Wednesday, 16 March 2011

7 Rules for More Free Time, Productivity and a Life Under YOUR Control

There are very few things that undermine your happiness as quickly as a life out-of-control.  If that describes you, then using these 7 inviolable rules can help you create order out of chaos in no time flat.  And even if you don't feel too pressed for time in your life as it is, you'll find these simple practices can make a vast improvement for you.
We're surrounded by a huge variety of information sources vying for our attention.  Heck, I've had two calls from automated telemarketers while writing this post!  Your mental attention is the key here.  Aside from being the key for any form of real spiritual progress, where you focus your attention will determine your results in life on every level.  Using these rules will act as a shield against the modern disease of attention-scattering and let you focus on what actually matters...
1. Plan Your Entire Week in Advance

The week is the optimal planning cycle for nearly everyone.  This doesn't mean you shouldn't think farther ahead, of course; it's simply that effective planning at the "tactical" level of life is most easily done using the seven day cycle.

First, open an Excel spreadsheet and put the days of the week across the top and the hours of the day down the left hand side in half-hour increments.  Then you can fill in your week's activities according to the rules below.  Also, it's best to color-code your activities by type, since your mind works best with pictures and this will indeed give you a visual "snapshot" of your week.

I learned this brilliant method from Kathy W., my accountability partner, who is a superb project manager, and it works like a charm, as long as you follow the rules below, that is!

2. Minimize Your Decision-Making
A tremendous amount of your attention and mental energy goes to making decisions all day long.  You fret about them, worry about them, debate with yourself endlessly and finally you decide... or you decide not to decide.  The irony is that all this could have been avoided... 

How so?  By making the vast majority of decisions ahead of time.  First, by planning when you'll do certain types of activities, you take a ton of guess work out of your day.  You no longer have to think about what you'll do next.  And when you batch your activities and make your week "modular" as described below, you're simplifying your life and negating the need for constant low level decision-making.  

You may have heard the absurd idea that you'll save time by "handling it once".  That would mean, for example, that if you come home from work and find four utility bills in your mailbox, you should pay them all right away and get it over with, thus "saving time".  

If you find yourself tempted to do this, give yourself a quick slap on the wrist and snap out of it!  You'll pay the bills during one of the periods of time you will have set aside in advance to deal with administrivia - not before and not after.  "Handling it once" is a moronic idea - it makes you react to your world and puts your time and attention at the mercy of things you don't control. 

3. Schedule the Important Stuff First

"Important" has a simple definition in the world of resilience - whatever moves you forward in life, toward the goals you've set for yourself (and we simply assume here you've set your goals with the right mixture of wisdom and intelligence ;-) is truly important.  Everything else is secondary. 

You'll find there are an awful lot of "urgent" things clamoring for your attention all the time - you'd think they had been taking lessons from my cat!  However, very few of them are important according to the definition above.  The biggest trap in time management is putting what's important at the mercy of the unending stream of what claims to be "urgent".  

So first, decide what activities you'll undertake this week that fit the definition above.  What will take you where you want to go?  Is it exploring a new career, getting some training in a key skill, spending time visualizing where you would like to be six months from now in terms of your health, fitness, career, etc?  

Maybe it's writing a book, talking to a prospective client or updating a website.  Whatever it is, schedule it first!

This, by the way, includes such key regular activities and your routines for maintaining a healthy body and mind.  So be sure to make time for you fitness routine, your meditation, your spiritual activities and whatever other tools you are using to optimize your SELF.  

One last key principle when scheduling your important activities - feel free to put in all the things you think you "should" be able to get done in a day... then divide by two.  Almost everyone underestimates the time they'll need to get a task done.  

The secret here is that it's far better to construct a light schedule and exceed your own expectations than to set yourself a heavy schedule and feel permanently "behind". 

4. Schedule Play Time Next
Next, decide on some leisure activities you'd like to undertake this week.  These can be for yourself alone, with your spouse, with family or friends or whatever.  You might want to dive into a particular book this week, go for a swim, get a massage or see a movie.  Make sure you schedule these activities next, since they have a key motivational function in your week. 

5. Schedule Administrivia Last

It's been estimated that it takes about five to seven hours a week to run the average household, if you include paying bills, answering snail mail, planning and doing grocery shopping and whatever other weekly shopping you need to do.  And then there's the laundry, meal preparation and clean-up on top of that! 

Remember, you only need to account for the activities that you yourself will be doing.  But under no circumstances should you schedule these activities until you have the really important items above all accounted for.

6. Batch Your Activities and Make Your Week "Modular"

The principle of batching is to group activities of the same type together and do as few different types of activity on a given day as you can.  This leaves you free to really focus and the resulting increases in productivity are enormous.  Moreover, when you do this you're avoiding the mental exhaustion that normally results from having your mental attention pulled in ten different directions each day.  

So when you color code your spreadsheet according to types of activity, you shouldn't see a different color every half hour!  Instead you should see larger blocks and half days or whole days built around a very small number of activities.  

Not only will this boost your overall productivity, as I've said, it will also simplify your life and liberate your precious mental attention. 

7. Allocate Your Time by Metabolism
Do you work best at night?  Is that when you're at your most creative?  Then schedule your activities accordingly.  On the other hand, if your best working time for creative tasks is in the morning, then make sure you use the morning for those activities.  
In other words, don't fight your metabolism!  Work with it instead.  Personally, I'm pretty much brain dead by 6pm, and do my best work in the mornings.  So I build my schedule accordingly.  Be sure to get in touch with your own metabolism to find out at what times of day you do which particular tasks the best, fastest and most easily.

The weekend is coming up, so open an Excel spreadsheet for yourself and play with it using the principles above.  And treat it as a lifestyle experiment - you won't get it perfect the first time, and you don't need to.  One thing I can promise you though - if you use these principles you'll rapidly feel your life getting back under control!

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger :-)

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