I just had a very enjoyable and productive job interview, and the interviewer asked me an interesting question that I had not encountered before. He wanted to know how I manage to successfully juggle such a wide variety of disparate personal and professional tasks and responsibilities.
The answer: It’s a combination of discipline, luck, support and understanding from friends, family and clients, and also really invaluable tools.
Here are a few tips and tools I’m happy to share. Undoubtedly some you’ll find appropriate for you, others you’ll view as incompatible with the way you want to work or live… but hopefully some of them you’ll find useful 🙂 And as always, remember that there are no absolutes. Absolutely, positively, NEVER any absolutes. Oops. 😛 Anyway, on with the list…
I can’t stress this highly enough. Unless you have an absolutely perfect memory, I urge you to write down almost everything you think of. To-do items, notes about people you meet, stuff you’d like to blog about, birthdates of friends, etc. Structure is important, sure, but content is by far more important. Even entering a bunch of stuff freeform into Notepad is far better than keeping it on stickynotes or trying to squeeze it all into your head. And remember, this isn’t just for you to remember important things: it’s also a superb CYA (Cover Your Ass) technique. This way, you *know* and can prove that a client or a business partner or even a roommate promised [x] when they later protest they said [y].
Handle daily stuff and urgent/disgusting stuff
Every single morning and, if possible, every single evening, glance over your todo list. Try tackling a combination of urgent and disgusting early in the morning. What do I mean by disgusting? The stuff that, when you see it on your list, makes you go “ewww… I so do *NOT* want to make that call / wash that trash pail / write that rejection letter.” Do it. The rest of the day will only get better :-).
Make goals for the long term (and I don’t just mean financially!)
This is far from my original idea, but it’s a great one nonetheless 😛 Don’t ever let the Urgent completely overtake the Important. And by important, I’m referring to things that will give you long term stability and — most critically — happiness. For instance, I have a great amount of admiration for friends who are not only disciplined enough to write a book, but actually specify a set number of pages to finish each week… and then accomplish this goal. Sure, these are shorter-term goals in a way, but they lead to a greater achievement in the long term, and — I’d guess — greater self-satisfaction.
Your hard drive will crash or your laptop will be stolen or lost or completely unusable. It’s just a matter of when. Learn more about backing up your stuff.
Never forget that it’s all about people!!!
Meet people, even when you’re tired, even when you’re unemployed. Take notes on people. Read peoples’ blogs. Offer to help people. Watch people. Use people.
Yes, I said “use.” That’s a bit blunt, and admittedly not quite the most complete way of putting it, but seriously… don’t be shy about asking for help, for advice, for leads. Just be willing to *listen* to them and give something back… either now or later.
For too long I was shy about asking people for help, asking to pick their brains over lunch, etc. Until I realized, damn, I have a lot to offer back… both quantitatively and qualitatively. Aside from geek skills, I’m good at introducing folks to each other and I’m often contagiously cheerful, for instance. That may not sound like a hell of a lot to give, but it come right back to “People” and connections.
And let me recount a brief story here. A while back, when dancing with an acquaintance, I happened to mention that I was really hoping to get hired by Acme Corp. “Ah ha!” she said, “I know someone there… a fellow dancer! Do you know Sheila?” I didn’t, and this woman introduced me to her.
I went on to befriend Sheila… and I mean *sincerely* befriend her, after realizing that she not only could get me a foot in the door of Acme, but she was also someone that I enjoyed spending time with. She and I chat frequently now, go out to shows, dance together, and so on. My originaly guilt about “using” someone to get something has faded by realizing that I have a lot to give back AND that business connections can actually be leveraged into true friendships. So the lesson is… worry not about why or how you meet people… just do right by them.
Focus on a happiness-and-worth quotient
Before adding something to your todo list or alloting time in your calendar for it, ask yourself two overarching questions:
1) How important is this?
Hint: Paying a credit card bill is very important. Blogging, in most circumstances, is not. Fulfilling a promise to help a friend move — gotta do it! Meeting a client deadline — critical. Categorizing your CD collection — not that essential.
2) What’s the pleasure-to-cost ratio?
This actually is one of the key questions I ask not only about to-do items and calendar items, but food, too. I almost never turn down a dessert offered to me if it’s something I REALLY LOVE, even if it’s something horrible for me like cheesecake. But if it’s just something that’s yummy-but-really-bad-for-me, I can pass on it. Same with to-dos and appointments. I ask myself: how much pleasure will I get from this now and in the future vs. how much pain or cost will I experience as a result of the choice? I know, I know that sounds so obscenely technical, and like any normal human, I often just go with my gut… act spontaneously… and throw caution to the wind.
