When I started this Reach Your Dreams series a couple weeks ago, I thought I’d just go through my steps of monthly, weekly, and daily planning. Then as I planned each day over the past week I realized that one of my biggest truths as a mom and business owner is that every day is so different. And that really, I don’t have a magic method for planning each day. What I do have is a slew of tips that help me be more productive and make consistent progress toward reaching my dreams. And I am thrilled to share those tips with you!
Tip 1 – Write a “Top Three” for the day: This is the one change I’ve made this year that has exponentially improved my productivity, focus, and clarity. It seems so simple, but it is so powerful. There are days that are going to have a million small tasks to complete and others that will be consumed by one big project. But every day I ask myself “If I only do three things today, what do they need to be?” Then periodically throughout the day I check in on my progress toward those top three. When there’s a lull and I know I should be doing something–it should be a top three thing. When I’m overwhelmed and doing too much, I pause and look at my top three and do one of those first.
It’s not always work-related. In fact, I really try to make sure only one or two of the top three are work-related! I need to constantly remind myself that being a mother is also a job–and really my top priority. So often one of my top three is an adventure with Olivia or a reminder to take a time out and just be with her.
Remember your top three for the month? The goals you’ve been working on? How do your top three for the day match up? They don’t have to be perfectly aligned every day, but if you’re noticing that day after day your top three is consumed by tasks that don’t have anything to do with those goals, I highly recommend reserving at least one spot per day for a goal-related task.
Here are a few of my “Top Threes” over the last couple months. (Yes, sometimes taking a shower is in the top three! If you are the parent of a toddler, I know you feel my pain on that one.)
Note: I owe all of this brilliance to Whitney English and her Day Designer. The concept of the top three is all over the place, but having a space for it right there in my planner has made it so much easier to actually implement. On that note…
Tip 2 – Invest in a planner you love: I know, I gush about the Day Designer pretty much every week. The truth is, you can make any planner work if you use it. And no planner will do the work for you. Over the last twenty years I’ve tried every planner I can get my hands on. Paper planners, Palm Pilots (remember those?), little monthly planners that fit in my purse and huge daily planners that take up my entire desk. My phone has so many productivity apps on it, I don’t even have room for Candy Crush Saga. But it wasn’t until I bought the Day Designer that I actually started using my planner. So what’s the difference? Well for one, the layout is pretty close to exactly what I need. But I think a huge part is that it was a bit of an investment for me. Not the most expensive planner I’ve ever seen, but certainly not a $10 planner from a big box store either. I made a conscious choice (after about a year of hemming and hawing actually) to invest in it and now I don’t want it to go to waste. The fact that I paid good money for it motivates me to actually use it.
I could go on forever with the things I love about the Day Designer (I actually just deleted four paragraphs of gushing), but the point is not that you need this planner. The point is to find a planner that will work for you. Find something that makes you want to write in it. Whether it’s a beautiful cover, a funny comic on each page, or even just a special pen–find something that gets you excited to write in your planner and you’ll be way more likely to use it.
Tip 3 – Everything takes twice as long as it should. This is just a (depressing) fact. It’s magnified when you have kids. So instead of fighting it, just embrace it. If you think it will take you an hour to go grocery shopping, block off two. Want to spend 30 minutes exercising? Plan on an hour. If you have the luxury of an uninterrupted 8 hour work day, only put 4 hours worth of tasks on your list.
I know what you’re thinking, “I just need to be more productive. I need to get more done in less time.” Well that’s an awesome goal and I wish you the best of luck. But when I find myself racing from appointment to appointment, trying to do three errands before nap time and finish four big orders during nap, I get half way through my day and crash. It’s almost impossible for me to be productive for the rest of the day and I end up frantic and stressed out and tired. When I’m overly generous about how much time something will take and plan lots of time to complete tasks, I find myself moving more gracefully through my day with lots of energy in the afternoon to continue being productive. And if you do get your tasks done early, awesome! Then you’ve built in time for relaxing or you can look at your list and squeeze in one more goal-related task.
