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Time management. It’s a word that fascinates me. I study it. I present on it. I coach clients and students in this topic extensively. It is one of the most frequent requests that I get.

When we want to improve ourselves – either professionally or personally, the first place many of us go, is google. A close second is people we look up to or trust.

We open the laptop. We google, and then we search. Scrolling down the page, we select the links that stand out, delve in and read the practices, the tips, the tricks and the life hacks. Then, we go back to work with the best intentions, but quickly settle back into the same routines, the same habits and a sense that simply acquiring knowledge is notall there is to this puzzle of how to effectively manage our time.

Time passes, whether we use it or not.   We are so, so acutely aware of this as our babies grow before our eyes and their faces change in a DAY!  A DAY!

We are hyper-aware of this, aren’t we? Here I am writing this article. Here you are, reading this article. We care about how we use our time, and we want to use it better.

It turns out that time management is deliciously complex, and a perpetual balancing act. Any outstanding time manager knows it is an incredibly dynamic area of their lives with ever-changing needs. I’d be worried for a client if they weren’t having to juggle their lives. If they weren’t struggling. To struggle with time management is to engage with it. The people who say that they are constantly working to manage their time? I want to hear that. They are actively avoiding becoming entrenched in a routine. They are engaging with changes in their daily lives. They are moving forward with intention and avoiding becoming stuck. Struggling with time management means growth. Perhaps that is why it is such an enjoyable and ever-rewarding topic to dive into as a coach.

IT IS NORMAL to say you are struggling to balance your schedule because when you tell me you are struggling, it means you are working at it.  Remember that 🙂

There will actually never be a point in your life where everything is running smoothly.  Unexpected variables will come in – call from Daycare for a sick kid. Mega project at work and an injury at the same time. But there is a point in your life you can get to, and that is the ability to not stress when things aren’t running smoothly, to just embrace the bumps and not let it throw you off.  When you see “not normal” as “normal.”

 

Are you the general, or the soldier?

I could direct you to the time management matrix by Stephen Covey, or print out a nice Monday to Sunday schedule and have you analyze your day-to-day existence. Perhaps I could coach you on the way you conceive of time and your mindset around time.  You don’t need that. You already have had an advanced course in time, because you had a baby.  Time compressed, duties increased and you found yourself re-thinking all of your old routines , which got thrown out with the first diaper.

There is an important skill that these people  – these amazing mamas have – with mad schedules – BUT the calmness and presence and peace of mind that we all envy.  This is a skill that is not discussed as often as other time management practices:

This skill is the the ability to fluidly work at two different levels. The ability to operate at a strategic level (think of a Army General doing the goal setting, planning, assessments) and the ability to operate at a tactical level (think of a Soldier carrying out the work, boots on the ground.) You’re going to have to bear with me using military analogies, but I think we all have the gist of what each role involves.

The strategic level of time management is about consistently having the overarching goals and objectives nearby as the plan is made. A strategic time manager defines and understands priorities, can anticipate influencing factors, incorporate changes in those factors, and decide where, when and why to apply their efforts. They don’t lose site of their goal and are anchored. A strategic time manager takes the time to analyze and assess how things went, and looks at the execution of that plan (the tactical level.)

It is absolutley critical to set yourself a few goals, or things you want to get out of the maternity leave experience.  For my first born, it was learning about motherhood and choosing which parts I wanted to embrace, and other parts where I needed to define my own style.  And  embracing it (because I hated the idea of motherhood before I got pregnant.) A key theme was also slowing down. For my second born, it was about integration of motherhood with my professional goals and testing out balancing the twos.  Mental health improvement was also a big goal during my second maternity leave.

The tactical level of time management is about grounding oneself in the overall strategy, and then deciding exactly how to execute that strategy in real life. Tactics are the way that we actually achieve our goal in real, day-to-day life. In my opinion, the bulk of time management resources lie here. For a mother this may be, how do I manage the crushing fatigue, how to get some sleep in to gain some energy for other tasks.  Meal prep, scheduling some solo time, team work with husband and family, sharing a family iCal, and so on.

The weeks expand into months all too quickly. Do we take the time each week to circle back, think about the previous week, and the next week – do we carve out that 20 minutes? What does our execution look like? Did our week wind up being in line with our goals? What did we say yes and no to? Did we take new things on?   How many of those goals do we accomplish and how do we get them done? Were they done in a sustainable way and at a pace that we can keep up with over many months?

