Regaining my balance

The best thing about being self-employed is being able to plan my own time and to do pretty much whatever I want. The worst thing about being self-employed is, inevitably, being able to plan my own time and to do pretty much whatever I want. I say this because, in the last couple of months, there’s been an awful lot of doing, but precious little in the way of planning. And I’m not really striking the right balance between the different things that I do.

I find that I’m fine with the big things, like my ongoing consultancy projects, which start to make a fuss (metaphorically, at least) if they don’t get the attention that they need. But when it comes to the less vociferous but equally important things, like my longer term writing projects, the plants I’m growing and (as you’ve probably noticed from the unforgivable lack of posts recently) my blog, then I’m a little less consistent than I would like.

In order to at least attempt to rectify this appalling lack of focus, I’ve tried to figure out what I do in my consultancy work that I don’t do with everything else, in the hope that I might be able to apply this discipline to some of the other aspects of my life. And what I found out was, in fact, remarkably simple. In my work, I set goals for each activity, assign a deadline and then set aside a specific time to do it. So whether it’s a meeting with a client, some data analysis or writing a report, each gets an appropriate slot in my diary.

So why, I asked myself, does this rigour have to apply only to the more ‘traditional’ aspects of work? Why can’t I use the same approach for everything else? And the answer, of course, is that I can. The best way to make sure that I get everything done is, clearly, to set aside a specific time to do it. (And then actually do it, of course, but that’s a different story.)

It reminds me of something someone once told me on a management course that I went on for my old job. There are the important things, he said, and there are the urgent things. The important things wait patiently to get done, while the urgent things jump up and down like the kid at the front of the class desperate to answer the teacher’s question. “Pick me! Pick me!”, they insist. And so we invariably do the urgent things, while the more important matters (which are generally the things that we actually want to do) remain forever on the ‘to do’ list.

The answer, the guy explained, is to think of the important things as big pebbles and the smaller ones as tiny bits of gravel. Imagine that you have to fit them all into a jar, which represents the time that you have available. If you put the gravel in first, then it fills up the jar and there’s no room for the larger pebbles. But if you put the pebbles in first, you can then use the gravel to full up the gaps around them. In essence, then, I need to make time for the more important things first, and then spread the smaller, urgent-but-not-necessarily-important things around to fill in the gaps.

So this is what I’m now trying to do. I’ve been through my to-do list and have decided for each item whether it is important, urgent, both or neither. Things that are both urgent and important come first, so I’ve allocated each of them a specific time in my diary over the next few days. The important things come next, so I’ve set aside some time each day to work on one or more of them, such as my writing projects or potting-up my chilli plants. The things that are neither urgent nor important have either been wiped off my to-do list entirely (very liberating!) or scheduled in when I know I’ll have a bit of down-time, such as when I’ll be travelling on the train or when I have a gap between meetings. (I wrote this blog post on the train, for example, and am now posting it online in Starbucks.) As new to-do tasks arise, I’ll do the same sort of triage with each one.

The end result is a to-do list where I now have a date and time allocated to do each thing, which makes it look a whole lot manageable. I also have a diary where at least two thirds of each day is planned out, which will make it much easier for me to manage my time productively. It also makes me look a whole lot more busy, even if some of the slots are for things like ‘sow beetroot seeds’, which don’t look particularly executive. And the unscheduled third of each day gives me some flexibility to respond to other things that come up, such as a sunny day that requires my urgent attention in the garden!

This doesn’t mean that I have to stick rigidly to my schedule, of course, as things will inevitably crop up from time to time that mean I need to change my plans. But I’ve made a deal with myself that if I have to ‘cancel’ an activity that I’ve planned in, then I will reschedule it for a later date, just as I would do if I had to push back a meeting with one of my clients.

I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t an earth-shattering change to my life, particularly as it’s basically something that I’ve been doing for many of my ‘work’ activities for some time now. But it does give me hope that I’ll be able to create and maintain a harmonious balance that lets me devote time to all of my activities and interests. Which, after all, if why I became self-employed in the first place.

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