How I stay organized and sane while managing a bonkers schedule

I'm the kind of person who's always doing ten things at once. If something comes off of my plate, it's not long before I've replaced it with one, or two, or five other things. Which—as I'm sure you can imagine—often comes back to bite me.

So that means that right now, my life looks like this: I'm in the early days of running a business (a totally new skill set for me), most of my client work is on tight deadlines, I'm two years into running a non-profit (part-time), I'm a board member at another non-profit, and I'm taking a bunch of courses to learn how to do all of this better.

And that's just the career stuff. Add life to all of that and it makes for a pretty busy week. I'm sure the only thing that's keeping me from completely losing my sh*t is that I'm not responsible for keeping any children or pets alive. Plants are about as much as I can handle.

So there's some context.

Doing eleventy billion things at once requires some planning. It requires efficiency. Because I know that if I'm not organized or efficient, I can spiral pretty quickly into stress and overwhelm. I find it calming to have a plan for moving forward that I can blindly follow. And when I do fall into stress or overwhelm, the first thing I do is make a plan. It always helps.

I know that a lot of clients and readers have equally bonkers schedules and demands, so I thought I'd share what I do to keep myself organized and sane. Which, generally speaking, I think I do pretty well. Here goes:

Handling tasks and projects

I usually have at least eight to twelve projects on the go at once, but I can usually only complete, or seriously move forward, two or three projects per week. But what do I consider a project?

A project is a temporary set of activities that has a goal and an endpoint. Like writing a grant proposal or building a bookshelf.

Projects and tasks are not the same. And projects are not the same as routines or processes. A task is a single, specific activity. When you link tasks together with a goal in mind they become a project.

So when I say I have at least eight projects on the go at once, it means that there might be dozens of tasks or activities I need to do to finish each project.

So how the heck do I handle all of that?

Write it all down

This is by far the most helpful part. My brain is basically a talking chimpanzee on cocaine, so if I don't write stuff down it'll be all "but you're forgetting about that thing that you're supposed to do! When are you going to do that? WHY AREN'T YOU PAYING ATTENTION TO ME?"

It's way easier just to write it down so that my brain can shut the hell up about it.

All of my projects and tasks get dumped out of my brain and into a list. And then they get prioritized and re-prioritized until they're finished. I'll talk more about this in the next section.

Break it into smaller pieces

If I write down something like "finish grant proposal X", that's not going to help me much. I need to break the project down into smaller pieces so that I know EXACTLY what I need to do to get the thing done. This might look something like this:

  • Review budget against proposal
  • Send comments to R
  • Finalize timeline
  • Incorporate comments from R
  • Return to R by Friday

Send myself reminders (AND EARN FLYING uNICORNS)

One of the biggest game-changers I've started using lately is Asana. There are plenty of other project management software options out there (many of them are free), but I've found that this one works well for me.

The reason it works so well is that I can keep a list of projects and their sub-tasks, and each sub-task can have a due-date. And when I complete a task, a unicorn appears! Turns out that flying unicorns are great motivators.

As long as I assign myself a due-date for a task, Asana emails me to let me know that the deadline is coming up. As someone who relies on email pretty heavily for task management, this is a genius solution for me.

Do the next thing (even if it's tiny)

The way to finish a project is to keep doing those small bits of work to move things forward every day. (How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite.)

Sometimes there's so much on my plate that it gets too overwhelming to decide what to do next. So when that happens, I break things down even more, into teeny-tiny pieces. And I figure out the smallest next thing I need to do to keep things going.

The key here is NEED. This is more of a "must do/will do" list than a "to do" list: it's the five or six things I MUST get done by the end of the day. If it absolutely doesn't need to get done next, it doesn't make the list.

And let me tell you, ticking things off my Must Do list is really satisfying. Even if it's just a tiny step forward, it feels like a real accomplishment—especially if I'm dragging my ass on something.

So in the example above, the smallest next action might be to schedule 10 minutes to do a first-pass review of the budget against the proposal. I haven't even gotten to the task itself yet, I've just scheduled some time to take a look at it.

 

Prioritizing and planning

I'm a list person. I'm also a former project manager, so I totally nerd out on planning. Like, we're talking post-it note mind map on the wall kind of nerd. But most of the time I keep it pretty simple:

Daily Priorities

At the end of each day I take a look at what's on deck for tomorrow. And then every day I start with the most important thing I need to get done for the day, before I check email or social media.

This is where the Must Do list comes in: whatever needs to get done that day makes the list; otherwise it stays off.

Weekly Priorities

Every Friday I take a look at my project list and figure out what's on deck for the following week.

If any of those projects have deadlines, I make sure that I front-load those projects earlier in the week.

Monthly/Quarterly Priorities

At the end of every month or quarter I'll look ahead and figure out what my main priorities are. I post these priorities on a sheet of paper next to my desk so that I know what I'm aiming for.

Delegating and Refusing

Delegating and REFUSING? Yep. Learning how to say No, Thank You is one of the best things I've ever done.

Delegating and refusing are both related to priorities: I need to figure out what's most important for ME to get done, and what can either be handed off to someone else or not done at all. Is it easy? Nope. Is it necessary? You betcha.

I won't lie: these were tough ones for me at first. I used to find it a lot easier and faster to do everything myself. But then once I started delegating clear and specific tasks to other people, I realized that the initial investment of time to get people oriented paid off right away.

 

Lifestyle and outlook

A system only works if you commit to it. It needs to seamlessly blend into your life. And here's some real talk: this takes time and persistence. You can design a great system for yourself, but if you don't learn to trust it, you'll still end up tossing and turning at 3am because you're afraid you forgot something.

Single-mindedness

Listen: multi-tasking is bullsh*t. I think everyone knows this by now, but we're so far down the smartphone zombie rabbit hole that it's hard to climb out.

So I trick myself into being single-minded: I turn off my email notifications, I force myself to work on my most important task before checking email or social media, I eliminate all distractions and set a timer when I'm writing.

I get A LOT more done when I eliminate distractions. And because it's easy to see the rewards, it's easy to keep it up.

The Trifecta

Life is way more pleasant when I'm well rested, well fed, and well exercised. This is even more true when I'm really busy. I make a point of going to bed early, getting a workout in, and eating well when my workload ramps up. It prevents me from throwing my system out the window.

Prioritizing perfection

I'm a recovering perfectionist and control freak. The anxiety of turning in work that wasn't perfect used to undo me. I've learned to move more towards "Done is Better than Perfect," but with a twist: some things need to be perfect, and others don't.

For example: Client work needs to be perfect. Client work deserves to be fussed over. But my blog? I do my best and then I let it go (um, no offense, dear reader!). Otherwise I wouldn't do it at all.

 

What I'm still not very good at

My system is still a work in progress. I still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night because I'm afraid I've forgotten something. I'm not always great at avoiding email first thing in the morning. Sometimes when I'm really swamped I don't really feel like exercising.

But the one thing I always, always do—especially when I'm overwhelmed—is to try to get a bird's-eye view of my work. And I do that by writing it all down. Knowing what's in front of me calms me down, and it's always worth the time it takes to get everything down on paper. That's the foundation of my system, and it's been like that since I was a kid. So when it gets really swampy, I just go back to basics.

 

Want to improve your goal-setting and productivity? Join me and other academic writers in The Studio:


What does your system look like? Any new insights from seeing what I do to keep myself organized? Tell me in the comments!