If you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it.
This old adage has held true most of my life. People who are good at getting things done are usually the busiest. They work or go to school (or both), take leadership roles in the organizations they join, they have families to attend to, and say yes to every request for help. And they burn out. Because they have left no time for themselves.
A couple years ago, I realized I was on this track. I sought validation from doing things for other people and what other people expected. A few years ago, after making some big life changes, I woke up one weekend dreading the thought of doing volunteer work I'd taken on instead of taking a book to the pool or getting some friends together for dinner. I was on a treadmill and it was speeding up. But I wanted to get off. That's when I started saying no. Along with saying no to new things, I started the process of finding replacements for the roles I no longer had passion for.
As I worked my way out of the busy-ness, I felt great relief. I could do things I wanted to do. I could start building the life I wanted. And it felt good. I was never bored because there wasn't something that had to be done. I was careful to enjoy and revel in this time of unbusy-ness.
Then I started saying yes again. This time to things I really wanted to do. And things that would pay the bills, now that I was an independent consultant. In no time at all I had so much on my proverbial plate that I was wallowing in self-pity about having too much to do again. When I asked my business coach how I could possibly get it all done, she said, "What if you controlled things a little less?"
You see, I am a planner. But nothing seemed to go as planned. Each day, each week, I'd feel like I had added more to my to-do list than what I'd checked off. Something had to change. I wasn't being productive and was constantly mad at myself because I hadn't gotten enough done. I was constantly behind and feeling pretty crappy about it.
So I stopped trying to control everything. I loosened up my daily plan, my weekly plan. Instead of scheduling my week down to the half-hour and falling behind on Monday when something didn't go as planned, I started time blocking my days. This amount of time for client work, this for business development, this for appointments and known meetings, this for taking my kids to appointments or practices.
It got better. But still, I would end up not accomplishing as much as I wanted to by the end of the week. By Monday afternoon, the schedule already had to be adjusted. So I thought some more about how I could let go of my schedule. There was no way I could not plan. That made me too anxious.
What I did instead was plan time and track reality. I needed to know what was going wrong. What I was doing wrong. And I did it for a couple weeks without judgment, just observation of how I spent my time along with how I felt at the end of each day. Through that period of awareness and acknowledgment of reality, I discovered five things:
It is impossible to multitask. If I tried to do or focus on more than one thing at a time, it took me countless minutes, and sometimes hours, longer to work on something - and often not have anything to show for it. I needed to find a way to focus on one thing at a time.
Some things just take longer than I want them to take, others can get done faster when I focus on them. They ended up balancing each other out for the most part. But still, now that I know what kinds of tasks take longer, I can plan for that. And I know that if I focus, I can whip through other tasks.
Set timers. Several people have recommended the Pomodoro Technique, which is working for 25 minutes without distraction then taking a 5 minute break. I didn't like that structure so much because sometimes it takes me 10-15 minutes to get my head into a task, and then I get in a flow and if I stop at all when I'm in that flow, I lose it and take another 15-30 minutes to get back to it. Instead, I set a timer to either put a limit on how long to spend on a task or to remind me that I have to move on to something else. Racing the clock keeps the distractions at bay.
Start with the big things, not the little things. For most of my life, I've thought to myself as I sit down to work or study, "Let me just get these little things out of the way before I start the big thing I'm meant to be doing." But here's the thing, those little things add up, and they take away from the big things. Now I'm turning that around. Starting with the big things and filling in the spaces with the little things. Much like the idea of putting the big rocks in the bowl first and then pouring the pebbles in to fill up the space. You can fit a lot more rocks and pebbles in a bowl this way. And it's easier!
My brain has a rhythm and I need to honor it. In my tracking, I discovered that I could work a lot of hours Monday and Tuesday when I was fresh (even after spending the weekend writing my book or working on a presentation). By Wednesday afternoon, I'd start lagging. Thursday was hard to get going. By the time I sat down on Friday afternoon (Friday mornings are self-care time with little exception), I was done. Looking back, this was a pattern for much of my life. Why fight it? Why not work with it? So I'm now organizing my weeks so that I have few meetings on Monday and Tuesday, when I am most productive, and scheduling meetings and workshops for Wednesday through Friday, when my brain and willpower is on the wane.
It's a constant work in progress, of course, but I feel good about my new reality. I expect to improve my productivity without feeling overworked and out of control. In fact, I expect to end most of my days and weeks feeling satisfied with what I accomplished for work and still have time to do other things I enjoy. All I needed to do was to take a step back, observe myself, and stop fighting with my nature.
I still have a lot to do. I purposefully chose to add some enormous rocks to my life this year. Now I'm working on choosing the pebbles carefully too. I no longer use the word "busy," though to describe how I'm doing. (Really, it's not an appropriate adjective.) Instead, "I'm good and have a lot going on." I make room for the things I really want to do and find ways to stop doing the things I don't want to do (well, at least those that also don't have to be done). Instead of feeling harried and overwhelmed, I feel capable and satisfied. I feel in control without having to control everything.