How Not to be Busy

How well do you plan your work?

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For me ‘a simple life’ extends to keeping work simple, to keeping it between Monday and Friday and between approximately 9am and 5pm, but I know that it’s easier said than done. It seems that we are all expected to be busy. I don’t see my colleagues very often, as I work at home a lot, or am out and about at meetings, but when I do see them that is the first question that they ask me, ‘Are you busy?’ It’s an expectation. I feel scared to say that I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I haven’t got enough to keep me occupied, but most of the time I don’t feel overwhelmed by it. I’m not up until 2am writing reports the day before the deadline, unlike some of my fellow workers.

So how do I manage this then? I haven’t got less work than other people, it’s just that I have systems in place to manage it and I spend a lot of time planning. Some people would say that I spend too much time planning. The thing is when I’ve got a plan I feel calm.

Daily planning

My work days are very varied. Sometimes I am at home all day, other times I am out at the door at 8am, going to various appointments and don’t get to sit down at my computer until the afternoon, if at all. When I do get some time to myself though I have a system that I go through and I have that system written down. It includes tasks such as:

  • complete timesheet
  • reflect on previous day and note tasks arising
  • check voicemails
  • check emails
  • list any other tasks

Most days I get at least an hour to do this at some point. What this means is that I don’t end up for example having to fill in my timesheet days or weeks late when I can’t actually remember what hours I worked on that day. It doesn’t become a chore. It takes a few seconds at the beginning and end of the day and it’s done. I don’t forget about a message someone left on my phone. If I went to a meeting the day before then a task I add to my list is to write up my notes.

Make all your phone calls at once

How to keep track of your tasks

So, where do all the tasks go? Thanks to this book by David Allen I’ve developed a task sheet. It has sections for phone calls, emails, notes to write up, documents to read. The idea behind this is that instead of flitting from one type of task to the other it is easier to make all of your phone calls in one go or send your emails one after the other. On many days I am out and about between meetings and sitting in my car. I can look at my task list to see what calls I need to make and do those whilst I have time to kill. Other, lengthier tasks, I’ll save for when I am sitting at a desk.

Weekly planning

Years ago, I went on a training course about planning. It was a two-day course, the days several months apart so that we could try to implement the recommendations and then return later in the year to review how we were getting on. What I learnt from that course is that it’s not just enough to have a to do list, you have to put time aside in your diary to undertake those tasks. In fact, I came across an episode of The Life Coach School recently entitled ‘Throw away your to do list’. Brooke Castillo talked about this exact thing. Take your to-do list, diarise each task and then throw away your list.

We all have deadlines. My job involves writing reports, one at the beginning and one at the end of the project. For the initial ones I don’t always have a lot of notice, but for the final ones I know six months in advance when they will be due. I can also pretty much guess what other tasks I’ll have to do to gather information for the report. Each week I review where I am on different projects and put aside time in my diary several months in advance for any meetings that I need to arrange and to write the report. Now, I don’t always stick exactly to the time and day, but I know roughly what I’ll have to do over that week. It also means that I won’t miss anything nearer the time. I won’t sit down to write my report and think, ‘I should have met with so and so’, because I’d have diarised it and done it before the slot for report writing was in my diary. It also allows me to see how much work I’ll have in a certain month and if the manager is trying to give me something new to work on I can show how many other commitments I have at that time.

Every week I try to look at the following week, which should already have appointments pencilled in, and book those meetings. When the week arrives then I add the other day-to-day things such as making calls and typing up notes.

Do you ever turn these off?

Being Effective

There is also the question of focus. When you have to prepare a report how well are you able to concentrate on it? I have recently listed to Cal Newport on a couple of podcasts talk about his book ‘Deep Work’. Although I am yet to read the book, the basics that I gleaned from the interviews were that in this world of instant responses and the temptation of social media, in order to be able to be productive you need to disconnect yourself from all of that. He recommends turning off your email alerts, putting your phone in another room and basically reducing distractions as much as possible. All of this may be very difficult if you work in an open plan office, of which Cal is not a fan. If you can reduce distractions, he then recommends practising ‘deep work’ by setting a timer for say 30 minutes and trying to immerse yourself in the work you need to do for that period of time. After 30 minutes you can check your emails or your phone. It might be a good idea to get up from your computer. You could make a cup of tea, or if like me you are at home, hang out the washing. I have tried this recently and I can only do so many 30-minute slots in a row before I feel exhausted and I need to do something less taxing. I have found it to be very effective though. I am hoping that when I get around to reading his book (which is on my bedside table) I will learn how to get better at this.

Now, I don’t want to sound as though I am perfect as there are times when I have worked on the weekend, but they are few and far between. Usually they are before or after annual leave. Unfortunately, in my job, there is no one else to pick up your tasks whilst you are off, therefore if you have a deadline for a report in the middle of your holiday that report needs to get written before you go away. Apart from that, as I said, life is simple. Work happens on weekdays and rarely extends past 6pm. That way I can enjoy my early mornings, my evenings and my weekends. Work feels just a part of my life and I have time for plenty of other activities.

So, how do you plan your working life? What do you struggle with at work? What tips do you have for others who have a busy schedule? Let me know if you want more information about anything that I have written.

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