I used to you believe that deadlines are there to be postponed until the very last minute. That I can accomplish anything within 24 hours. But then, 9 months ago, I have started working for NOW and it brought about a huge change in my life. Suddenly, there was no-one overseeing my tasks, I was the only one responsible for making them happen on time. What is more, I was also responsible for others’ meeting their deadlines on time.
Setting the stage: Letting go of the adrenaline
So, here I was: doing something that I truly love and also feeling this huge responsibility for my teammates, our participants and our projects. This was just the right incentive to for me to break the vicious circle of procrastinating and consequently catching up. In order to organize my life and work in sustainable way, I came up with couple of “rules” that helped me to gain overview and manage my personal and professional goals. I have also learned that good organisation in only one of the ingredients of a successful self-management. For me, self-management takes also a lot of grit: surely there are also tasks on your to-do list you rather skip and never look at them again. But if you work on your grit, you can manage not to look away from them, but to push through and persevere. I have also learned that for me, self-management is also closely connected to another NOWish competence learning from failure. For, even if I have the best intentions, there are times when I still fail at it and have to take an honest look at what went wrong, recuperate and try my best again.
In NOW, we use the concept of “dancing with dragons”, which means facing our fears in hope to overcome them. Self-management has been my personal dragon for quite some time, so here couple of tips how I have managed to tame it.
Dancing with the dragon: 7 steps to honest self-management
- Find your routine: Let me bust one myth right away – the inspiration you are waiting for to come so you can start working, doesn’t materialize by itself, it’s not a genie to be lured out of a bottle. I learned that our brains love routine: Doing the things in the same manner and developing a routine frees your brain to deal with new tasks and generates inspiration. I used to think that creating a routine means horrible things like waking up at 5 am every day, work out, have a power smoothie and go to work. What is the point of creating something you are going to hate and not stick with? What if we could create routines that fit our needs and that we can actually keep in the long term? A good routine takes more than doing the same things at the same time over and over again. It’s about observing your body and mind and figuring out, not only when you are most productive, but also if certain times of your day are especially good for specific tasks – for example you might like doing tasks that require more brainpower in the morning and „lighter“ tasks in the evening.
- Lists, lists, lists: The first lesson is: learn to appreciate those to-do-lists. We all make them, but did you know that by taking lists to the next level they can actually help you to achieve your goals? So, the first question you can ask yourself is: what is my goal? The next step is to make a plan – a timeline really – of how can you achieve this goal and how long it will take you. How you do this is really up to yourself. You can use a table overview, draw on a flipchart, make a map out of post-its or use apps. The timeline should have an overview of all to-dos that are necessary to reach your goal and a deadline when you want to reach them. Be as specific and include as many details as you can. At NOW, we use an online tool Trello to organize our tasks. It’s great if you work individually and in teams because it allows you to share tasks, define priorities and keeping each other accountable.
- Organize your time – expect the unexpected: Now, I have only one rule when it comes to organizing my time – be super realistic about how long things can take. It would be awesome to be able to write a blog article about self-management in just one hour, however I know it takes probably 4 -5 hours and most probably won’t be done on one day. Also, sometimes ad-hoc to-dos might pop in and your whole plan can fall apart. So the thing I do is prepare for the unexpected, meaning I usually don’t fully plan my day with to-dos and I allow some time-reserve for surprises.
- Take that break: Now, that you have your to-do-list, it can feel pretty overwhelming. Especially if you have loaded it with tasks filling your every waking hour. It’s time to reconsider that. Every successful routine allows you to take breaks: Taking breaks keeps you more focused, allow your brain to process and helps you to remember things better. Also, during a break that inspiration you have been waiting for can kick in. Or you can come up with an amazing solution to a problem that was just impossible to find. How often should you take a break? Well, that depends on what kind of type you are: You can take a 5 minute break every 30 minutes or 10 minute break every hour or a break every couple of hours. At the beginning you might want to test different strategies to find out what works best for you. Also, it’s usually a good idea to take a longer break for your meals, meet with friends and to chill out :).
- Find a buddy (buddies) : Working from home, learning for exams or writing a term paper can get very lonely. Having somebody to co-work with and chit-chat during your breaks it’s great and can keep you on track – especially if your buddy has the same intention as you do. Otherwise, you just keep distracting each other and get no work done. Your buddy is also ideally a person you can trust and be vulnerable around: someone you can share your fears and successes with. Since at NOW, we are working from different parts of the world, we sometimes do online co-working, which I really love. It allows my to catch up with my friends and at the same time be more productive than working alone.
- Eliminate on- and offline distractions: Here only one thing really helps: Block you facebook, email notifications, apps, whatever is distracting you while you need to focus. You might also try out, if you can work better while listening to music. If you can’t work from home because the household chores and/or roommates are distracting you, don’t do it :). If you like having people around who chit-chat, you can work from a coffee shop or similar. If not, there might a be library around, where you can find a tidy workspace and ideally a free wifi. Disclaimer: Your living reality might be very different from mine: I live in a middle-size city in Germany with free public library and wifi access in most of the coffee shops.
- Adjust and learn from failures:Even with a great system, there might be days you just don’t feel like doing anything at all. We all have those days. Of course, it would be easier to say, well since I did not manage to do much today, I just keep procrastinating and tomorrow start with a clean slate. But I learned that we can turn things around at any time, we don’t have to wait for a new day to become productive again. On these kind of days, even the smallest accomplishment becomes a gift: It teaches us to persevere even though things get hard and our motivation has washed away. When I am in this kind of mood, I try to do tasks that make me happy. If there are none of those, I just tell myself, let’s just finish 1 task and then I get myself a small reward. What also helped me is sharing with my NOW team that I am having a hard day/ not enough motivation to finish something: just generally being open about the fact that I am struggling. The love and support I receive on those days is what helps me keep going.
So, can you feel that rush of motivation now and is your hand itching to write that to-do list? Then go for it!
Or are you more of the type who easies up into things? Also great! Just remember be kind to yourself on this self-management journey and if you feel like coworking online, just get in touch ;). And if you need additional inspiration, you can check this list with examples of routines.
Written by Zlatka Niznanska, NOW project manager