It was going to be a year of new beginnings. We had one child entering Kindergarten, one starting middle school, one moving on to high school, a freshman beginning college and one graduating from college and entering the workforce. I was also preparing to launch a new business within a month, still flying high from my vision of getting my business off the ground, when reality hit. In my head, I had imagined September to be a wide open road -- all the kids would be tucked neatly into their various schools, and I would have plenty of free time to devote to my "master plan" of doing it all. What-ever...As it turned out, between afternoon half-day kindergarten and the middle and high school bus getting home, I had all of an hour and a half total to myself. So, as any mom would do with all this free, I completely over-committed and decided it would be my "exercise, errand-running, business-building, school-volunteering and socializing with friends" time for me. Sadly, what actually happened was I ended up getting yesterdays dishes done...sometimes...on a good day. Frustration quickly set in with a big helping of guilt, you know, that awful kind of guilt where you feel like a failure on various levels, but no matter how hard you try you still can't seem to please anyone, especially yourself. With my hubby buried up to his eyeballs at work, I was the IT parent, and I was busy. Problem was, I was also aware that I wanted more. The garden where I had spent that past summer realizing what it was that really mattered the most to me needed less tending, and I rarely stopped to meditate on what was truly motivating me. I was driven by each day's to-do list and trying to paddle upstream in raging water. I needed to focus again. This time I turned to my girlfriends for that priceless "think out loud and hash out your thoughts" kind of conversation; the kind from which I try to spare my husband when I'm not yet entirely sure what I want to say and am not ready for him to tell me how to fix it. It just so happened that one of my dear friends was paddling right beside me in the same boat -- going upstream, or trying to. Sometimes friends can save you 1000's of dollars on counseling sessions (not that there is anything wrong with counseling, of course). I seriously NEEDED those talks. Though I had taken the time to pause and reflect on what was most important to me, I couldn't seem to figure out how put it into action, and I was frustrated with spinning my wheels and getting seemingly no where. It wasn't enough to just have an awareness of what I believed, I was supposed to do. I needed more than a destination. I needed a map. Talking it out with my friend helped me to rehash what my my non-negotiable's for each given moment, or day, were versus what I hoped to accomplish, and I made a flexible plan for both. It wasn't the best daily plan, and I would eventually learn that and adjust, but it was a plan, and it was based on what I valued most at the time. Like I said, I have since learned A LOT about what my true priorities are. Everyone's are different, and they change, so we adjust. Fast forward to now with some practical advice for prioritizing your day; a road map based on the the values that matter most to you. In the end, I'll fill you in on how it looked for me.
TOP 3 Picks
We only have 24 hours in a day (8 of which I hope to be sleeping) so that leaves us with 16 waking hours. Most of us, these days, have at least twice that many hours worth of responsibility, so how do we use our time? The answer? By learning to pick our top 3 most important tasks for the day. These are things that no one else could do, but ourselves. They should be the tasks that yield the biggest impact for us, our family and our world. It is important to make those TOP 3 picks specific, and do them first thing, once your work day begins. For the stay at home parent with young kids it might look like keeping the children safe, fed and learning. I know when my kids were little if I kept them alive, and they ate nutritious food, and learned something new, that, that day was a success. For the corporate business person it could be answering email, prepping for that big meeting, and writing a memo. For those who are retired it might be personal exercise, volunteering, and cooking a healthy meal for themselves. I understand that there are often many more important tasks that each of us have in a given day, but start with your top 3 and focus on them until completion. This will cause you to invest first in what will give you the biggest yield. Be flexible! Do what has the biggest impact on you, your family, or your work.
Don't sweat the small stuff
When you begin to practice prioritizing, things might get a little messy in other areas. The dishes might stack up on the counters, your filing pile might accrue, or there might be a little extra dust on the bookshelves. This is good, no sweat! Smaller tasks can often be delegated, hired out, or done less often. They usually don't offer you, your family or the world much of a yield, or impact so, learn what matters most, and if necessary ask for help with what is left undone.
If you focus on practicing the priority of your TOP 3 most valuable, highest yielding tasks each day, you are going to need to learn to put off other tasks till later. Whenever possible, try not to repeat tasks. You could do all the days dishes once a day. Only do laundry, meal planning and grocery shopping once a week. Try large batch cooking or whole house cleaning so that you are not repeating chores. Maybe stick mail in a drawer and attend to it once a week, while at the same time paying bills, recycling and filing it all in one sitting. There are endless ways that you can try healthy procrastination which will buy yourself more time to invest in what is most valuable, meaningful and full of impact.
(*A side note to single parents here...I was in your shoes and I FULLY understand the level of extra responsibility you carry. You are not alone. You are exhausted, and stretched beyond measure, but you have just as many values that matter to you--if not more--than the rest of us, all while carrying added responsibility on your shoulders. Finding focus by practicing priorities is not a pipe dream for you...it is a life jacket)
So, back to how I figured out how to "manage it all"...Well, actually, I didn't. I let a lot of it go, I delegated, I hired some of it out, I got my minions (my kids) to help out more. That September, I started with my TOP 3 priorities each day. I chose exercise at home in the morning, working with clients from 1-5 pm and carpooling the kids from activities from 5-6. These were things that only I could do, and they were non negotiable's to me at the time. In order for me to do this, we hired a cleaning lady to clean the house, a babysitter to watch the kids after school, and we started giving the older kids an allowance attached to a list of chores like: doing their own laundry, walking the dog, etc. I was able to build my business and grow it in the first 6 months; something only I could do, and the essentials around the house were getting done. Soon we would find out some unfortunate news that would change my priorities, and we would need to adjust, but for now I was making enough to pay the cleaner and the sitter and I loved my job. In Finding Focus, Part 3: Avoiding Distraction, I will go into what to do when unexpected things come up that you can not avoid, and how to limit distractions that you can avoid. Until then, find your TOP 3 Picks, don't sweat the small stuff and practice some healthy procrastination. Do those, and you will begin to find your focus...