Don't use the excuse that you're too busy to get organized. Here are five things you can do to tame your to-do list and stay organized in the leadership world.
It's common knowledge that successful leaders are busy people. Just like every working adult out there, we are busy running our teams, our companies and our home lives all at once. Our attention is continually pulled in multiple directions, and we're constantly switching mental channels in order to deal with the next task at hand. Some days it feels like we're living in the Greek parable of Sisyphus as he pushes his giant stone to the top of the mountain, only to have it roll back down at the end of the day.
Our constant busyness is taking over all of our lives, too. A study by researchers at Columbia and Georgetown Universities back in 2017 found that busyness and the lack of leisure time (or perceived lack of it) have become status symbols and measures of success.
The average worker spends roughly 33.5 hours working per week, according to the most recent release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (January 2020). While that appears to be shy of the standard 40-hour workweek we tend to think of, those numbers don't take into account the amount of time that we spend on our phones or laptops at home, working and being busy.
On average, the U.S. consumer spends at least four hours per day on their smartphone or tablet. While that figure doesn't specify how much of that screen time is dedicated to shopping or social media, it does mean one thing: Our time is increasingly absorbed by our computers, tablets, phones and televisions rather than our lives out in the real world.
The stats just get worse from there, too. We are busy even in our downtime. U.S. employees work an average of 8.5 hours per weekday and an additional 5.4 hours each weekend day.
So, what can you do, as a leader, to get and stay organized? Staying on top of your to-do list can seem like an insurmountable task. Busy days can be daunting, overwhelming and exhausting, but they don't have to be. Read on to find out how to tame the busyness beast both at home and at work.
The triple-time horizon trick
There are plenty of leadership articles out there that tell you to focus on only one timeline at once. The advice ranges from "focus on the task at hand" to "focus on your goals and the future." While these are fine pieces of advice, the best trick I've learned is to keep a flexible perception of time based on what you are moving toward or working on. Let me explain what I mean.
First, it's important when you are getting organized to focus on the immediate needs of your company or family first. Staying in the moment and dealing with what comes up can sometimes seem like playing a game of whack-a-mole, but as a leader both in your home life and in your business, it's part of your job to stay on top of issues that come up.
Second, it's crucial to have a short-term, perhaps a week- or a month-long, view of what you want to accomplish and what needs to be done. This means carving out time to plan for what is coming up in the relatively immediate future. Typically, I carve out time once a week to go over my schedule for the following week and the rest of the month. It helps me stay focused on the slightly bigger picture and prioritize and prepare for what needs to be done.
Finally, having a long-term outlook is also crucial. I tend to keep my long-term view to roughly one quarter or six months out. It helps me plan for what I need to do in order to hit both company and personal goals, and it helps prioritize my needs and my family's needs as well.
Book your downtime and honor it
Part of the benefit of using the triple-time horizon trick is that it allows you to look ahead and plan for things like downtime and vacation, which is something leaders should never gloss over. Scheduling downtime is crucial to being productive.
As a 2012 study points out, even short, planned breaks (like afternoon naps) can make us far more productive and much more focused on achieving our goals. Sadly, the U.S. is widely known as the no-vacation nation, and it's the only country in the world that doesn't mandate paid vacation or holiday time, according to The Washington Post. Since that is just the nature of work these days, it means that as a leader, you must take it upon yourself to set an example for the rest of your staff – take your time off and honor it.
The bonus to booking downtime, whether it's an afternoon walk around the building or the trip of a lifetime, is that it builds in time that you can take to reconnect to nature, sit with friends and family and be present, and it offers opportunities for you to get those creative juices flowing. I've written extensively about the benefits of finding a work-life balance and helping your employees avoid burnout, and every leader needs to take it to heart. As a leader, you must embody those traits yourself, too.
Plan for your most productive times of day
Do you get a second wind after lunch? Do you plow through your to-do list early in the morning? Maybe you find that the hours between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. are best for work that requires creativity. Whatever your pattern of productivity is, you need to identify it and then plan around it accordingly.
The first step in identifying your productive times of the day is to keep a journal or simple list of your activities as you do them. Being mindful of when you feel the most creative, focused or expansive will help you find the most productive times for you.
One of the biggest traps that most leaders fall into is scheduling meetings during their peak productivity hours. Do your best to protect those times when you do your best work so you can continue to bring your best self to each and every activity. Just like vacation time and downtime, it's imperative that you protect your productive times as well.
Don't use your inbox as your to-do list
Have you ever received an email in the middle of something you were working on and thought, "Oh, I need to get to that now!" only to find that you have become wholly derailed from what you were just doing? Many people use their email inbox as their to-do list and taskmaster. Opting out of that thinking will immediately get you more organized.
Try your best to turn any emails you get into a to-do item on your short-term or immediate list. That will help you focus on what needs to be tackled first and what can be delayed to another time. Once you have completed the item, check it off your list and move onto the next one. If another email comes in that demands your attention, take a look at your to-do list and reprioritize it.
Don't let your email run your professional life. It's a monster that will never be satiated.
Get smart about what you automate
We all carry smartphones with us everywhere we go, which means we have a virtual assistant in the palm of our hands. Why not use it?
When things pop into your mind as you are driving to the office or dropping the kids off at school, it can help to utilize a virtual assistant like Siri or "Hey, Google" (the Google Assistant) to remind yourself of tasks or events you have coming up.
You can use automation in a variety of ways. You can use automation to divide your work email into buckets that make it easier to manage as you work through it. You can set up automatic payments for things like car insurance or credit cards so you don't miss any deadlines. You can even automate email responses for times when you have blocked out your calendar with events or vacations. Leveraging technology to make your life better makes a ton of sense and can save you a ton of time when you are working toward getting organized.
The bottom line
Everyone today is busy. Being busy in today's world may appear to mean you are successful, but being busy just for the sake of being busy can be detrimental to our health and our lives, and it can create massive disorganization.
If you want to get organized and stay on top of that to-do list, follow these five tips, and you will be well on your way to successfully managing both your personal life and your professional life.