If you read my personal blog you may know that each year since I was ten I’ve chosen two words to meditate on and use to be better overall instead of having a traditional resolution. This year the words were “global” and “balance”. I’m doing pretty well on taking my company and myself and making it more global, both literally and in concept. Balance, on the other hand, is another story. It is a continual “work in progress”.
Balance is something my clients struggle with often, and something I struggle with as well. For me it boils down to what is often referred to as the maker vs manager dilemma. I’ve talked a bit about that before, but it’s something that still comes up – after all I am in a business that has a vast need for the creative as well as the managerial, and I own my businesses, putting me in a manager role often, even when it’s time to be creative.
I must say this dilemma is a problem I’m happy to have – I love what I do! To that end, I’ve tried a number of ways to scale this in my search for balance this year. The advice I give my clients works well if you are one business, no matter how large it is or how many people you manage, but how do you scale if you do what I do (three businesses, several monthly events, two yearly events and a variety of clients)?
1) Be The Gatekeeper Of Your Own Time
Set aside time when you aren’t available for meetings or calls. You don’t have to explain to anyone why you aren’t available at a certain time, but you do have to be your own enforcer. Even if you have a secretary or virtual assistant keeping your schedule, you need to help them enforce your blocks of time and set a precedent about this. This is the hardest thing to do – with a global economy, time differences, and the varying schedules of other businesses and people you may work with on projects, you will have some clashes. I can not stress enough how important it is to stand firm. Trust me, when you don’t you cause yourself stress that is far worse than the slight disgruntlement that may occur when someone finds they can’t speak to you right away about something.
2) Don’t Be Afraid To Go After Your Schedule With A Scalpel
A) Recently, I was slated to speak at SXSW. I had a brief solo presentation in the Future 15 block. I was honored to be included, but as the event drew closer, I found myself stretched thin for time, with new client deadlines looming, and no way to make a week of travel fit into the schedule without making my client projects pay for it. About three weeks before the event I politely bowed out and suggested some names of people who were more than qualified to give my talk (never, ever leave a conference planner in the lurch by canceling too close to the date or by not finding your own replacement – it’s just rude). How did I make the tough call? Several factors came into play, but the biggest factor was “How will attending this event affect the quality of work I am providing for my client?” followed closely by “How will this tip the scale on my time and to do list and how long would it take to recover?”
B) On the flip side, it sometimes isn’t your outside engagements like speaking gigs that need to be trimmed, but your client deliverables. I see so many bids for work on projects I’m doing that I have to reject or send back because the person did not include a time line at all, or did not follow the time line set out in the RFP when structuring their bid. If you give the client unreasonable expectations of turn around on facets of the project or result windows, you are going to set yourself, and your client, up for disappointment. This does you both a disservice. Every client would like things to go as quickly as possible, but personally – I’d rather have it go well. Don’t be afraid to be realistic and blunt in your estimates of time – in the end it will work better for everyone, and on some occasions, you’ll still deliver early.
3) Figure Out What Distracts You, And Boot It
In this case, for me, you’d think it was social media being on, like Twitter, when I have to write or create something for a client. Nope, social media isn’t distracting at all – it’s like background noise to me (this may not be the case for you – everyone is different!). For me, it’s the phone. I try to schedule all of my calls on two days in a week. I prefer these days to be Monday and Friday but sometimes it works out to be two other days. Either way, I stick to it – otherwise my deadlines get thrown off balance. I turn the ringer off, the phone face down, and send everything to voice mail, only checking a couple of times in a day, on the other days. That’s what works for me, and it took me a good bit of time to figure that out. Once I did, it made my working life much, much easier to manage.
Those who know I sleep about 5 hours a night may find this one a bit odd, coming from me, but I assure you it is essential. I don’t do well sleeping more than 5 – 6 hours a night, but others need as much as 14 hours. Figure out your sleep “sweet spot” and make sure you get it. I can tell when I pull several short nights in a row for a deadline that my work product is falling short of my own high expectations (not to mention the client’s), that my decisions are not as sharp as they could be, and that I need to put the brakes on and evaluate my time management to get back on track. Don’t burn the midnight oil because the “cool kids” seem to be up that late if it doesn’t work for you! Most often, those “cool kids” are just night owls and they still catch the sleep they need, just at different times of the day than you might. Learn your body clock, your sleep needs, and manage your time well so you take care of yourself.
5) One Day Blocks
These are not the same as a day off. In my office I call it “going to my garrett” because I do it most often when I need to write. One Day Blocks are days where you simply mark off your calendar, leave your extra gadgets behind and turned off, take only what you need, and go to a quiet place to be creative. No phone calls, no emails, no social media, no surfing the net – just you and your creativity. If you are trying to balance a maker/manager schedule, this will prove to be your hardest step to success. You will find that no one, client or staff, likes for you to be unavailable to them on their schedule for a whole day. I say TOUGH. Don’t defend it, don’t explain it, just stand firm about doing it, once a week or once a month – whenever you need to. Trust me, you’ll thank me for this one if you create.
