Window Garden. Photo: Anne Lawrence

I won’t remember your birthday.
I don’t keep a to-do list.
I keep notifications turned off.

“How do you find the time to do all of the things?”
“Crushed it! The client is thrilled and you did this other project on the side?!”

So how do I reconcile my reality and my reputation? I have a few thoughts on this. For me, these are habits and ways of thinking that are so ingrained that I don’t even notice. (Quick note: I’m not super-human. I’m friends with mistakes, I get things wrong. Now continue.)

Go long, but not too long.

I use my calendar to plan what I’ll work on for the day, rather than a to-do list. Based on what’s immediate and what’s hard, I know what requires my attention. On projects, I set shared schedules for the entire cycle. Everyone knows what is expected of them and by when.

Pull, not push.

I decide when to check email and Slack. I watch my calendar and check times. I keep the noise to a minimum. I organize my day so that I prioritize people. By pinning assignments and tasks to people, I leverage the social pressure and my own deeply ingrained need to not let people down.

Keep a reserve.

I run below capacity. When I need to push harder, I have the reserve available. This works, because I know what full capacity looks like. I did it for years — it’s not pretty.

No one ever waits on me.

This one gets tricky, but I made it a personal goal that I will never hinder a project. I will work with designers to craft content, but no one will have to wait on me to finish my analysis work. Trouble here, means I pull from the reserve.

Check alignment.

I have pushed back or deferred when I realized that the ask did not match my goals. What do I want out of this day, this time, this relationship? I’ll say yes to most things, but occasionally, if I’m struggling with something it’s a sign that I’m out of alignment.

Do the mental work.

I take the time to think through scenarios. I’ll outline a concept, work through it in detail, craft a possible solution, then put it aside, maybe even throw it away — all without ever writing anything down. Usually, I’m on a run or a walk or it’s the early morning and I can’t sleep. I wrestle through the issue. Sometimes I jump out of bed and write out the thesis of a problem or stop on the trail and leave a voice memo for myself, but quite often I just let it go. If it’s a good idea, it will come back — better.

Memory is a filter.

If I can’t remember what something was or why I wanted to do it, it must not actually have been that important. When I’m bogged down in analysis and struggling to winnow down 23 points, I find that a quick chat with a co-worker can snap me out of it. “Ugh, this is awful, but it’s really about these things, X, Y, and Z. Oh, that’s only actually three things total. Huh.”

Context switching burns energy.

I can do a certain amount of context switching, but I try to stay in zones. I can work on multiple projects, but if I need to go deep and really think about a problem, I prefer to have dedicated time. Turns out, it doesn’t have to be big swathes of time (smaller patches are fine), just time without having to think about something else. This is more about protecting the mental space, than the physical time.

Burn off the by-product

I would have thought this only applies to grad school or some other highly productive time, but it seems to be happening now, so I’ll explain. Recently, I did some really deep, hard work for a client project, during which time I was chewing on a really difficult internal project. I knew I couldn’t context switch between them too much (too exhausting), but I used the sustained energy and writing/thinking stamina to feed into the second project. Right now, I’m in a night program that emphasizes writing, but I find myself having extra energy to write, so I decided to finally populate this blog. Why does pushing hard on one area give you more energy to do something else? Maybe it’s like with running, you’re improving your VO max, stamina, and endurance.

Recognize that things change.

I’ve used lots of different systems to keep myself functioning, so I realize that what works for me right now, may not work for me two months from now. It all depends on what’s required to help balance the cognitive load. I had a job once that was so task-based and complex that I kept a “done” list instead of a to-do list. I’ve had lists that stretched pages long and overwhelmed me to the point I wanted to go home as soon as I opened it. I’ve had a notepad that at the beginning of each day I wrote the top 5 things I would accomplish this day. It wasn’t exhaustive, but it helped me focus and was very satisfying to complete each day.

I’m almost at the end of the time I allotted for this task.

Time is both a constraint and a choice.

Time to move on.