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12 Hours to Better Time Management

12 Hours to Better Time Management
12 Hours to Better Time Management

Work. Kids. School. Sports. Second job. Partner’s job. The next great American novel. Your knitting circle. Remodeling the guest bathroom. Taking your car in for its 30,000 mile tune-up. An on and on and on — it seems like we have things to do in abundance. What we don’t ever seem to have enough of is time.

I think we all know what we should do, but the prospect of sitting down and getting everything together, taking the time to set up a system that we trust to work for us (and that we trust ourselves to make work) is daunting. And, what’s more, it’s time consuming — and time’s exactly what we don’t have.

We’re too busy to manage our time!

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But, what if you could do it in 12 hours? Maybe not even all at once — a couple hours a day over the course of a week, maybe, or even a half-hour a day over course of a few weeks? That seems a lot more doable, doesn’t it? Like something you might be able to get yourself to do?

Here, then, is the backbone of a good system you can implement in 12 hours (or less). Give yourself a week or three to get it up and running, and see if the time you invest in it now isn’t returned to you several times over down the line.

1. Set up your calendars (4-6 hours)

Use an online calendar like Google Calendar or 30 Boxes to set reminders for every conceivable event in your life, particularly recurring events like bill payment dates, your kids’ soccer games, and your shopping trips. I recommend a calendar rather than a reminder service like Sandy because you are going to want to look at your upcoming events once in a while, and a calendar is a format we’re all familiar with.

I recommend you put these into a calendar other than your main calendar. If you like the idea of looking at everything in, say, Outlook, most of the online calendars offer a iCal feed that you can subscribe to in Outlook. Call it “Reminders” and open it as a second calendar. If you put the al into your main calendar, you may find that it becomes too cluttered to be of any use — especially in the month view where most calendars only show the first few items per day.

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Put all of these events into your calendar:

  • Gas bill due date
  • Electric bill due date
  • Mortgage/rent due date
  • Phone bill due dates (landline and mobile)
  • Cable/satellite bill due date
  • Insurance premium due dates
  • Backup computer (daily, weekly, or monthly, depending on your usage and level of paranoia — automate this if you can)
  • Trash pickup (set reminder for the night before)
  • One day every three months for oil changes
  • One day every year for auto tune-ups
  • One day every three years for major auto tune-ups
  • One day every 6 months for dentist appointments
  • One day every year for doctor, eye doctor
  • Any other recurring medical appointments
  • One day very month for prescription refilling (two reminders — one to call in refill, one to pick up)
  • Netflix/Tivo/XM/other service billing dates
  • Write grocery list (one day before your regular shopping day)
  • The day the exterminator comes
  • The time and day of any TV show you watch regularly
  • The last day of January (to check for tax paperwork)
  • One or more days at the beginning of the year to do your taxes and.or contact your tax preparer
  • April 15 (or whatever day taxes are due in your country)
  • Start and end of the school year, start and end of school vacations
  • Birthdays, Anniversaries, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, other important holidays (set two reminders — one on the day itself to remind you to call or take some other action and one two weeks earlier to buy a gift, if needed, or plan a party)
  • Monthly, quarterly, and annual home maintenance (see checklists below)
  • Any other date which requires a concrete action at specific times every week, month, or year

Also add these dates, without reminders:

  • The end date for all of the above billing cycles
  • The pay dates for any automatic payments (and it’s a good idea, while you’re at it, to set up automatic payments for as many bills as you can)
  • Direct deposit dates
  • Automatic bank transfer dates
  • Stock dividend payment/reinvestment dates
  • Any other date it’s important for you to know about but which does not require any immediate action on your part

In your main calendar, the one you use for keeping track of your schedule day to day, schedule blocks of time for the following:

  • Grocery shopping (weekly)
  • Laundry (weekly)
  • Family meals
  • Bill paying (bi-monthly — the first and third weekend of the month might be good. List in the note section all of the bills that come due in the half month after each bill-paying day)
  • Any weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly meeting
  • Kids’ sports events (e.g. weekly football games every Saturday from September 15 through December 15)
  • Other kids’ activities (art classes, piano lessons, every 3rd weekend at grandparents’, etc.)
  • Weekend chores/cleaning
  • Commute time
  • Gym sessions
  • Golf/bicycling/other sports
  • Weekly review (schedule 2 hours whenever you’re least likely to be interrupted) — make sure you use your weekly review to add any new reminders you might need!
  • Writing time (if you want to write an hour a day, schedule an hour a day — don’t assume you’ll just “find” a spare hour each day.)
  • Other hobbies (same as with writing)
  • Any classes you’re taking
  • Goofing off time (I schedule at least an hour a day for whatever strikes my fancy)
  • Any other regular blocks of time you know you need to be at a specific place or doing a specific thing. The only exception is your regular 9-to-5 job, if you have one — schedule the activities you’ll do at your job, not the job itself.