6) No More Mobile Scheduling
Your calendar is your best resource for keeping yourself in balance and getting things done. In this mobile world, the temptation is huge to schedule things on the fly – everything we do it on our smart phones now, after all. No. Just no. The best advice I ever got on scheduling was from Michelle Wolverton, my VA, when she insisted that I never schedule anything unless I was seated at my desk, in my office, with my main calendar and computer in front of me. And she was right – making that a hard and fast rule was the best thing I’ve ever done for my business and my sanity. That way, you never have a forgotten appointment, you never go to two cities hours apart in one day (trust me, I’ve done that to myself, and once, 4 – don’t ask…), you don’t have calendar to phone synching issues, and you can visualize your entire week or month at a time, unlike trying to look at a tiny phone screen and figure it out.
7) Say No
With everyone chanting the “be helpful” mantra, especially in social media, it’s easy to take it too far. Learn to say no. You can not take on every project. It may look like I do every project, but I assure you, I turn down quite a few. Protect your time and your sanity and don’t be afraid to stand firm with a polite but finite and distancing “What a good idea, but I simply can’t fit that in.” Then stop. Don’t justify, don’t people please, don’t waffle, don’t waiver – say your no and then change the subject or excuse yourself. In the end how many plates you spin (or drop) is entirely up to you.
8 ) Keep Your Offline World Healthy
It’s tempting to have a fully online life for many, but that just isn’t healthy. It can be really difficult to balance work, play and home. Especially if you do this social media thing, and do it well, your offline friends may not understand. I do my best to bring the two worlds together whenever possible. I host wine dinners at my house for those that have become true friends online so they can meet my offline friends, and vice versa. I include and inform the significant other in my life (secrets are unhealthy, transparency begins at home). If your offline friends and family begin telling you they don’t see you often enough, they aren’t just being difficult – they really aren’t. Turn off the computer and go be with them if that happens, immediately, because a strong family and friends are gold. If they want to be online too, show them how – even if having your mom on your Facebook is hard (and it is). Do what it takes to give yourself time with the ones who matter most. No amount of perceived “rock star” online status or temporary internet pseudo fame is worth losing the people who helped get you there.
9) Don’t Leash Yourself To One System
To do lists, Get It Done, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (or whatever that book was called), white boards, segmented time… the list systems we come up with to keep track of ourselves span miles. I recommend having two systems. Why? Because I guarantee that in spite of your best intentions, life happens, and you’ll get off track. If you only have one system, you will only browbeat yourself for not keeping up and not be able to recover. If you have two in place, you can simply say, “Oh shoot, I missed xx on the GTD system, let me go over to my simple tasks in Gmail and see where I need to pick it back up”. It takes the pressure off, and acts as a backup plan. Rigidity kills.
10) Go Ahead: Drop The Ball
I say this with all seriousness – even if you follow every management tip you’ve ever heard to the letter, you will occasionally drop the ball. There will be days when you get frustrated, feel overwhelmed, miss deadlines, get swamped and feel like you are drowning. Trust me, I know. I have some days, maybe twice a year, where I get so frustrated with myself for being off track (yes, I get off track, too) that I look longingly at senior level social media jobs for established companies, because that day it seems like it might be easier to work for someone else. It happens. When it does, do not climb on board the self flagellation train, do not attempt to reboot your to-do list, stop treading water. Take a deep breath, close the computer, and go do something else all day. I am not kidding. Don’t even send an email explaining your absence or making excuses – it isn’t going to bring your project back on track and it is going to distract you from the reboot you obviously need. Go walk in some grass, play on a beach, take your kids to the zoo, hit a few golf balls – whatever. When you return to work the next day, you will find that magically, your reboot has given you an idea enabling you to catch up, and you’ve gotten some much needed time to de stress, because often, stress it what is throwing you off your game.
Michelle (@chelpixie) is a smart, kind and giving person. More importantly (well, to me anyway), she keeps me where I need to be (she recently came on board to help handle speaking gigs and scheduling things with me, and she is amazing). She is a great example of turning your life into what you always knew it could be. She also organized PodCamp 4 Boston this year (no mean feat, I assure you). I’ve had the privilege of seeing her come out of her shell and reach what I’m sure is only the beginning of where she’s headed over the last while on social media, and I can’t wait to see where this one-woman organizational dynamo lands.
She actually gave me the best scheduling advice ever, before she even came on board with me. She asked why I was so frazzled, and I told her about my schedule. she pointed out my desire to help everyone who asked and my tendency to schedule while I was traveling (on my phone, for example) was causing me problems. She gave me a few pointers on how to break both habits while still being helpful – and they worked like a charm. My stress level dropped back to normal, and I still felt like I had time to help people. So thank you, Michelle!