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#lifegoals

2000 740 Austin Barrow

#lifegoals

A couple of weeks ago, I said goodbye to a friend. As I type the word friend, it immediately falls flat. There are so many other words that would better describe our relationship; confidant, advocate, mentor, and eventually collaborator.

I received the news of his passing on a Saturday afternoon, where I was commiserating myself over the abysmal performance of the Arkansas Razorback football team, sitting on my living room couch. The news wasn’t surprising. We had long separated our regular morning coffee sessions due to his illness. The separation being long enough that seeing his face and the recall of our time together hit me deep in the chest.

As tears began to fall down my cheeks, my wife grew immediately concerned. She knows I’m a crier of high renown, and although the game was going poorly, it wasn’t that bad. I couldn’t speak. I tried, but I couldn’t get words over the top of my tongue. The words were stuck at the top of my throat, and I knew if I spoke them out loud, I would most certainly not be able to hold back the flood that I could feel welling up behind my eyes. It wasn’t the vocal acknowledgment of the passing but a physical exertion to vocalize, which I knew would prevent the hold I had on the flood.

I laid down in the bedroom for a bit. I needed a moment, a moment to recollect. The memories came flooding in, moments I hadn’t thought of in years. Conversations, jokes, stories, and silly coffee cups were racing around in my head. Work that seemed so important at the time, forgotten with some distance, was suddenly refreshed in my washy memories. Books. This man taught me how essential books could be when you find yourself awash on an island full of tasks that you have no idea how to complete.

Now over the age of forty, there is a generation of disappearing friends and family beginning to climb in number. It’s a cycle of life that we all go through, I suppose, but when you first enter the fray, it’s a little jolting. Like the increasing lines on my face, I occasionally look up and think, “What the heck happened?”

Now when that thought comes up, I see the lines, think of old friends, and the answer comes, life, my friend. Live it well and live it fully, and when you shuffle off this mortal coil, you will leave behind more smiles than tears.

5 Steps to Creating a Work Life Balance To Do List

4288 2848 Austin Barrow

5 Steps to Creating a Work Life Balance To Do List

A couple of years ago, I was running a small nonprofit startup with eight employees, and we were ramping up to hire nearly four hundred people in the coming three months. I mean, how in the hell do you do that and keep your head on straight? I knew that my job was fundamentally about to change, and I needed to refine my life so that I could keep up with the firehose of information that was about to be permanently attached to my inputs.

It took some time, but I eventually developed a system that allowed me to find a balance between work and virtually everything else. It was a task sheet that showed me what my priorities were, week by week. I started by attempting to divvy up my day to day life into categories that I could rely on for the coming year. What were the significant activities that occupied my time? The best tool I had at the time was my calendar.

Start with your Calendar

I’m an organizer by nature. I like to keep notes of conversations, meetings, and I am very much on point when it comes to recording my daily calendar. If this is a foreign habit, I highly encourage you to adopt it.

I initially started a calendar while in graduate school at the University of Arkansas. It was the first time in my life where I could no longer hold all of the essential dates in my head for long periods. Now that could have been due to the notion that other people’s notable times would directly affect me, or it could have been because I was rapidly approaching thirty and my brain was dedicated to other tasks. Life was increasing in busyness, and I needed an outlet.

The Palm Pilot had recently been introduced as the best piece of tech to keep your to do’s and calendars in a readily accessible place. As much as I wanted to jump on board with the latest tech, I was forced to use the old school method, food and rent were a bit higher on the priority list. However, if I was going to do a pen and paper, I wanted to make sure it was of quality. I remember buying my first Moleskine annual calendar. It was red, the same as the school colors. I always relished the moment they arrived in the mail, and I began my entry process. It was a great way to review my previous year and plan the vital things in my life for the year to come.

I have since assimilated into the Apple universe and have used a good deal of my allotted cloud memory to hold on to years of calendar items. As soon as a meeting is set, I book it. If someone proposes a meeting with a date and time, I book it. I like, very much, to be in complete control of my time. I have been known to be a bit of jerk when scheduled appointments are interrupted by unplanned duties. It’s a character flaw, and I’m working on it … as scheduled.

