Maya was an interior designer who had recently started her own business. Her excellent work got her lots of referrals, but she had a problem that was driving her nuts. She offered each prospect she met with a formal detailed proposal. She’d come back from a meeting with a new prospect all fired up, her head overflowing with ideas.
She’d write: “1. Prepare the proposal for the Smith job” on her to-do list for the next day. Then she’d add: “2. Finish drawings for the Jones job; 3. Get supplies; 4. Attend seminar; et cetera.” She’d have 12 or 15 things on her to-do list for the day.
The next morning, Maya would sit down at 9 to get the proposal done. At 3:30 p.m., she’d still be working on it. It would take her almost the entire day to finish, and she’d never get to the rest of her to-do list.
This happened over and over again until she started to dread meeting prospective clients. She would beat herself up for what she considered her inefficiency. She’d schedule two hours to get it done, thinking that this would force her to finish sooner. But every single time, it would take her all day long. She was experiencing blind, relentless frustration because she was in total denial.
The turning point when Maya realized that denying the truth didn’t actually change the reality. She had to deal with the facts——as they were, not as she thought they should be. She realized that for the time being, whenever she had to do a proposal, she would have to schedule seven hours to do it.
Obviously, as a business owner, this was not going to work in the long run. So now, what could she do about it? Her options were: 1) Could she stop writing proposals? 2) Could she find a way to streamline the process using templates and standard wording? or 3) Could she hire someone else to do this?
Maya chose to stop offering proposals to her prospects. The majority didn’t care. Seeing her portfolio and reading some of her glowing referrals were good enough for them, and she continued to land the same number of clients.
The point is, it wasn’t until Maya accepted the reality of how long things took that she could begin to solve the problem. If she had continued to bang her head against the wall of, “I should be able to do this in an hour or two,” she never would have faced the problem head-on.
* * *
Angela’s husband left for work at 5 a.m., so it fell to Angela to get their three kids ready and off to school. Every morning was a trauma. Billy ate unbelievably slowly, Robbie needed to be awakened six times before he actually gained consciousness, and Becky always realized her outfit was completely wrong just as they headed out the door. Everybody was miserable, and despite being constantly rushed, they never once got out the door on time.
Angela had tried to get Billy to pick up the pace at breakfast, but he’d get sick. She’d tell Robbie every night, “Next morning, get up right away!” She’d tried to convince Becky that her clothes were fine. Becky would break into tears, and then the ensuing scene would cause the delay. Laying out her clothes the night before didn’t help either. At her wits’ end, Angela called me.
The breakthrough came when we looked at each one of the kids individually. Billy ate slowly. That was a given. Angela had to build enough time into the morning routine so that he could finish his breakfast. It took Robbie half an hour to wake up. They had to set his alarm to ring thirty minutes before he had to get up. Becky changed her clothes. That was a fact. Since she did it every day, Angela had to stop pretending it was a rarity. She had to allow time for it. Becky would probably outgrow this phase once she felt more comfortable in junior high, but until she did, Angela had to anticipate it. Being surprised and annoyed by it every day was not helping anyone.
By denying these realities, Angela was paying the price in stress and chronic lateness. Instead, she decided to acknowledge the quirks of her family and build in time for everyone to get ready. They got up a little earlier, and they left the house at 7:15 instead of 7:30. That way, when Becky got hit with the urge to change her clothes, there was a fifteen-minute cushion. There were no more fights and no more lateness.
Once the situation was under control, Angela could look for ways to help Robbie wake up on his own and for Becky to feel more self-confident. In the meantime, mornings were under control.
Just as you have to work with who you are, you also have to work with who the people around you are.
The Skill of Estimating How Long Things Take
Good time managers calculate how long things take and build the time they need into their schedules. This is not a mysterious talent that some people are born with and you lack. It’s a simple skill anyone can learn.
Good time managers make a conscious decision to figure out how long a task will take. They simply ask themselves that question. This is a big missing link for the rest of us who say, “Okay, I’m going to do these twelve things tomorrow,” without ever pausing to consider how long each task will take.
I say “the rest of us” because years ago, this was one of my biggest problems. I’d look at my ambitious schedule and be excited about all the great things I’d set up for myself to do. And each day, I’d be horribly frustrated to see how few items I got to cross my to-do list. What was wrong? I was working my buns off! I had just neglected to ask myself how long things took. Even if I had asked myself, I would have no idea. I didn’t pay attention! When I learned this skill, it was a turning point for me.
Knowing how long things take is a very simple, conscious skill. When you don’t know how, it seems very mysterious, but when you know the secret, you’ll be amazed at how simple it is. It will take you two weeks to a month of practice to get the hang of it, but without a doubt, you can develop this skill. Is it worth the effort? Oh, yes! Once you know how long things take, it empowers you tremendously. It gives you much more control over your days and tasks.
Ready? Here’s the secret. Good time managers ask themselves the right questions. There are two of them.
· How long is it going to take?
· When am I going to do it?
That’s it! Amazing, huh? People who are good at estimating how long things take don’t have built in magical powers. They ask and answer these questions. If they’re experts at it, it might seem instinctual, but as with any skill, practice makes it look easy. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of asking and answering these questions, it’ll seem instinctual when you do it, too. But at first, it’s very conscious. It may even be a bit awkward until you’ve gotten the hang of it.