Now that I’ve retired from my career as a school counselor to run my writing and coaching business full-time, a lot of people say to me, “What will you do with all that unstructured time? How did you start a business while you were working full-time? How do you manage a business when you don’t have a full-time job to report to? The answer is organization and scheduling.
For many years, I lived my life by being reactive instead of creative. In other words, instead of living intentionally by creating a plan and a schedule, I simply reacted to whatever was going on around me. I started my day with a vague notion of something I’d like to accomplish. I often had a to-do list in my head or even jotted down somewhere. Then I would hear the ping of an email or a text message and immediately stop what I was doing and respond. A co-worker would stop me in the hall and I would take on a new task or responsibility. A phone call or a memo would redirect my day. I constantly allowed the tyranny of the urgent to swallow up the important tasks in my day. My day was at the mercy of whoever and whatever got my attention. At the end of the day, I would wonder where my time went and why nothing of substance was accomplished.
Living a Creative Life
Living a creative life does not mean that we ignore the necessary tasks and the relationships in our lives. It does not mean if there is an emergency, we don’t respond. Lets face it though. Most of the things that we are distracted by don’t enhance our relationships and they aren’t emergencies. The things that draw us away from our goals are the black hole of social media, the endless but mundane tasks of our world or the vegging-out-in-front-of-the-television type of activities. We all have the same amount of time in our day, but how we plan out our time is the difference.
You Can’t Really Manage Time
You can’t really manage time because it is, well, time. You can’t corral it. You can’t stop it or speed it up. But you can manage your activities. The problem most people have is that they try to manage their time by keeping track of information and priorities in their mind. The brain is not designed to hold on to and maintain a list of everything that you need to accomplish. The brain is designed to be used as a problem solving organ. The other thing that we know about the brain is that the brain is drawn toward congruity and completion. This is why it is important to have goals. Our brain will then want to align our daily activities with those goals. It is also drawn toward activities where completion is a given. This is one reason that we often find our selves emptying the dishwasher when the plan was to contact three possible clients or write 1,000 words on the book. We can easily see the end of emptying the dishwasher or sorting the mail. Other tasks are not so clear. This is why having a system for managing our tasks and setting priorities is so important.
Begin Your Day or Week with a Brain Drain
The first step of managing our tasks is to figure out what we’ve stored in our brain. You can’t organize or schedule tasks until you know what is calling out for your attention or what you should be paying attention to that isn’t a squeaky wheel. At the beginning of the day and at the beginning of each week, take a piece of paper and write everything that you can think of that is on your mind to do. Include even the silly and ridiculous things that you are worried about or just obsessed with. Honesty counts here. No one will see this but you.
Create an Organized List
Next, take another sheet of paper and divide it into four quadrants. At the top of each section write the following categories: Time wasters, Have-to-dos, Top Priorities, Maintenance Tasks. Now take all the things from your Brain Drain and put them in the correct quadrant. You probably know what time wasters are. Have-to-dos are all those tasks that must get done regardless of whether you want to do them or not. These are things like completing all the paperwork for taxes or paying bills. Top Priorities could also be labelled Money Makers if you are running a business. Sometimes creative types get so involved in the creative part of the business that they neglect to give priority to selling the product or running a marketing campaign for an upcoming event. For me this includes book signings, book festivals, presentations at conferences, clients that I am contacting and coaching. When you are running a business it is important that you spend a good part of your time working in this quadrant. Otherwise you find that you have a hobby but not a profitable business. Finally the last category is all the things that you do to maintain a business but that don’t perhaps result in quick return. For me this relates to the actual writing of articles or books. Sometimes items from the Maintaining the Business category are moved to the the Top Priority category. This is a fluid vehicle for organizing your tasks and may change day to day.
Create a Daily/Weekly Schedule
Once you have all your tasks divided into four categories, you need to get a calendar and schedule your time for the upcoming week. It can be a huge calendar that you put on the wall or something on your computer. I organize my upcoming week on Sunday afternoon on a whiteboard so that I know what I have coming up for the next week.
Begin with the obligations that you know you must show up for and block out those times. Do you work a 9-5 job? Block out those hours. Do you have a doctor/dentist appointment? Does your child have basketball practice twice a week? Block out the time for that. Now look at the time that you have left surrounding those obligations. It may be a little or it may be a lot depending on the season of your life. If you have young kids, there are certainly times to be blocked out for family time and children’s activities. However, there will still be blocks of time, no matter how small, that you can use to accomplish your goals. Now start plugging in the activities in your Top Priorities and Maintaining the Business quadrant into those blocks of time. Be reasonable but be proactive. Chances are you won’t get up at 4:00 AM every morning to work on that novel you want to write but you could get up at 6:00 AM on Saturday morning to garner some quiet time to write creatively before the rest of the family gets up. Maybe evenings are a better time for you. Two nights a week you give up watching television and instead put in two hours of networking and creating a marketing plan on the computer.
Use a Timer
There is something incredibly compelling about a schedule that is written down. There is something powerful about knowing how you are going to spend your time and being accountable to a schedule, even if you are the only one who created it. Use a timer to create boundaries for the task and set it for the block of time that you have designated. Don’t allow outside urgent activities and requests to overcome the important work that you are doing.
Learning to identify the important activities in your life and structuring your day and your weeks to direct your energy is a necessary part of living an intentional life. It is how dreams become reality and goals are achieved. A goal is simply a dream with a plan. Set aside some time this week to create a plan for your life. I promise you will find it so empowering, you will wonder how you ever functioned without it.