How to control your time, Part 2

Time bandits

Time Bandits is not just the name of a cool English flick from 1981. Time Bandits are things in our lives that rob us of time. Time crooks! The opposite of wasting time is using time efficiently. This big question is really two questions. What to do and what not to do? To answer this we have to look at the negative side of this equation—what not to do. What do we need to avoid, in order to get our stuff done? This time stuff can give you a headache.

The key things to avoid:

Attitude

Attitude is a state of mind or a feeling, from the Latin word, aptitd that means faculty. Faculty means an inherent power or ability. So what this means to us is that our attitude is personal to us and is inseparable from us. We control our attitude; it defines our character, we are our attitude.

I believe it is attitude that holds most people back and makes most people unhappy and unfulfilled. When it comes to time and attitude I want to tell you a story. The following story is about a high school student with an attitude problem. What is interesting is that this kid is really no different than many adults with “attitude problems.”

Dale is a smart kid who ended up at my office after earning straight ‘C’s’ in his junior year of high school. His parents were not happy that he wasn’t trying, and constantly bombarded Dale with the old tired line, “You have so much potential.”

When I met with Dale he explained, “I hate homework… it’s boring and useless. It takes too much time for no real reward!”

To get his parents off his back, Dale agreed that he would commit 1 1/2 hours to homework on school nights as long as his parents didn’t hover over him or talk to him about “his potential.” His parents also agreed.

I met with the family a week later and Dale was very upset with the agreement he had made with his parents. Everyone was honoring their part of the agreement, but Dale was angry that he wasn’t able to get his homework done in 1 1/2 hours. He was very upset that his school was giving him so much “lame” homework.

I suggested that Dale videotape himself doing his homework. My plan was for Dale to do his homework for 1 hour and to spend the next half hour viewing the video to see how much time he was wasting and not really doing his homework. It is my contention that lots of time is wasted during homework periods that people don’t realize they are wasting. The next week the family and I came together and Dale was happy to inform me that he didn’t watch any of the tapes.

 

Dr. Phil: How come, I thought you agreed to watch the tape?

Dale: I didn’t have to, I was done in under an hour. I guess I had less homework this week than last week.

Dr. Phil: I wouldn’t think so. I’ve had lots of kids video their homework and they all bounce on in here the next week with a $#!*-kissing grin and say, “Dr. Phil, I didn’t have to watch the video.” I think they like throwing it back in my face.

Dale: Yeah, kind of I guess, but I didn’t have to. I was done.

Dr. Phil: Great, but why were you done?

Dale: I told you. I think I must’a got less homework this week.

Dr. Phil: Could it be you pressed the tape button and sat right down and did your work. No screwing around? No phone calls? No looking for stuff?

Dale: (mouth open) I guess.

 

We all get in our own way. What Dale experienced was that if he simply started and got it done, the task seemed to be smaller. He didn’t have to carry his own attitude around during the “fighting doing homework process.” Less attitude weight, less work.

Think about your last few days. Have you allowed your attitude to get in the way of your goals?

I once met a cool old farmer who made millions in the cow business. He was a whiz with numbers and always good for a dirty joke or two (hundred). He told me that the hard part of being a rancher for him was getting up at 4:45 AM. I asked him how he pulled himself out of bed so early every morning. He said, “My pappy used to tell me, ‘Pretend it’s something you want to do.’” Attitude counts, even at 4:45 AM.

You’re tired

It’s hard to get stuff done when you’re tired. I joked earlier about “sleeping fast”, but it can’t be done. Your brain has to clean itself and do daily maintenance or you lose skills. You cannot be efficient when you’re tired. A lot of research has been focused on sleep. If you think about it, the Armed Forces would love to have a soldier who didn’t need sleep. The research shows that we lose mental acuity when we are tired. If you go without sleep it is not safe. Tired people get injured. Tired people make mistakes.[21, 22]

No one likes to hear this, but pulling all-nighters is a terrible way to do a good job on a quarterly report. Research shows that little is retained in one’s long-term memory and anxiety is significantly increased. Lack of sleep lowers your hand eye coordination and overall reflexes accounting for many preventable trips to the emergency room.

