Almost everyone I know is busy as hell. Running companies, contracting, doing creative work, and keeping a huge mix of projects going on.
Keeping busy is good, but sometimes it turns into a tragedy where you've got your head down doing work and duties, but you never get some of that real juice out of your life that you're wanting.
And many of the busy people I know -- myself included -- periodically have a day where they snap back to reality and really feel it for the first time in a while. "Oh god, I'm out of shape, my energy is low, I feel like crap, I'm not doing some of the key projects I love, I'm passing up a lot of really big opportunities stuck in the grind, I'm neglecting my hobbies and what I want to train... and for what?"
This applies just as much to entrepreneurs as people on salary, maybe even moreso. It's very easy as an entrepreneur or executive to get caught up in running around, getting stuck in the "errands" of business, dealing with what's on fire, and really neglecting the really expansionary projects that aren't urgent, your health, and maybe worst of all -- forgetting to have fun.
Is there an answer? Read on...
Are organization and execution the same thing?
I had a lot of areas in my own life running at only 60% for a while, and I was neglecting my health. I cleared out a huge block of time, and sat down with a bunch of key books and manuals on being quite organized, executing, diagnosing and fixing problems on a personal and organizational level, time management, etc.
A few themes kept recurring among all experts. But a question jumped out to me that I didn't see written, that I think just might be the answer --
What if organization and execution were the same thing?
It sounds wrong at first. But stick with it a moment. If you do anything about putting things in order, it should be to generate the desired result. An organized desk is one where the person who is sitting down can do great work there. That might spotless, clean, with nothing on it -- if that's what helps you to get things done. Or, it might be filled with sketches, drawings, various pens and pencils and chalk.
Steve Jobs famously put one set of bathrooms in the dead-center of Pixar. This forced people from different departments to occasionally socialize and have serendipitous interactions. While it would against the majority of building planning guidelines, it was well-organized for Pixar's culture.
So, here's the revelation --
If your life is running the way you want it to, you're organized. If it's not, you're not.
Many creative-types I know might rail against that. A writer of poetry might say, "I don't need this organization! I just need blank paper, a pen, and a cafe to write!"
If that's really true, then if he has blank paper, a pen, and a cafe, he's organized.
But what if not just writing, but publishing his poetry is a goal? If his little sheafs of paper get lost or destroyed frequently, and he can't re-write the poems, then if that matters to him, he's disorganized.
Organized doesn't mean neat. Venkat Rao writes about this in a must-read article, "A Big Little Idea Called Legibility." People get obsessed with having "proper looking" setups, but are often ineffective with them.
I think that -- the legibility problem -- is why most people don't use most of the great tools available to make their lives better.
If you're like most busy people, sooner or later you'll experiment with some goal-setting or planning system. Getting Things Done is a popular one, and there's many more.
If you're like most people, you'll get wind up abandoning your system fairly quickly. And then you'll go through another year or two disorganized -- meaning, less effective at getting what you want -- than you could be, before finally you take a crack at it again.
I think this is due to the way most people view organization. They see it as being clean, neat, and precise. They imagine that there's a one right way, or something like a one right way.
I think it misunderstands organization. Organization -- really being organized -- is about being effective as executing and getting what you want. It includes getting the right people, the right environment, the right mindstate, the right knowledge, the right resources, and putting it together the right way. If you're really organized, you execute at getting what you want. If you're not getting what you want, you're not organized correctly.
But then legibility creeps in.
When you try to get organized and get effective -- when you try to lose weight, or spend more time with your kids, or whatever -- if you're like most people, you either do it haphazardly without a plan at all (which usually doesn't work), or you try to implement a grand system that's perfect in every way (which very rarely works).
I'd argue a more correct way is remembering if I'm executing at what I want, I'm organized. If I'm organized, it's because I'm executing at getting what I want.
...and you don't need it to be legible, perfect, some kind of dream of a Platonic Form.
Rather, because everyone's mind works slightly differently, everyone has slightly different resources, and everyone has different goals and objectives -- your way of executing at getting what you want must differ from others', and you'll become the most perfectly effective by experimenting with different tools and ideas until one of them helps you organize well. Meaning, be effective at getting what you want.
And then, you start experimenting.
You'll want to constantly experiment with different apps, workflow, different ways of managing priorities, projects, etc. In a moment, I'll give you a couple very strong tactics that are easy to use and a lot of people have seen great gains from.
But it's key to remember, to be most organized and effective, you'll likely need to bolt a bunch of unrelated stuff together into what becomes a perfectly illegible system for you.
And don't you already do this, in a way?
Everyone has their furniture laid out slightly differently, their computer configured slightly differently. Everyone has different stuff in the glovebox of their car.
But when it comes to really making sure you do the stuff that really matters to you, suddenly people start looking for a one right way instead of trying things, keeping what works and bolting it into the rest of their life, and discarding what doesn't work.
Really, truly, honestly -- your first attempts at fitness, or more time with family, or being organized about keeping client work ahead of schedule, or doing enough prospecting and sales -- might fail. And probably will.
