I had a rhythm.
I had a routine.
Most days, I even had enough time.
On a few magnificent days, I had more than enough time. (No, really. It was glorious.)
But then my daughter was born. Eventually my wife went back to work. And much to our chagrin, no acceptable daycare or nanny options materialized.
Suddenly, I became my baby girl’s full-time caregiver during the day, while still holding down a full-time, work-from-home, VP of Marketing job.
Oh, and to top it all off, once Mama was no longer around to work her Mama Nap Wizardry, my daughter decided she would no longer nap in her crib. Nope, only hour-plus stroller walks outside in the Texas summer heat would do. Yeah …
So, what happens when your meticulously crafted daily schedule gets blown to smithereens by a series of circumstances (albeit really cute ones) you didn’t fully plan on?
Well, at least in my experience, you learn a few important lessons very quickly if you want to have any hope of surviving.
But a quick note before we get to those lessons …
Here’s the dirty little secret of this post
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the rest of this post only applies to you if you’re a new parent. Or going through some other crazy life transition. Or you’re generally a disorganized mess.
- You can’t always plan for exactly when life is going to throw you a bunch of curveballs in a row. But I promise you that having the seven keys I explain below in the back of your mind will help you be a little bit better prepared if (more like when) it happens.
- You really don’t even need to wait for life to get crazy to follow the advice below because most of it applies generally to productivity. I mean, is there ever a time in your life when prioritizing and focusing are going to be counterproductive? No.
So, keep reading.
If your current life situation has you feeling like a chicken with your head cut off, I have a plan that will help you regain a little bit of sanity. (It’s certainly helped me.)
And if your current life situation is Downy soft, every single key you read below will still serve as a useful reminder for how you can become even more productive … and how to adjust and react in the future should a major shakeup take place.
Okay, now on to the lessons, which I’ve organized into seven keys to navigating these potentially choppy schedule-shifting waters successfully.
Shoot! I just saw my daughter shift positions in her crib. We don’t have much time …
When I realized that my personal work schedule was going to drastically change, I knew it would alter what I would be available to do.
For example, I have done a lot of webinar hosting over the past 18 months, often two sessions a week. But how was I going to find reliable blocks of 90 minutes during normal business hours to focus on a webinar with a baby crawling around?
This led to several conversations — with my superiors, and with other people whose roles would be affected due to my inability to host webinars.
Conversations like these can sometimes feel awkward to initiate, because we never enjoy admitting we can longer do something we’ve been counted on to do. But it’s much better to have them right away, so new plans can be drawn up, rather than waiting and then forcing everyone to scramble.
Fortunately, any fears I had were quickly put to rest.
My superiors understood, and were willing to work with my bonkers new schedule, and remarkable teammates like Chris Garrett and Will DeWitt were willing to step in and handle webinar planning, organization, and hosting duties in my absence.
Does this lesson apply to you if you’re a Business of One, say a solo digital entrepreneur? Absolutely.
But in your case, you might be communicating with your audience instead of a team at work. If your daily routine gets altered to the point where your content schedule is going to change, communicate that to your audience.
Expectations are everything. Set proper ones so people know what to expect, and so that you have a chance of exceeding them. Remember: it’s always better to underpromise and overdeliver, instead of the inverse.
After you have communicated to impacted parties, it’s time to sit down and do a little honest communication with yourself.
Because if you’re going to be transitioning from what felt like an uninterrupted ocean of time to what will now feel like a few little scattered puddles of time, you need to make damn sure that you’re maximizing those puddles!
That means prioritization is key.
What is essential for you to do … and what’s not?
One way to do this is to organize your responsibilities into four quadrants:
- Urgent and Important
- Non-urgent and Important
- Urgent and Unimportant
- Non-urgent and Unimportant
Make sure you know what is urgent and important, so it doesn’t slip through the cracks.
Also, make sure you find time for the non-urgent but important activities, which are easy to push off in the face of a time crunch.