Respect yourself, make quality sleep a priority.

Lack of focus

It seems very simple to most patients in my office that you need to make a choice before you can do something. I am often told, “I have so much to do that I can’t get anything accomplished.”

Zoë had just turned twenty-six and was working in her first professional job at a midsize law firm. She was feeling the pressure of work when her boyfriend of five years dropped a bombshell on her. He was planning on taking a job four hours away and would only be able to see her on weekends. Her boss, a supportive and caring man, advised her to come and see me when she yelled at the copy machine and scared the office staff.

 

Zoë: I am being pulled in a million directions. I can’t seem to get anything done.

Dr. Phil: What counts most to you?

Zoë: I don’t care about any of it, it’s all just $#!* to me!

Dr. Phil: Then why are you bothered?

Zoë: Aren’t you listening. I’m going crazy!

Dr. Phil: I doubt it. But you are being emotionally pulled apart. What do you want to do?

Zoë: I don’t have any idea (She stared sadly at her shoes).

Dr. Phil: If you don’t know what you want to do, you’re doing it. Nothing. You’ve become ineffectual.

Zoë: Can you fix me?

Dr. Phil: You’re not broken, you need to focus on what really counts to you. One thing at a time.

Zoë: I can’t do that ... I’m swamped at work and I think my boyfriend is dumping me. I don’t blame him. I want to dump me too (she half smiled)!

Dr. Phil: I’m not advocating for you to do one thing at a time all day or all week. I want you to focus on one thing at a time throughout your day. When you’re at work, focus on the one project that needs your attention the most. When you’re at home, focus on the one thing that needs the most attention.

 

Without focus, Zoë was getting nothing done in any part of her life. When she was at work, she was thinking about home. When she was driving, she was thinking law. When she was with her boyfriend, she was feeling work stress. It’s back to the old question: How do you eat an elephant? The answer: One bite at a time. If the bite is too big and it is choking you, you need to spit it out and cut it into smaller bites. You can eat an elephant one bite at a time. And, you can accomplish even difficult tasks one bite at a time. However, even at one bite at a time, you need to focus on what you are doing.

I have listed some of the more common reasons that people choke on their responsibilities. Each tends to give talented people lots of difficulty. By keeping these problem areas in mind, and by cutting them into smaller pieces, you will be able to accomplish your desired goals.

Undefined goals

You have to be able to define a task to accomplish it. Force yourself to develop a specific definition of what it is you need to get done. It is easy to be pulled off course if you do not clearly see where you are heading.

Leroy told me that he wanted to pick up extra work doing odd jobs in his neighborhood. I asked him what he would put on a big billboard if he could afford a billboard. After a few minutes he said, “I want to make money!”

Leroy was focusing on his need, he wanted money. But, that wasn’t going to get someone in the neighborhood to hire him to clean out his or her gutters. Leroy’s problem was that he wanted to make money (a really big bite). He had to spit this problem out and cut it into smaller stuff. With a little practice he came up with the following list, which he made into a flyer (Leroy’s charm came through in his flyer and in person).

 

Honest hard working high school senior looking for honest hard work

 

My mom has allowed me lots of experience:

 

  • Washing windows
  • Scrubbing floors, toilets and driveways
  • Moving furniture and cleaning carpets
  • Painting inside and out
  • Dependable

 

On his handouts he listed his mother as a reference and asked prospective customers to call his mother to confirm his skills.

Leroy made $1800 dollars and was later hired by a neighbor to work the counter at his dry cleaning business. He worked there for the two years he went to junior college.

You need to define your goals so that you can make sure you are focusing on what you value. For example, when I was twenty I worked at McDonald’s. It afforded me income with a flexible schedule. I showed up on time and I did what was asked of me. Most of the time I enjoyed my experience, especially when we were busy. Time seemed to whiz by when we were busy.

