Life, clients, side projects and all the other tasks we have to do (let alone want to do) fill up our week pretty quickly. So how have I learned to balance my career with life? Well, it took me years to really figure out a system that worked for me, but my trick is treating my time like I would my money. Just like I budget my money for the month, I need to do the same thing for my time so I don’t accidentally give it away carelessly and lose it all.
My hope is that after reading this lesson you get a better idea of my process for managing time, and perhaps you can adapt some of these techniques into your daily life to ensure you’re leaving enough time for the things you want to do as well as need to do.
So when it comes to getting things done on a high level, there’s really not too many people that I know who are great at it. Sure, many people know how to knock out a daily to-do list, but many lose sight of the big picture of their careers in the process. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just hard to prioritize a busy life. When things fall behind, one thing leads to another and all you want to do is walk away from your list. Soon that thinking drives you closer and closer to becoming burnt out and you never get the chance to work on the things that matter most to you because you’re always playing catch-up.
Early on in my career I never seemed to have enough time to do anything. Then one day I realized that everyone else who was more successful than myself also had 24 hours in the day, and they managed to accomplish their tasks and get stuff done. So I started to track my hours using RescueTime and quickly discovered I was simply making excuses for not managing my time effectively.
This week, rather than share with you an experience that taught me the importance of time management, I thought I would try to add more value to your life by sharing with you exactly how I budget my time.
In order to budget my time correctly, I start with a yearly set of goals. What are the three main things I want to accomplish this year? I then break those into quarters, then prioritize them with monthly goals. I don’t separate things too much. I include work and life into this process. Time is time and I need try to account for anything that may be taking it up. This exercise also quickly shows me where I may be spending too much of my time and what I may need to strip away or where to focus more of my efforts. Once I establish my monthly goals I then create actionable weekly goals. Once I establish my goals, for the next week or two I then plan my tasks every Friday that would help me complete those goals.
Now everything is pretty flexible until I get into my daily schedule. The purpose of my daily schedule is to be specific in structure, but pretty routine and vanilla with what I do in those time slots. For instance, “Heads Down” is when I focus on tasks for that week. It can change daily, but that’s when I try to focus on creating and doing work. I do this for a reason. I want to create a base routine in my day because routine creates efficiency and pattern, and the only way you’ll get things done is by sticking to a schedule that is designed to do just that.
Here’s how my daily schedule looks:
- 7:00am: I get up, get ready and let my dogs out.
- 7:30am: Coffee is brewed and I have “Coffee Time” with Julie.
- 8:00am: I check my RSS Feed, Twitter and Email.
- 8:30am: I re-prioritize my day based on any potential changes over night.
- 9:00am: I tell Julie I love her and I’m off to start my day.
- 9:30am: I land at my desk with a fresh cup of coffee and touch base with the team.
- 10:00am: I go heads down.
- 12:00pm: I take lunch.
- 1:00pm: I check Twitter and clear my mind for the second half of my day.
- 1:30pm: I go heads down.
- 3:30pm: I take my daily walk.
- 4:00pm: I go heads down.
- 5:00pm: I check my emails, blogs and prioritize tasks for tomorrow.
- 5:30pm I work on my side project(s).
- 6:30pm: I head home.
- 7:00pm: I grab a snack then run with Julie.
- 8:00pm: I cook and have dinner.
- 9:00pm: I unwind (Watch a movie, walk or play guitar).
- 10:00pm: I work on continuing education or catch up from the day.
- 11:00pm I head off to bed.
Sometimes, I’m working on a number of projects at a given time spread out across Greenline Creative, Frettie and my personal brand, so I may put a theme for every day of the week. This theme is designed to just keep me focused on what is important at a given time, so “Heads Down” could be a design day, a writing day, customer feedback, meetings, new business, etc. Obviously you can expect some overlap from time to time, but by placing a theme to my day it just adds another level of organization and focus. During my monthly planning I’ve even taken this a step further and themed my months. For example, one month I may focus more on family and wellness, then another month would perhaps be a side project, etc. Now this is not to say I neglect everything else, but I may pay special attention to that month’s theme. Doing this can keep me from being too bored and also allows me to keep all of my yearly goals working in sync.
Now some of you may find this pretty rigid, and I’ll be honest, it does look like it when it’s laid out in this blog post, but it’s flexible and can adapt to the change of priorities every day. My goal is to have this system as a default for keeping me focused on the things that are important to me and my long term goals. I’m not perfect and sometimes I too fall behind on my to-do lists, but this system helps get me right back on track.
Now that I’ve share with you my system, I’m going to share with you some of the things I’ve learned about time management in order to make this system useful.
What I’ve Learned about Time Management:
- You must write everything down: I used to think I had a great memory. For the most part, I can remember most of the important things I need to do in a given time period. But I found if I really want to get things done, I need to write them down. By writing everything down that I have to do, I now have a record and a time stamp. This also makes me more aware of what tasks or people may be taking up the most of my time. It’s really hard to fix time management if you don’t have a clear understanding of where your time is going.
- Don’t be afraid to say no: It may sound like you’re not being a team player or you feel like you’re losing out on an opportunity by saying no, but the truth is you need to be picky and make quick decisions on who you’ll let take up your time. Don’t waist time on the things that aren’t providing value to your goals today or don’t even align with them in the future. If the opportunity is truly worth it there’s a good possibility it will come back around.
- Stay efficient and group your tasks: The best way I’ve found to get things done efficiently is to group together similar tasks in a given period. I used to think answering every email as it hit my inbox was actually “getting things done,” but the truth is I was simply getting lost in email chains. Nowadays I like to do all my emails in the morning and optionally touch them again at the end of the day. This allows me to stay efficient, and the more I can stay efficient the faster I can knock off my list and go have fun.
