Making Room for Ideas

I’m sharing my process for preparing the keynote talk I’ll be presenting at the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference on March 18. This is my second entry in the series. You can find Part One here.

There’s something about the first of the month I’ve always found hopeful, so when I get the first day of the month and the first day of the week on the same day, like I did on Monday of this week, it always feels extra special to me. A Double First Day feels like the planets are in alignment (oh, wait – they actually are!) and the universe is telling me that this is a perfect day for starting something.

I chose this Double First Day to start focusing on a new goal: reduce my cognitive load as much as possible and give my mind more room for creative thinking. Because if I’m going to deliver the keynote talk I want to next month, I’m going to need all the creative energy I can get, not to mention all the time I can get to actually put it together.

I’ve already felt that I was very close to losing track of all the pieces of all the projects and tasks I have in front of me, right on the edge of being overwhelmed. My subconscious was telling me I had better get myself more organized because if I kept trying to juggle a dozen kittens in my brain, eventually some of them would drop and I might not notice because I’m only focused on catching the next one.

(Yes, in this metaphor all the tasks and projects I have to juggle are represented by fluffy little kittens. When they drop, they run away, or sometimes they scratch and bite. Mostly they just mew really adorably.)

Anyway, that’s what am using as the inciting goal for this Double First Day, because the steps I take to reduce the number of choices or decisions I need to make during the day all lead to being more aggressive about how I manage my tasks and my time. And all of that has been an ongoing goal of mine anyway, as I try to improve my work habits and discipline.

Basically, the more I can get the stuff I need to do out of my head and into a system I trust—namely my task manager and calendar—then the more cognitive space I’ll have available for creative development of my presentation.

Unfortunately, I’ve been behind on keeping my task management system up to date (I use OmniFocus) over the past month or so while trying to adjust to a big shift in our office that essentially doubled my workload. I needed to make time to start reviewing my tasks and projects regularly again, which is part of what brought me to my most productive decision of the week: to make more active use of my calendar and schedule more of my choices in advance.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been filling recurring chunks of free hours on my weekly calendar with “Active Work Block” appointments. I do this in my shared Outlook calendar so anyone trying to schedule meetings with my can see me as unavailable during that period, but what I would actually work on during that time was up to me, and that was often enough. I blocked off the time and did whatever “stuff” I needed to do.

But as more and more came my way over the past few weeks with deadlines attached to them, I realized I would need to juggle my time commitment to each project or task more specifically to ensure they got done on time for the people who needed it. So I took my active scheduling up a notch and started creating appointments for myself to work on specific tasks instead of just undesignated “stuff”—especially big things I know would need an hour or more to focus on.

Previously, when I labeled time in my calendar as “Active Work Block” I was scheduling time to work, but would still have to make a decision about what that “active work” would be when I got there. Now that I took time on Double First Day to make all those decisions at once for the week ahead, it allowed me to cruise through the rest of the week by just following the schedule I set and all I had to do was stick to the clock.

I also touched on this in my most recent 100% Human newsletter but let me give you an example:

On Monday I had a meeting that led me to realize I need to revive a database project as soon as possible. Knowing I would need at least a day to get back into that, I saw a huge blank space on my calendar for Wednesday so I took it. Now instead of six hours of “active work” on Wednesday, I had this:

9:00-10:00 — Read/send/respond to email (1 hr.)
10:00-2:00 — Database reboot project (4 hr.)
2:00-3:00 — Read/send/respond to email (1 hr.)
3:00-4:00 — Gym (1 hr.)
4:00-5:00 — Email/social media wrap-up (1 hr.)
5:00-5:30 — mise-en-place for next day (30 min.)

That gave me four consecutive hours to devote to one project, and it was like a gift I gave myself of focusing only on that one thing rather than interrrupting focus throughout. I accounted for that instead by scheduling adequate time for all the other stuff that might usually interrupt or disctract me (namely email and social media) as bookends to that prime focus time. I even took it a step further and set my email to auto-respond during that 10:00 – 2:00 focused time letting colleagues know that I was not checking email and to call me if it was urgent. Then I closed my office door and got to work, and got it done. It felt great, and the kittens were much more calm.

Going forward, I can tell I’ll be relying on this system more and more. I’ve already got a couple hours scheduled for today to build out a new set of webpages that are needed next week. I know exactly when I’ll start working on that, and when I’ll stop, which means right now I’m barely even thinking about it at all.

It’s a solution that works for me, and I know it’s going to help me find time I need to think about making my keynote better. It doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop juggling kittens completely, but at least I won’t feel like I have to juggle all of them at once anymore.

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