A client asked me the other day “Have you always been good at this?” My answer? “Nope, I just have more practice. I’ve done more reps.”
And truth be told, this was definitely not the first time that someone has asked me this question. People often assume that I have some sort of time management superpower. That it’s 100% innate. But the truth is, these are skills you can learn. These are skills ANYONE can learn. And I know because I had to learn them.
My task “system” was a joke…until I learned a better way
My task “system”? Back when I was in school, I used to literally write my to-do list on the back of my left hand with a ballpoint pen, and then try not to wash it off in the shower. (Yes, gross, I know. See, I’ve progressed!) Granted, I had a lot less to do then, but this was still hardly a system.
Once I started working, I needed a better way, and so I used a legal pad at work and I’d just write a list every day, cross of what I did, and then rewrite the whole thing on the next page. I had a similar process for home, using a Moleskin weekly planner. It was a list, it was slightly more comprehensive, but it wasn’t a system.
As my responsibilities grew, I needed to store more outside of my brain, and the paper lists just didn’t cut it. So I started using a spreadsheet instead; it was more dynamic. I could track prioritization, dates, follow ups, notes and history. I could sort. But it was pretty clunky and very manual.
And finally, I evolved my system into what it is today, a methodology you can use easily with any platform; a system I teach to others.
But this isn’t where I started. At all. It’s been trial and error, experimentation and iteration.
I’ve said all the wrong things…before I learned to say the right ones
It might surprise you to learn that time management and management are super entwined. Time management is often about communication management, because we work in concert with other people. What we say can move things along or it can gum up the works.
Quite often, a client will stop me mid-sentence and say “hey, can you repeat that, I want to write down the words so I can use that later”. Often, this is in response to how to say something in order to get what you want and move forward without ruffling any feathers.
I get asked why I always seemed to have the right words.
And why? Because I have failed so many times. I’ve said the wrong things…a lot. So, I’ve had a lot of practice learning what words work and what words definitely don’t.
You want a couple of embarrassing examples? Well, I’m here to deliver:
- Many years ago, very early in my career, I was working at a start up; I had a director level title (inflated? probably!), and I was chatting with a colleague who was also a director. He was frustrated about the direction his team was taking. And you know what I told him? I told him, to his face, that his team wasn’t responding to him because he was weak. Yes, I actually said that. Was it true? It wasn’t the whole truth, but I did believe at the time that that was part of the problem. Should I have said it? Absolutely not! Why did I say that? What was my goal? Who knows and that was a big part of MY problem.
- Another time, long, long ago, I got the feedback that I needed to stop stop telling people their ideas were dumb, even if the ideas were, in fact, dumb. (Now, I really wasn’t using the word “dumb”; I was saying it more gently, but still…) Was I being too blunt? Absolutely. Were the ideas dumb? I thought so. But you know what often happened? People just dug in to their position; my statements weren’t helping me to get to the desired outcome. And because I never want to lie, but also don’t want to offend, I started using the ”yes and” approach. Instead of poking holes in their ideas directly, I learned to agree with some premise of the idea and then ask questions that lead the idea-haver to understanding why the idea won’t work, on their own terms. It sounds less direct, but in fact, it’s a much faster, kinder, more collaborative approach to get to the “right” answer.
Why was it important for me to learn these skills around time and communication? For me, it was a combo of necessity and values.
I’ve always had a terrible memory; I learned early on that it couldn’t be relied on. I needed to keep track of things outside my brain.
I also had needs. I graduated from college a semester early while working pretty much full time, in a real office job at an M&A firm. I graduated early because it was cheaper. I took summer classes because they were the same amount of credits but cost less. I worked because I needed to and didn’t want to go into even more college debt. And so I had to get really, really good with my time to make it all happen without burning out.
I also had people that tested my boundaries early in life. My boss while I was in college was an eccentric British guy; our office was in his carriage house in NYC. The house where he lived. More than once he called me near midnight asking if I could come unlock his door because he’d lost his keys. I declined. Told him to call a locksmith, or go sleep at his girlfriend’s. As a young adult, it was scary to push back, to set boundaries. But it was necessary. And it was good practice for setting boundaries in the future. I learned that no one will set boundaries for you, but most people will respect boundaries you set for yourself (including that boss with the unreasonable requests who was 20 years my senior!). And that made me less scared to put boundaries around my work hours and personal time in future jobs. I practiced setting boundaries until it actually felt pretty comfortable to do so.
Is there anything inherent to me that has helped me to get better and better as using my time in a way that works for me?
Yes, of course.
- My 2 most central core values are accountability (I want to do what I say I will, when I say I will, every time) and autonomy (I want my time and how I spend it to be mine; I don’t want anyone else to be in control).
- And I hate being late. Viscerally I hate it; it makes my skin crawl.
- I had a mom who repeatedly told me “never work more than 40 hours a week, because then they will expect it”
My core values led me towards better practices as my life and responsibilities grew. Because accountability is so central for me, I learned to organize my time such that I could always meet deadlines without struggle or scramble. I learned how to prioritize and then how to communicate those priorities.
I learned how to create buffer in my schedule. And I did so by failing. By working some long hours and feeling resentful. By overcommitting and working on weekends to meet deadlines. And every time I failed I learned something new, developed a new skill to add to the arsenal, so I didn’t make the same mistakes in the future.
Because I value autonomy, I learned to produce good work product, and to communicate early, clearly, efficiently and collaboratively. I learned that I was much less likely to be micromanaged if I did good work, on time, and communicated well. So I learned the skills required to make that happen.
Because I value promptness and thus abhor being late, I learned to keep tabs on my time, to check the time frequently, to better estimate my time, to leave buffer in my schedule and to arrive early, with a book or something to do, so that I never felt I had to waste that time.
This time management thing? It’s a means to an end, not the end itself. To me, there’s no inherent value in time management. There’s what time management does for me and my life, which is allow me to use my time in service of my goals and my values. Time management skills allow me to live in integrity with my values. They help ensure that my minutes, hours, days, months, and years feel congruous and meaningful.
So, what values do you hold dear? And what skills are you wiling to learn to develop in yourself to allow you to live those values?
Because you don’t have to be good at it now to be good at it later. Time management skills are skills you can learn.
I have a client who said “I used to think of myself as a fundamentally disorganized person, a lost cause. Alexis taught me that that isn’t true. That I have the power to learn new skills, apply them and therefore change my life for the better.”
I want this for you.
If you’ve ever had that thought “It’s just the way I am”, if you feel stuck in a rut, if you know, deep down, that your time is not currently being spent in service of your goals and values, if you feel at the end of the day, defeated, then I want to show you there’s another way. And there’s a risk, free, actually, free, way to get started.