This Changed Everything

Deciding to limit how much I worked and when I worked really changed everything. (I did experience withdrawal symptoms when I first started this process: Step away from the computer Elizabeth!)
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I've had complete freedom over my schedule for almost 10 years.

During my first couple of years as a full-time entrepreneur, I didn't set boundaries on when I worked and what I did when.
This lead to:
  • Frustration when I just wanted to take an evening or weekend off but felt like I couldn't.
  • Guilt when I had any open time but wasn't working.
Deciding to limit how much I worked
and when I worked really changed everything. (I did experience withdrawal symptoms when I first started this process: Step away from the computer Elizabeth!) But I persevered in setting boundaries, and since then, I've been able to "let go of work" mentally and emotionally and enjoy free time without guilt.
One of my bedrock routines that gives me a sense of peace and control
is daily planning and processing described in detail below. But first a few notes:
  • Like with my Morning Routine, this is an example for you to gain insight from, not a template for everyone. Some of my coaching clients plan in the evening, others have fewer steps in their process, others use more tech tools--routines should be your personal servant not your master.
  • This is my own variation based off of some of David Allen's Getting Things Done philosophies. I found that I procrastinated when I only tried to do a big weekly review but can consistently do a daily review.
  • Daily processing and planning does seem to take a lot of time, but it is the only way I've been able to keep on top of responsibilities with clients around the world and work 40 hours or less a week. It's worth it.
See below for an inside look at how I start my work days...
Elizabeth's Planning Routine
Confession: I read e-mail in the morning.
There are many time management ninjas who will tell you this is a bad idea. But this is why it works for me:
  • Going through my morning processing and planning checklist is totally mindless. I don't need to wonder what to do first when I start my day--it's always the same. (This really helps when I'm unmotivated, tired or down.)
  • My work is very dynamic and my priorities shift on a daily basis. I don't feel comfortable making a final decision on my daily to-do's until I've gone through all of my inboxes.
  • I really don't like answering e-mail or doing other mundane processing. Before I made clearing out my inboxes part of my morning routine, I always felt guilty and behind. Now I effortlessly keep on top of e-mail, voicemail, mail, etc.

So between 8 and 8:30 a.m. my morning routine is done, and I sit down at my computer to begin daily processing and planning. As a rule, I try to avoid scheduling any calls or meetings in the morning. If it's unavoidable, I make completing my processing and planning routine my first priority to complete before and after the meeting time.

When I start my day, especially if it's a Monday, I don't know what needs to be completed for the rest of the day. But I know that by the time I finish my routine, I'll have found clarity and feel in control. I have many clients who are super techy (which is awesome), but I'm not. So my tools and methods are relatively simple.

On Mondays, I look over my Google calendar to make sure that there are no appointments from the prior week that I need to move or follow up on and that all of my current week's appointments are in the calendar. Then I make a pdf of the current week's calendar and print it out.

I know this may make some paper-free people shake their heads, but I find that having a custom printed out schedule of the week makes it much easier for me to visualize my schedule and priorities. So I do what works for me.

During my Monday weekly processing and planning, I also:

  • Review my Personal Projects List
  • Process all the mail from the past week that I collect in a lateral desk file.
  • Confirm appointments and anticipate any scheduling problems.
  • Schedule Facebook and Twitter updates on
  • Review my Google Calendar To Do Lists: Professional Priorities, Professional Someday/Maybe, Personal Priorities, Personal Someday/Maybe
  • Write out at the top of my printed out calendar my top personal and professional goals for the week.
  • Sketch in on the calendar when I should have time to get my goals done.
On a daily basis, I complete these items:
  • Review my printed calendar and if necessary, make alarm reminders for meetings. (I usually set them for 15 minutes before the start time.)
  • Review my calendar Word doc where I keep supporting notes/links/thoughts for daily activities organized by day.
  • Review my Professional Projects List organized by deadline.
  • Answer all my business e-mail. (If something will take more than a few minutes for a response, I make answering the specific e-mail a to-do item to be completed later that day.)
  • Answer the most important personal e-mail.
  • Organize papers from the past day and look at my Tickler file.
  • Listen to and respond to any voicemail or text.
  • Check for any @replies or DM's and respond.
  • Comment on or share relevant time management posts.
  • Make a final decision on my daily priorities and the order in which I will complete them.
  • Ask myself: How can I bless my clients today? Then do anything that comes to mind.
Some Important Notes:
  • I don't give myself a choice in whether I do these steps, but I have complete freedom in choosing what order I complete them. I bounce all around within these possibilities depending on what I feel like doing next.
  • Not everyone needs this many steps--this is just what makes me feel in control and on top of life.
  • All kinds of online and paper Calendars and To Do List systems can work. The important thing is that you stick with one consistently.
  • This can take a long time: On a daily basis, I'm usually done by 10 a.m. at the earliest. On Mondays, it's closer to 11:30 a.m.
  • But... I have the whole afternoon free to execute without worrying about my priorities or what to do next. (More on the rest of the day in an upcoming newsletter.)
  • These routines are the magic cure for almost any type of ailment. I can start the day tired, listless, crying--whatever!--and by the time they're done, my brain and heart are in gear and ready to take on the day.

