Fill ‘Er Up

I like the idea of having no white space

My life is full of people, places and things, as I’m sure yours is. 

Patients to see, staff meetings to attend, and doctor appointments to get to. Workouts at the gym. Hiking trips. Time to visit my grandchildren. Time with my fiancé. Books to read or listen to. Blogposts to write. Music to listen to and movies or television shows to watch. Time to relax and reflect. Time to plan. Time to grieve. Time to celebrate. 

With all that and more to do, with all that life throws at us and demands of us, you would think that our calendars would always be full, physically depicting the constant state of productivity that we live in. Humming along, we are. Downtime, we need not. There is no try, only do. 

Now, I’ll speak for myself here, but I wager that you’ll have experienced this too. Even with a lot these things that place demands on my time and attention, I still have big gaps of time that are not spoken for. They are big gaps of white space on my calendar. One could argue that these white spaces, that end up there by default the vast majority of the time, are our built in downtime. Time to rejuvenate. Time to think. Time to rest. They should be left alone and enjoyed whenever they happen to pop up. Almost like a little Christmas present of time we give ourselves in June. An unanticipated little breather. 

I disagree.

We need to be more intentional with out time management. 

There are a lot of cliches in this area, but as with all cliches, some of them are true. 

If we fail to plan, we plan to fail. 

If everything is important, nothing is important. 

It all starts with assessment and regular review, of course. If you have not yet read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, read it. It’s classic, it’s good, and it’s easy to understand. You don’t have to follow his GTD system to the letter (I don’t and I never have), but there is a wealth of information in his book about how to manage your time, get real work done, and be more productive in all areas of your life. 

I’m leaping ahead many chapters in his book, but you will find that after the organizational dust settles, regularly looking at your calendar and taking the time to plan will force you to prioritize, think about how you really want to spend your time, and ensure that you will have a productive day. 

After all (here comes another true saying) if you don’t know where you’re going, any old road will take you there. 

I like to do this review in two ways. I look at my calendar every morning, getting a general idea about the landscape of that day. I tweak and move and add and think until the day is as completely scheduled as I can make it, within reason. You don’t have to be crazy compulsive about this, but you want to be realistic too. I will have about seventeen hours of awake time today. How exactly will I use those hours? 

I also am a big fan of the weekly review. For me, this usually happens sometime on Sunday. I look at the upcoming week, taking in the scheduling bones of the next seven days, and putting the meat of details on them so that the whole week looks like a cohesive whole. 

I am a huge calendar and to do list guy. There are some guiding principles that I’ve gleaned and adopted after years of trial and error, reading, and coaching by mentors and bosses. One is that a calendar is a hard landscape. By that I mean that I only want things on my calendar that must happen on a particular day, preferably at a certain time. Appointments do not go on my to do list; to do items do not live on my calendar. This is a hard and fast rule. If I catch myself breaking it, I chastise myself and send myself to my room. 

There are always dead spots, white space, on my calendar. I make every effort to see how I can best use them. If I’m getting my car serviced, I read a book, write a blog post, or eat breakfast while I wait. If there is a two hour period of free time before bed in the evening, I might watch an episode of House of Cards or read a chapter about the use of psychotropic drugs in pregnancy. 

You might think this compulsive time-filling, but I ask you, what happens if you are not intentional about the use of your time? It gets filled with time wasters. That time you spend walking around the house thinking about what you should be doing the two hours before bed, that time spent in front of the refrigerator deciding on whether you really want a beer or not, or that time flipping through magazines without seeing anything on the page. Before you know it, the problem is solved for you. The time is gone, you head off to bed and the day is done. Where did that two hours go?

Those blocks of time can also get filled with busy work. My calendar is very pretty when it is chock full of little red, yellow, green and blue blocks of scheduled time. However, it’s very easy to be lulled into a sense of security by spending hours of each day doing mindless busy work, with nothing to show for it. 

“But I was so busy today. I didn’t take lunch, and I barely had time to go to the bathroom!”

Uh huh.

I’ve written before about eating your frog first, not putting off that most hideous, time consuming, or daunting task until last, meaning that you will never get it done. This still applies. If you need to schedule a meeting to address a difficult issue with an employee, put it on your calendar (hard landscape, it must get done that day at that time) and get it behind you. Deal with it. If getting to the gym to exercise is the hardest part of your day but you really want to establish an exercise routine, a habit, put it on your calendar and do it. Let your calendar drive you. Makes it much easier in the long run when you’ve already thought about each week, each day, and you’ve scheduled it the way you want it to look. When each day arrives, you don’t have to think about it any more. Like Nike says, you just do it! 

