Everyone is so busy that there is no more time for organization and planning. And because there is no organization, everyone is condemned to being always too busy. The rule should be: organize yourself, then go to work. – from a book about Journalism, written more than 25 years ago.
It’s exactly what someone I worked with tells his students when they want to just jump in and do the class exercise. Wait. What are you doing? Do you even know? To make things easier he suggests imagining the task at hand like a story.
Tell me what you want to do next like you would tell me a story.
He does this so people can actually take the time to reflect. Unfortunately, this step is simply overlooked by most people I worked with. And this creates more chaos than order, more problems than solutions, more things that need attention than actually advancing with your project.
The quote about planning, even though it was written more 25+ years ago, still applies. Why can’t we learn this lesson? Why do we keep running all over the place without actually getting anything important done?
I made it a personal mission to not let myself fall into this trap. I don’t want to hear myself complaining all the time about my lack of time and other resources to get everything done, because I have sooo much to do.
What if we simply plan too much? What would happen if, say, we would plan fewer tasks for one day and actually at the end of it we would cross everything off that list?
No, you won’t be less successful. Trust me. I have a list with people more accomplished than I am that don’t kill themselves working.
And this gets me to the first quote above, to the reason why I decided to share my work system that involves managing more projects at once (personal and business), while working as a freelancer.
First things first
First, I need to cover the basics. Those activities that will help me do my job(s) under any conditions. Without these, I’m lost and they consist in just a few principles I set for myself.
- Sleep. The amount I need, without feeling guilty and if anyone thinks I’m lazy because I care about my rest than clearly we have opposite values and we won’t be able to work together.
- The shortest to-do list possible. I try to keep my mandatory tasks for one day to just three. Yes, three. If you do three important tasks that help you advance with your projects and plans, then trust me again, you will see results in a matter of weeks. Don’t overwork yourself, just set the minimum and go from there. The feeling of getting things done will also help with your mental state, that’s one great resource in life.
- Writing everything in one place. Everything because I don’t want to rely on my memory to know what I have to do next. I just check my list when I’m done with something else. By one place I mean you shouldn’t do different lists for work stuff and personal errands, especially if you work from home and have no hours, or your job doesn’t stop at the office door. This way you can have an overview of everything that needs your attention and time.
- Uni-tasking. Opposed to multitasking. Yes, it is a concept invented by A.J. Jacobs in one of his crazy social experiments, but it works. I’m not going to get into the specifics of the negative effects of multitasking now, because the idea you need to remember at the moment is this: when you do something, do that thing. Period. No social media, no email. If you need a break, take one, enjoy it. If you talk to a friend, just listen, don’t check notifications on your phone (especially if you’re not waiting for anything important). If you’re having a break, just have the break. Don’t try to cram in work. Do you get the picture? I hope. 🙂 I’ll only mention one more thing: if you keep your focus, you will finish anything in significantly less time. It’s amazing the amount of work you can get done if you just do the work. 😉 This lands me to my last principle.
- Knowing what to work on before starting. I end every day with a plan for the next. So when I wake up I know what my priorities are. I don’t like running around like a headless chicken, not finishing anything or working on too many tasks at once. I can’t concentrate, I can’t make sense of it all, I simply can’t function like that.
I need to know that my efforts have results. I need to make sure that I’m paying attention to my work and that I do everything that I can to make it as good as possible. This can’t happen when I’m not paying attention to details, for example, or when I don’t concentrate on the task. I make mistakes, errors, forget things, sometimes even entire projects that I need to deliver. Yes, it happened. You should see my panic face while talking by myself.
My schedule is flexible. I don’t mean only the fact that no one watches over my shoulder, but also that it fluctuates big time during the day. Because of this, I also have to re-organize everything on the go.
Let me give you an example. I need to write one article, edit an interview and research another subject. While minding my own business, I get a phone call from someone asking to meet up. I don’t want to miss the meeting, because it’s important to me, so I’ll say OK. But if I want to make room for coffee, I have to push the research part later or the next day. If the next day is full of tasks that can’t suffer delays, I need to find another time, while still keeping in mind that I have deadlines.
And I do this every single day. I plan and adapt my plan. But I always want to know what my focus should be next and how much time I have for other things. Here’s what I do.
1. Drag and drop
Until this year I couldn’t set-up a system that will work for me. Everything that I tried involved too much work from my account. This all changed when Google Calendar introduced the drag and drop option for events.
I don’t want to use an agenda anymore, because I always have my phone on me. Why always carry other objects?!
Plus, the digital version of the calendar syncs with the desktop app. This means that while I’m at my desk, I can take notes from my laptop, which is easier. And if I’m on the street or in some other place and I remembered something or something else came up, I can just bring out my phone and see the changes when I get to my laptop. But you already know all this.
2. Description preview
Besides the drag and drop option, the other great thing that happened is that you can now see the details of an event, even your notes, without clicking the edit button.
Why is this important? Because sometimes, to make things easier for me and not waste energy on remembering where I can find all the information, I just add everything I need to consider about that event in the notes section.
Here are some examples: shopping list, project status (need confirmation from …, waiting for the pictures from … etc.), things I need to have with me for a specific appointment, the address, the name of the person I’m meeting.
3. Color code
I use individual calendars for every project I’m involved in, each one with its own color.
I use events as tasks. When I look at my calendar, I see really fast the volume of work for each day, the number of tasks reserved for each project. And these I can drag and drop around.
When I’m done with something, I check my browser history and note the start time and end time. This will give me an idea of how much time I need to invest in some tasks. I also use this system to see how much I sleep and when.
Besides the calendars dedicated to my projects – work-related or my own, I set-up calendars for social activities, preparations I need to get done (here I include: shopping, cleaning. Sometimes I need to see them, so I’ll put those clothes in the washer before I run out of clothes to wear), and mandatories – things I hate doing, but have to.
If I’m starting something and don’t know if I should dedicate a whole calendar to that project yet (and a color), I’ll just put the tasks in the mandatory category. It’s red and you can see it, plus usually, this type of work requires more attention in the period before it gets its own calendar.
At first, I hade color codes based on the type of activity – social, work, own projects. But it didn’t help at all. I hade to write some short version of the name of the project the task was for in front of the task. So I read about someone else’s system and it made immediate sense.
4. The to-do list
Google Calendar doesn’t (yet) have all the features I would love, so I have to adapt a little. For now, I just put everything I need to do, with no specific times set yet, in Google Keep. Another great app, btw.
I would looove to be able to see a list of tasks without a timeframe set on the right side of the screen and just be able to drag and drop the tasks too.
The app made great progress now by integrating Google Tasks and Google Keep with the Calendar but is still missing some little, but relevant details.
For example, I love the fact that know you have both the Reminders and the Tasks available in the desktop app, but here’s how this will be even better.
- Making the Tasks visible on the mobile app as well.
- Being able to see all the reminders like you see the all-day-long events.
- Being able to assign the Reminders and the Task to a specific Calendar, so they will also be color coded.
Maybe this was a letter for the Google team, letting them know they made my life easier in the past few months and I was finally able to create a system that works.