Systems save the day!


Photo courtesy of Jesse Millan (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Jesse Millan (Creative Commons)

I feel like I have been on a merry-go-round lately, so busy with taking care of things mostly for other people that I’m just spinning round and round, unable to jump off.

The thing that has saved me through all this is the systems and habits I have in place. It was encouraging to know that in spite of being pulled in so many different directions, and needing to do things that weren’t even remotely similar to things I normally do, the basics were still taken care of.

Two of the key tools have been my calendar with reminders and my Trello task lists.  Thankfully my calendar kept me on track with appointments and commitments – in fact I would have completely missed one that was scheduled months ago had that reminder chime not come up on my phone!

When I did have a block of time without a duty facing me, I was able to refer back to my lists on to see what else I needed to be doing. The hard work I had done lately to update those lists really paid off.

Some might think it is rigid and controlling to have systems in place, but for me, it is freeing. I can trust that I’ve put things in the right places with appropriate reminders and can let go. I don’t need to hang onto those nagging thoughts that I need to do something because I know that I will be reminded at the proper time.

The other bonus is that when I find myself with a block of unexpected time, then I have something to refer to so that I make the best use of the time – instead of wasting it and getting further behind. Or, if I decide I just want to read or relax, I can own that decision because I know what I’m not doing.

What systems do you have in place that help you on that merry-go-round of life?

The importance of not yet


Photo courtesy of Bart (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Bart (Creative Commons)

It was a challenger of a week, worthy of a high ranking on the list of most trying weeks. A perfect storm of heavier than normal workload, medication that made me jittery and unable to sleep, the threat of really severe weather two days, discovery that my dearest friend has a life-threatening illness, and the list just continued.

My brain was foggy, my body was exhausted, and all anyone kept telling me was to get some rest, which seemed impossible.

But as with other trying weeks, I did live through it, and without being committed or having a breakdown. And I was pleased to discover a few tricks that worked even within the craziness, so I’m eager to put them to better use to hopefully thwart future repetitions of such experiences.

One of the most important elements that saved me that week was having a semi-organized task list that could bring me back to the key things I needed to get done each day. No matter how many interruptions I had, or additional responsibilities added, or foggy-headed misdirections, I had something to come back to that reminded me of the things I needed to accomplish – or that could be let go.

I think the letting go was maybe the key element in maintaining my sanity – taking the initiative to say “not yet.” Yes, I had started the week with a set plan for accomplishing certain things. Yes, in a perfect world, I could have easily met my expectations. But with new, urgent duties and tasks added, and the additional challenges thrown my way, there simply weren’t enough hours in the day – or focus in my brain – to get it all done.

By having that list, and the ability to review my full scope of responsibility and purposefully put aside and reschedule some things, I was able to accomplish the things that I needed to without losing touch with the other things. They are still on the radar, and will be taken care of, just in a different time frame.

What could you gain by saying “not yet”?

Can you let go?


Photo courtesy of Alex&Luiba (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Alex&Luiba (Creative Commons)

Sixty-five degrees and sunny in February. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Especially after the winter we have had. But that’s what happened on Saturday, and boy was I ready to soak up that warmth and sunshine.

Thankfully, it happened on a Saturday, so I wasn’t stuck inside at work, and surprisingly, I did not have a single commitment that day that tied me to the clock. Rare, I know.

So I took advantage. I had a nice run without having to bundle up, and I spent a long time during the afternoon sitting on my porch in the sunshine reading. Yes, just reading a spy novel.

But you know why I was able to do that and not feel guilty or like I was shirking duties? Because I’ve been better about making sure my obligations and “stuff to do” was written down, rather than just letting it hang out in my head. I had a plan for what I needed to get done over the weekend, and knew that I could finish what I had to on Sunday.

And that allowed me to live in the MOMENT, which is one of my three focus words for the year (read about that here).

It probably sounds counter-intuitive that I had to plan to be in the moment. Let me explain.

David Allen, productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done (GTD), talks about a state he calls “mind like water” which is achievable if you have gotten everything out of your head and down into logical lists and next action steps. He tells us that your head is an awful place to store things, and will tend to remind you of things you need to do at the wrong time or when you can’t take care of it.

By getting all the things that have your attention out of your head, then you can focus on what you need to at the appropriate time. I have been very guilty lately of not keeping good lists, and having ideas, obligations, and reminders firing off in my mind at totally inappropriate times – like in the middle of a project or other tasks, or when I’m trying to go to sleep. And when I do try to take some time to relax, I can’t fully relax because there’s that annoying idea niggling in the back of my head that there is something else I need to be doing.