I knew that I was not planning to learn how to manage a McDonald’s and make it my career. For me, McDonald’s was not a career move; it was a stepping-stone to help me work my way through college. I also learned a lot. To this day I am impressed with how McDonald’s is able to make a few pennies profit per customer add up to billions of dollars of corporate earnings.

I recall getting teased by friends for working at McDonald’s. But, as I saw it, I had an honest job that worked into my ever-changing class schedule. My focus was on getting good grades. I was not concerned that I didn’t have the most glamorous job.

Once I was assigned to write a paper on how to do something. The English professor wanted a paper that was so clearly written that an average person could do the task just by reading the paper. I wrote about how to make 64 Big Macs at one time. On busy nights, or when a school team bus pulled in, I would whip out 64 Big Macs in minutes.

McDonald’s and that English assignment have served me numerous times over the years. I have often been paid for writing a “how to” article. How to talk to your teen about sex. How to defuse anger in the work place. And, I often need to whip out six burgers or four omelets or a large load of ribs at home.

It is important to keep focused on your goals and creatively adjust to get your short and long term needs met.

Distractibility

Jan consulted with me because she was sure she was not ready for her new promotion. Jan, at age twenty-four, had just found out that she was the new Promotions Director for a mid size radio station. She had all the necessary skills and her goal was to capture this job before her twenty-fifth birthday. However, when it happened, she found herself not sleeping.

Jan’s concern was that she was unable to keep track of all her business responsibilities. She reported that she spent half her time looking for papers, contracts, or her glasses. After we talked for a bit it was obvious to me that Jan was highly motivated and incredibly skilled. Her biggest problem was that she was easily distracted. Once Jan mastered the following issues, she shined in her new position.

Clutter:

Your workspace has to be organized. By keeping necessary things within hand’s reach and everything else out of the way, you can help yourself focus. Knickknacks and candy dishes draw your attention away from the task at hand. Most people find that order helps job completion.

Phone:

The phone is a tool. Just because it rings, doesn’t mean it needs to be answered. Don’t let the phone control you. A 30 second phone call can take you off task for a few minutes. It is usually best to stop phone interruptions when you need to focus your mind on a task for a chunk of time.

Interruptions:

Control your environment. If your work area is an open door to the world, people will interrupt you and you will be constantly distracted. Protect your space. Control your space (be polite). I was impressed to learn that scary writer, Stephen King, found that his little laundry room with a rickety little school desk worked just fine for him. He liked being tucked off in an obscure place, away from distractions.

You need to control your environment so that you are not distracted. Find what works for you. I did most of my graduate dissertation in the middle of the night at a dumpy restaurant. I found the restaurant noise and the bad coffee helped me block out the world.

Don’t get caught up in the look of your quiet space, your control over it is what is important. If you need total quiet, make your workspace quiet. If you need lots of light, sun up the place. Respect your needs—then get focused on task completion.

 

Failure to plan

 

Pearl (16) told me why she got her final history paper in late.

 

It was like the whole world was against me. I had only six hours before my paper was due and everything went wrong. I even skipped school to work on it. I couldn’t find all my reference notes so I had to go on-line and get them again. That took an hour. My brother used up all the printer ink and I had to go the to store. The traffic was horrible. I couldn’t believe it. It cost thirty dollars! I was so pissed. I had to go to my mom’s work and get money. She was pissed that I skipped school. She just doesn’t understand that I had to skip school so that I could get the damn paper in by the end of school.

I finally got the stupid paper done and I couldn’t get the computer to talk to the printer. I just wanted to throw the thing against the wall. It turned out to be the cord thing. I got the thing printed, but I didn’t have a folder to put it in. So I had to go back to the store. When I got the whole thing put together, I wanted to glue a picture onto the front cover. I couldn’t find any glue in the whole house. I had to go back to the damn store. Three times I had to fight with traffic.

