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Frequently I get asked how do you have a day job while working on your side projects? I then share with them the process of how I stay organized and stay on top of my calendar. While sharing, I noticed that adding constraints or tasks allows me to focus on my priorities and complete my work.
This article lays out a framework on how to stay organized and kill your to-do list. But aside from that, you will learn how to stay organized in your professional as well as personal life.
Traditionally, people will keep a to-do list to prioritize tasks. However, it is common to then push tasks further back in your to-do list, which leads to a mental energy suck and causes unnecessary anxiety. For example, you may have a report that you told your manager you would deliver by a specific day or you received a phone call that you need to follow up on. It is important to not delay these tasks (unless communicated) or forget to follow through entirely.
If you know someone who has an endless to-do list, misses commitments, or vice versa loves life hacks and challenging themselves, please share this article. Feel free to drop me an email and let me know how it went for you or them.
Following through on your commitments is about honoring your word to yourself and others. Once you begin to break your word, others will distrust you. If you can’t trust yourself how can anyone else trust you? In this case, you are unlikely to reach your personal and professional potential.
Staying organized is a start, but that’s only half of the work. Organization and prioritization go hand in hand. Here are the steps to stay organized without a to-do list.
The first step in this process is to use a calendar. You can use Outlook, iCal, Google Calendar, or a physical calendar. The first step is to pull up your calendar and to-do list over the last month. If you previously did not use a calendar, recall and write down all of your meetings, calls, and work in general you had completed over the last month. Include your completed to-dos as well. Keep in mind, this framework can also be used for your personal calendar as well, but for the interest of the article, we will primarily focus on your professional calendar.
After you have written down the tasks you performed over the last month, begin to group them together. For example, let’s say your job is in business development. One of your common tasks may be to call prospective clients. Make that a bucket, Prospective Client Outreach. If another task is researching prospective clients to call, make that another bucket, Prospective Client Research. Keep your buckets to a minimum. I would recommend starting with 5-8 buckets. You can even group these two bucks and call it Prospective Clients. If another task on your calendar is existing client meetings, make that a bucket as well and call it Existing Clients or Existing Client Meetings, if you’d like to make it more granular. If you notice that you have 10+ buckets, you can consolidate and group them together and make them more general. Again, the buckets should be derived from your calendar tasks as well as your to-do list.
Once you have bucketed your tasks, begin to allocate a percentage to them. This is where it gets fun. Take a step back and ask yourself how would I like to spend my time? There is no right or wrong answer. You can always adjust your allocation at a later date. For example, if your job is to get sponsorships for your company newsletter you can assign percentages to your buckets as seen below.
Collateral Development: 10%
Prospective Client Research: 20%
Prospective Client Outreach: 30%
Prospective Client Meetings: 10%
Existing Clients Meetings: 25%
Team Meetings: 5%
Review your long list of to-dos. Remove any that have sat there and are no longer a priority. The to-dos that are a priority, add them directly into your calendar. Even if the to-do will take less than 20 minutes to complete. Note it in your calendar. If your to-do aligns with one of your buckets, you can add it to your calendar when you plan to work on that specific bucket. It doesn’t have to be for tomorrow, but add them or email them to yourself and snooze them so you can revisit them for a later day. Snooze is discussed later in the article.
Calendar blocks don’t necessarily have to be to-do tasks. They can also be general buckets. For example, for prospective client outreach, you can make this a recurring task on your calendar for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. If you chose the bucket to be 20% of your 40-hour workweek, it should equate to 8 hours per week. If you complete your bucket early for the day, work on another bucket or task that is the highest priority. Review your calendar to determine what tasks you would like to work on in your free time.
I use Spark Inbox for my personal email. It aggregates all of my personal email accounts and allows you to snooze emails. Gmail’s mail app also has similar features. Aside from sending emails, I use Spark in two ways. When I went to give myself a reminder, I send an email to myself if I don’t have the time to prioritize it in my calendar. I do this so I don’t forget to act upon the task or forget to follow-up all together. For example, if I need to call back a colleague I will quickly throw it in my calendar if I don’t have time to call them back right away. I do this, so I don’t forget. When I am back at my desk, I can then call them or add it to my calendar to call them later in the day. You may be using a reminder app, but oftentimes those apps turn into another to-do list.
When you are going through emails in your inbox (some of these emails may be tasks you emailed yourself), ask yourself three questions.
