This is a story about how to greatly improve time management in your life, and business, through structure, flexibility, and permaculture.
Could you use a little help in getting your head around all the never-ending tasks and deadlines? Are you perhaps feeling a little overwhelmed by it all?
Picture a heavy box, sitting in the mud, and your job is to get the box to the other side of the muddy yard. You can do this. You’re strong, and determined, and the reward at the end of the job will be very worthwhile. So you put your shoulder to the corner, and you push.
Picture that the box represents your endless list of tasks and to-do’s and action steps. You want to get all these things done, and make the best use of your time, and have something to show for it at the end of the day, but there’s all these things that get in the way, there’s rocks and divots and bumpy spots. As a coach, this issue of time management is incredibly common. There is only so much you can do, and although the workload often exceeds the time available, you would just keep plodding along and pushing that load forward, that heavy box getting pushed through the mud, and you believe that if you just keep pushing, eventually you’ll get the job done.
The trouble with this approach, however, is that the energy it takes to push that heavy box, full of tasks and to-do’s and action steps, is probably not sustainable. Sure, you’ll get most things done, but will you have any energy left to enjoy the results of those labours? In this analogy, you can visualise the futility of such an approach, when it’s easy to see that a simple trolley could come along and save a mountain of time and energy and get the job done. It’s the same heavy box, the same distance travelled, the same result. All that was added into the mix was a tool to reduce the RESISTANCE you were experiencing before while trying to push the box through the mud.
And so, with your box of tasks and to-do’s and actions steps, are you experiencing any resistance to getting these things done? Aren’t you finding that just a bit frustrating?
What do I know about how to improve time management?
I believe that I am uniquely qualified to talk about time management. In my personal life, I have my children with me for 5 days, then they’re at their father’s for 5 days. My husband is home for 6 days, then away at work for 8 days. Add to that my professional life. I run a coaching business, while also working away at a large project that has been, and will be, several years in the making, then I am a board or committee member of no less than 3 organisations, which are all incredibly important to me and I’m as active in these roles as I can manage, then I also currently serve as a secretary for the women’s organisation within my church.
This creates a roller-coaster of constantly changing schedules, routines, activities, and workload. One day I’m a solo-mum to teen and pre-teen girls (which is a challenge all on its own!), next I’m just solo, with only my work and my dog for company. Then I’m enjoying a date night with my husband, then I’m trying to balance everyone at once! One day I’m coaching all day, then it’s committee meetings or spending time talking to other business owners in my town or at networking events, or participating in permaculture activities and events. Then there’s the perpetual work of establishing my own permaculture garden and looking after my animals. I’m exhausted just writing this!
It’s been like this for several years now, and it’s taken a while to find the rhythm to make it work. The abrupt change to my home life every few days takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to process, and I was at risk of burning out if I neglected the self-care I needed. Although this will always be a constantly evolving process, I believe I have found a sustainable pattern to maintain balance.
Permaculture Principles can Improve Time Management
In the permaculture world, we use the principle of self-regulation and accepting feedback to remind us that we may not have all the right answers straight away. If we try something like placing a potted plant in a certain spot, we look for the signs that the plant likes it there. We would see a good amount of growth, the plant would be green, healthy and vibrant. If not, if the leaves start to yellow, or flowers droop, then the plant is telling us this isn’t working, please fix it. This is feedback – when messages are sent to communicate that what we did was or was not effective.
Self-regulation is the process of being answerable to ourselves. If we ignore the feedback that the plant is giving us, and the plant then continues to wither and die, we could try to blame the sun for being too hot, or the house for blocking the sun from the plant, or blame the rain for not falling into the pot, or whatever the problem was, but you can see how futile that would be. In reality, it was you who put the plant there, and it was you that had the power to move it if it wasn’t working. Self regulation is about being an agent unto yourself. You don’t need someone telling you what to do every moment of the day, you have the ability to figure that out for yourself. Then, feedback lets you know if whatever you chose to do was right.
