by Kim Keller
It’s easy for me to become overwhelmed in general, and the holidays just escalate all those stressed-out feelings. Seems like everyone I talk to is feeling the exact same way: so many things on the calendar, so many tasks on the to-do list, so many seasonal expectations.
Balancing work with caregiving responsibilities, as well as handling the unexpected life challenges that invariably crop up, can get the best of anyone. And if I’m not disciplined with my time, I not only risk making myself (and everyone around me) crazy, I’m also likely to become unproductive. So I use certain little techniques to help me stay focused and effective.
Here are my ten go-to tips for staying organized:
- Create A Daily To-Do List — I keep a huge to-do list that incorporates everything I need to take care of in every aspect of my life. Nothing is too big or too small to escape the list. Then, on a daily basis, I review the big list in order to create a smaller listing of all the tasks I need to get done on that particular day. I then prioritize those duties, using a simple numbering system.
- Schedule It On My Calendar — The day can get away from me if I don’t actually schedule time for the pressing tasks. So I block off a chunk of time in my daily calendar to address them. You can’t just hope you’ll have time to handle these things — you must treat them with the seriousness they deserve. By scheduling time to handle the most urgent tasks, I also manage to put all the distractions aside. No phone, no email, no texting. I treat the time like I’m having an important meeting. You wouldn’t answer a text during an important meeting, would you? This way, it’s just me and the project at hand.
- Batch Similar Items Together — Whether grouping together all the two-minute to-do items on my list or the multiple phone calls that must be made, batching together like items is an effective strategy for me. It helps to create a certain momentum that keeps me moving through the list and delivers a sense of accomplishment that makes me feel better. It also helps me make sure the little things on my list don’t get lost.
- Track Phone Conversations — I can’t tell you how often this has come in handy. I make notes on the important details of conversations, like who was I speaking with, when the conversation took place, and what was agreed to. I find myself referring back to these notes often, and it’s a huge time saver!
- Keep A Notebook — I try to keep a notebook with me at all times. I rarely go anywhere without one. Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, if I don’t write it down, it didn’t actually happen. My notebook is filled with all kinds of reminders of things I need to do or follow up on, as well as ideas I find interesting, great quotes, blog ideas, books I want to read, points of interest about people I know or just met. Basically, anything I really don’t want to forget. It helps keep my mind clear of the clutter. You can do this the old-fashioned way, with an actual notebook and pen, or you can utilize the available technology and keep a list on your smartphone or tablet. Whatever works best for you. It’s the ideas that matter, not how you transcribe them.
- Break-up Large Projects — The mere thought of a big project can sometimes overwhelm me. My successful completion of any big project comes from my ability to break it down into smaller, manageable pieces. If I’m still having a hard time getting started, I schedule maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day to begin chipping away at it. It’s a bird-by-bird deal, you take it one step at a time, and after a while, you start believing that, no matter how tough the assignment, you know you’ve gotten through it before, and there’s no reason to think you won’t get through it again. It’s good to draw confidence from your own past successes. Not so much to toot your own horn — just to know you can handle a big task because you’ve done it before.
- Use A Timer — I use this approach for anything that takes a great deal of focus and concentration. Sometimes I use an actual timer, rather than just watching the clock, and I think: For the next 15 minutes, I’m going to sit here and write this blog (or whatever the project might be). Sometimes I put headphones on to block out all other distractions, and I make deals with myself to work diligently until the end of the CD. Some people claim bargaining is a sign of weakness, but, hey, whatever gets you through is my motto!
- Limit Completion Time — If I don’t give myself clear and realistic time constraints, I’ll dawdle, I’ll overthink, or I’ll keep refining and reworking a project until I’ve almost lost sight of the original intent. Time boundaries are helpful that way. Now, when the psychic (or real) alarm goes off, I stop. Discipline with time is key to completing a project efficiently.
- Get It Done First Thing — In the morning, I have more energy and my mind is clearer, so I set aside time early in the day to work on anything that takes more brain power. The hard stuff I leave for first thing in the morning. You’d be amazed by the difference in results. Try it.
- Have Boundaries — It’s often hard for me to say “no.” It’s also been hard for me to ask for help. I took that as a sign of weakness for a long time. But I have learned otherwise in recent years. First of all, it’s not realistic to think you can handle everything yourself. That might be a hard truth for you, too, as it was for me, but I promise you it’s true. Secondly, it’s not even necessary. Not everything requires a “yes,” and there are so many people out there who want to help. In fact, letting other people help you makes them feel good, too. I was overjoyed to finally understand that asking for help does not mean you’re imposing. It means you trust the person you’re asking. It means you’re asking them to share your trouble and pain. That’s an intimate act, and people respond to that in a beautiful way. And yet, even after recognizing this fact, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to relinquish control. Being a control freak is not easy, but it also gives you such a lift when other people step up for you when you need them.
A few nights ago, I was having dinner with a dear friend of mine, and we were talking about this overwhelmed feeling, and she gave me this great tip: “Try this mini-meditation,” she said. “Take a deep breath and think ‘I am’ and then breath out through your mouth and think ‘at peace.’ Repeat until you can actually sense the calm.
It’s magic! I love it! I hope you do, too.
Kim Keller is the Co-Founder of In Care of Dad. She lives and works in New York City.
This blog was originally posted on December 21, 2011.