June 1, 2023

The No-nonsense Guide to Getting Your Shit Together

The guide you badly need to manage your time and get your shit together.

  • January 3, 2016
  • 13 min read
The No-nonsense Guide to Getting Your Shit Together

I have spent the last 12 months outside the 9-to-5 work environment, travelling, trying out new stuffs and starting out new ventures. Apart from the travel-envy comments hurled at me, most friends told me they wish they had my carefree schedule, not having to sit in traffic so early in the morning, and having more time to spend with friends and loved ones. While it’s true that those things are the ultimate reward for leaving the hamster wheel, I must say we all still need structure in our lives, even when we don’t have a rigid daily work schedule. An organized life will still help you more in the struggle to make your wishes come true, whether to simply have more time for your loved ones, or to realize a lifelong dream secretly stashed somewhere in the corner of your life’s attic. It will also prepare you to face unexpected crises.  

What can be a better timing to make some changes than the new year? We do not need a new year to start something new, we don’t even need a new year resolution, but it sure is a nice timing.

To keep it simple enough for anyone to follow without having the excuse to put it off another year, let me propose to map it out to only four things: work, self, home, and other. “Other” can refer to other people/family members or other projects/dreams outside your day job that you wish you have time to work on – and, after all these years, you are not quite willing to let go of yet.
I survived corporate work with punishing work schedule, and all bosses always offer a one-word solution that never helps: “Prioritize.” Unfortunately we all have to do it. Most parents with young children will automatically become an expert in prioritizing because they are forced to do it since kiddos’ wellbeing is at stake. Only you know the best way to prioritize your work, but first, you need to change your mindset:

  1. Everything seems important for your career. Also, you don’t want to say “no” to your friends. This is when you need to listen to Steve Jobs: “When I was 17 I read a quote: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right,’” From then on, Jobs would ask himself, if this were the last day of his life would he want to spend it doing what he was about to do? Prioritize. 
  1. Somehow you keep running out of time. Then you need to focus – cut distractions out (see “headphones” below). This diagram borrowed from “7 habits” is a useful guide to prioritizing. Be brave. Get rid of all items in the lower quadrants. By the first month of the new year you will feel better.

By the way, focusing and concentrating IS hard. Read the challenges and the hacks here.
Just to be clear: it’s not just about saving time, it’s not even about being productive or looking busy. It’s about being effective with the least possible time, whether you have a 9-to-5 job or not. Some work hacks and tools that you might have heard of, but never got around to trying out:

  1. Eat the frog first – “frog” is the “Things you don’t want to do, but actually need to do.” – this is the first daily step in prioritizing. Mark Twain said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
  2. Set the email/SMS/WA rules and stick to it:
    – No emails or texts/SMS/WA first thing in the morning – you should have time to think and plan, not react.
    – Use your filters to manage spams and newsletters – silence those Whatsapp groups.
    – Use the three Ds: delete, delegate, and dump (into folders) – don’t let a huge inbox make you feel out of control.
  3. Headphones at work – If your company doesn’t give out headphones that we need to do conference calls already, invest in a pair.  Don’t use it to listen to anything. Just put them on and it becomes your “Do not disturb” sign.  Focus and blaze through your lists like a boss.
  4. Create a one-page “dashboard” where everything in your job description are visible, complete with rhythms (such as monthly or weekly regional report) and names of designated person-in-charge, then color-code and arrange it in clusters in a way that show how each part of your work connects with each other. Then put the rhythms on your calendars with reminders.
  5. Run efficient meetings so you get enough cred to escape those time-hogs. Here are some hacks.  Try to say no to meetings or conference calls beyond 9-to-5.  Grow the courage to leave ineffective conference calls.

There are people we call “tai-chi masters” for their ability to shift work to others (this is where we do the catch-and-sweep-to-the-side arm tai-chi movement) and it’s understandable, if we don’t want to grow a reputation as one. But you have to strive for a balance, so if you’re confused about prioritizing, go back and listen to the Steve Jobs speech
This should be on top of the list, not second to work, but we seldom remember to take care of our own self. Self-care is not limited to beauty and wellness. The most important stuffs first:

  1. Physical Health. “Feeling healthy is different than feeling that you’re not sick yet” a friend once told me – the latter will get you prepped to get help for your ailments before they grow into a condition. Medical jujitsu aside, do you put more fresh produce than processed food in your grocery cart? Do you drink enough water? Do you always have a restful night sleep? Are you taking those daily 10,000 steps or do you sit more than you stand? Is your refrigerator filled with processed food that have passed their expiration date? Lifestyle and health is closely linked, so start making your changes here and it will be a sound foundation to improve your health. Check out the NYT simple exercise guide with app.  Use Endomondo in your smartphone to schedule walks or run. Of course, if you’re still addicted to sugar and/or smoking cigarettes, then all of the above changes are pointless. It’s like trying to make investments when you have a huge credit card debt.
  2. Legal & Finances. Speaking of investments and debt, do you know what your net worth is?  If you have kids, do you have a will drawn already? Have you got all important papers scanned and organized in one place? C’mon – scan them now, it’ll only take 30 minutes: deeds of ownership, ID cards, diplomas, car and insurance papers. After that, you know what to do: get the one-pager sheets done for all your bank accounts, investments, insurances, tax ID, and monthly payments from credit cards, other debts, to cellphone and data charges to the kids’ schools and lessons. You can request to get credit card statements emailed to you just before payday so you can time the payment when there’s enough fund. Then feed it to your calendar –with reminders, of course. When you know all your assets and all your liabilities, then you will know your net worth, unless you do know, you are not in control. 