When I finally got it all put together it looked great. I couldn’t believe it when my brother came home. School was over. I turned it in the next day and Mr. Johnson didn’t even want to believe that I really tried. The best grade I can get on it now is only a ‘B’.

 

Pearl is not unique. I hear this type of story all the time.

If you don’t plan, you are doomed. A little planning saves a lot of frustration. How to plan will be covered further when we discuss personal organization skills later in this chapter.

Procrastination

For want of a nail[23] is a proverb dating back to the 14th century:

 

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

 

Benjamin Franklin wrote a variation of the proverb in the preface of Poor Richard’s Almanac:[24]

 

A little neglect may breed mischief...

for want of a nail, the shoe was lost;

for want of a shoe the horse was lost;

and for want of a horse the rider was lost.

 

I bet that procrastination is the most common way people hold themselves back. The word comes from its Latin roots (pro) toward (crastination) tomorrow. The problem is that when we procrastinate, tomorrow leads to the next day, which leads to the next day. Days become weeks and before you know it, life passes you by.

Procrastination means: To put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness. Put simply, procrastination is a choice.

A Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” It may be an old Chinese saying, but it still works for today. A new American saying could be, “The best time to buy milk is before you need it.” Not as classy but accurate. So, the next time you’re feeling pressure over your stuff ask yourself, “Wouldn’t it have felt good to have had this stuff done yesterday?”

Over the years I have asked lots of people about their procrastination. What I learned is that most people put off stuff they don’t like. Wow! We don’t want to start what we don’t like. Yep. We avoid discomfort. This was discussed earlier when I advocated for you to leave your comfort zone to create the life you want. You have to confront little discomforts to defeat procrastination.

I have a few suggestions about how to stop the cycle of procrastination. First, recognize it. You have to be aware of your tendency towards procrastination to realize that it is controlling you. Once you notice procrastination’s retched breath, you will find the following head games helpful:

 

Do the worst first:

When you have tasks that you must do but don’t want to, do the worst task first. This makes the process feel easier. It’s very hard to keep going if the job gets even worse. It is easier to stay motivated if the job gets a little better. Remember, your perception counts.

Make a game out of it:

Find a way to put some fun into the crappy job. Set up a way to play with yourself (hey, clean your mind up and stick with me here!). Time yourself, attack the job sideways, add music. Be creative. Laugh in the face of despair. Joke with the toilet as you clean it. Humor helps us to get through many a $#!*ty task.

For a lot of people, setting a deadline for themselves is a game that brings rewards. “I’ll get this done by 4:15 if it kills me!” It is self-talk that is motivating.

Add a reward: Pat yourself on the back for your hard work. If it’s a beautiful day and you can’t stand that you’re stuck inside, reward yourself with a walk around the block after you get half your work done. I know a business tycoon who rewards himself with five minutes of shooting hoops after he completes an undesirable task. Keep the reward simple and low calorie. If you get a candy bar after each undesirable task, you will weigh five hundred pounds in no time. I find that physical activity works well for most people. Walk, hoops, or juggle to help relieve life’s tensions. Again, be creative.

Start:

Lots of people spend so much time getting ready to start that the project doubles. If Stephen King can make millions of dollars writing in his laundry room, you should be able to kick ass with your cool stuff. I once watched my sister prepare all afternoon for a date that lasted two and a half hours. Four hours of prep for two and a half hours of date. Life’s too short. It’s like taking off a band-aid, just rip the damn thing off, feel the pain for a moment, then go on with your life. Slowly peeling a band-aid off lets you feel it for minutes versus seconds. As the Nike sneaker ads tell you: Just Do It!

You can never finish a task if you don’t ever start. Life rewards action. You have to complete a task to reap rewards.

