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Want To Manage Your Time? Get Real!

by Dr. Valerie Young

You know the drill—the ridiculous deadlines, the relentless barrage of e-mail, voice-mail, 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 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!

The latest approach to time management is the Values Clarification method. The general idea is to identify what you value most, write a personal mission statement and then plan your time accordingly. Again, the overall idea is a good one. Individuals and organizations alike can greatly benefit from the exercise of clarifying values and establishing a mission statement.

In its practical application though, the approach too often falls short. That's because once you've laid out your values and established a personal mission statement, you then have to do something. The action part of the values approach still relies on a traditional 3-step system to planning and managing your day.

The first step in the traditional system is to take out your calendar and list everything you want to accomplish that day. Step two is to prioritize each activity from most-to-least important. Step three is where you complete all of your high priority items before working your way down your list handling all of your lower priority tasks. It's now the end of the day. Having achieved everything you planned to do, your day ends with that warm, satisfying feeling of knowing you have successfully managed your time. That's how it works for you, right?


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 3-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: Simple challenges call for simple solutions.

How would you characterize the nature and quantity of commitments, communication, and information in your life? On the commitment front, would you say that compared to 5 years ago, the demands on your time both at work and in your personal life have

a) increased,
b) decreased, or
c) remained about the same?

What about communication and information? Do you have e-mail? Voice-mail? An inbox on your desk? Congratulations, you now have 3 inboxes you need to manage! Compared to even one year ago, have your e-mails

a) increased,
b) decreased, or
c) remained about the same?

If you answered either "a" or "yes" to any of these questions, chances are your challenge doesn't fall into the "simple" category.

The search for simple, easy solutions is appealing. Yet when it comes to managing something as complex as your life, there simply is no magic bullet. Does that mean the solution has to be complex? Not at all. The solution you use though does need to be up to your challenge.

Real Tip 1: If your challenge is anything but simple, make sure you have a system in place that is sophisticated and comprehensive enough to absorb the level of complexity you face. That means setting up whatever organizer you use to be able to manage all 3 types of commitments, communication and information.

REALITY CHECK 2: Life is too short not to have one.

At times the idea of actually having a personal life probably seems more theoretical than realistic. This brings us back to commitments. One of the most important commitments you can make to yourself is to build in time for you and your life outside of work.

Sometimes your choice of organizer can actually prevent you from managing the personal side of your life. Organizing software like Outlook, Lotus Notes or Tasktimer tends to be used at the office only. The portability problem was one reason many people turned to a handheld device. Yet, if you're using a company purchased PDA you may find, as many have, that you're reluctant to use it for your personal life, since unlike a paper organizer, at some point you will likely be asked to return it.

Real Tip 2: Regardless of what type of organizer you use, make sure you have a way to capture and manage not only personal tasks like "buy birthday card" but your larger goals and dreams as well.

REALITY CHECK 3: Your brain—don't leave home without it.

A popular American Express commercial warned you not to leave home without your charge card. That's not all you shouldn't leave behind. To be truly effective, your organizer needs to function as your "second brain". Yet, how often do you head to meetings, lunch or home and leave your second brain at your desk?

Those "Eureka" and other productive moments don't always happen while sitting at your desk. You can get a great idea, check voice-mail, communicate with others, find out about schedule changes, or get a mental reminder anytime, anywhere.

Compact-size binders and handheld devices make it easier to always have your organizer handy. But there are times when a PDA or even a small paper organizer isn't enough. Some very productive moments happen while you're in wait mode—waiting for your dentist appointment, a train or plane, the meeting to begin. These are great times to write a memo, mind map a project plan, or sketch out the new addition to your home. To take advantage of these golden productivity moments, you often need a larger amount of writing or screen space than a small organizer offers. And have you ever tried typing messages from voice mail into a PDA? It's all but impossible.

Real Tip 3: Be prepared to capture and act on ideas, changes, communication, and inspiration wherever or whenever they happen make sure your "second brain" is as ready and able as you are!

REALITY CHECK 4: 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 4: To start, do what you'd do with a too-full computer—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 5: 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 5: 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.

Wooo, take a break for now. We have looked at how, in today's busy world, the traditional "calendarizing" approach to time management is woefully inadequate. One of the newer approaches is one that calls upon you to identify your values in order to create a personal mission statement. Knowing what you value and where you are going in life is an invaluable exercise. The problem is in the application. The values-based approach still relies on a daily calendar To-Do list to manage complex commitments, communication and information. For many, the values approach has come to feel more like where the rubber meets the sky than where the rubber meets the road.