So yesterday morning, I spent some time just doing a brain dump – I wrote down everything I’ve had on my mind, from pay bills, create an agenda for a meeting this week and schedule rent – to iron, catch up on email and research wicker porch furniture. All of it.

Once I could see it all, I felt much less overwhelmed. I guess in my head the tasks and obligations were swirling and repeating so they seemed so much worse and due all at once! Seeing it down on paper, I realized that not all of it was due right away, and I could prioritize and make a plan.

And that plan involved getting some things done that morning, leaving the afternoon free, and getting more done on Sunday, when the weather was not forecast to be quite as warm or sunny.

So I could sit on the porch in the sun and read without worrying about what I was not doing or that I was forgetting something. I was truly in the moment, and it felt great.

What do you need to plan so you can live in the moment?

I have done it again


horse - César AstudilloHas this ever happened to you? You get organized and have a great list of things you need to do. And then all of a sudden, you get really busy – meetings, unexpected issues, family commitments, and craziness – and suddenly you are out of control. You end up putting out fires. You are taking care of the things that are yelling at you the loudest, and then by the end of the day you are exhausted and don’t have the energy to review your list or stay on top of things.

You might add to the list, but you don’t take time to mark things off or to review the priorities. So instead of taking care of things early, you end up hitting and missing and being late or frantic. Whew. Sound familiar?

It feels like the time at camp when I was riding a horse that started galloping before I was ready. I was bouncing along, unable to do anything but hang on and not fall off. What a scary feeling, and what a relief when the horse finally slowed down and I had control of the reins again.

As you can guess, I’ve been going through this lately. Feeling completely overwhelmed and inundated, knowing that there are things I need to deal with but not taking the time to sort it all out. Reliving that ride on the galloping horse!

Until this morning. I decided I had had enough, so I stopped and went through my pages-long list.

What I discovered is that because I wasn’t taking the time to review it properly, I had added a few things several times – and had done a bunch of those things but they were still hanging out on there. A couple of tasks took literally a minute to do – it actually probably took me longer to stop and write it down than to have just done it in the first place.

Once again, I am struck by how critical it is to set aside time, even just 15-20 minutes, at least once a week to do my review. Surprisingly, reviewing my tasks freed up all sorts of mental energy and clarity because now I wasn’t worrying that I was forgetting something important, or processing the other things I needed to get done in the background while I was trying to focus on the task at hand.

My list is not elaborate or in any fancy program right now. It’s just written on a pad of paper. Simple. Easy to deal with. Uncomplicated. But I feel like I’m reining in the craziness, I’m more in control again, and I can focus on getting done what needs to be done – now.

How do you rein in the craziness when you are overwhelmed?

Falling off the wagon


Photo courtesy of Courtney Dirks (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Courtney Dirks (Creative Commons)

I had aced the whole “planning-the-week” process. I was spending time on Sunday afternoons to plan out and schedule the tasks and projects I needed to work on during the week, complete with reminders on the calendar and time built in for a little fun. I had that down.

And I was getting things done. For once in my life, I was moving smoothly through the week, completing things, and feeling good about my accomplishments.

*sound effect of screeching tires*

I didn’t really see it coming. It totally snuck up behind me.

I took on one extra responsibility, but I’m not blaming my downfall on that.

What I didn’t do is continue what was working so well. I got sucked into the new project and instead of taking a step back to continue planning the week with time for that project built in, I let it rule my focus.

I continued to float for a week. Things still got done, but not at the rate as before. But then as more time went by, the more out-of-whack my world felt. It suddenly dawned on me what was wrong when I got up Saturday morning feeling so overwhelmed that I felt ineffective at everything I touched. Even habitual things felt wrong.

For some people, planning the week may seem like torture, and blocks on the calendar and reminders may just be like fingernails on the blackboard.

For me, however, the appointments and reminders allow me to let go of that “thing” and focus my whole attention on whatever I’m working on, rather than have part (usually a large part) of my brain trying to remember that I need to stop at the bank and the post office on the way home, start laundry and work on the minutes from the last committee meeting.

So I am working hard to remedy the situation. Once again, I spent time on Sunday reviewing my week, and planning out some of the major tasks and projects that need to be completed. I blocked out time on the calendar, which I can move if something else comes up, but which at least serves as a placeholder or my “flag” to remind me that it needs to be done.

The sense of liberation is incredible. Yes, I still have WAY more to do than I can ever hope to accomplish, but I have a plan now. And surprisingly, once I actually worked on some things that were looming, they didn’t take very long and now are completed. What a relief.

How do you stay in control when your life gets too busy?


