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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.
Lisa Vickery 2005 in the painted desert

I Missed My Mom’s Birthday … Oh Boy!

2048 1536 Austin Barrow

I Missed My Mom's Birthday ... Oh Boy!

Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a momma’s boy. I love my mother, and I’ve been known to get a bit sappy about it, like writing a whole article :). However, I won’t bury the lead here because I think it’s important to admit that this is as much as an apology as it is a love letter to my mom. See, I messed up … big time. A couple of days ago was my mother’s birthday, and I didn’t call her. I know, I know, but perhaps this will make up for it a little bit.

I was raised primarily by women. Between my mother and two grandmothers, I’m confident I spent more time with women than men through my budding years as a growing boy. This is by no means unique, as a child of divorce, and skyrocketing divorce rates in the late seventies and eighties, I’m pretty sure my upbringing will have a familiar tone.

Now, the words of Tyler Durden from Chuck Palahniuk’s book and David Fincher’s film Fight Club might be echoing in your ears, “We’re a generation of men raised by women.” Although we may have different points in bringing up this idea. I’m not attempting to highlight the negative, just as I’m not an imaginary person living in the mind of a broken man (I know SPOILERS). Perhaps we men are all a little better off because of our estrogen filled upbringing.

The first memory I can conjure of my mother is from somewhere around the age of two or three. It’s super foggy, but I think I remember it primarily because I got in trouble. I had learned a new word, and I knew that it had been labeled a bad word. I didn’t know what made it a bad word, because it was just a word. So, the only way to figure it out was to toss it out into the world and see what happened.

There was a narrow space between our refrigerator and the wall where I knew I could squeeze in between. I was preparing for the worst by barricading my rear end into a corner, that way it couldn’t be reached should this experiment go badly. Yes, I was spanked, and those of us who were are better off for it … just ask my kids … in another twenty years.

I waited for the house to quiet down. I believe it was early in the afternoon because the light coming into the kitchen window was bright. The kitchen would glow in late afternoons shining off of all that Formica and linoleum. Mom was always an avid (i.e., compulsive) cleaner and still is to this day.

I ran my tongue around in my mouth and then swallowed. I wanted to make sure my use of the word was precise for mom to understand, as she was the only one at home. I placed both hands behind my back, just in case she could reach through the walls, took a deep breath, and screamed, “SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!” with all the effort my small body could produce.

At first, there was nothing but silence. Then I heard footsteps coming, searching. Oh man, this was a bad idea. I immediately regretted what I had done. This was a bad word. I didn’t know why, but I knew for sure that I was going to be in trouble. I don’t know how long it took her to find me, but she did.

The funny thing is no matter how hard I attempt to strain that memory, fill in the gaps, I don’t remember how I was punished, or if I was punished at all. What I do remember is my mother’s face. She was stern, perhaps disappointed, but in my memories eye, all I can see is her pretty, long, straight, red hair. It was backlit by the sun from the kitchen window. She was beautiful, although perhaps a little upset.

We spent a lot of time together over the years between that moment and the day I left for college at eighteen. She drove me to my dorm and helped me unload my things from our small Toyota pickup truck. I was full of excitement and anticipation, but she knew that an era had passed. She tried really hard, but she ended up putting on her sunglasses to hide the tears before she left. You know I read somewhere that you spend more than eighty percent of the time you will ever spend with your parents between birth and the age of eighteen. I think of this often when my kids ask me to read a book, play a video game, or go out to eat. Whatever else I was planning on doing seems a little less significant.

I still hold a clear memory of that moment on my first day of college. She’s standing in my dorm room door frame, red hair glowing in the fluorescent lights. It’s shorter now. She’s got dark sunglasses on, and she’s trembling a little bit. She had already left once, and I noticed the tears coming then. Now she had returned having intended to give me some walking around money before she left. That was when I knew that an era had passed. Seeing your mom cry is never easy and is guaranteed to make me turn on the waterworks. My roommate and I were old friends, thank goodness. Would have been odd to meet a new guy with dewy eyes.

Mom’s my rock. She always told me to follow my passions and has been supportive of every crazy path I have taken in this life. She’s a strong lady full of love and a fiery spirit … I mentioned the red hair, right?

Happy belated birthday to a sweet lady … with an imperfect son.

Is Broken Candy Less Sweet?

1024 768 Austin Barrow

Is Broken Candy Less Sweet?

Last night I sat on a bench with my daughter waiting on some take out. She desperately wanted to use my phone to occupy her mind while we waited, but I insisted that we talk instead, and boy did she take me to school.

She came along for the ride because I have the doors off of my Jeep. I know it’s not my winning personality and I’m okay with that. She likes loud music and wind in her hair, and if she can have both at the same time, she smiles. So, how could I possibly deny her the opportunity?

I’m not sure, but I would guess that her favorite thing about going to this particular restaurant is the fortune cookies. I always loved these as a kid, but as an adult, I’m a little less excited. Frankly, I think they usually taste similar to a lightly sugared piece of cardboard. I even have this practice where I don’t select the fortune cookie, just in case I don’t agree with the destiny typed out inside. I wait until everyone else has chosen their cookie, and then I take the last one. This way, I can still eat it because we all know that the prescribed premonition will come true if you eat the cookie.

She grabs a handful, one for each of the four of us. It’s going to be a bit of a wait, but you don’t want to forget dessert. As we are sitting and chatting, she accidentally drops one of them on the floor, and it breaks … tragedy.

All of a sudden, this cookie is no longer a viable dessert. It’s packaged, so it didn’t get dirty. The twenty-four inches between her hand and the floor did not alter the chemical make up of the treat. It tastes the exact same. The only alteration is a small fissure exposing the little piece of paper that lays out her absolute future.

How often does this happen to us? You open up that KitKat bar and accidentally break one of the bars along the length instead of the edge. Staring at that enormous round lollipop, nearly tasting it before you open the package, but it’s spoiled when it bangs against the counter and chips before you had a chance to eat it. And the absolute worst (at least for me) is opening a package of Pepperidge Farm Cookies, Geneva of course, and finding out they have been crushed by the milk on the ride home. Just thinking about it makes me die a little inside.

Why? That was my question for the little lady whose face had gone long looking at the fortune cookie sitting on the floor. “Don’t you think it will taste the same?” I asked. She replied, “Of course, but the experience will be different.” Yes, it will.

How many times have we set up an idea in our mind that things will work out a specific way, and we have inserted disappointment before we have even had the chance to have the experience we were planning? The experience will taste just as good, just a little different. This only becomes more important, the sweeter the experience. Man, I do this to myself all the freakin’ time.

Looking at my cute little life coach with dumbfounded realization, she giggles, picks up the cookie, and goes back to telling me about the kids on the playground. The cookie was eaten later that evening. The fortune was told and forgotten, and the experience was still as sweet.

So the next time I reach for a sweet treat in life, I’m going to enjoy it no matter what.