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Want to Manage Your Time? Get Real!

You know the drill - the ridiculous deadlines, the relentless barrage of email, voicemail, phone calls, all those "got a minute" interruptions, the constant worrying that one of those many balls you're juggling is going to unexpectedly drop.

When you're on total overload, all you want is relief - preferably the fast and easy kind. So you try the latest organizing software or gadget. Or maybe you read another book, take another course on time management or listen to a tape by the latest time management guru. Things might go pretty well for a couple of days. But before long you're right back where you were - snowed under with no realistic way to dig out.

Lots of things work - in theory. Take the "handle each piece of paper only once" technique. The idea is basically a good one. But practically speaking, how many people are really able to do it on any consistent basis? Suggestions to have your secretary screen your calls or to close your office door to discourage interruptions leave secretary-less cubicle dwellers everywhere scrambling to add "get secretary" and " get door" to their To-Do lists!

Then there is the traditional three-step system to planning and managing your day:

Step 1: Take out your calendar and make a list of want you want to accomplish.

Step 2: Use the ABC designation to prioritize each activity.

Step 3: Start with your most high priority tasks.

Complete all of these before moving on to your lower priority tasks. Cross-off completed tasks as you go until you've accomplished everything on your list. Tidy up your desk and leave your office with that warm, satisfying feeling of knowing you have successfully managed your time.

That's how it works for you, right? Get real!

Let's review the traditional "calendarizing" approach. Is it a good idea to plan your day? Yes. Should you write things down? Absolutely. Is prioritizing essential? Clearly. Ideally then, the three-step process should work. And, in simpler times, it no doubt did. In today's jam-packed world however, even with the clearest of values, this formulaic approach is in many ways more idealistic than realistic.

A more realistic approach is one that takes into account the reality that you have to juggle a lot more than a To-Do list. In fact, there are three things that must be first organized and then managed:

1. Commitments (to yourself, to others, and others to you),
2. Communication
3. Information.

Staying on top of commitments, communication and information is no easy task either. That's where the realistic part comes in.

If you want to effectively manage your time you need to get real. Workable solutions are those that are firmly grounded in reality. Whose reality? Preferably yours. Take a look at these 5 Work/Life Reality Checks. If you find that you share a similar view of what it's really like to try to manage a too full work and personal life, take advantage of some real tips for real people.

REALITY CHECK 1: Most interruptions are in your mind.
It's not easy getting things done when you're contantly being interrupted. But, guess who interrupts you more than anyone else? If you came up with anyone other than YOURSELF, it's time for a reality check! In fact, the average person talks to him/herself up to 50,000 times a day!

That's because your subconscious tries to act like the RAM, or Random Access Memory, on a computer - the place where current work is being handled. But unlike a computer, your brain doesn't know it should store all the other "incompletes" - plan meeting agenda, write report, buy cat food - elsewhere until those reminders are needed. That's why, while you're in the middle of one thing, like talking on the phone - your subconscious breaks in to remind you to pick up your dry cleaning. All these self-interruptions can make you feel overwhelmed and scattered. And, that's not all. These mental distractions make it hard to stay focused on the task at hand.

Real Tip:
To start, do what you'd do with a too full computer - but instead of downloading files off your hard drive, "download" all those To-Do items off your mind into one big list. From here you can begin organizing your commitments into the appropriate "files."

Use your calendar for date-specific commitments only. For everything else, create lists based on logical categories. For example, you'll want a list called Current Goals and Projects to help you stay focused on your most high-impact activities such as create new training program, plan office relocation, or research MBA programs.

REALITY CHECK 2: If you want the right picture, you need the right lens.
The download exercise gives you perspective on all of the things you need or want to do. Now it's time to get perspective on those commitments that have defined due dates. When it comes to getting perspective on time-specific commitments, it is useful to think of a camera. If you want to get a broader picture, you'd use a wide-angle lens.

To see more detail, you'd want to zoom in for a close-up view.

Sometimes you need to plan for the next few days or weeks. Other times you need to look out a few months by doing some mid-range planning. Still other times you need to look further down the road by doing some long-range planning. Depending on what type of planning you're doing, you need to adjust your view of time accordingly.

To differentiate the forest from the trees is to clearly separate the big picture from the details. If your organizer - whether paper or electronic - consists of 365 daily pages, you're trying to see the forest by looking at 365 "trees." Without a useful way of seeing a broader picture of time, you can end up reacting day-to-day. Getting that wider view helps you see what's coming. That way you can take a more planned and proactive approach which will save you a lot of time, not to mention headaches.