And the pleasure isn’t just pleasure-for-me directly, but pleasure for friends. I’m not fond of ballet, for instance, but the moment a friend of mine is in a ballet, I’ll go see the show… because I know it’ll make her really happy to see me in the audience. In that case, the small inconvenience/cost to me is vastly offset by the happiness my friend experiences.
Boost your confidence regularly
I know, I know, this sounds Saturday Night Live Stuart Smalley cheesy, but I swear, it’s helpful! Especially when I’m slogging through a time with a difficult client, depressed about having half the women in my weight lifting class lift more than I do, frustrated about not being invited to a party… it’s so refreshing to have active reminders that I am talented, I am loved.
I have actually bookmarked, printed out, or taped to the corner of my desk notes of affirmation, both social and professional. I say to myself, damn, if [a person I majorly like and respect] thinks so highly of me, I need to once again boost my confidence to that level. Or, thinking about it another way, oh Lord, help me to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am [stolen from some brilliant but unknown pundit online].
Even from a purely professional perspective, this can work wonders. At any company I’ve worked at, and from home with my independent clients, I keep an Outlook folder call “Praise.” It’s here that I place all e-mails from my bosses, colleagues, clients, etc… that reflect upon a job well done. Some of those quotes end up on my Testimonials page, and I have no doubt that they’ve helped win me new clients and even new full-time contracts.
Take care of your body
If you body is sluggish and crying out, your mind will be like mush. Exercise… ideally by doing something you love (horseback riding, dancing, swimming, etc.). Personally, I’ve found that gym classes are fun enough to make the gym enjoyable rather than a chore for me, because they offer a combination of group pressure (“Hey, Adam, where were you last week?!”), socialness (sort of like a bar, but without cost or calories of beer), and so on.
A fitness instructor (a both smart and hot one, to boot!) once told me her secret to physical and mental success:
“Do 25 pushups a day. Maybe twice a day, if you can. Do them well. Do them EVERY day.”
This exercise works your abs, your back, your arms, your CORE. Keep your head aligned, your form perfect.
I’ll be frank: I don’t always remember to do this every day. But I should. Along with stretching, I’m convinced that just these two things alone will help keep me feeling more vibrant, toned, and energized. And it’ll probably improve my posture, too :-).
* * *
And now for some specific tools I use and love:
My Life Organized (“MLO”)
Personal to-dos, professional to-dos, long term goals, short term projects… this program helps you balance all of it in a streamlined, no-nonsense interface. I haven’t fully set up priorities for all my tasks yet, but simply putting them under layered categories has been a great help to me (Financial, Webmaster, Social, etc.). You can try out this program for free, and it costs $46-$60 to buy.
This long electronic tickertape of sorts allows you to quickly and easily jot down notes of all kind, grab Web snippets, and more… and find stuff ridiculously fast. Perfect for jotting down meeting minutes, client conversations, stuff-to-blog lists, software serial numbers, and so on. Best of all, you can download and use it permanently for free! And, as with MLO, the folks working on this program have maintained a friendly online community to share tips, note bugs, and get help.
It’s like a spiral notebook on steroids. It’s also the most outstanding outliner I’ve ever used. Already easy-to-use and intuitive, I’ve seen that great things are to come in the next version (OneNote 12). You can learn more about the program here, but I recommend that you buy a legal copy off of ebay… you’ll save a lot of cash with the typical $15 vs. $99 purchase price (make sure you’re getting an original, unregistered CD, though!)
Outlook with Plaxo
While other programs do e-mail and tasks better, I’ve not yet found any software that handles contacts and calendaring in a more intuitive and third-party-supporting way than Outlook. When linked with Plaxo, your contacts will also stay up-to-date; you don’t even have to use the controversial “Update my info, please” feature, since you’ll find that many of your contacts already use Plaxo and will be automatically updated in your address book for you. Also, Plaxo seamlessly backs up your calendar, contacts, tasks, and notes to their secure server… invaluable in the case of a hard drive failure, and also enormously useful for keeping your desktop and laptop in sync. DISCLAIMER: I’ve worked for Plaxo in the past (but this has also given me insight into the company’s intense and genuine attention to privacy. Really good people there.)
* * *
Whew! I guess that’s quite enough for one blog post. I hope you’ve found some of the insights and suggestions here to be worthwhile, and I’d be delighted to see your feedback in the comments below. Are there other programs you use that help keep your life ordered and on-track? Other life-philosophies that help keep you sane and happy? Speak out 😀