As a business owner, and more recently a farm owner, I don’t think I’ll ever utter the words “I don’t have anything to do” again. Like most of us, my “To Do” list is impossible. There are more things on it than I could conceivably do in a day, a week, or perhaps even a month. So how do I keep from being overwhelmed? I have a system.
There are three things I do that keep focused and on task and keep from losing my mind. These are: 1) Having a prioritized list. 2) Scheduling blocks of time. 3) Headphones. I’ll tell you a little about each.
Have a Prioritized List: Since it’s literally impossible to do everything that’s on my “To Do” list, I must decide what is a “Must Do” and what is a “Like to Do”. I will go through my list and star all of my “Must Do” items. Once that is done, I then prioritize them based on importance and deadlines. Usually I’ll rank them 1-10 (after 10 they become a “Must Do Later” and will get added to the list as other items get checked off).
Schedule Blocks of Time: Once I have that list, I take the items and I schedule them into time blocks. I like to work in 2-30-2 blocks; which means I work for 2 hours on specific items and ONLY those items. Then take a 30 minute break during which I am not working; I’m eating, going for a walk, brushing my horses, walking the dog, or making a meal, etc. The 30-minute blocks are for recharging and refreshing – not for email or trips to the post office. Those things get scheduled in. After the break, I head back in to another 2-hour time block. Depending on the day, I could have up to four 2-hour time blocks.
Part of a 2-hour time block includes time for evaluating Mini-To-Do’s. If there is something that can be done in 5 minutes or less, it gets done and then I don’t need to think about it or work it into another time block. I may also decide that it’s something that will take more than 5 minutes but that it would be better to delegate this item. This could be something like sending out a press release, holding horses for the farrier, or client billing. Having a prioritized list and setting aside time to focus on specific tasks allows me to get more done than if I tried to work on 10 things at once.
Headphones: One tool I used to keep me focused is my iPod, or sometimes Pandora.com. The reason I use sound when I’m working is to minimize distractions. My brain is very busy and if I am working on a presentation, organizing my office, writing a blog, or what have you, it is common for random thoughts to pop into my head like: “I should see if there’s a stable nearby where I could give a presentation” or “I should order that movie on iTunes” or “I should post a funny video on Facebook” or “Did I ever email that guy back about an advertisement?”. Thoughts will just come and come and come and I could start and stop a dozen projects if I didn’t have a way to stay focused. The headphones keep my brain from getting distracted. Sometimes I listen to music, other times it’s podcasts or audiobooks. The sound allows me to tune out the distractions and I get a ton done. If I’m working on something that requires a lot of creative thought, I’m more likely to listen to Classical or New Age music that doesn’t have any lyrics but if I’m going through mail I might listen to an audiobook. In any case, it works for me.
Without implementing a time management system, it is easy to slip into overwhelm and not get anything done. What is critically important is that while you maintain an awareness of what you need to get done, you must give yourself credit for what you do accomplish. Some tasks will be easier than others and some will take a ton of effort but when you cross something off your list, you need to acknowledge the accomplishment and feel good about it. If you focus entirely on what is still left to do without acknowledging your successes and achievements, you are not doing yourself justice. Think about when a young horse is being trained. If the trainer only focused on the fact that sometimes the horse picks up the wrong lead without taking pride in the fact that the horse steers, stops, walks, trots, and backs perfectly, that would not be fair to the trainer or to the horse. So go ahead, make a new list and start scheduling. And while you’re at it, download some new stuff to your iPod.
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