A strategic planner will ask these questions.  But a strategic planner will schedule this time into their day and protect it, as well. Outside of the work world, the best time managers I know are ones who get up before everyone else in the family – or take some alone time – in order to have some strategic planning time. They are also adept at dealing with unexpected events or variables because they have practiced thinking at the strategic level.  Those unflappable Moms who just get to work when all of a sudden their kid breaks a leg and they are trying to manage a baby at the same time but seem to make it to the hospital and deal with it all okay and with a good attitude.  You know those moms.

Months turn into seasons, and with this longer view, we are able to see which area we are dominant in, and how this has influenced our daily lives.

Productivity is great! Do more! Be more! There is a strong drive to be an excellent tactical executor. There is an INTENSE pressure in the Mom world to live in the execution world.  Diaper feed satisfy the baby satisfy the family do more be more do it faster.

And the thing is, we are creatures of habit, our brains want us to get into a routine so that it can automate some of its tasks. The danger here is that in this style of time management, this leads to the situation where we wake up one day and think wow, I am really overwhelmed, I’ve taken too much on, and I am feeling a bit out of control. My goal for you with this article is for you to think about how much time you live in the strategic time management world versus the tactical time management world. I want you to gain some awareness.

What does it mean to make good use of strategic planning? To use an analogy, these people are firmly anchored with their boat and know everything about the environment (including weather) around them, but their sails are not catching the wind. They’re not actually moving forward, despite knowing what they need to do. They’re so busy planning and studying the environment they forgot to put the sails up.

Some mamas are dominant in tactical execution.  I would argue this is the most common theme with mothers.  They are productive machines and there is powerful momentum in this approach. Efficient, fast, they don’t think past what has to be done right now and take on more.  But a departure from strategy means that these hard workers can (and do) take on extra tasks that result in loss of identity & fulfillment – away from the objectives and priorities set out in the role, in the sake of boots on the ground / get work done.

Living in a purely tactical time management world is, in a sense, to lose some power and control in ones daily life. Where all of a sudden you realize “I haven’t had a single evening to myself in three months, wtf.”  or “Wow, I am running on empty at this point and coffee and wine are literally helping me survive it.”

A purely tactical sailor, to go back to our analogy, has lost their anchor and are moving at a fast clip, with wind full force in their sails – however, they are so busy managing the full sails, that they don’t have time to assess, plan and reflect on the environment they are entering. They’re moving so fast in their day, that they cannot look up and are heading for bad weather – and when that bad weather comes, they are so busy managing their sails that they cannot adjust – CRISIS! A tactical time manager will experience a shakeup – perhaps the kids are home from daycare because they are sick – or a project has hit a road bump – and say, and I quote this: “I JUST DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS RIGHT NOW!”

With these analogies, you now have a feel for what it means to be a strategic thinker or a tactical executor. The most effective time managers get things done – yes – but they also know when to take a moment – to request from their husband or boss, to carve out space in their day and PROTECT that space in their day – so that they have a sacred space to plan, reflect and set their goals and intentions.

What do you truly want to make a priority in your life? What do you want to say yes to, and what do you need to say no to?  What does a week or a maternity leave, even,  look like with sound strategic thinking? Hindsight and foresight? Clear priorities and goals?

The most effective time managers are able to dance with strategic and tactical approaches, never losing sight of either one. It’s a fluid dance, sometimes we must put our heads down and go tactical, and survive it (with above mentioned coffee and wine) but when there is time to take a breath, we retreat inside ourselves to the strategic and find our anchor. And if there is no time to do so? Ask yourself why this happened.  Why didn’t you make space for this important part in your life. Were you caught up in the day to day?

To work at the strategic and tactical level in time management gives us the awareness and knowledge to clearly and effectively say “yes,” “no,” or “let’s renegotiate this” in our day to day lives.  If you struggle with setting boundaries, saying yes or no clearly, perhaps this is the right article for you. As a mama, life (and our families) will always be banging on our doors, and when they do, our answers need to be given with clarity, courage, confidence and the knowledge that, as Stephen Covey says, there is a “big yes” burning inside.

For further reading and inspiration around the “bigger yes,” you may want to read this fantastic article by Derek Sivers.

 

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