As you are all aware (and if not, I clearly need to shout louder), I am waging a war against expat overwhelm, one step at a time. It’s taken a lot of time, trial and error and going back to square one, but I am finally getting somewhere. This month will see the first webinars, and early next month, the first painstakingly put together course will be coming out.
All this, against a backdrop of four unruly dogs, a bewildered and frequently absent partner, college admission, stolen identities**, Varsity rowing and as of right now, partial deafness thanks to residual water in my ear from last night’s bath.
As you might imagine, it hasn’t been pretty, and there have been plenty of dropped balls, missed appointments and general shrieking. In other words, life.
So when I read this article yesterday, I was ready to punch the smug so-and-so on the nose.
Seriously? Schedule everything? Is he freaking kidding me? Somehow, this paragon of productivity virtue manages to balance his work, AND FAMILY LIFE’, by scheduling everything.
Now, it might just be me, but I think not.
Anyone who has had a dog roll in vile smelling substances, watched their 9 month old achieve the impressive feat of pooping halfway up to their armpits (at a wedding, no less), has a partner who regularly disappears on a day’s notice (I am assuming it’s work, but have never really asked.. mental note to self) or has school administrators calling to demand you pick up your child immediately, will know that tight schedules are the fastest way to go insane.
Instead, I have a (patent pending) formula for getting things done.
Choose three, settle for two and use a system.
I’ve been using for the past few months, and so far, so good. It keeps me on time and on track, and most importantly, keeps the chaos out of my head. Because if I have learned anything in the last 14 years of expat life, it’s that if I don’t have a written or tech-driven backup, it probably ain’t happening.
Let me introduce you to my simple, 3 step system for scheduling sanity and banishing expat overwhelm for good…
Start with the Big Picture View: A Calendar
I use the Google calendar app for its integrations and ability to send invitations and add video calls. The desktop version is as ugly as all get out, but the mobile apps are miles better. Not perfect, but better.
When you are planning your calendar, there are two keys to success:
1. Your calendar is NOT your To-Do list. Seriously – your time is sacred, so don’t overload it with random details and other people’s agenda items. Take control, and instead focus on scheduling ample time to get your planned projects done.
2. Add buffer periods for travel, parking, and coffee /meal /bathroom breaks. The feeling of running behind is incredibly stressful, so it’s up to you to be honest and build in enough flexibility to manage the crises without having to reschedule your entire day. It’s not fireproof, but it covers most things.
Schedule the non-negotiables first.
Your calendar is for ‘ring fencing’ your time – anything from projects, calls, medical appointments, parents evenings. This includes family schedules and personal time too.
Once you have them all in there, set reminders.
Be fierce about scheduling your own priorities first. God knows, family can fill up a calendar faster than a ferret up drainpipe, but if you want to send a clear message about the value of your time – especially if you plan to return to a salaried role – you need to adhere to the “lack of planning on Your Part does not constitute an emergency on mine” school of parenting.
It helps to have friends and family trained in this, and the fastest way is to stand them up. Usually, once is enough for them to realize you are deadly serious when you say “If you don’t watch me putting it in the calendar, it isn’t going to happen”. By the third time, they are ready to snatch the phone out of your hand and do it for you.
Finally, add balance.
Those fun, fill-your-jug, life worth living bits; the ones we regret not doing later. Whatever floats your boat – just do it.
Next: Your To Do List Master Plan
One of the most powerful actions you can take is to separate your To Do list from your calendar. There are a ton of ways of managing this – everything from your paper and pen to sophisticated list building apps like Asana and Evernote.
Whatever your preference, I would urge you to build your to do list on your smartphone, so that you can add items when they pop into your head where ever you are.
Finally: Combining the To-Dos, Want-To-Dos and Mustn’t-Forget-on-Pain-of-Deaths
We’re getting to the good stuff now, because up until now it’s been about raw data – now, you get to decide just how you want to run your day. Start with the big stuff and bask in smug glory later, or work your way gradually into the day – the choice is yours. It’s time to direct your time, energy and focus where you want it to be, and prioritize.
Introducing: The Day Designer
The Day Designer is a free, printable page for (predictably) designing your day, and I am pitifully grateful to it’s creator, Whitney English.
Instead of my former ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ approach, I now start each and every day with a cup of tea, my Mynd App, and my Day Designer. Yes, I know I sound like Oprah, but it’s true. In five minutes, everything is out of my head and onto paper in an orderly fashion, and that’s it. That’s all I focus on for the day, and my productivity and my mood have both seen substantial improvements.
The beauty of the Day Designer lies in the two main columns –schedule and to do – both with equal space. You can do a complete braindump of all the stuff you are supposed to do, and then weigh it against the realistic amount of time you have in your day.
And then, in a final act of defiance, you fill in the space at the top – your three ‘Must Do’s.
Yes, I know it sounds obvious, but having to narrow what is inevitable a massive list down to three choices means having to be ruthless, and forces you to focus on what’s truly important. It helps you balance the urgent with the important, and for we misguided individuals who overcommit constantly, it’s an essential daily practice.
If you are anything like me, it’s going to take you a few rounds to find the weak spots in your system, but bear with it. It’ll be worth it, I promise.
So there you have it – my own personal warts and all system, designed for people who don’t clock off at 5.30pm. Now, will somebody let that guy’s wife know?
*There’s now a whole library of them on the member area. Check them out here.
** He had his wallet ‘stolen’, complete with Green card, Driving Licence, student ID. Suffice to say that his two visits to the DMV and endless Department of Homeland Security paperwork have taught that lesson far better than I could ever hope to.