And manage your mind in the process.
It’s been a week.
An exciting week. A fun week. But the kind of week where you grab the safety bar and let the roller coaster take you around. You choose to believe that you’ll be okay and it will all work out in the end. Even if you’re screaming all the way.
I’m juggling a few exciting new consulting projects, plus some interesting writing opportunities. And the usual life stuff. Two kids at two different schools plus a million after school activities. And dinner and laundry and dogs that need walking and, you know, life.
I’ll admit that even for a naturally organized person like me, this week was a challenge. I felt my anxiety levels rise as I walked out of every meeting and hung up from every conference call. I knew that I still had writing or financial models to produce for people before the end of the day. And I wanted to connect with my kids in the evenings. But I knew that I had to get certain things out the door or the rest of my week would become a six car pileup.
But it’s the end of the day on Thursday, and I got it all done. In time to take tomorrow off and spend quality time with some guests visiting from out of town.
Here are some of the tools that I used to manage my mind and fit it all in.
Write everything down.
I talk about this all the time, but I can’t emphasize it enough. The volume of tasks and activities always feels enormous, overwhelming in your head. Your to-do list in your mind feels like it will never end.
I can tell you by looking down at the piece of paper next to my left arm that I had to create six work products this week. Six is not a big number. But when you loop those six things in your head over and over and over, they feel like 600. It almost never is.
Write it all down. Keep it on a piece of paper within eyesight. When you start to panic, and your thoughts start escalating, move your eyes to that paper. I bet what you’re worried about is already captured there.
I also like to highlight the tasks that I finish. So I know exactly what’s left on the list. And I get the feeling of progress and accomplishment of moving through the tasks.
Know when you work best, and schedule your day accordingly.
I happen to be an extreme early morning person. I’m not saying that to brag. It’s in my biology. And believe me, it wasn’t an advantage in my 20’s when all my friends wanted to go out late. I was desperate to get into my pajamas.
Because I am a morning person, I schedule my most mentally intensive work in the morning. Sometimes its work for a new client, often it’s writing. This morning I started working at 5am. I took a break to get my kids breakfast and off to school, and kept going until about 11am. With some 5–10 minute breaks to eat or wander the house and take a breath).
I usually take some kind of break in the middle of the day, even if I am stressed and feeling concerned about time. Because for me, it is true that I can’t pour from an empty cup. Around midday, I’ll eat lunch and almost always, walk my dog Rosie for about 45 minutes. Sometimes I listen to a podcast. I love How I Built This and have been riveted by The Dropout. Other times, I’ll listen to music as we wander.
I always feel more recharged for the afternoon once I’ve been outside and cleared my head. Often, tasks that felt like they would need several more hours of work get done in 30 minutes once I’ve taken that break.
Afternoons are always less focused for me. So I use that time for administrative tasks or paying bills or responding to emails. Work that still needs completion, but doesn’t need the mental load of my earlier work.
I take a break when my kids (who are 11 and 8) come home from school and I hear about their day. It’s only 10 minutes or so until they have to start their homework or head out to basketball practice. But sitting there and listening to what they have to say is one of my favorite times of the day. I get the news, hot off the presses. They feel heard and acknowledged. Then we all move on with our day. And then I power through until dinner time.
Here’s the thing, though — if you are a night owl, this would be a horrible schedule for you. Forcing your mind to focus at a time when your body is not willing is a recipe for frustration and disaster. So maybe for you, your first work of the day is administrative. Emails and such.
But after dinner, when you start to hit your stride — that’s when you settle into the hard work. Writing, new project proposals, whatever is most mentally taxing for you. Just know that I will be sound asleep. After 8pm I can’t string a sentence together. It’s ok if you feel the same way about 8am.
Prioritize and let go of the rest
I have one project that I really wanted to get to this week. The deadline isn’t for few weeks. But the client asked if it was possible if I could have the information to him by Monday.
I would have loved to do that.
But, the client asked in the middle of the week. And it was clearly a “nice to have” not a “need to have.” And not the deadline that was written in our contract.
I had to tell the client that I wasn’t going to get to it in time.
I knew that it would disappoint him. But I also knew that it was better to be honest and upfront. Telling him “maybe” until Friday afternoon, and then admitting that I couldn’t get it done would leave me with lingering feelings of guilt. And distract me from the tasks I did need to handle this week. Not to mention, it would disappoint him even more. Getting a realistic timeline out in the open is hard, but means one less thing on the post-it note to my left.
So here we are, Thursday evening. I am wrapping up what’s left of my week. Feeling a sense of progress and accomplishment. I kept my anxiety in check and I got it all done. I know I did what was important, when I could make the most headway, and I let go of the rest.
What’s better than that?