Prelude: a Story
Once upon a time there was an artist whose marriage fell apart, forcing her to move from a two-bedroom house with a yard, dining room, laundry room and small office/breakfast nook to a small one-bedroom apartment. Her entire studio — industrial drafting table, flat files, file cabinet, light table, computer desk, etc., all lived in her living room.
The artist loved that little apartment, but it was a tight squeeze, and always a chaotic mess, and she wanted so much to be surrounded by order! So in a desperate attempt to cool the overwhelm, she bought every organizing container, tool and book she could get her hands on.
“If only I had the right system,” she thought, “my chaos problems would be solved.”
Yet no matter what system or tool she tried, the chaos raged on…
Eventually, she moved to a larger apartment, with two bedrooms. Finally she had a studio she could close the door on! Surely this would be the solution to the persistent mess, she thought.
Alas, the chaos and overwhelm only grew. She bought more organizing containers, tools and books, but nothing seemed to solve the problem.
A few years later, the artist moved from the two bedroom apartment to a two bedroom townhouse. At 1,174 square feet, it wasn’t a mansion by any means, but it felt cavernous when she first took possession after the close.
Then she moved her stuff in.
Even though her space was now even bigger, after everything was moved in, she could barely turn around in there. She was still continually surrounded by chaos.
“Why, oh, why can’t I get a handle on this overwhelm?” she lamented. “I’ve tried everything, but nothing seems to work! Please, someone, tell me the answer!”
Suddenly,—*bing!*—a fairy godmother appeared.
“Oh!” said the artist. “Are you going to wave your magic wand and make my organization problems go away?”
“Not at all,” said the fair godmother, “but I will reveal to you the secret that will make your organization problems go away. Though I’m afraid you won’t like it very much.”
“Oh, please tell me!” said the artist. “I want to know the secret!”
“Very well, then,” said the fair godmother. “I shall tell you.” And with a swish of her wand she looked the artist in the eye and said:
“The problem, my dear, is not how you organize your stuff. The problem is that you have too much stuff! Get rid of the stuff that isn’t serving you, and you will find the chaos and overwhelm will magically dissolve.”
The artist realized the wisdom of what her fairy godmother said, and started clearing stuff off her shelves and out of her drawers. She moved the (now-unneeded) organizing containers out of the room, and just as the fairy godmother had predicted, her stuff-organization problem magically went away.
The Trouble with Time Management
As you may have surmised, the artist in that story was me (though the fairy godmother is a figment of my imagination).
It took me decades to finally accept that my problem wasn’t so much with organization, as it was simply having too much stuff to fit in the container I had.
I created the Great ClutterBust in order to help me do the impossible and finally declutter my studio, and though I still have clutterbusting work to do, I cannot overstate the spaciousness and serenity I’ve achieved, thanks to simply getting rid of stuff that wasn’t serving me anymore.
There is nothing more calming than being surrounded by metaphorical white space!
So what does this have to do with time management?
Well, we need white space in our days just as much as in our physical environments. Yet just as I had a tendency to overstuff my studio, if you’re struggling with overwhelm and time-crunch chaos, it’s likely that you’ve got a tendency to overstuff your schedule.
Too often we look for solutions in time management systems, in the desperate hope that if we could just find the right one, it will finally help us get everything done.
Is that you? If so, I have some sobering news: there is no such system.
I hate to tell you, but time management is a lie.
Just as no organizational system would lead me to the kind of order and calm I desired, as long as I held onto all that stuff, no “time management” system will ever lead you to the kind of serenity you desire, as long as you cram as much into your day as you’re probably trying to.
Here’s the harsh reality: what you have is not a time management problem. What you have is a priorities-management problem.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that time management problems have nothing to do with time. All time management problems are actually priorities-management problems.
The Pain of Prioritizing
If you want to slap me now, I understand. I hate prioritizing just as much as you do.
Nobody likes prioritizing, because it means we have to choose, and we don’t want to choose — we want it all, and we want it all now! But the fact is, although you do get to do everything, you don’t get to do everything all at the same time. (At least until somebody figures out how to bend the space-time continuum.)
This is a particular buggaboo for passion pluralites, and I’ve written elsewhere about my Stovetop Model of Life Design, specifically for my fellow Renaissance types. Whether you’re a passion pluralite or a specialist, though, there’s simply no getting around the fact that prioritizing is required.