    Want to know where your hard-earned money go? There are easy-to-use expense tracker apps like the Dollarbird (Android). After you figure out your monthly expense profile, you can check your present financial health and what steps to be taken to get to your financial goals.

  3. Your “thing”. Sometimes your passion is not the same as your day job so they got a bit neglected. You know what to do already; now get it done. Buy another external HD or several flash disks and store all your digital and digitized photos or artworks so you can work on them later – or someday. List the places you want to visit, research it, and plan it all out. Work on your personal blog. Start writing, true stories or fiction, prose or poetry. Rewrite your bio. Coordinate your wardrobe. Get a personal trainer to melt your tummy or sculpt your muscles.

Some of the above need serious effort. If you invest your energy in building good habits, they will be a rock-solid foundation to good time management and getting your life’s to-do list all crossed out. Aim for new habits that simplify and enrich your life, then use this new year as the momentum to start. Godspeed.
Women’s lives and minds are complicated to begin with. Then there’s the home turf that we feel is our responsibility. We want our home to be perfect, complete, and clean. First things first: let go of that inner perfectionist and carve more time to do more meaningful things. After that, get rid of clutter – there’s no better timing than new year to let go of the stuffs you don’t need and the past that’s weighing you down. Be brave and get those boxes ready. Declutter your wardrobe, your shoe rack, piles of magazines, photo albums (digital or analog), gadgets, the kitchen, the bookshelves, the garage (if you have one) and your refrigerator.  For most of us, decluttering is a lifelong struggle, but it’s essential to keep our lives sane.

For every one minute spent on planning, you save 10 minutes. Start a new planning routine on Sundays, then. Other key things around the house:

  1. Simplify – have home-care routines that make sense. Of course some aspect like house cleaning will need to be more rigorous if you have kids and pets. Visualize life with no maids or drivers: one simplified enough so you can handle it (with the help of family members).

    President Obama simplifies his routine by having a wardrobe consisting of boring dark-colored suits. He saves his energy for making decisions tougher than clothing selection. We can simplify our life through planning and by getting help. There’s Gojek to find you cleaning help, and for other stuffs there’s Diana your virtual assistant. I haven’t tried these services but I will if I need to. I love the Go-Food and the HappyFresh grocery shopping service available on our smartphones; I hope it will be available in cities other than Jakarta too. Have those 2-days service folks help you with your laundry (they charge by the weight). “What if they lost our blouse or ruin it?” my mom asked. If you love a piece of clothing then wash it yourself.  But you have to let the rest go and free your precious time or brain power.

  2. “A place for everything so you can have everything in place”. I am messy, but my home is not because my maid knows exactly where to place every piece of clothing and paper. If something doesn’t have a place then we will designate one.  This is key to decluttering and keeping your home clutter-free. It’s totally OK to have clutter around the house, but the less you have the more in control you will get.

This is where you expand the planning to other members of your family. With almost every person having their own Google mail account, you can use Google Calendar to coordinate schedules.  Or iCal, if you’re an Apple family. Family calendars, in the form of digital, paper, or dry-erase whiteboard, is central to your sanity.

If you are a parent of young children, pick a weekend to plan and focus on the Cs: calendar, carpool (who needs to be where, when, and who’s taking them there and home), and cooking.  Limit your kids’ activities, band together with other parents, and always seek to delegate.  If you still want to prepare your own food, consider these services: ready-to-cook meal, online meal planner tool, and Indonesian-based healthy meal planners that will help set you up for a month.  There’s also my favorite recipe app, Cookpad, that will capture the ingredients and turn them into tick-able shopping list, but there’s other similar tools that even allow recipe sharing.

“Other” also refers to your long-suffering personal projects or dreams that are close to your heart (also see “Your thing” above. If you think you need to set aside time to work on them, by all means designate a one-pager, or an entire notebook to capture all these so they will not be forgotten. Better if you manage to schedule the next step.

Just do it, now
By now you got the mantras all lined up: “Just say no,” “First things first,” “declutter,” “simplify,” “prioritize” and “focus”. You would want to have a one-pager or dashboard for everything. You will use this year-end slowdown to digitize stuffs, focus on Quadrant II of your lives, and work on your lists. If you need more time to do it, then stop doing the stuffs in Quadrant IV: limit chats and social media, stop watching TV. Hang this manifesto on the wall. It reminds you that life is short and should be spent on things that you care for. You can do that with focus. Then follow the manifesto. Or wait for the next opportunity. Hopefully not for another year.

Control Diva” is the original author of this column. She is a Jakarta-based gal who is still trying to control her desire to control most aspects of her life. So far she managed to free half of her schedule to slow-read fun, insightful content like Magdalene’s, and to share stuffs she learned from her visits to wondrous places on earth. If you have some tips on how to live your life like a boss, send your piece to [email protected].

Editor:  Magdalene
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