If we apply this principle to the concept of time management, we can see how the responsibility for how we use our time is a constant process of applying self regulation as we choose how to spend our time, and then receiving feedback on if it was a good use of that time. (The permaculture principle: “obtain a yield” gets a nod here as well).
The Balance of Structure and Flexibility
We have at our disposal two very important tools to use when we are labouring throughout our day. You could say that each of these tools are like one wheel on each side of the trolley that helps us move that heavy box through the mud. There is structure, and its counterpart, flexibility. Structure gives us routine, establishes processes, and flexibility recognises that we live in a dynamic world, where the unexpected can and does occur on a daily basis. These two tools may appear to be opposite, and while each of them provides a vital benefit to how we manage our time, one without the other would be like peas without carrots. It’s a complete yin and yang thing going on.
I love routines, order, predictability, check-lists, and systems. Working in small business administration and accounts, these are all absolutely essential. Little children find security and safety in routines. A well-prepared meal plan for the week provides an astonishing amount of relief when it’s time to cook dinner each and every night – when all the decision making and preparation has already been done. Structure provides reliability and definition.
I love spontaneity, being able to adapt quickly to sudden changes and unexpected events. I love variety and mixing it up and trying something new. They say variety is the spice of life, and in our human nature we need continual growth, progression, change, and development. How boring would life be if it was just one continual system of routines that never changed? I think I’d go bat crazy! Life is a process of different experiences, change, progression, and flexibility is essential to adapting as things change. If there was no room for flexibility or adaptation, if the world had not changed from 1000 years ago, what kind of life would that be? In business, it’s the ones who are flexible and adapt to sudden changes the best that are the ones who thrive. We need more of that.
When we look at time management and how it is impacted by both structure and flexibility, can you see the benefit that each provides? But how do you find the right balance?
Making it Work in Real Life
If we take my work schedule as an example, I know that I need to work for a set number of hours each week. Having worked for myself – from home – for 18 years, I had to figure out self-discipline pretty quickly. It’s a lot harder being accountable to yourself than it is when you answer to a boss. This is one reason that coaching has been very effective in helping clients to carry out the steps they plan to do. It’s a great motivator when you know your coach will be following up and checking on you.
But, what about the days when there’s activities going on at school, or appointments in the city that take up the whole day? What works for me is that I keep a tally, and then I make up the hours when I have that time on my own. I have set appointments with clients, and these are non-negotiable. But what about the other work to be done? This can be done any time, and I frequently make use of those golden pre-dawn hours to get things done without any interruptions. I keep track of how I’m going, and I’ve found that as long as the tasks get done – eventually – I’m still on track.
Being able to look ahead and anticipate the challenges and activities I will have in the coming week or next week gives me the opportunity to prioritise what needs to be done now, and what can wait until later. This is where structure comes in to help. There are tasks that are set according to my strategic plan, and they have a deadline, and each task is a step contributing to the forward progress of the business. Getting that set up was a big job, but once it’s done, it’s there, and it provides direction, takes away the guess-work and uncertainty, to be able to see how you’re tracking on your journey, and whether or not you’re on track to reach your goals.
Given my circumstances, I must have flexibility. Each day is different, and I have to be capable of adapting to unexpected surprises as well as the planned and expected variety of activities.
The 9 Ways to Balance Structure and Flexiblity to Improve Time Management
So to harness the power of both structure and flexibility in your day-to-day time management, we first build the structure, but we do it with enough wiggle-room for flexibility. Everyone’s circumstances will be unique, but there are elements for this process that are universal. The development of these elements is based on your strategic plan which provides the direction and targets for all of the steps described here:
- Task – Identify the things that you need to do that are specific tasks. Meaning, once it’s done, it’s finished. A task is a specific action that can be completed in about 10 minutes. Anything more than that, and it’s a cluster of tasks. Example: Task: send an email. Cluster: Plan a meeting – 1) Set a date, book into the calendar. 2) Develop the agenda. 3) Email invitation to participants with the agenda.
