Did you know that to plan is to design? The definition of design involves planning and arranging. As a visual designer and illustrator, I invest a majority of my creative work planning various spaces. Books, web sites, magazines, annual reports, social media cover images, logos, and signage are just a few of the graphic environments I create for clients. But the most important thing I design is my time. Because if I don’t take the time to design my months, days and weeks, things will flow quickly into chaos. Deadlines will not get met. Work projects take over the time set aside for family and friends.
Time management is a huge topic in our culture, and it’s big business. From apps and books on the subject to courses and mastermind groups, tools and techniques for managing tasks and projects both personally and professionally are proliferating.
As creatives, we live by deadlines. Being able to manage time on a project is necessary to our livelihood. So often a project takes longer than we planned for and time seems to get away from us. Or the client adds new items to the scope of work. Or the neighbor has an emergency and needs us to take care of his dog until he comes home. How do we manage it?
I am not writing this to offer another system or list of how-tos. Rather, I offer insights from my own experience that might make your schedule easier to design and manage. I offer no promises or guarantees, but only an approach that has worked for me and many others I’ve shared it with.
Manage things, not time.
First, we cannot actually manage time. Time is the one resource that we each have the same amount of. There is no way we can save time or make time. We can spend time, but it’s not a renewable resource. When it’s gone, we cannot get it back again.
What we can manage are the things we allow to occupy our time. That alone is the most fundamental insight I can offer, and the foundation for how I steward my personal and professional projects and to-do lists. It’s like designing a space: I have this much of it, this is the content I need to include, and now how will I arrange everything in the space I’m given?
Second, it’s not how much you do that makes you more productive, it’s what you do. The idea is to do the right things every day that will move you forward on the road to accomplishing your goals and meeting your deadlines.
The Brain Dump
If you’re like me, you have a lot of ideas, and you know it’s hard to remember everything. I’ve learned that getting them all down on paper removes the stress of having to remember them. The paper remembers them for me. (I only need to remember where I put the paper). So I do a sort of brain dump every week on a page in my planner.
My planner is old-school, but it works for me because the physical action of writing instead of typing helps me process and sort my list. To dump, I list everything I can think of, personal and professional. It’s important to think about your life as an integrated whole — a gestalt — when you brain-dump. I don’t spend too long in making my list — 10-15 minutes is usual. I borrowed this dumping process from David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
Sort and Organize
Once I have my list, I categorize and sort tasks and goals both on paper and in a digital management tool. I use Nozbe for this at the moment. I used to use Omni Focus, which is similar, but Nozbe syncs and integrates with other digital tools including Evernote. I prefer to sort by life role, then by goal or project. Within life roles I place goals and projects, and into goals and projects I place actions and tasks. I keep track of things on paper as well as in Nozbe.
The concept of life roles makes sense to me. I gleaned this idea from several actual and virtual mentors, including Andy Stanley, Michael Hyatt, and Daren Laws. Where many people have just 2 categories: business and personal, I define my life roles and slot projects and actions into one or more role. My current life roles are: Creator, Business Owner, Teacher, Homeowner, Family Member, and Friend. For each role I’ve laid out some big, hairy audacious goals (BHAGs). The tasks and goals from my brain dump sessions are added to existing projects or become new projects under one of those roles.
Life roles change with the seasons of your life. At one point I was a student. At another point I was a parent. I am still a parent, but since my child is now an adult, the role of parent has changed to family member. I also have another role of personal stewardship or foundation — taking care of myself. It’s in that area where I work on daily habits that are fundamental to everything else, things like exercise, drawing, and rest. If I don’t take care of myself, I won’t be able to sustain my creative energy.
Develop Daily Habits
I have developed the habit of reading and reflection. I realize this is a luxury that many don’t have, but I work for myself, so I am the master of my schedule and don’t need to be out the door and on the road most mornings. I have friends who do their planning and reflections in the evening as the day closes down. I begin most days with a mug of coffee and 15-30 minutes of reading, reflection and journaling. This allows me to begin the day in a reflective, thoughtful mode. During this time I plan out the day ahead of me, pulling actions from my weekly overviews and projects onto my daily actions list, and creating a “roadmap” that will get me to my intended destination at the end of the day.
Block Your Time
Another of my time-design strategies is time blocking, which I discuss in more detail here. I divide my days into 3 chunks: morning, afternoon and evening. I take care of errands, appointments and emails in the afternoon when I’m least creative. Mornings and evenings are peak creative times for me, so those blocks are occupied by client and personal project work.
Tie Actions To Goals
You will be able to manage projects and actions if you understand why they’re important. Every goal and task should be tied to a reason. If there is no reason to do it, don’t. Remove it from your list. Have you ever noticed that goals you once thought were important but never got around to become less important as the seasons of your life change? It’s no problem to simply let them go if they no longer support your Why.
Your Why is that big thing you’re all about — what’s most important to you for your life. It’s that one big thing that makes everything else worth it. For some it’s to be able to travel. For others, it’s to be able to retire and start writing a blog or a book. For others, it’s about having freedom or advancing a social cause. You’ve got a Why or two somewhere. Take a few moments to consider what your ideal future looks like, and you’ll find it if you don’t know it already.
Guard Your Time
My final insight is to be careful to protect your time. Don’t allow insignificant and irrelevant bits suck your energy. Say no often. You cannot do everything, and you do not need to take on projects and commitments based on the expectations of others. Guard your family and personal time against your professional time, and vice versa.
I don’t believe in balancing work and personal time, but rather in integrating the two (that’s another reason for taking the life roles approach). I have one life which is made up of everything I choose to include in it. I need to protect all of my time against intruding tasks, expectations and requests that don’t fit my Why, or that drain me. I suspect you do, as well.
As we mature, and as opportunities to be connected to the whole world increase, life gets more complicated. There is more that demands our attention. We are enticed constantly with distractions and interruptions that can take us off course. The need to have a purposefully-designed life is obvious.
Getting things done so that you can create meaningful work, craft the life you desire and achieve your goals requires that you do the right things every day, and don’t do the wrong ones. Doing the right things requires an approach and effort that frees you to focus on what makes the most sense for your life and work.
Alvalyn Lundgren is the owner of Alvalyn Creative, an award-winning consultancy providing visual branding, design for marketing, and narrative & conceptual illustration. Her clients include CSUN, City of Los Angeles, Epson, Baxalta US, Southern California Edison, MPSCC, AHMA-NCH and SITE SoCal. Her work has appeared in Graphic Design USA and Create.