The odds that you guessed the perfect configuration before starting -- well, it's pretty low. Even if you read a book by an expert, or had someone knowledgeable help you set up.
But then, most people throw the baby out with the bathwater. Attempt#1 at a diet/exercise/health/fitness regime fails, and they get bummed out and depressed for another year or two before it finally gets too intolerable, and they try again.
A lot of the best things in life aren't easy or obvious in how to get them. So I'd highly recommend that, when you start an important initiatie, you say, "This might fail in the current version. Then I'll try it a different way."
It's liberating, actually.
Grand Technique #1: Planning Your Day The Night Before With A "Top Six Things"
Maybe this won't work for you! But, I've seen it consistently work miracles for me when I do it, and many other people. So, it's worth giving it a try.
The night before you sleep, you brainstorm out what would make tomorrow really valuable. Get to six things, max. This isn't uncommon advice. But the next part, the tactic, is pretty darn good. I got it from the late Chet Holmes.
Immediately after picking your six tasks, estimate how many minutes each one will take.
You'll use those minutes to do a "sanity check" -- if you've got more than 8 hours of work-time on the list, it's probably not going to fly. Inevitably other stuff comes up during the day.
So, here's how that goes --
1. The night before, brainstorm what you want to do. Cut it down to 3-6 tasks.
2. Estimate how many minutes each will take.
3. Sanity-check that time so it doesn't take impossibly long.
But, y'know, there's a lot more you can do to personalize that system. A few more tips to using that, take the ones that seem good to you --
*Some people will benefit well from choosing what order to put them in, and rough start and stop times. That way, you know roughly how your day will flow before it even starts.
*Consider adding in "startup time" and "cooldown time" -- I spend 30 minutes in the gym usually, but it's a 10 minute walk in each direction from my office, and I prefer to zone out and eat at a little diner next door for 30 minutes before heading back to work. So, I mark that down as 80 minutes.
*Very valuable: Schedule in exercise (probably first), creative work that's really important to you (right after exercise), and time for relaxation and time with family if you haven't been getting enough of them. Almost always, #1 on my Top Six is exercise. Frequently, #5 or #6 will be relaxation-oriented, like going to get a massage. Often, busy driven people neglect those key points, but once it's on the core list for the day, it gets done.
*Decide how you'll approach success and failure with the list. I've seen two workable approaches -- one is to set a realistic list, and aim for 100% completion every single day. The other is to make it a bit of a stretch, and aim for 70-80% completion. There's psychological benefits to the first way (huge dopamine and esteem boost for full completion), the second way might let you stretch and push a little harder. It's a personal call, I've done it both ways.
Grand Technique #2: Reclaim Wasted Time
I'm a big fan of time-tracking. This little post I wrote two years ago covers the basics of how I do it.
The main idea, for me, is I write down whenever I switch what I'm doing. The way, I see how long things actually take. I've consistently been surprised at how many big scary things happen actually quite quickly.
I also had categories, so I could see how much time I put into my various projects. (I was always stunning by how much less work I did than it felt like I did, and how relatively little work it takes to actually move things along and get good results.)
Recently I found another use for time-tracking, that could be very useful to you.
The basic idea is the same -- mark down what you've been doing periodically throughout the day.
But in this case, think through your life and try to identify where you're burning time that doesn't help you get what you want, doesn't make you happy, and doesn't accomplish anything you care about.
A huge category for me, one that I just discovered how much time gets sinkholed into, is spending time with people I'm not enjoying, that's not productive, and is overall something I could do elsewhere.
I love people. I do. But here's an example from yesterday -- I had an interesting hour-long conversation after work about virtue ethics, business, and life in general with two friends and colleagues of mine.
But, after an hour was up, we veered into politics and talking about the U.S. election for 40 minutes.
What a waste of time. I don't like politics, nothing came of it, etc.
If I hadn't recently added the category for aimless time with people, I wouldn't have noticed. It was overall a good couple hours. But we could have easily skipped the politics, which led to nothing interesting and accomplished. That time could have been spent hanging out more enjoyably with those same guys doing something else, with other people, reading a book, working, basically anything but that.
You probably likewise have wasted and burnt time, and you can root it out by classifying it. "What Gets Measured, Gets Managed."
I had "internet surfing" as a category I tried to keep down for years, but I imagine if I broke it down into "Somewhat Interesting Surfing" and "Totally Useless Surfing" I imagine I'd cut even more of the latter. You know, when it's late and you're tired and should sleep, but you keep just click-click-clicking?
So, definitely consider tracking your time for a couple weeks and looking at the categories, so you can root out vampires that are making you less happy and getting in your way.
Everyone's ideal organization system is going to be different, but remember that no good organization system is likely to be legible. If you're not already getting everything you want, start looking for neat ways to structure your life to make you more effective.
And try scheduling exercise, family, and relaxation on your "Top Six" for a week -- I bet you won't go back.
You can find Sebastian's writing and adventures at www.sebastianmarshall.com. His book, Ikigai, was quite popular with people who are driven and accomplishing things -- go get a copy today, the most common review was "life-changing."