One of my time coaching clients shared these thoughts with me, which I'm sharing with his permission, about why initially adopting these planning and processing habits is so hard:

"I'm getting more disciplined about time blocking (progress!).

But one of the things that good time blocking does is make you aware of how little discretionary time you actually have. So, then I started thinking about "Where can I cut back on something I'm doing?", and immediately I thought of exercise. Most of my workout sessions (when you include travel, changing, showering, etc.) are 1.5-2 hours. But then, almost instantly, I said to myself, "No, that's not negotiable. I'm not going to cut back on exercise, because it brings me so many benefits in terms of my energy level, my long-term health, and even the emotional value of the assertion of self-worth." Then it hit me -- I'm struggling to "find the time" each day to purge my index cards, time block my day, and to do good weekly reviews. But I'm not talking about hours a day:

I find the time for exercise. Why not time management?

I thought of a few reasons:

1. At some level, I'm still not convinced that I'll see the deep benefits. Rationally, I believe there will be benefits. But since I haven't experienced the higher state, I don't have enough evidence to have a deep emotional connection with the benefits.

(Note from Elizabeth: I hope my deep emotional connection with the benefits encourages you in this area! They will come with experience.)

2. I've worked at exercising for years, and seen the benefit of exercising, and the negative results of not exercising. I know how big the benefits are of exercising because of the contrast at various times. I haven't had the same history and experience.

3. I know how to exercise, and I've done it enough that I'm good at it. It feels good, and I feel good about being good at it. I've got lots of things down to a routine, and set up to make it easy. I own enough exercise clothes that I don't have to worry about laundry. I've had my workout routines designed by a fitness center trainer so I'm confident I'm doing things that will work. I have my checklist for packing my exercise clothes, and it's part of my daily routine. I know what times of day I can usually fit it in, and part of looking over my daily landscape is figuring out when to fit it in. I don't really question whether or not I want to fit it in; it's a "given".

With time management, in many ways I'm still a novice, don't feel like I'm really good at it, and just don't have enough history and experience as to how to respond to the various challenges.

  • I need to focus on simple things I can do, make them very concrete, and keep practicing until I get good.
  • I need to be patient and gentle with myself, not set an extremely aggressive goal and then beat myself up when I don't reach it. It's the equivalent of starting to exercise by walking around the block once, then twice, then working up to where you can do 20-30 minutes of intense aerobics. It takes time, you need to be patient with yourself, and you have to have the belief that the benefits are there if you keep going, and holding on to that belief is one of the key challenges.
  • Another thought from Drive was "Mastery is painful." To get really, really good at something, you have to have extremely disciplined practice over an extended period of time, like the NBA player who shoots 500 foul shots at the end of every practice.

Doesn't he do an awesome job of describing the process of lasting behavioral change with time management?! I'm so happy for and proud of my clients when they share these ephiphanies with me.

I hope that seeing how someone whose mastered daily planning and processing gives you insight in how it could happen for you.

About Real Life E®
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder and CEO of Real Life E® a time coaching and training company that empowers individuals who feel guilty, overwhelmed and frustrated to feel peaceful, confident and accomplished. She is an expert on achieving more success with less stress. Real Life E® also increases employee productivity, satisfaction and work/life balance through training programs.

McGraw Hill published her first book The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success with Less Stress. Harvard Business Review recently published her second book How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Elizabeth contributes to blogs like Lifehacker, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and the 99U blog on productivity for creative professionals and has appeared on CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox.

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