Find the Categories of your Time

With years of data to lean on, I discovered that the majority of my time was divided into four major parts, family, stakeholders (my board members), employees, and volunteer work. So, I created categories in my calendar, allowing me to color-code each of the groups to get a good look of where I was spending my time. Visualization is an essential function when you are looking for shortcuts to creating quality tools. As an example, I’ve got a beautiful array of colors painted all over my screen at this moment as Grammarly informs me of all the mistakes I am making while writing this down. There really should be a way to turn that off and allow a free flow of ideas to be expressed uninterrupted, but I digress.

Once everything is colorized, you will begin to notice the patterns. Some of these patterns may be self-evident, but others are not. For instance, I noticed that I picked up my kids infrequently from school. With both myself and my wife working full time, this was going to be an issue from time to time. As a result, I would try to schedule personal work items during that time of the day, in the event, I had to go pick up the munchkins. Also, I saw very clearly the amount of volunteering I was committed to regularly. I knew that it was not sustainable, as I saw the interview lines stretching around the block. I had to make some adjustments to where I could spend that time, but I didn’t want to give it all up completely. So, I prioritized the more critical items and let go of those I knew would be better performed by volunteers who could fully commit to the cause.

Creating the Weekly Task Sheet

Now that you have defined the essential categories of your life, the creation of the task sheet is quite simple. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into four sections of equal size. We read left to right and top to bottom. So, I decided to list the most critical category in the top-left corner, LIFE. Secondarily, in the top-right corner, I labeled STAKEHOLDERS. The bottom-left corner held EMPLOYEES and bottom-right VOLUNTEER. With each area defined and sheet at the ready, I began to list every item I could yank from my caffeine-infused brain.

This is actually the most challenging part of the exercise. All too often, when I see people’s list, they contain phrases or shorthand that expresses an idea about a task, not the words that physically represent what you need to do to complete the job. When making your list, be specific. Do you need to think about an idea that you’ve been noodling? Don’t just write down the theme of the concept. Write specifically, “Spend time thinking about …” This is an essential step. How many times have you gathered up the two dozen scraps of paper you left around your work area, glanced at a sheet of paper and thought, “I wonder what I thought when I wrote this down?”

Now that you have your list, are you scared? I was because it was dauntingly long. Your first one is always impressive. It’s supposed to be because you just committed to a mind dump on the boss level. However, now that we are through that bit, it’s time for the next step.

Automate, Assign, Act, Omit

Go through each of these items and decide which of the three A’s you can assign. All too often, we believe that we are necessary to complete any given piece of work correctly. We are our own bottleneck in the completion of the task in many instances. Don’t get in the way of your work. Find a way to concentrate on the work that matters. Declutter the brain and you will begin to silence that nagging SOB that keeps whispering, “Yeah, but what about …”

Can you automate the task? In today’s world, there is an app for damn near everything (a word of caution, you can over automate any task by adding unforeseen work … choose carefully). Is there a system that can be put in place that better serves your time? Take bills as an example. I used to spend hours every week balancing my checkbook, reviewing all of my bills by mail, and logging into several different accounts online to make payments. All of this is unnecessary. By spending the same amount of time in a single week, I automated all of my payments to a credit card with rewards. I log on once a month, make a payment … done. The internet could be your friend here, and talk to others and see how they have simplified the regular tasks in their life.

Can you assign the task? Not everyone has assistants or manages other employees. However, if you do, is this work they can integrate into their day? Many times I have found that managers are duplicating work of their subordinates. In other instances, I have seen people that have no idea why the heck an assistant is necessary. Depending upon your position, it could become an essential part of your workflow. There are even services available online for personal assistants that work virtually on tasks at your behest. Man is it a crazy world now or what?

Is this one you have to do yourself? Then act. Make this list as short as possible. If you are going to commit to any given task, ensure that holds value for your time in the given category. 

Lastly, you have items that you can genuinely omit. These may seem hard to locate, but sincerely ask yourself with each task, “Do I have to, want to, or need to do this?” If you can answer no to any of those questions, it’s destined for the omit pile.

Once you have completed this part of the exercise, it’s time to start over. Remake your list only adding items from your “Act” list. Your refined list may still look a little daunting. I know mine did. However, if you look at each category individually, hopefully, you see that as a whole, things look a lot more doable.