Total Void:

There are areas in our daily lives where we can become totally void of thought. In these Total Void zones we will find ourselves staring off into the ether with little sign of life registering on our faces. When this occurs it is easy to have thirty minutes quickly turn into three hours. In Total Void our mind is being occupied by random thoughts of nothing. Like a black hole in outer space, the Total Void takes thought into it and never lets it escape. It warps time and space while sucking the life out of its victims. No light can escape a black hole, and no time can be retrieved from a Total Void.

There are many types of Total Voids in the known universe. The most common is the TV. I once played with the knob on the side marked brightness but the programming didn’t get any smarter. For lots of people the TV is the kiss of death for creativity and the fertilizer in the garden of procrastination. My advice is to be fearful of the TV. It can suck the life out of you. But, at the same time, I like TV. What a conundrum. My advice—plan your viewing. Turn on the TV just before the show you want to watch starts and (this part is hard) turn the dumb thing off the instant the show ends. Karl Marx said, “Religion ... is the opium of the people.” To which I say, “TV is the marijuana.” You should even beware of “educational” television. Do you really need to watch a show about the mating rituals of the fruit fly at 2:00 AM? Not if you will be tired tomorrow and frustrated that you are behind in something significantly more important to your real life than fly humping (unless you’re a horny fruit fly, that is. If so watch on!).

The second Total Void is drugs, with alcohol and pot being the most common avoidance tools. Most people find that drugs and task completion don’t go together. I’m told regularly something like, “I work better a little buzzed.” My observations of life, along with all the brain research I have studied, disagree with that contention.

A third Total Void is small talk. Lots of people use small talk and gossip to fill their lives versus improving their lives with accomplishments. When I worked at County Mental Health earlier in my career, I was amazed how many people showed up to work at 8:00 AM to visit, drink coffee, fix their makeup, eat a donut, complain about their weight, and gossip about others who were not present. Then around 9:15 they started work. These same individuals were quick to bitch about their hefty workload at every opportunity. I have heard similar stories from numerous types of businesses across America. I would guess that there are billions of dollars in lost productivity in our nation’s workplaces because of small talk and coffee.

In the area of Total Void, everyone has to decide for him or herself what is more important to them—life accomplishments or avoiding life. I’m very liberal minded, it’s your life… what ya gonna do?

Need for perfection

Many people have a need to do everything at the highest level of accuracy. As a result they are paralyzed when it comes time to get started. If you find your self-talk saying, “There is no way I can get that looking the way it needs to look because…” or “I can’t get it that polished in only…” you are destroying your own creative powers.

A good rule of thumb is to do the best you can in the time allotted. I find that people do amazingly well with a 90% goal versus a 100% goal. Ninety percent is still ‘A’ work, but not perfect. Depending on the task, even ‘C’ work may be good enough.

If your goal is to be a good athlete, but you are not the one in a million superstar of your sport, then maybe it is more reasonable to be a ‘C’ athlete who gets good exercise, enjoys companionship, and loves winning at your skill level. The alternative would be not playing tennis because you are naturally a ‘C’ tennis player. Check your attitude.

Max came to my office because he was having anxiety attacks. One day he had trouble breathing and went to the emergency room because he feared a heart attack. After much testing he was assured that he hadn’t had a heart attack, but that if he kept up his present level of personal stress, he probably would have a heart attack in his mid forties. Max was twenty-three when I met him. He was working at a full time job and spending the rest of his awake time writing a computer game program. It came down to that he lived on coffee and snack cakes, slept little and pushed himself to the max (sorry about the pun).

As it turned out, Max was close to marketing his game on three occasions in the previous 18 months. Each time he thought he was ready, he read in a computer game magazine that someone else had tweaked their product in some way so that Max felt he had to “better” that tweak in his program. At this rate Max was never going to get his product to market. His need to produce the perfect game meant that his program would never see the glow of a monitor.

Max explained, “This program is my life ... I can’t put out a second rate product, it has to be the best.”

So, I ask you, would it be better for Max to release a very good program, let’s say an ‘A-96%’ program and later put out version A.1 then A.2, or for Max to keep playing with his mouse like a computerized hamster?

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