(To learn more about a really wonderful process to getting tasks done, check out Julia Bickerstaff’s 100 day goal: https://100daygoal.com.au/)
- Process – Identify the things that you need to do that are ongoing contributions to good habits and regular or repeating cycles. Example: 10 minutes setting intentions and goals at the start of the day. 10 minutes to review and reflect at the end of the day.
- Focus – Identify the chunks of time that you have to spend on various areas of focus. Example: 8:50-9:00: Set Intention. 9:00-12:00: Clients. 12:00-1:00: Lunch. 1:00-2:00: Admin & Financials. 2:00-3:00: Marketing. 3:00-5:00: Clients. 5:00-5:10: Review.
- Non-negotiables – These are the rocks in your schedule that you just need to work around. They don’t move (except in life-threatening situations, you kinda have to be a little flexible if your son is choking).
- Recurring events – These are the repeating actions, like the process tasks above, that form a pattern and a progression to maintaining your work. There is wiggle room for these actions, that are best done at the same time each time, but if something comes up, it is possible to nudge it over by an hour or so either side. Just as long as it still gets done as close as possible to the original schedule. Consider the metaphor of the 2 men chopping firewood, where one keeps taking time out to sharpen his axe, and gets the job done faster than the other who just keeps slogging through the pile with his blunt axe.
- Trump cards – These are the priorities that can come along at any time and trump anything you had scheduled for the day. There are the life threatening emergencies, like if your son is choking, that obviously interrupts whatever you had planned. Consider what are the priorities in your life and work, and whether they earn the trump card status, or if, when they pop up, you can slot them into a spare spot and still get on with your day to accomplish both.
- Give & take – flexibility is great, but if something moves, it doesn’t just fall off the list. If there is something stopping you from doing your planned activity now, it still needs to get done, so when will that be? You may need to give up some free time to catch up.
- Streamline – look for opportunities to combine (NOT multi-task) a series of events. As a mum this is practically an automatic habit. When you have a few errands to run, do them in the same car-trip – go to the bank, the post office, pick up the groceries, and pick up the dry-cleaning all in the same trip. Reduce doubling handling and wasted time.
- Review – Stick a non-negotiable event in your calendar to review your flexibility (yes, the irony there is quite funny). In this review, you check in with your strategic plan, and how you’re progressing along the path to your result. This is checking in with the feedback, it’s applying that self-regulation to determine what you’re doing well, and what you can improve. It’s NEVER a time for beating yourself up, because you understand that this is a process, it takes time and perseverance, and we’re all human. NO ONE has this perfectly figured out.
Making it Work for You
Another BIG benefit of having flexibility in your time management is the way it provides a cushion of understanding when you don’t get everything done. It’s ok. Don’t stress. When priorities have been taken into account, and the most important and urgent things have been seen to, know that you’re doing great, and tomorrow you can try again. Too often we put impossible expectations on ourselves, and when we don’t reach that expectation, we beat ourselves up. That negative self image and engaging in negative self-talk will only make the problem worse. Accept what is, and if you know that you can do better, then try again tomorrow. Forgiving yourself is often really hard, but it is the best way to move forward.
In the quest to master time management, we need to appreciate that there are countless factors to consider, and a one-size-fits-all template is just not possible. But when founded on correct principles, the process to develop your own pattern that works for you and incorporates the things that work and are necessary for you, it is very possible. This article focuses on the balance between structure and flexibility, and finding this balance gives credit to the routine that works for you, while allowing for the dynamic nature of life and today’s society. Understanding this concept through the perspective of using self-regulation and accepting feedback helps in this process to continually check in with your process, to see if it’s working. What benefits can you see? What challenges still exist?
In the quest to improve your time management, I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on the roles that both structure and flexibility have in your life. Do you have more of one than the other? What could you do about that?
I have developed a worksheet to help you identify structure and flexibility in your time management. It could help you be a bit more on top of things.
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