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.

Creating a Morning Routine

According to Laura Vanderkam, learning to use mornings well is what separates achievement from madness. Before the rest of the world is eating breakfast, the most successful people have already scored daily victories that are advancing them towards the lives they want. Successful people have priorities they want to tackle or things they like to do with their lives and early mornings are the time when they have the most control of their schedules.

Not all hours of the day are created equal

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In her research Laura Vanderkam found that people who were serious about exercise did it in the mornings. At that point emergencies had yet to happen and they would only have to shower once. New research into willpower is apparently showing that tasks that require self-discipline are simply easier to do when the day is young. When you’re on a diet it’s unlikely that you will tuck into that packet of biscuits for breakfast, but come the afternoon your willpower may be waning and you may struggle to resist them. For successful people regular activities develop into habits. Getting things down to routines and habits takes willpower at first, but in the long run conserves willpower.

Five Steps

From studying people’s morning habits, Laura Vanderkam has learnt that getting the most out of this time involves a five-step process:

Track your time

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Part of spending your time better is knowing exactly how you’re spending it now. Write down what you’re doing as often as you can and in as much detail as you think will be helpful. While you may be thinking specifically about your mornings, try tracking a whole week. The reason to do this is that the solution to morning dilemmas often lies at other times of the day. You may be too tired in the mornings because you’re staying up late. But if you look at how you’re spending your nights, you’ll notice that you’re not doing anything urgent or particularly enjoyable. A TV programme can be recorded and watched later – possibly while you’re on the treadmill at 6.30am.

I have worked out how much time each activity takes so that I know what I can fit into my routine. When you can be confident that you have enough time to do what you want to do, you don’t need to rush and can relax and enjoy your morning.

Picture the perfect morning

After you know how you’re spending your time, ask yourself what a great morning would look like for you.

Think through the logistics

Map out a morning schedule. What would have to happen to make this schedule work? What time would you have to get up and what time do you need to go to bed in order to get enough sleep? Can you get to bed by that time?

Build the habit

This is the most important step. Turning a desire into a ritual requires a lot of initial willpower and not just for the first few days. Start slowly. Go to bed fifteen minutes earlier and wake up fifteen minutes earlier for a few days until this new schedule seems doable. Choose one new habit at a time to introduce. Chart your progress. Habits takes several weeks to establish, so keep track of how you’re doing for at least 30 days. Once skipping a day feels like you forgot something you’ll know you’ve got a habit and can take your ritual up a notch.

Tune up as necessary

Life changes and so can your morning routine. Tune it as you need.

Ms Vanderkam’s takeaway message  – the hours before most people eat breakfast are far too precious to be blown on semiconscious activities. Make yours meaningful.

So have you got a morning routine? If not and you try this out, I’d love to know how you get on.

Habits Not Resolutions

My advice for today is to be the tortoise rather than the hare – small steps, not big leaps. In this way you are more likely to arrive at your chosen destination.

This is the time of year when many people are making New Year’s resolutions – get fit, lose weight, give up smoking, save money – but as we all know many people fail to see these through despite all of their good intentions. Now if you have made some resolutions, that’s great, you have some long-term goals to work towards in 2019. The next step is to translate each resolution into something that you are going to do at least several times a week, if not every day, in order to achieve that goal. The key is to start small. If at the moment you don’t do any exercise at all don’t commit yourself to going to the gym for an hour five mornings a week. Start with say a fifteen-minute walk three times a week and if you achieve that and can keep it up for six weeks, then increase it.

In order to monitor your progress a habit tracker may be useful. These are a popular tool with those in the bullet journaling community. Basically, it is a star chart for adults. Draw out a table with the days of the month across the top and the habits that you want to cultivate down the side. At the end of each day look at which habits you have achieved and put a tick (or a star!) in the box. Then, at the end of the month you can assess your progress and adjust next month’s habit tracker accordingly.

One of my trackers from last year – it can be as simple or as fancy as you want to make it

The good thing about a habit tracker is that you can see your progress and hopefully, if there are lots of ticks, you will be spurred on by your positive progress. Even though the initial changes may be small, you have to start somewhere and over time they can grow and help you move towards your big goal. As the saying goes, ‘Every journey begins with a single step’. Every day you will take one step and eventually you will arrive at your destination. Good luck on your journey!