This means you have to choose. And this means, alas, that you have to learn to say no.
You have to learn to say no to things you don’t actually want to do anyway, but which you’re doing out of a sense of obligation to others (and oh, this is hard!).
And you have to learn to say no to things that you really want to do, but which — for right now — you don’t want quite as much as you want the thing you’re saying yes to (which is, of course, much harder).
As Steven R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People put it:
You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.
How to determine what to say no to, and how to say no without coming across (or feeling) like a jerk?
Each of these could be the subject of its own article, and perhaps I’ll write them later. For now, though, I will stay on task and focus on the simple fact that prioritizing is essential. (How meta!)
We absolutely, positively must get clear on what our “big yes” things are, if we want to accomplish our big, bold visions.
The Good News: You Don’t Have to Choose Forever!
One thing that helps in this process of choosing a bigger yes is knowing that you do not have to choose one “big yes” thing forever; you simply have to choose what you want to focus on for now.
In other words, “no” does not have to mean “never;” it can mean “not right now.”
What a blessed relief that is!
You don’t have to kill your ideas. Quite the opposite!
I encourage you to honor them, cherish them, and record them carefully where you can find them again later. Lovingly put them on a well-dusted shelf, where you can admire them from afar until one of them grows into a bigger yes and jumps off the shelf of its own accord.
That quintessential Renaissance soul, Leonardo da Vinci, did just this, compiling pages and pages of notes and sketches of ideas, most of which never actually got made. You may not be a Leonardo, but like him, you probably have scads more ideas than even a superhuman could accomplish in a single lifetime. That doesn’t mean you have to kill them completely, but it does mean you need to choose which ones to love up in your journal, and which ones to take actual action on.
If you don’t say no to some things, whether temporarily or permanently, you will absolutely, positively never get a handle on your time-crunch chaos. On the other hand, when you learn to say no, you’ll find your schedule opening up and the overwhelm receding of its own accord.
A Peek Behind the Scenes
So how does all of this play out in my actual, real-life schedule? Here’s what prioritizing looks like in my life.
Right now, in my work day, I’m focusing on just three “big yesses”:
- My upcoming Spring Cleanout Sale (May 26-31)
- My forthcoming podcast, Live Creative Now! (launching July 1!)
- My upcoming art exhibit
That doesn’t even begin to touch the many, many things I want to do, however. I have grillions of other big projects brewing, including:
- Creating new programs (perhaps a course on overcoming overwhelm and time-crunch chaos, anyone?)
- Creating music charts for the ukulele class I’m teaching at Jazz Camp West
- Writing my book proposal(s) (and eventually, the book(s)!)
- Upcoming concerts for my Living Room Tour
- A secret project, which would be the biggest one to date
- And a lot more…
Then there are the ideas that captured my heart, but my head realized they just didn’t make sense for me to put time into right now (or ever, in some cases):
- Learning to master the harmonica
- Learning to master the pennywhistle
- Getting back into Argentine tango (a passion from years ago)
- Creating a website of tutorials of my ukulele songs
- Creating an “adopt-a-chicken” business, where people pay a subscription to “adopt” a lovingly-raised chicken, then get that chicken’s eggs delivered on a regular basis
- And a lot more…
I get to dream about these things and hold them in my heart, but for now they have to stay mostly on a shelf, in order to focus on the three “big yes” items above. If I were to spend my days working on developing and promoting a new program, creating music charts, practicing harmonica, or diving into my book proposal, that would be time not spent on the Spring Cleanout Sale, my podcast, or my art exhibit.
So I’m saying no (temporarily) to those other things, in order to say yes to my current top three.
I can take “background actions” to move forward on some of the shelved projects (for example, part of my morning ritual includes spending about 15-30 minutes on professional development during and after my daily stretching routine, and I’ve been reading Your Big, Beautiful Book Plan (aff) during that time), but during my focused work time, my commitment is to put my energies toward actions that will move me forward on my top three.
When I’m able to stay focused in that way, it frees up space, and I feel more in control, calmer, and way less stressed out.
In other words, prioritizing is a lot like clutterbusting for your schedule.
You may resist doing it, but once you do, it makes life so much better!
How to Start ClutterBusting Your Schedule
Again, this topic warrants an article in its own right, but I encourage you to start paying attention to where you’re spending your time.