- Stop talking and start doing: This one is pretty simple. Sometimes too much talk leads to nothing. If you have an idea you want to start working on, start immediately. Find a quick way to build momentum. Remember my lesson on launching? When I launched this blog, I had zero posts made. I wanted subscribers before I wrote because it would ensure I actually followed through with my goal.
- Try not to fall too far behind: Sometimes I don’t get everything done I wanted to in my “Heads Down” time. If that’s the case, I know I need to try to make up that time elsewhere. If I don’t my list will continue to fall behind. My goal is to never fall more than a half a day behind at any given time. I can always re-prioritize a few tasks, but too many and I’m ready to throw in the towel. On the flip side, I may find myself so far ahead of schedule I abuse the extra room and find myself falling further behind. This is almost worse, because then you have to jump back into rhythm again.
- Don’t be afraid to reward yourself: This may seem a bit counter intuitive to the last point I made, but if you find yourself ahead for the day or week take a break and reward yourself. It will keep you fresh for the next coming tasks. The key here is to still stay disciplined and not miss your future deliverables. It’s good to have breaks and down time. Your brain can only focus on so many things at once. By trying to accomplish too many tasks in a day you simply lose effectiveness in your ability to focus.
- Focus on your peak times: Early on in my career, I never knew that everyone has peak times for their performance. I think this is much to blame for the 9-5 work mentality, but the best way to get things done is to focus on completing the toughest or most important tasks at the times of day when you’re most focused and motivated. As you can see, the times that I’ve outlined as “Heads Down” time is when I’m more focused or have the best time to be.
- Build habit around tasks: The best way for getting things done and managing your time is to just get things done and mange your time. The more you do, the more momentum gets built and you build a habit. I’ve found that when I have positive momentum in my daily life everything just feels so much better. I feel like I’m progressively moving forward and reaching my goals. If you’re looking for a way to record your progress on a given goal or daily task, Nathan Barry has a great iPhone app he built called “Commit” that allows you to simply confirm whether you completed a daily goal or not. If you have, the app will keep track of how many days in a row you have done so. It’s a great motivator.
- Limit your time and work less: It sounds strange, but you truly can get more done when you work less. Many great companies only work four days a week because that time restraint ensures everyone stays focused and gets things done. As a bonus it keeps everyone motivated and fresh. If you find yourself slacking a bit too much, try giving yourself some times restraints.
- There’s no reward for who can carry the most: Perhaps the hardest thing I learned in my career is the idea of delegation. I tried to do it all and I didn’t want to leverage others. Doing this I’d simply just get backed up. If you see yourself having a tough time with time management you may want to determine if you’re taking on too much work or not delegating out enough tasks to the rest of your team. I’ll admit, letting go can be hard, but by outsourcing and delegating the appropriate tasks, you allow yourself to move forward and focus your efforts on bigger goals. Keep in mind, the project is totally off your plate, just a few select goals, so you still have to take into consideration time to follow up, etc. But at least you’re able to watch from a distance.
- You must stay organized: If you’re not organized with your team, time and tasks, you’ll feel overwhelmed. It’s important to stay organized. Technology today makes that really simple. Leveraging technology will allow you and your team to stay in sync across multiple devices at any given time. Tools like Basecamp, Wunderlistand Flow (which I’m currently using because it’s like Wunderlist but on steroids) are really inexpensive ways to gain control over your task lists.
- Everything should have a due date: Everything that gets placed on your to-do list should have a due date or be assigned to someone. Don’t just create a log of work that you need to get done because it will never get done. Sure, you can have a document where you brainstorm ideas and things you want to work on, but as soon as something becomes actionable it should have a date and someone who is going to be the lead. Doing this is the only way you can measure your workload, and progress along with the project, and move past the talking stage.
I know this was a long lesson, but an important one for sure. My takeaway for this week is we all have the same amount of hours in a day, week and year. In my opinion, time has become somewhat of an excuse towards not reaching whatever it is we’re striving for. Please don’t take this the wrong way. Things do happen that are not in our control and that can alter our goals and weeks. But I do think it’s important to hold ourselves accountable and truly ask ourselves, “If person ‘A’ is able to achieve everything they’re doing in a day or year or lifetime, perhaps I need to evaluate where I need to become more efficient.”
One of my best characteristics and possibly the hardest for me to contain sometimes is my intense focus on the desire to “create things” and progress forward with focus and intensity. Yes, that does create some stress in my life, but if it wasn’t for those habits I’ve formed, I must ask myself, “Would I be where I am today?” There was a time when I was just talking about going to design school, another time when perhaps running a design studio seamed like a good idea, and not too long ago I had this thought about teaching young designers about the industry through my own experiences with a huge desire to help them reach their goals.
What I’m trying to say is everything starts out as an idea. And because turning that idea into something “real” takes a great deal of time and energy, most people don’t follow through with it. The secret is to dream, and then break that dream into tiny goals, and then turn those into actionable tasks for you or someone else to complete. As you complete those tasks, you’ll continue to build momentum and reach your first big milestones (for instance launching an online songwriting community). It’s then when that dream finally becomes a reality, and you can begin to celebrate your achievements and move forward with your next milestone. It’s through the completion of each of those milestones that you get to build experience and meet other great people who are also doing great things who are eager to help you as you progress forward.
Now that you have a better understanding on how to mange your time and get things done, next week I’m going to talk about the importance of accepting change and letting go for the sake of the bigger picture.
I’d love to continue the conversation with you on Twitter. What processes and tools do you use to manage your time?