” is not specific or measurable. Saying, “I want to make $100,000 in 2014 via my freelance writing work with a particular type of writing client (you name it) working 20 billable hours per week,” is specific and measurable. Why do goals need to be SMART? If they don’t have these qualities, there is no way to assess whether we’ve reached them! They remain vague, and we can wiggle out of accountability about our goals: if we aren’t too specific about the goals, we don’t have to be specific about our successes or our failures.

The “attainable” portion of SMART is about knowing ourselves. Are you able to work the hours you need to work to meet your financial goals if you are also a single parent with health problems? You may need to prioritize which goals come first and whether they happen this year or next or the year after that. You’re the CEO of your own life: you have the power, and you also have the responsibility that goes with it.

“Relevance” is an interesting one, too. This is where your goals intersect with the reality you live in. Is it your goal to go on a family vacation to Disney – with your high school children? Is that goal relevant at this point? Is your passion for cassette tape technology relevant to your technical writing goals? Are your goals directly linked to your passions and values, or are they simply co-opted from your parents or teachers?

A goal also needs to be time-sensitive. When will you earn that $100K? When will you reassess your progress (weekly? monthly? quarterly?).

Next, goals can be broken down into tasks that go into our calendars. They are translated from ideas into the actions we take in time and space. Our task list for the day should be directly linked to the goals of the week, month, quarter and year. If they aren’t, we have to ask ourselves why those things are in our calendars. Life is short, and the things we choose to do for work, for play, for connection and for growth should be in alignment with our ultimate goals and callings. If they aren’t in alignment, then we live a reactive life: we follow the agendas others set for us and the next shiny object to cross our paths, rather than the agendas we set for ourselves. Some people are very happy to do this, and it’s entirely up to them. However, if you don’t want to be that person, then it’s time to work on those goals and their subsequent tasks.

What happens when you hit resistance – either from within or in your surroundings? What happens when you set goals, you break them down into tasks, and you find yourself procrastinating, feeling anxious or overwhelmed, or you’re failing at reaching your goals? Or what if you’re the kind of person who is paralyzed at the goal-setting level: there are so many options, how do you choose?

First of all, welcome to the human race! If you haven’t already read my blog posts on procrastination, fear, overwhelm and perfectionism, now would be a good time. The question isn’t about whether you will experience a breakdown but rather when. And it’s okay. Take a deep breath and allow yourself a big dose of compassion.

Next, identify where the breakdown occurs for you, and begin to work with it with curiosity and compassion. We often can’t solve our problems because we’re too busy berating ourselves, hiding the struggles and feeling bad about them. If we can stop that reaction, we can begin to look at the nature of the problem and to look for solutions.

Lastly, curiosity and compassion will take you worlds beyond the possibilities that exist in shame and hiding, but they will only take you as far as your own perspective will allow. The next important ingredient is to open up your situation to others who can provide new perspective. Go to your wise friends, advisers, therapist, coach, social networks, and start opening up your problem to others. Get feedback. Get outside your own head and see your problem from a new angle. From there, you will discover opportunity open to you and your future that you never imagined possible.

Your goals and the tasks associated with them will bring up every fear you ever had; every type of resistance you’ve ever encountered; every fault you’ve ever hidden. The difference between the successful person and the unsuccessful one isn’t that they don’t have faults: it’s that they were courageous to try something new, despite their flaws. They gave themselves permission to pursue something worthy of pursuit without waiting for someone else to give them permission.

And if you’re waiting for permission, allow me to help: go for it! It’s time to set those goals for your next year.

Biggest blocks to writing: Procrastination, Perfectionism, Fear & Overwhelm (Part I)

I coach writers on a daily basis. I know very well that  it’s important to know your goals, your genre, your audience; to build your brand, your website, your business model. It’s important to learn new skills and to organize your time. You have to market, network, set up our accounting systems, form our LLC or C-Corp or S-Corp. All of these things are great, and they’re critical to a functioning business of writing. And, of course, we need to do the actual writing! Most writers I work with, however, face the specters of their own inner workings as they attempt to accomplish the outer work. The first one we’ll look at together is procrastination (and in later posts, we’ll work with its roots: perfectionism, fear and overwhelm).

Procrastination is a great place to start. It’s the most visible, outward indication of our inner workings. We see it: it’s the Facebook page open in front of us instead of our word processing. It’s the load of laundry in our arms instead of our laptop. It’s the email we’re staring at instead of our task list.

We can find a lot of advice about time management on the internet and in books. Those tools are all helpful, but they often sidestep the fact that the roots of procrastination go beyond those tools: those tools attempt to chop the head off the dandelions, when we need to dig out their source from the bottom-up.

Some key questions to ask ourselves about our procrastination follow. Take time with them (now!). You have to understand the weed and its nature before you can effectively destroy it:

1. What do I procrastinate on? Make a list. Notice if it’s just the dreaded stuff of your life, or if it also includes the positive, life-affirming stuff. Get to know yourself here.

2. What is the cost to me of procrastinating in these areas of my business and life? Write it down. If you want to change something, you have to find your motivation for doing so. If the costs add up to more than you’re willing to pay, you’ll have the motivation you need to change them.

3. What would my life look like if I didn’t procrastinate in these areas? This question often leads to some interesting information. Yes, your life might be more peaceful – but would it also be a little boring? Yes, you might move at a more steady pace, but is the shot of adrenaline you’re getting from last-minute work covering your underlying fatigue?  Would you be unable to work without it?

Now ask yourself one more question, and answer it honestly: is this something I want to change, or am I happy enough, productive enough with it in place? If the answer is that you’re fine enough, don’t go any further. It’s not always the time to fix everything, and if it’s working for you, why change? Just because someone, somewhere thinks you should isn’t a reason enough to do the hard work of changing habits and their causes.

If you do want to change, and you’re ready to do the work, it’s time to look at the roots. Our next topic will cover perfectionism, one of the most common roots of procrastination.