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Just in Time for 2013: An Evergreen Time Management System

Just in Time for 2013: An Evergreen Time Management System

It’s disappointing: you start the new year looking for some solid advice on improving your time management, but all that’s available is yet another list of top 10 tips. You feel let down because they offer little help in moving you towards the working professional’s ultimate destination—an evergreen time management system.

An evergreen system is one that never gets frozen in time. Its methods and tools are continually being evolved by its owner, and constantly being renewed. Here are a couple of reasons to keep your system fresh.

Reason #1 – our lives are dynamic. Things change at work; we get promoted, or selected to lead up a project, or our boss forces us to do the work of two people. At home, we get married, start an exercise program or need to take care of an aging parent. Somewhere in between, we start a part-time Masters degree.

As these commitments make their way into our lives, we find ourselves needing additional capacity… more time… more refined time management techniques to deal with a new level of demands. None of us wants our system to become the bottleneck that causes stuff to fall through the cracks, so we keep it evergreen just so that it can keep up.

Reason #2 – technology is expanding. Every other day we are presented with new choices of productivity tools that simply cannot be ignored. Case in point—there are quite a few professionals who swear that they’ll never use a smartphone, which has caused them to fall behind in developing the latest productivity skills. In the next five years, there will be a further explosion of new mobile products, apps and services, forcing us to make choices about if and when to use them.

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Most people are lazy: they go out and buy the latest gadget, and allow it to shape their time management habits e.g. texting while driving to “save time.” Keeping our system evergreen is the opposite—it means thinking about our system’s needs in an objective way so that we look for the tools we need before they even appear at Best Buy.

We need to learn how to tinker with our systems effectively to keep them evergreen—they don’t stay fresh by themselves.

Many time management gurus are like most auto mechanics, who aren’t interested in teaching you anything useful—they just want you to follow their instructions: “bring in your car.” Gurus often ask us to do the same:”just follow my instructions”. They generally don’t want us tinkering with our systems, doing our own thing, and departing from their advice.

We are on our own.

Fortunately, we can find our way to an evergreen system by coaching ourselves, and by using lessons from other familiar disciplines.

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1. From Professional Sports

“Andragogy” refers to the field of adult education. One of its key principles is that adults already have existing skills (unlike children) and that improvement efforts must build on the abilities that already exist. Top sports teams follow this principle, and start all new players off with an assessment of their skills.

In time management, you already have some good, or even great skills. You need to start with a skillful assessment of your strengths and weaknesses compared against best-in-class practices before deciding to follow a tip or purchase a gadget.

2. From the Martial Arts,

Not everyone who enters a dojo needs (or wants) a Third Degree Black Belt. Most will end up with a more modest achievement in keeping with their aspirations. In much the same way, you need to set goals for your time management system, using your knowledge of world-class standards. Don’t go over the top. Don’t follow someone else’s prescription. Instead, be modest, and set a time to achieve the next rung in the ladder, and then the next, in a way that inspires you rather than scaring you silly.

Making progress at your own pace is the only way to avoid the failure that so many experience from trying to implement too much, too quickly.

3. From Your Math Teacher

If your grade school teachers were any good, they taught you some pretty complex math skills in small, tiny steps. You barely noticed what was happening as they led you slowly, but steadily, through a range of skills.

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Research shows that an adult’s time management skills are just as complex as math skills. Changing them is much easier if you are able to break down the changes you want into small steps that appear to be easy to complete. This is self-coaching at its finest.

4. From Your Piano Instructor

It takes several years of consistent practice at increasing levels of difficulty to become a top-class piano player. You discovered this in perhaps your third or fourth lesson, leading you to re-evaluate your goal of soloing at Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, your instructor showed you how to spread out the small steps you needed to master over a period of several years. She had a plan for taking you all the way and it involved, as Malcolm Gladwell says in “Blink,” at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.

One reason why recent graduates aren’t made into Vice Presidents immediately is that they don’t have the personal time management systems to accomplish very much, a fact which executives understand acutely, but rarely share. They must learn how to replace today’s time management habits with new ones, executing a plan that might take weeks, months and even years of practice.

5. From Your Attempts at Weight Loss

If you have ever tried to lose weight, you might appreciate how challenging it is to learn new habits, and unlearn old ones.

We humans have a difficult time changing habits, and researchers have labored to find a magic formula. So far, they tell us that we over-estimate our willpower, and need much more help than we think. This help must exist beyond the boundary of our memory and emotions, in the form of support groups, coaches, reminders, incentives, dis-incentives, plus more. The key is to build in layers of support that simply don’t allow failure when the urge to eat a sugary snack kicks in.

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While this might sound simple enough, the research also states that we need custom support systems, and can’t simply recycle the supports that a colleague used. This step takes self-knowledge, and very smart tactics.

If we take what we know from these areas in our lives, we can assemble evergreen time management systems that never go stale, and are powered by our innate love of learning. For many of us, tinkering effectively can be a big challenge, but also a lot of fun.

Featured photo credit:  a pen on a book point at a day is New year via Shutterstock

More by this author

Francis Wade

Author, Management Consultant

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Last Updated on July 13, 2020

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

Overwhelm is a pernicious state largely caused by the ever-increasing demands on our time and the distractions that exist all around us. It creeps up on us and can, in its extreme form, leave us feeling anxious, stressed and exhausted.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, here are 6 strategies you can follow that will reduce the feeling of overwhelm; leaving you calmer, in control and a lot less stressed.

