Winning the Time Management War: Lessons from the Army, Peace Corps, and when I Was a Lazy 18-Year Old
This is the first post in a new series called Working Smarter: Everyday CLA techniques to help you be more productive. The goal of the series is to share practical ways to integrate collaborating, learning, and adapting into your work.
Do you ever imagine going back in time and giving the younger version of you all your life lessons so they don’t make the same stupid mistakes? I do, but I also know that the 18-year-old version of myself wouldn’t listen to a word I had to say. In fact, if you had met me when I was 18 you would probably have said something like, “That kid is going nowhere in life,” or “What a lazy little $#%@!” I was a procrastinator, lazy, and really didn’t have much motivation to do anything. So, when I made my first failed foray at university it didn’t take long to drop out since I had no ability to manage my time and get my studying and coursework done.
Skip ahead a year to when I was a private in the 82nd Airborne Division. From day one of Basic Training to the day I got out of the Army, every minute of my time was managed for me. I didn’t have to think about it, and I got an assignment, an allotted amount of time to complete it, and was punished if I didn’t complete it in time--usually with excessive amounts of push ups. Oddly, that was the best time management training I’ve ever had. Do it, do it fast, and do it now. When I went back to university after the Army I found it to be incredibly easy and never had an issue with time management, even when many of my fellow students were struggling.
A few years later I joined the Peace Corps and had a new problem. What do you do with too much time on your hands? Apart from watching old DVDs of Friends, I took up marathon training. Strangely enough, the increased exercise and time commitment also helped with time management. The improved fitness actually helped my mental clarity and ability to focus. When I did have work to do I was able to do it better and faster than ever before. Now, when I don’t get enough exercise I definitely feel the effect with my ability to focus, analyze, and process information.
My experiences helped me to develop the innate time management routine that I have today, which I feel allows me to do more work in less time and stay on top of the long-term tasks that others struggle with. So, you have two choices: go out and join the military and then serve in the Peace Corps, or think about following some of my handy life tips below:
Rule #1: Say No. Everyone likes to be one of those people that is helpful to others. Unfortunately, the most productive and/or the most helpful people are then very sought after to help finish those 100 urgent priorities and attend meetings where their input is “essential.” It’s hard to say no, but it’s also why I have it listed as Rule #1. If you can learn this skill, managing your time will become much easier. Be open with your supervisor about your workload and ability to get things done. Often, they don’t have any idea how many things you are dealing with and will actually be sympathetic when you explain it.
Rule #2: Schedule Yourself. Stop reacting to everything and start scheduling time to work on tasks that may need to be completed over a longer period of time. This will also help reserve time in your schedule that others can’t take. I schedule the first 30 minutes of my day to plan out the day and review my to do list to see what “must” be done, what “should” be done, and what I “want” to get done. I know that I am the most productive and creative in the morning and negotiated with my supervisor to come in early so I have that time to think and write before others are in the office and schedule meetings. This helps me have a two hour block that I can organize to work on the “must, should, and want.” I always try and spend a little time on each and e-mails are saved until the end of the day when I don’t have as much brain power. This helps me to not always be reactive and keep the bigger picture in sight. It also helps that I make time to work on things that are important to me as well. Fridays are my learning and creativity day. I reserve half the day to learn new things, think about creative ideas or solutions, and reflect on how the work week went. It’s my way of practicing adaptive management on myself.
Rule #3: Take Breaks. Your mind needs rest. Sometimes you just need 10 minutes to disconnect from everything. I usually do this in between sessions where I am writing, reading, or researching. It helps me stop thinking about what I’m doing and let’s me transition to something else. I recommend getting a snack, playing a game, walking, or meditation. You may have other ideas as well. It’s not being unproductive to veg out for 10 minutes. It actually makes you more focused when you return to your desk and pick up the next workstream.
Rule #4: Reward Yourself. Hopefully you get some kind of joy out of your work. If not, it may help to develop a rewards system. It could be simple like having a chocolate or piece of gum when you finish a task, or it could be a weekend spa trip after an exhausting week of training facilitation. Whatever it is, make it something that appeals to your inner motivation and is appropriate to the level of effort that you are putting in. Or, take a day off after a stressful week and recharge so that you are more effective when you return.
Rule #5: Don’t Take Work Home With You. Many of my colleagues may find this to be a controversial statement. I think it’s a phrase to live by. Taking work home is a never ending spiral that I’ve seen cause stress and anxiety in too many of my colleagues. Too often it’s seen as a temporary solution, but then two months later your take home work folder is bigger than ever. When in doubt go back to Rule #1 and tell yourself no. Work will always be there, but your health and sanity might not if you can’t untangle your work-life balance.