I must say again, don’t just make your calendar pretty with a patchwork quilt of bright colors. Fill it up with meaningful tasks. It’s a hollow victory when you get to the end of a very “busy” day, only to realize you have accomplished nothing. 

What else does this approach do for you? 

It makes you prioritize. 

What is really important today? What must happen today, to the exclusion of all else? 

If you prioritize, you will accomplish your most meaningful tasks and meet your most important goals for the day and the week. 

Lastly, and sometimes for me the most important of all, if you schedule tasks and prioritize and fill up your calendar and to do list with meaningful, substantial activities, you won’t have to worry about what you’ve forgotten or what you’re missing. 

You can feel very happy and content at all times about what you are not doing right now. You know that when the time comes to address that task, you have captured it and it will present itself to you with just the right amount of time allotted to complete it. 

Sometimes that is the most reassuring feeling of all. 

Now, go fill up that white space!

Do What You Gotta Do

This has been one of those weeks when I need to step back, look at things critically, evaluate my performance, and make adjustments to my approach to the workload and obligations currently on my plate.

Ever had one of those weeks?

First things first.

Assessment.

What are the current assignments, burdens, schedules, relationships and tasks that I need to attend to?

I work, and I work hard. I currently have a full time job as medical director of a busy, three-site mental health center. I also work seventy-five hours a month doing telepsychiatry on some evenings and weekend days depending on how the scheduling falls. Mental health is a rewarding business to be in, but it is very stressful for psychiatrists and others who choose it as a career. Burnout is a very real possibility.

I have relationships that I cherish. These are with family, online friends, IRL friends, coworkers, confidants, and others who I want to spend time with, talk to, share a meal with, or just feel safe with. These relationships don’t happen in a vacuum, and they don’t flourish without some effort on my part. (Some of my closest and dearest friends have gently reminded me of that when I fall down on the job) Being with others is healthy. Isolation for long periods of time is not.

I have a need to create and spend time in my own head. Now, psychiatrists spend a lot of time trying to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling and why, but they need time to attend to their own thoughts as well. I am no exception. For me, writing things down and thinking things through is as important as breathing. If I go too long without doing it, I get a physical air hunger for the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and the physical look and feel of my words on the page.

My body needs my attention. I will be fifty-seven years old in October. Do I feel fifty-seven? No. Do I realize that my physical body is no longer nineteen years old? Yes. Using the old excuses (I’m too busy, I don’t have time, it hurts, it’s not fun, I’m older and I don’t need to exercise) doesn’t cut it. Attention to physical needs such as exercise, sleep and nutrition is as important as working hard to pay the bills. Probably more so. If I don’t pay attention to the former, I won’t be able to keep doing the latter.

Second stage?

Planning.

Given that I really believe that the things I just told you about are really important, how do I plan to make sure they get the time and effort they deserve as I go about my daily life?

Schedule. I make time for the work, the people, and the personal activities that are most important to me. I keep my calendar sacred. If it gets on my calendar for a certain time on a certain day, it must be done at that time on that day. No exceptions. That makes it absolutely imperative that my calendar is pruned ruthlessly and only things that need to be there are there.

I keep a constantly changing and dynamic to do list. Unlike the calendar, this list is always churning, moving, and morphing from one look to another. It is a living thing. It is meant to be a playground for ideas, projects, writing topics, shopping lists, vacation planning, and things to do. I work in it and on it many, many times every day.

Third stage?

Execution.

The most beautiful calendar and the most organized list in the world will not help you if you don’t get up, get out, and execute.

I have to show up at the places on my calendar. I must attend the meetings and participate fully. I must go to the gym. I must message someone on Facebook or call a friend or remember to schedule a dinner to catch up. I must share something of myself, open myself up to others, in order to get them to do the same. Those of you who know me well know that this does not come naturally to me. I work at it every day. I love it when it clicks, when it feels right, when I feel that special connection with a good friend or a confidant who knows exactly how I feel and sticks with me anyway!

I have to pay attention to cooking, eating right, exercising, and feeding my mind as well as my body. These things don’t happen by themselves. It takes effort. The effort is worth it.

When I am tempted to just go home and call it a day, sometimes I need to reach out to a friend. When I think I can get just one more task done at ten o’clock at night, I am learning to tell myself that it is time to go to bed, because the extra two hours of sleep I get will lead to much higher productivity the next morning.

The business of the week is behind me.

Today I will get my car serviced, buy a nice bottle of wine, spend two hours at the gym, cook a couple of nice meals, talk to someone special, sit in the sunshine, take a nap, watch a movie, and get to bed by ten.

I have assessed.

I have planned.

Now, it’s time to execute.

Have a good weekend, all.