1. Write Everything down to Offload Your Mind

The first thing you can do when you begin to feel overwhelmed is to write everything down that is on your mind.

Often people just write down all the things they think they have to do. This does help, but a more effective way to reduce overwhelm is to also write down everything that’s on your mind.

For example, you may have had an argument with your colleague or a loved one. If it’s on your mind write it down. A good way to do this is to draw a line down the middle of the page and title one section “things to do” and the other “what’s on my mind”.

The act of writing all this down and getting it out of your head will begin the process of removing your feeling of overwhelm. Writing things down can really change your life.

2. Decide How Long It Will Take to Complete Your To-Dos

Once you have ‘emptied your head,’ go through your list and estimate how long it will take to complete each to-do.

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As you go through your list, you will find quite a few to-dos will only take you five or ten minutes. Others will take longer, often up to several hours.

Do not worry about that at this stage. Just focus on estimating how long you will need to complete each task to the best of your ability. Here’s How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List.

3. Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

Now here’s a little trick I learned a long time ago. Parkinson’s Law states that work will fill the time you have available to complete it, and us humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take:((Odhable: Genesis of Parkinson’s Law))

    This is why many people are always late. They think it will only take them thirty minutes to drive across town when previous experience has taught them it usually takes forty-five minutes to do so because traffic is often bad but they stick to the belief it will only take thirty minutes. It’s more wishful thinking than good judgment.

    We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage. If you have estimated that to write five emails that desperately need a reply to be ninety minutes, then reduce it down to one hour. Likewise, if you have estimated it will take you three hours to prepare your upcoming presentation, reduce it down to two hours.

    Reducing the time you estimate something will take gives you two advantages. The first is you get your work done quicker, obviously. The second is you put yourself under a little time pressure and in doing so you reduce the likelihood you will be distracted or allow yourself to procrastinate.

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    When we overestimate how long something will take, subconsciously our brains know we have plenty of time and so it plays tricks on us and we end up checking reviews of the Apple Watch 4 or allow our colleagues to interrupt us with the latest office gossip.

    Applying a little time pressure prevents this from happening and we get more focused and more work done.

    4. Use the Power of Your Calendar

    Once you have your time estimates done, open up your calendar and schedule your to-dos. Go through your to-dos and schedule time on your calendar for doing those tasks. Group tasks up into similar tasks.

    For emails that need attention on your to-do list, schedule time on your calendar to deal with all your emails at once. Likewise, if you have a report to write or a presentation to prepare, add these to your calendar using your estimated time as a guide for how long each will take.

    Seeing these items on your calendar eases your mind because you know you have allocated time to get them done and you no longer feel you have no time. Grouping similar tasks together keeps you in a focused state longer and it’s amazing how much work you get done when you do this.

    5. Make Decisions

    For those things you wrote down that are on your mind but are not tasks, make a decision about what you will do with each one. These things are on your mind because you have not made a decision about them.

    If you have an issue with a colleague, a friend or a loved one, take a little time to think about what would be the best way to resolve the problem. More often than not just talking with the person involved will clear the air and resolve the problem.

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    If it is a more serious issue, then decide how best to deal with it. Talk to your boss, a colleague and get advice.

    Whatever you do, do not allow it to fester. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. You need to make a decision to deal with it and the sooner you do so the sooner the problem will be resolved. (You can take a look at this guide on How To Make Good Decisions All The Time.)

    I remember long ago, when I was in my early twenties and had gone mad with my newly acquired credit cards. I discovered I didn’t have the money to pay my monthly bills. I worried about it for days, got stressed and really didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I told a good friend of mine of the problem. He suggested I called the credit card company to explain my problem. The next day, I plucked up the courage to call the company, explained my problem and the wonderful person the other end listened and then suggested I paid a smaller amount for a couple of months.

    This one phone call took no more than ten minutes to make, yet it solved my problem and took away a lot of the stress I was feeling at the time. I learned two very valuable lessons from that experience:

    The first, don’t go mad with newly acquired credit cards! And the second, there’s always a solution to every problem if you just talk to the right person.

    6. Take Some Form of Action

    Because overwhelm is something that creeps up on us, once we feel overwhelmed (and stressed as the two often go together), the key is to take some form of action.

    The act of writing everything down that is bothering you and causing you to feel overwhelmed is a great place to start. Being able to see what it is that is bothering you in a list form, no matter how long that list is, eases the mind. You have externalized it.

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    It also means rather than these worries floating around in a jumbled mess inside your head, they are now visible and you can make decisions easier about what to do about them. Often it could be asking a colleague for a little help, or it could be you see you need to allocate some focused time to get the work done. The important thing is you make a decision on what to do next.

    Overwhelm is not always caused by a feeling of having a lack of time or too much work, it can also be caused by avoiding a decision about what to do next.

    The Bottom Line

    Make a decision, even if it is to just talk to someone about what to do next. Making a decision about how you will resolve something on its own will reduce your feelings of overwhelm and start you down the path to a resolution one way or another.

    When you follow these strategies to can say goodbye to your overwhelm and gain much more control over your day.

    More Tips for Reducing Work Stress

    Featured photo credit: Andrei Lazarev via unsplash.com

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