Tip 4 – Think of your day in shifts. I love the idea of scheduling tasks for specific times throughout the day. And I think that works great for some people. But my schedule is not always predictable enough to really make that work. So instead of assigning tasks to really specific times, I break my day into “shifts.” This was awesome when Olivia was younger and took two naps a day. I played with her, ate breakfast, and answered emails in the morning, printed invitations during her first nap, ran errands or went on play dates mid-day, printed more invites during afternoon nap, then made dinner and enjoyed some family time, and answered more emails and sent proofs to customers after she went to bed. It’s been over a year and a half since I had that schedule and I still miss it! But even with one nap (or even if you don’t have kids or have kids who don’t nap) I can break my day into shifts. It’s just easier to think about “what can I get done in this two hour block of time” than trying to organize the entire day all at once. My shifts these days are early morning, mid-late morning, lunch time, Olivia’s nap (when I cram a ton of work into two hours), evening, and after bed. What I fill these shifts with varies from day to day. I schedule a lot of work tasks during the two mornings she’s in school and I schedule play dates and errands for non-school mornings. A lot of emailing and design work is still done at night–but that’s something I’d like to change. Your tasks and goals may vary day to day too or you might have a pretty solid routine, but either way, thinking of your day in shifts can really help you schedule when you’re going to get things done.
Tip 5 – Remove temptation. You know how hard it is to stick to your health goals when you keep a bowl of m&ms on your desk? Well it’s just as hard to reach your life goals when facebook, instagram, and pinterest are constantly promising us delicious distraction and social connection. I feel like social media is even more tempting for those of us who work from home. Working alone is so isolating and being online gives us a sense of belonging that we crave. And that’s great–I’m a big fan of social media and using it to make real connections with people. But when I find myself clicking on that little camera icon in between every invitation I cut… well I’m not making connections, I’m just wasting time.
I do not believe that learning to resist temptation is the key to productivity. We have enough on our plates that are challenging–let’s try to make things a little easier on ourselves! Take the damn m&ms off your desk!!! There’s a brilliant app for mac called Self Control and it will block any urls you want for an amount of time you determine. Block facebook, block pinterest, hey you might even need to block your email for a while! Since there’s nothing similar for iphone that I’ve found you have to get a little more creative there. I start by not allowing push notifications from tempting apps. I’ve silenced all notifications except the phone actually ringing so that I’m not hearing dings and buzzes every time I get an email. And then I try to put my phone somewhere other than my desk when I’m working. It would be great if I could turn it off, lock it in a safe, and hide the safe at the bottom of the ocean. But being a parent often means you need to be accessible if there’s an emergency. And I would just die if something happened to Olivia at school and no one could get ahold of me. So keeping the ringer on with the phone across the room works pretty well for me.
Tip 6 – Celebrate along the way. I think we all find ourselves with plenty of un-checked items on our to do list at the end of the day, and it can feel defeating. But I find when I shift my focus just a little bit to the things I have accomplished, it propels me to accomplish more. So pause a few times in your day to acknowledge what you’ve done. Even if it feels like nothing, it’s something. Did you play with your daughter and enjoy her laugh? What a great mom! Did you make a bride’s day when you sent her the perfect invitation design? Hooray! Did you invest ten minutes in yourself to do a little yoga? Way to take care of yourself! Give yourself a little pat on the back, have a little five minute dance party, and then use that momentum to keep doing great things!
Tip 7 – Review and plan for tomorrow. Now, I would love to be a person who thoughtfully plans her day the night before. I’d also love to be a person who sets out her clothes ahead of time and packs her kid’s lunch more than 5 minutes before school. And maybe someday I will be! But while I work on that goal, I try to just do what I can handle before I go to bed at night. Even just 5 minutes reviewing what I accomplished and what I didn’t is really helpful. I can put a few tasks on the next day’s list and feel like I’m waking up with a place to start. I also take a sec to write down something I’m grateful for (again–a piece of Day Designer brilliance!) which helps me kind of put everything in perspective.
And that’s it! I hope these tips, along with my steps for monthly and weekly planning help you reach all of those big dreams and goals! You’re capable of amazing things and I can’t wait to hear about everything you accomplish!