To effectively manage your time, you need practical real-life solutions. Real-life solutions are ones that pass the Reality Check test. The 5 Reality Checks are:

1) Simple challenges call for simple solutions.
2) Life is too short not to have one.
3) Your brain, don't leave home without it.
4) Most interruptions are in your mind, and
5) If you want the right picture, you need the right view.

You are also offered 5 Real Tips to help you save time—not by managing time, but by staying on top of the 3 things you really need to manage:

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

Here are 5 more Work/Life Reality Checks. If you share a similar view of what it's really like to try to manage a too-full work and personal life, try these additional 5 Real Tips.

REALITY CHECK 6: There may be many steps but there is only one next action.

Some of your larger goals and projects might involve anywhere from 20 to 200 steps. Achieving them can feel like trying to move a mountain. So, what if you did have to move a mountain how would you do it? A bit of ancient wisdom reminds us that, "To move a mountain we must begin by carrying away small stones."
Sometimes the next action is obvious, other times we need to take a moment to break a larger project down. Whether it is finding the cure for cancer, improving the schools in your community, or tackling one of your own projects—this simple reality remains the same: There may be many steps, but there is only one next action. Focus on that and your task will feel entirely doable.

Real Tip 6: Make a list of next actions (or two simultaneous actions) for each of your goals and projects as well as any single action steps such as buy envelopes, submit travel receipts, or make dentist appointment. Make another list of the very next action related to each of your current your and projects. Then move several projects forward by tackling a few next actions every day.

REALITY CHECK 7: 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, "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 voice-mail, e-mail, 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's 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 today. 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 7: Abandon the needless and demotivating 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 that as your time or mood allows. That way you'll have a system, which allows you to begin your day focusing not on what you failed to do, but on what you have accomplished. And, non-date specific commitments aren't the only thing you'll want to keep off your calendar pages. Instead of writing messages from voice-mail 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 8: 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 e-mail 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 e-mail 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 8: 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 9: 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 9: 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.

REALITY CHECK 10: Not everything that is urgent is important.

In our deadline-driven work climate, this basic fact of life is perhaps the most difficult one to follow. But if you are going to truly focus on the big picture, you can't be a slave to deadlines and crisis management at the expense of other equally important activities. Important, but not urgent, activities include attending to your health and well being, building and sustaining quality relationships, taking the time to plan for problem prevention, and developing yourself and staff.

Despite what advocates of the values-based approach might suggest, addressing these important activities is not always as easy as writing them to your calendar. Calendar reminders to act on multi-step projects like "plan retirement strategy" or "retain key staff" will lose out every time to more bite-sized To-Dos like "make dentist appointment" or "fax conference registration".

Real Tip 10: Make time to focus on those activities that are important but not urgent. To break through procrastination, use Real Tip 6. When you break those "big verb" projects like "plan retirement strategy" and "retain key staff" into smaller more manageable next actions, like "order financial planning book" or "call Fred to brainstorm staff development options" they'll feel less daunting. Then put Real Tip 7 into effect by adding any non-date specific next actions to a list separate from your calendar. But don't ignore your calendar. In most cases, the calendar is the most abused section of anyone's organizer. When it comes to focusing on important activities though, it is ideal for the technique of "time blocking". This is where you block out time each week to focus on important activities—exercise, meeting with staff, planning an important project, or weekly dates with people you care about.

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!

Dr. Valerie Young is an internationally known workshop leader and public speaker specializing in helping people focus on results.

Valerie has conducted Time/Design's "Staying on Top of Your Workload" seminar for managers and professionals at such diverse organizations as IBM, Pizza Hut, Novartis, Digital, Wella, Merck, Mobil, Fleet Credit Card Services, the US Navy, the National Guard, Northwest Community Hospital, TransCanada Pipeline, Abbott Labs, Smith & Hawken, Nortel, Patagonia, Presbyterian Hospital, SmithKline Beecham, QVC, and many others.

Valerie's work on this and other topics has been featured in such publications as The Guardian (London), The Edmonton Sun, The Wall Street Journal, USA Weekend, The Boston Globe, The Oregonian, Dallas Morning News, Reader's Digest, Entrepreneur's Business Start-Ups, Management World and The Executive Female. She has been a guest on People Are Talking (ABC), Chicago's WMAQ and The Wall Street Journal's nationally-syndicated radio program "Work & Family." Valerie joins Rosabeth Moss Kanter and others as a contributing author to Not As Far As You Think: The Realities of Working Women.

Valerie earned her doctorate degree in the field of training and development from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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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