My new “weight” loss plan


Photo courtesy of John Athayde (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of John Athayde (Creative Commons)

The last week has been one filled with distractions and fires to put out, both professionally and personally. Actually, if I’m being honest, it’s not just the last week but the last month or so. Such a constant barrage of things to deal with has left me spent and unfocused.

I suspect part of that distraction stems from a general state of disorder in my head. Rather than having clear goals and action steps to get there, I have been allowing the muck to flow in and obscure that clarity. Rather than stopping to refocus on the land, I’ve allowed myself to be tossed on the waves and make little progress. In fact, I suspect the current has carried me further from the land, and I need to stop, find the shore, and start swimming in the right direction.

My friend made a comment this week that the “weight” in our shared office needed to be lifted, after we had a conversation the day before about the burdens we each have on us. Things like work stresses, of course, but also pressing family issues, concerns, other commitments, and worries.

The only way I see to reduce those burdens, is to identify them. It felt really good to talk about it the other day, but I plan to take it a step further. By writing down all the things I have on my mind, from the errands I need to run to the projects I need to plan to the long-term issues I need to deal with, I can see the full scope of my “weight” and start to make plans to reduce it.

David Allen, productivity guru and bestselling author of Getting Things Done, advocates getting everything out of your head. His GTD methodology involves capturing everything that has your attention, and then deciding what to do with it. What is the next action step necessary to move that “thing” forward?

By identifying all those niggly little things that keep you awake at night, you can start to make progress on either making them happen or letting them go. Once you can see the whole scope of your “open loops,” you can start to manage them instead of letting them manage you.

One of my challenges is that I love lists. But I tend to constantly start new lists, and then forget to look at the old lists. I capture all the things that have my attention and get that instant gratification of having them off my mind for a bit, but then I don’t address them properly. Then they come back roaring in the middle of the night or when I need to be focused on something else. That is why I might have the same item on 3 different lists but still haven’t done it! Not very helpful, is it?

It’s time for that to change! Over the next few days, I intend to do a complete “brain dump” and get all those things in my head down on paper (or typed into Evernote). Then I will honestly assess each one to identify the next step or put it on a someday/maybe list and let go of it.

Once I have the next steps, then I can start digging in to get things done and make progress. I suspect that while it will be completely overwhelming at first, once I identify the “weight,” it will release pent-up worries and allow me to think more clearly about how to start closing some of those loops.

I have no illusions of being free from worries, but I do expect to function more effectively and spend less time frustrated.

How do you lose your mental “weight”?

How long is your list?


Photo courtesy of Carissa GoodNCrazy (Creative Commons)

Ever have one of those weeks where you are so busy, you can’t even keep up with what day it is? Yeah, that was my week last week. I work at a nonprofit, so we are in the thick of the overlap of our Thanksgiving and Christmas programs, had a major project to plan, the server went down … you get the picture.

I struggled mentally, emotionally and physically, and ended the week spent.

This weekend, as I began to regroup and recover, there are a few things that have helped me save my sanity and regain my sense of balance.

  • Brain dump – Make lists. In the quiet with a cup of coffee and pen and paper, I have made lists. Lots of lists. I have just written about everything on my mind that needs to be done, from work to church to personal. Email project plan is right there by iron and clean the litterbox. David Allen, productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done, advocates getting everything out of your head. Free up what he calls “psychic RAM” by getting all of your open loops and commitments on paper (or electronically). You’ll be amazed at how freeing that can be.
  • Prioritize. Once I had everything out of my head, I could start setting priorities. When you are overwhelmed, your brain can make you believe that it’s all critical and must be done at once. It’s firing off reminders of the most random things, making it hard to get anything accomplished. When you can see the whole scope of your open loops, you can figure out how to start closing them. I took my original mish-mash list and started breaking out the work tasks from the home tasks onto different sheets of paper. Then I could number or asterisk the more critical tasks and narrow my focus.
  • Rest. I gave in to my tired body and mind by going to bed very early the last few nights.
  • One thing at a time. I can’t do it all, and I certainly can’t do it all at once. I have to remember to just tackle one thing at a time, but now I can choose wisely.
  • Don’t neglect yourself. Eat well, exercise, rest, and spend time doing something you love with people you love. That’s what we’re really here for anyway, right?

I’m beginning to work through the HUNDREDS of emails, the lengthy list of to-do’s, and the screaming priorities. With each task marked off the list, I breathe a little easier and feel a little more relief. My goal? I am working toward feeling calm and back in control enough to sit and read for me Wednesday.

How do you find relief when you are overwhelmed?