You’ll have to use your own judgment about which of these scheduled events needs reminders and which don’t. I don’t set reminders for commuting time, for example, since it’s enough for me to be able to look at my calendar and see that those times are blocked off. On the other hand, I have reminders 15 minutes before all the classes I teach, so I know when I need to start heading to my classrooms when I’m on campus.

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2. Set up password system (2-3 hours)

Use a program like KeePass, or a password protected spreadsheet, or whatever system you feel most comfortable with, but use one — if you have a lot of passwords and no system, you’ll waste a lot of time either trying every possible password you can remember or searching frantically though your emails, files, or scraps of paper on your desk for wherever you recorded your password. In one or two sessions, record every login and password you have. Make sure you get information for all of these:

  • Bank accounts (including debit card PIN)
  • Credit cards
  • Stock accounts
  • Email
  • Internet service
  • Online payment services
  • Phone service
  • Utilities
  • Website memberships (Yahoo, Google, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, flickr, WordPress.com, Digg, Reddit, Blogger, OpenID, etc.)
  • Your site’s login, FTP, and admin panel info
  • Any MySQL or other databases your site uses
  • Work accounts
  • Parking permit services
  • DMV online/other government services
  • Web applications
  • Software registration keys (not technically passwords, but many password managers include sections for registration keys — useful if [when] you need to reinstall Windows)
  • Any other account you have a password to

3. Create checklists (2-3 hours)

Make a new folder on your computer called “AAAAA Checklists” (or “@Checklists” for you David Allen fans), so it sorts to the top of your Documents folder.  Create a set of checklists for recurring tasks and save them to at folder, so you can easily print them off whenever you need one. Some checklists to think about creating include:

  • Grocery list (with everything you commonly buy and space for additions; my list is organized by aisle in the store we shop at, so I can move quickly from back to front with minimal interruptions)
  • Monthly home maintenance (e.g. change air filters, test smoke detectors, etc.)
  • Quarterly of semi-annual home maintenance (e.g. clean gutters, replace smoke detector batteries, check fire extinguishers, etc.)
  • Winter/Summer car preparation (e.g. check coolant, flush radiator, add chains/snow tires, etc.)
  • Trip/vacation packing
  • Christmas decorating

4. Keep up to date with a weekly review

You scheduled a weekly review in part 1 — make sure you keep that appointment. During your weekly review, take 10 minutes to set up reminders for any recurring events you might have missed in your initial setup, as well as any new commitments you’ve taken on. Check your schedule and make sure that you’ve left adequate time for any new tasks that you need to take care of in the coming week If necessary, move some of those blocks of scheduled time around. Check, too, what’s coming up that you’ll need to add to your schedule — for example, if your child’s birthday is coming up, you’ll need to schedule a block of time to pick up a gift, and another block of time to plan a party, etc.

Better, not perfect

There’s plenty of room for improvement, of course. This is meant as a backbone to a system; you will find that other ways to make yourself more efficient occur to you. Password management, for example, is just one kind of reference system that will save you time on a pretty regular basis — you will probably think of others that fit your own particular situation. In my home, keeping the mail sorted and in some semblance of order is a big task, so I set up a mail management center, with trays for my partner’s and my personal mail, a tray for bills, and a tray for coupons and flyers (it took about 30 minutes, in case you want to add that to your 12-hour commitment). You might not have a problem with mail, but you might need to work on keeping track of magazines.

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Having a solid structure in place will help you wrangle with the other, smaller “time sinks” in your life. Once you start looking at your time in a “big picture” view, you’ll start seeing everything that falls outside of your existing system in a new way, and solutions will suggest themselves. Instead of fretting about it, just schedule an hour or two to take care of it — for bigger projects break it into three or four 2-hour sections.

Once you’ve started getting a grip on your schedule, you’ll find that not only are you more on top of your schedule (instead of it being on top of you!) but your mind will be more at ease. Instead of worrying about what’s coming up, or even what you should be doing right now, you’ll just check your schedule and know. The energy you used to use for worrying and occasionally freaking out, you can put to better use pursuing your dreams.

What about you? What 1-2 hour activities do you recommend to help get a grip on time?

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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