Real Tip:
If you need to do short, mid and long-range planning, don't rely on a daily calendar alone. Instead, make sure you have the right view for the job. A daily or weekly calendar is great for short-term planning. For mid-range planning, widen the lens with a monthly view and use a yearly view to get a really big picture of time.

REALITY CHECK 3: Most things do not need to be done today.
Once you've identified your next actions, the traditional approach to time management would have you write these on your daily calendar. At first glance this sounds logical, especially when you consider Benjamin Franklin's advice to, "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today."

Yet, let's put Franklin's wise words into their real life context. Franklin may have been a busy man, but unlike you, he did not have to contend with voicemail, email, faxes, or pagers. He and the other Founding Fathers had the luxury of spending four months framing the Declaration of Independence. When was the last time you had four months to concentrate on a single project? Life was a whole lot simpler in the 18th century. Things were even simpler 10 years ago! At the time, Franklin's idea of never putting things off was a simple solution to what was a simple challenge.

But with so much more to do today, it's not always possible - or wise - to follow Franklin's advice. Let's say that on Monday, Sam asks you to give him a call sometime this week. You turn to Tuesday's calendar page and write, "call Sam." Tuesday ends and you didn't have a chance to call Sam. So you roll the reminder to the Wednesday page. The next day, the same thing happens and on through the week. Sound like your reality?

In the real world, most things do not need to be done on a specific day. That phone call to Sam may be "due" by Friday but you have a number of days in which to "do" it. This distinction is important because most systems - whether paper or electronic - are calendar-driven. Therefore, they recommend each day begin with a review of yesterday's calendar page to see what did not get done and then transfer these items to today's calendar page. What this system forces you to do, is to start your day with a reminder of how much you failed to accomplish.

Real Tip:
Abandon the needless, frustrating and de-motivating ritual of rolling over unfinished tasks by differentiating between those activities you have to do on a specific date from those that are due by a date. If Sam had asked you to call him on Thursday morning, put it on your calendar. Otherwise dedicate a separate page for your next actions list and add a note to call Sam with a due date of Friday. You can call Sam any day before then as your time or mood allows. That way you'll have a system that allows you to begin your day focusing not on what you failed to do, but on what you have accomplished.

Non-date specific commitments aren't the only thing you'll want to keep off your calendar pages. Instead of writing messages from voicemail on your calendar, dedicate a section of your organizer for this information. That way you won't have to flip through months of old calendar pages in search of a name or number.

REALITY CHECK 4: Count on others but trust yourself.
The successful completion of your commitments often depends on others following through on their commitments to you. In fact, you probably rely on other people dozens of times a day - to return your phone calls, respond to your email messages, give you the go-ahead, provide needed information, handle what they said they would, etc.

Once you make a request, or are promised something, you've just passed that person the proverbial ball. Most of time they handle the play without a hitch. But do others - people and businesses - sometimes drop the ball?

Even if a person reports to you, you can't make them deliver on their commitments. You can't force someone to return your call or email or forward information requested. You can't make a business send you that rebate or refund check or a friend return a borrowed item. What you can do though, is follow-up.

Real Tip:
Be sure your organizing system includes an early warning system in the form of a list of pending items. Call it your Waiting For page. For example if you're expecting the travel agent to mail your ticket no later than the 10th, add this to your page. That's your prompt to follow up before someone drops the ball.

REALITY CHECK 5: There will always be more to do than time to do it.
A real tip for managing mental interruptions is to do a mental download of all the things you need or want to do in every aspect of your life. Combine this with the reality that "most things do not need to be done today," and you'll see that not only do you have a pretty long list, but many of the things on your list will have to wait weeks, months, or even years. Does that mean you should just forget about them?

Even if you wanted to forget some of the less fun tasks like painting the house or reorganizing your files, realistically speaking, your mind won't let you. The task will keep popping up on your mental screen until you either decide not do it or capture it somewhere other than on your mental hard drive!

Real Tip:
Reduce mental clutter and free yourself to focus on the present by capturing and categorizing future activities into one or more Future lists. Committing your future dreams to writing has the added benefit of providing you with the motivation you need to ultimately act on them.

No time management or Focus Management technique or practice will work if it flies in the face of your real life challenges. When creating an effective time management system, be sure to take reality into account. If your current system is one that sounds good in theory but doesn't work very well in practice, maybe it's time for a reality check!

You are welcome to reprint this or any of our productivity-enhancing articles in your organization's newsletter or on your web site providing the following attribution and hyperlink appear with each article.

2002/4 Time/Design.

To learn more about Time/Design's Focus Management? tools, training, and coaching call 800-637-9942 or visit

Time/Design is a leading provider of time management training and tools offering practical and realistic strategies for managing commitments, communications and information.

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