And then be able to identify the urgent but unimportant things, as well as the non-urgent and unimportant things, so that you can properly prioritize what simply gets shoved aside and ignored.
You can’t do everything, but you can make sure you do what is most important.
The bottom line here is that if you have less time, you have less margin for error in terms of what gets done and what doesn’t because, chances are, you won’t be able to get the same volume of stuff done.
Going into hyper-prioritization mode forces you to clarify what matters and what doesn’t. And the wisdom you will gain from doing this can be applied once your schedule goes back to normal, which can take your planning and productivity to superhero levels.
The next key is to take what you learned from prioritizing and decide what you’ll do, delegate, and dismiss.
It can often be the biggest key to ensuring that everything you’re involved with continues to hum along as if your schedule never changed.
Let’s go back to the four quadrants of urgency and importance above, and view them through the prism of what you should do, delegate, or dismiss.
- Urgent and Important: Delegate when you have someone capable of handling it, otherwise do yourself.
- Non-urgent and Important: Do this yourself. Chances are, your ability to excel at these activities is what has you in the position you’re in, and what can build the most long-term value for you and your company.
- Urgent and Unimportant: Delegate to someone capable of handling (especially if they could learn something from the experience), or consider dismissing altogether.
- Non-urgent and Unimportant: Dismiss. You don’t have time for this stuff!
Now let me offer an important caveat …
Your personal schedule explosion is not a license to delegate (or dismiss) everything. So don’t overwhelm members of your team by sending an avalanche of new work their way. Try to be strategic.
Delegation is both an opportunity to save you time and an opportunity to give people greener or newer than you some valuable experience.
Where possible, try to match what you delegate with what will encourage growth in the person or people you’re delegating to. And be sure to position the new duties this way when you explain them.
As I have gone through this process myself, I have been extremely fortunate to have people like Will DeWitt and Loryn Thompson ready, willing, and excited about tackling new responsibilities. They are eager to learn and grow, as well as exceedingly capable.
Having people like that on your team certainly makes delegation much easier to do. And when you can be smart and strategic about what you delegate and dismiss, it allows you to be much more focused on what you’re going to do.
Now that you know what you’re going to do, delegate, and dismiss, it’s time to start organizing when you’re going to actually get stuff done.
Before you sit down and start frantically banging away at the keyboard like you’re Bruce Almighty, it’s best to get yourself organized.
Yes, getting organized will require some time.
And yes, time is what’s scarce for you right now.
So you may think:
“I don’t have time to play with my calendar and to-do list. I need to get to work, man!”
But this is a step back that will help you take two, three, four steps forward as you progress through your days. It’s less of a time expense and more of an investment — and it will pay off.
We’ll get to planning what you will do during each of the time blocks next. That’s key #5. But there is a step that needs to come before that one: actually identify the time blocks you have available for work.
Doing this helps immensely.
One of the biggest challenges I found when transitioning from a mostly uninterrupted work day during normal business hours to scattered work sessions any time of day when I could fit them in, was how disorganized it all felt.
But recognizing the consistent time blocks I had — that I could count on — helped me relax and find order within the chaos.
- I knew I could get up early and work in peace and quiet for 90 minutes.
- I knew I could get two 60–90-minute blocks of time during the day while my daughter napped, once I finally figured out how to get her napping in her crib and not the stroller. (And I could even tentatively schedule calls or podcast recordings around these windows, since they were somewhat standard day-to-day.)
- I knew I could check email and bang out a few quick Urgent/Important to-dos at lunch while my wife was home, and then in the half-hour after she returned home after work.
- I knew I could then get as much time as I needed after dinner … although I tried not to abuse this and stay up too late since, going back to the first bullet above, I also wanted to get up early.
- And finally, I knew I could essentially work full-time hours plus extra on the weekends.
These became blocks of time that I could put into my calendar. I just needed to fill in the to-dos that I would accomplish during each one.