Ask yourself these questions in order to prioritize your tasks. If you know you need to get to something in a month from now email the task to yourself then snooze it so you don’t forget or have it sitting in a to-do list that you will likely forget about. It’s okay to snooze a task more than once. If you notice yourself re-snoozing due to procrastination, add it directly into your calendar. Don’t keep pushing off tasks unless it’s not a priority.
With Outlook, you can assign unique labels to look at the email later or add them into a folder called Review Later. If you do so, make a task on your calendar called Review Later – Outlook, so you force yourself to act upon these tasks versus letting them go stale in your Outlook.
If one week your allocation for a particular task is 20% instead of 10%, don’t sweat it. If you see this being consistent, update your recurring time on your calendar or have a conversation with your manager to reprioritize your tasks. An example of a higher priority may be finalizing a contract with a client versus doing general outreach.
Word of caution, don’t obsess and live in your calendar where being in your calendar is starting to take away from actually doing work and knocking off tasks from your calendar. If you notice a recurrence needs to be adjusted to another time or adjusted in length, make the change. Use your calendar to prioritize and set recurring tasks to hit your goals versus using it to only plan ahead.
In the event of a high priority task that needs to be completed right away, it is okay to push off a task or excuse yourself from a meeting at times. Make sure to keep your word to yourself and others, but at times, depending on the situation, it is okay to communicate that you have to delay the deliverable or commitment. The last thing you want to do is not communicate that you can’t deliver by the time you said you would. If excusing yourself is a consistent occurrence, you may need to speak with your manager. If it is a social work commitment like going out with colleagues, don’t do it too often or they may think you’re blowing them off.
You can always skip a task for the day. If it’s consistent that you’re skipping tasks, reprioritize.
If a task takes under 5 minutes and requires little brainpower, complete it. For example, shooting out a quick email or making a quick update to a presentation, do it on the spot. Once you complete these small tasks, you no longer need to think about them. Preserving your mental energy is important. Of course, there are exceptions. If you truly get do it at the moment, add it to your calendar to act upon it later in the day or perhaps even the week. If the task will exceed 5 minutes, add it to your email and snooze or directly into your calendar so you can take action on it at a later date.
I recommend creating a cadence for yourself so you stay on top of your calendar. Again, don’t use a significant amount of time reshuffling your calendar and making it perfect, but it’s important to do a daily check. I recommend doing it 10 minutes before you wrap up your day and having a more in-depth review at the end of the day on either Friday or Sunday, so you can prepare for the week ahead.
Create a document and call it Weekly Accomplishments. I keep mine on my desktop so I can be reminded of it versus putting it in some folder I will never look at. In your Weekly Accomplishments doc bullet your goals for the week. Make them specific. For example, an accomplishment may be that you close 1 deal this week or find 3 new prospective clients. You can make it more personal as well, such as finish your book, go on an incredible date, meet a new friend. By setting an agenda for the week, it keeps you grounded and sets an intention for the week. Keep accomplishments to only 4-7 per week. It’s okay if goals roll over from week to week, but if the same goal isn’t being hit you may need to reprioritize your calendar and dedicate more time to it. Sometimes you hit these goals and other times you don’t, but it’s fun to try. Don’t be too conservative with your goals. Get into the routine of having some of your goals be a reach that may make your stomach churn a bit.
If you complete your tasks ahead of time, review your calendar to see if you can knock off any tasks that are planned for later that day or week. When you allocate time to work, prioritize what bucket/task is the highest another priority.
On Sundays, I’ll schedule a gym class so I don’t veg all-day. I also hire a trainer at work so it forces me to workout. It’s easy to prioritize work over your health. When I make a commitment to someone and add it to my calendar, I don’t break it because I don’t want to let the person down. Some other ideas can be to add date night in your calendar and make it re-occurring. If you’re consistently skipping date night, you may need to reprioritize your relationship as well.
Trello is a project management tool that can keep you organized. However, it can just become another to-do list for yourself. I recommend using Trello if you are on a team or outsourcing work, but don’t use Trello for personal tasks. Use the steps highlighted above. If you decide to use Trello, make it recurring in your calendar called Trello tasks.
The methodology above will help you organize your tasks, kill your to-do list and hold you accountable. Leverage your calendar and the tools highlighted above to not have to stress out about completing tasks or use mental energy to remember tasks as well as priorities. Once you’re on top of your calendar, you are on top of your life. Aside from nailing your professional commitments, it is equally as important to balance your life.
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