Last week, I focused on timing and work space. If you missed that post, you can find it here. So once you’ve figured out your personal rhythm and ideal work environment, you’re ready to dive in, right?
Well, not quite. Research has shown that every minute we spend planing can save us up to ten minutes while we’re working. That really adds up! So let’s talk about what to do with your to do list.
Step one is making the list, but don’t go right from the list to the work-there’s another step you should take, and that’s evaluating the items on the list and using that evaluation to really organize your time. I recommend considering four things:
Be aware of the things that have to be accomplished in a certain time frame, and what could wait if you start to run out of time, energy, or focus. Having clear priorities in mind is the best way to start being productive. Some people swear by a “most important things first” model, but I don’t think that works for everyone. Obviously, if you’re down to the wire on something it needs to go to the top of the list, but as long as you don’t forget about the top priorities, I think it’s perfectly fine to do something else first, if other factors make that a good strategy for you. I mentioned last week that I think best first thing in the morning, so I often move something that’s high in importance to first thing tomorrow, instead of last thing today.
2. Time required
Estimating how long each task will take will help organize your entire day (or however long you’re devoting to this work session). If it’s 8:30 and you have a meeting at 9, it might not be the best time to start on something that you think is going to take two hours. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the length of the list, doing a series of short tasks first will help you cross items off and start replacing stress with satisfaction. If you have a relatively large block of available time, pencil in a complicated item.
I always try to be cognizant of what I call “five minute tasks”. I have a lot of five minute gaps in my work day, usually when I’m waiting for something (the start of a meeting, a response to an email, my turn at the microwave, etc.), and a lot of things I can do in those five minutes (proofread a short report, check or enter data, respond to a query from a colleague, make notes for a training outline…). I always have one of those five minute items right at my fingertips, so I can get something out of the way during those short opportunities.
3. Energy Required
I can’t possibly emphasize this one enough. Your brain can’t run on full throttle indefinitely. Take a few minutes to really think about, well, how much you’re going to have to think, and be ready to mentally downshift so you can recharge after a brain busting task. For example, at work I spend a lot of mental energy planning content for presentations, but once the content is set, it’s easy to create my slideshows and handouts, so that part of the process is my mental cool down. When I work at home, a chunk of heavy thinking is usually followed by a household task, like doing the dishes.
4. Acceptable Outcome
Raise your hand if you tend to be a perfectionist.
Now raise your hand if you have a tendency to get frustrated and quit.
Either way, you need to think about what success on a task is going to look like. Determine the minimum acceptable level before you even think about getting started. If you’re an overachiever, this will help you hold on to perspective later on. Otherwise, you risk going down the rabbit hole and spending four hours trying to perfect something that you could finish in two. Of course, if you budgeted two hours but hit the minimum in an hour and a half, then you have the option of spending that extra thirty minutes taking it to the next level. On the other hand, if you find that staying motivated is a struggle, you have a concrete goal in mind: I can quit when it looks like this. When you have the finish line in sight, it will be a lot easier to keep moving forward.
The time to decide what’s “good enough” is before you start. It’s a lot easier to finish and then enhance than it is to get halfway through an overly ambitious plan and then try to change direction midstream. Trust me, I speak from a great deal of experience on this one.
How do you organize your day? What works for you? What challenges are you facing? Let’s talk!