Thirty years ago, when I first entered the professional working world, staying on task was so much easier. I kept a single piece of paper on my desk and jotted down a few important notes during the day, so I had reminders of what needed to be done. My workload was always manageable and I never really felt overwhelmed.
It was a much simpler time. In 1990, smartphones did not exist, computers ran on DOS, and we used large (and loud) dot matrix printers. There was no internet — the World Wide Web would not be invented until the next year, in 1991.
Fast forward to today, and everything is different. Technology has advanced exponentially since I began my career, and there are more tools and methods than ever to help keep me organized and on track.
And I have tried them all.
I’ve adopted the methods — everything from Getting Things Done to time blocking to Kanban. I have tried every online task management tool and app I can find, like Monday.com, Asana, Trello, Remember the Milk, and Zoho. I have created spreadsheets in Google Drive, built elaborate workflows in Smartsheet, and used an Evernote template to make myself a grandiose to-do list.
I have tried putting sticky notes all over my desk until the mess drove me crazy, and I threw them all way in a huff. One time I purchased a leather padfolio and carried it everywhere with me throughout the day. I thought it made me look rather intelligent, but it was really just a storage place for random handouts that I ended up with during meetings. It, too, was a mess.
I desperately want to feel productive.
I pore over articles that promise to help me be the master of my workday. The lessons others teach seem so smart and logical. I read, and read, and read some more… and dream of a smooth workflow. I think about what it must be like to end each day with a sense of accomplishment. I fantasize about goal setting, prioritizing, and dancing into work each morning with a huge smile and a clear sense of purpose.
In reality, I walk into work, ready to react to what I know is coming. The phones ring, and the boss (who starts his workday long before I arrive) calls me into his office with urgent requests. I log in to my computer, and my inbox is swimming in messages. And in the back of my mind are all of the things I could not get to the day before.
Throughout the day, the phone keeps ringing, and there is so much that demands my attention. I try to react quickly and swiftly to everything that comes at me, moving from one task to another as fast as I can.
I work reactively when I would really rather work proactively.
But there seems to be no time to prioritize or try to keep to any method that would keep me on task. So I do the easiest thing I know how — I go back to what I did 30 years ago. I keep a running list of everything coming at me.
My list always gets longer, never shorter.
I look at my list, and I know it’s not the best way to work. I have read enough articles about time management to know this. But I question whether it is even possible to adopt a workable organizational method in this day and age. Are the people who write gleaming articles about being successful at managing their time really doing that well at it? I admit I am suspicious.
You see, all of the truly successful people I know are only able to stay on top of everything by working long hours, skipping breaks and lunches, and putting family time aside on the weekends to finish projects or catch up on the stuff they could not get done during the week. Sure, they have systems in place — perhaps some of the same systems I have read about or even tried myself — but it always seems to boil down to being a workaholic.
I am decidedly NOT a workaholic.
I value my personal time and love my 40-hour workweek. Earlier in my career, I worked in television news, where I put in some seriously long hours. It was fine when I was young, but now that I am older, I don’t want that anymore. I want to enjoy a nice dinner and conversation with my husband and perhaps go for a bike ride together afterward. I want to spend weekends doing all of the things we love to do, like traveling and camping. I want to have the freedom to take a nap when I am tired. I have all of that now, and it is quite wonderful.
But still, in the back of my mind, I worry that enjoying my personal life comes at the expense of advancing my career. If I devoted extra time in my day to my work, I tell myself, I could be a shining star instead of someone obsessively stressing over her to-do list every day. I could actually set real goals and achieve them.
I know there is more at play than not working extra hours.
Some traits work against me, for example. For one, my mind needs more time to think things through now that I am older. I also tend to overthink things and create more work for myself than is really necessary. And I am so eager to please others that I let them dictate my day.
There are a thousand interruptions throughout the day that make me fall behind. Many times, a simple task that should only take five or ten minutes ends up taking me an hour. Every time I am stopped by a phone call or something else, I have to regroup.
I must handle some situations immediately. There are problems to be solved. The boss needs to be appeased. A customer needs assistance.
I could go on, but we all have the same issues with handling our workload. Some of us (not me, obviously) are just better at managing it than others.
Still, sometimes I dream of that simpler time when work wasn’t so complicated and difficult to manage — before technology advanced and the expectations on workers grew exponentially right along with it all.