Rules of the List

Okay, so I made up some rules here based on a variety of other thinkers and leaders I researched over the years. You don’t have to follow each one, but I think you will be a happier person if you do!

  1. Don’t strike through items when they are complete; highlight them. The beauty behind this simple pivot in to-do lists is that each week when you remake your list, you will see a colorful wash of doneness. It’s psychologically rewarding and will help you feel that accomplishment that we are all seeking.
  2. Remake your list every week. Make this the first thing you do before any other work is sniffed coming through your door. Don’t check email, return a text, concentrate.
  3. Copy everything undone on last week’s list on to this weeks list, but go through the automate, assign, act and omit process again. Make sure this requires your personal touch.
  4. If you didn’t complete it last week, add a number. If this is the second time it’s appeared, add a two. Keep doing this every week.
  5. Define a cutoff. If you’ve got a number seventeen next to one of your to-do’s, then insert a little reality. You haven’t completed this task in more than four months.
  6. Finally, the purpose here is to refine your time and provide clarity and diligence to your day. No tool is useful if it complicates your process.

A Creative Soap Box

600 300 Austin Barrow

A Creative Soap Box

Whenever you ask an artist to do something for free, there is a cost. All too often we undervalue the contribution of people who work creatively, especially if the person providing services doesn’t do so as a full-time gig. If you are a part-time or hobbyist creative that happened upon this article, I hope I can provide you with a helpful little tool to say no. By the way, no is my favorite word.

However, if you are not a creative, but someone in the hiring business, then don’t leave yet, because I think you and I have a couple of things to discuss so that you can have a better outcome on your projects and maintain a good relationship with those friends you lean on more often than you would like.

So, first of all, is it okay to ask people to help you out for free? Of course, it is, but rest assured that they will be asking the same of you (artist take note!). I know what your thinking, no problem! I’d love to help out in your next art project thingy. But here’s the rub. I don’t want your help with the art project. You’re an accountant. I need you to do my taxes for free. Or, maybe you’re an attorney, marketing executive, or own a grocery store. I need legal advice, free marketing, or some freakin’ food because do you know how many people ask me to work for free? When you think of the ask in those terms, does it change the initial question? Are you comfortable in giving away your work for someone else’s financial gain?

Secondly, it’s generally a big no-no to ask people to provide free services for a commercial endeavor. Again, going back to the scenario’s above, you wouldn’t think about asking your local television station to provide you with air time for free without some sort of return of goods or services. Always, and I mean always offer something in exchange when you are making money off of other peoples work.

Lastly, you are not doing anyone a favor by asking them to work for free. I hear this quite a bit. Well, think of the experience you will gain if you participate. It will be something for your portfolio! No, it won’t. I already have a portfolio of work, and that is why you are asking for help. Favors never come in the form of free labor when the other party is profiting.

Okay, high horse set aside, there are appropriate times to ask for unpaid help, and that is for a cause. If you are working toward something greater than yourself, raising money for a nonprofit or attempting to call attention to an unmet need, then, by all means, ask. However, that’s volunteering, and you have to be okay with a no. There is no difference in asking people for free labor than asking them for money. In fact, I might argue you are asking for more than money. You are requesting an artist’s most valuable and well-guarded asset … their time.

So, for you artists out there that deal with these kinds of asks, I have a little something I’d like to share. This is the typical response that I have worked on perfecting over the years. It used to be much more high spirited and perhaps a little bit snarky, but I’ve made attempts to soften it over the years. Feel free to copy and adapt for your own use, and good luck out there!

First of all, thank you so much for thinking of me for your project. I’ve worked very hard to get better at my craft, and I appreciate the recognition in the ask. However, I am not going to be able to help you this time. I understand that funds are tight, but unfortunately, I carefully guard my time and my commitments to make sure I can deliver the absolute best for anyone that hires me for my services. Should you receive additional funding in support of paying for these services, I would love to reconsider. Until then, good luck on your project and I hope you will keep me in mind for the next one.

Keep it simple, concise, and personable. There’s no need to explain further because most people will understand, and if you are worried about burning bridges or upsetting a potential client (we artist tend to be people-pleasers) don’t. If they are not paying, they are not your client, and if this polite no upsets them, you likely don’t want them as a client anyway.