This process has really helped anchor my day and keep me from feeling overwhelmed.
That said, I still inevitably feel overwhelmed. 🙂
But once I identified what was causing that feeling, it became easier to overcome.
Here’s what I came to realize …
Every time I have felt overwhelmed, it’s been because I let a time block pass without accomplishing something specific and important. Then I’d pass extra work into the next time block, or into the weekend (ugh), which would lead me to feel that I had too much to do and couldn’t possibly get it all done.
The fix is always simple: take some time to plan what I’ll do with each time block, so that as soon as it begins I can just start working rather than trying to figure out what I’m going to do.
That might seem like an extra step.
Can’t you just take a few minutes at the beginning of each block, review your to-do list, pick the most important item, and get working?
Perhaps. Maybe that will work for you. I just know it doesn’t for me.
The pull to check email, or check Twitter, or pop open Feedly is always strong right when I plop down in front of my computer. FoMO is a hell of a drug. 😉 And whereas before I had a little bit of slack time in my day for falling down rabbit holes, I don’t now.
If I know exactly what I’m going to work on when I sit down at the computer, I get to work on it. This ensures I make meaningful progress on something that matters.
Then, and only then, if I finish and have extra time at the end of the time block, I can do a quick email/social media/news check. At that point, I don’t have to worry about losing too much time to potential rabbit holes, because I’ve already checked off an important item … and because crawling/crying/cuddly baby daughters are the ultimate antidote to any silly rabbit hole. 😉
As you can see, each key builds on the previous ones.
The first five keys — communicate, prioritize, decide, identify, and plan — all lead in one very specific direction that allows you to focus on getting the important work done even when your schedule is haywire.
And each of those keys is meaningless if you aren’t disciplined enough to focus.
So do whatever you have to do to make sure that your attention stays focused in the direction it needs to be in during your time blocks.
As I mentioned, first identifying the specific activity I’ll work on during each time block helps me focus.
Here are some other more subtle techniques that have helped as well:
- Removing the Twitter app icon from my Mac desktop dock
- Putting my phone in another room
- Turning off Slack, or at least snoozing notifications
- Wearing headphones, and playing music if I’m not writing (since I can’t write with music)
- Getting out of the house, if the nighttime or weekend distractions are too much
Those are just a few techniques that have worked for me.
It’s helped that I’ve tried to be brutally honest with myself. And while it feels silly to have to hide the Twitter icon from myself, I know I’ll check it less without that visual cue catching the corner of my eye when I look at my screen. So it’s worth it.
I don’t have minutes, even seconds, to waste right now. I have to protect my focus.
So if you ever find yourself in a schedule-destruction situation like I’m in, be brutally honest with yourself.
What changes can you make, even really small ones, that will eliminate potential distractions and help you focus?
Without focus, you’ll never get enough done.
7. Be kind
Finally, don’t forget to be kind … especially to yourself.
Understand that you’re neither Superman nor Wonder Woman. You can’t do everything.
Set realistic expectations for yourself, and then you can work to exceed them. The confidence you gain from doing so will buoy your productivity moving forward.
Also understand that transitions can take a little time.
When you’re used to having eight hours of uninterrupted work time during business days, and it gets chopped up and scattered throughout the week, you’re going to have an adjustment period. So when you inevitably stumble a bit, and struggle initially to match your previous levels of output, have a little compassion for yourself.
And be kind to those your schedule adjustment affects too — which leads us right back to #1 above. Communication is so important, and it’s an essential form of kindness, especially in a situation like this.
It’s much better to be up front about a change in what you can handle, or even a dip in productivity, so that others can plan around it and prepare for it too. That way everyone involved and affected can deal with it in the best possible way, both in the short-term and long-term.
Have you ever dealt with a schedule-altering situation similar to the one I’ve described here? How did you handle it? What other keys to successfully navigating the change did you discover?
Share your experiences in the comments below.