If you’re up for it, I challenge you, for one week, to literally track your time. My business coach recently assigned this to me as homework, and I’ve found it incredibly enlightening! Use a sheet of paper, or a time-tracking app, or whatever works for you — I’ve been using a simple note in the Notes app on my iPhone.
My entries look like this:
11:10-12:45 Writing blog post
Once you have a week of entries, you can add up how many minutes spent in each “bucket category” (content creation, marketing/promotion, admin, making art, housework, self-care, relationships, etc.), and then you can make educated decisions about where to trim.
Are you putting more time that you thought into unimportant things that aren’t moving you forward toward your Big Vision Goals, and less time into things that are? Whatever your time tracking exercise tells you, you’re now a grillion times better equipped to make adjustments.
It’s a lot like a money budget (aff): you’ve got to know where you’re spending it first, before you can make changes that will improve your situation.
Meanwhile, as you’re tracking, with each activity you put time into, ask yourself, is this feeding you, or draining you?
Then, as you become clearer about which activities fire you up, and which suck you dry, start letting go of the ones that suck you dry.
Well, yeah, but just like clutterbusting my studio, clutterbusting a schedule is an ongoing process, and not always easy. It takes a lot of emotional work to suss out what’s worthy of keeping and what would be better off in the “giveaway” pile (aka the delegation pile) or the trash.
When you do the work, though, you reap the benefits of serenity and blissful white space, which are so, so worth it!
And those time management tools? Now that you’ve got space for all the things you’ve prioritized as important for now, I’d lay odds that you’ll find them working a lot better for you, too.
So go forth and conquer! You’ve got this. No need for fairy godmothers.
Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you click through and end up making a purchase, I’ll earn a commission. Just sayin’.
Did you like this post? Then you’ll LOVE my Erase the Chaos Toolkit!
A 99-page (illustrated) PDF, with an 18-page companion workbook, the Erase the Chaos Toolkit starts with the content here, and expands on it to help you hone in on the specific causes of YOUR time-crunch chaos, and give you the tools you need to clear your plate to make space for creative joy.
This book is wonderfully concise and practical. It moves quickly and the supplemental workbook is perfect for slowing me down to really think some things through.
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!
I want everything, and I want it right now! Exactly. Thank you for this timely post with some good ideas on how to prioritize. It’s nice to know I am not the only one with so many things to do, and dreading the pain of choosing.
Melissa Dinwiddie says
You’re so welcome, Tina! I’m glad you found it helpful. And you are definitely not the only one. 🙂
Beth Sawickie says
A very helpful article – thank you Melissa 🙂
Prioritizing has been a huge challenge for me. So MANY great ideas, things to do, create, learn!
I’m putting my self-care at the top of the priority list because that has a tendency to be pushed aside. And seemingly suddenly I NEED to stretch daily.
I work much better when I’m feeling good 🙂
Then 2 business projects related towards ONE topic/niche.
Anything else will temporarily fall under hobbies and be visited briefly in my new found free time 🙂
When you get around to it… I’d like to adopt a chicken 🙂 But I’d also like the chicken poop for my garden – is that included?
Melissa Dinwiddie says
So glad it was helpful, Beth! Isn’t it cool when suddenly you NEED to do the thing you, well, need to do? 😉
But of course, adopting a chicken must also include their poop for one’s garden, in addition to eggs for one’s table! 🙂
Great post Melissa, and I just have to say that you really have a talent for making seemingly boring topics exciting. I always read your posts all the way to the end… and that’s rare these days.
I love your “adopt-a-chicken” idea! Can’t wait til it moves on up to one of the front burners =)
Prioritizing can suck sometimes, but I think there are some benefits to not being able to run full force at a new idea. As you know I’ve been working on a podcast for the past two months, but (and I was a little shocked when I realized this) it’s been brewing inside of me for almost a year! My year-long daydream has been a bit like a brainstorm and now there are no questions about what I have to do, I just have to do it now that I have time.
Thank you for continuing to show me that I’m not alone in all the many challenges we face.
Melissa Dinwiddie says
Aw, thanks, Rebekah! That made my day. 🙂
I love your philosophy about your year-long daydream being a year-long brainstorm, preparing you for now. Can’t wait for your podcast! 🙂