It was a dark year. Our company had just grown by 30%. We had thirty days to acquisition 14 new buildings and their staff. Our operations manual had not been updated. Key systems were not in place, making training our new employees a challenge. And the new employees—scared and demoralized from the sudden shutdown of their former company—were a mishmash of unknown talent thrust into our preexisting culture.
I was overwhelmed.
For the first time in my career, I was panicking. I had so much to do. I couldn’t decide where to start. And if I did choose to start one project, twenty more flew at me from out of nowhere. Everything was a priority. And I seemed to be getting nothing done.
I arrived in the COO’s office with a stack of paper thicker than a club sandwich. She could see the worry lines tattooed on my face. She calmly asked, “What is your priority?”
I felt slapped by the question. Wasn’t she aware of everything that was going on in the first paragraph of this blog, I wondered. Was she just sitting in her ivory tower while her scatterbrained minions rushed from here to there to accomplish a seemingly impossible goal? “I…I don’t know where to begin,” I answered definitely perturbed.
This Q&A went back and forth for a good five minutes. Finally, she said, “Go home.”
“What?!?” I exclaimed. “There’s too much to do!”
“Go home. Make a list,” she calmly ordered like a Jedi Knight channeling the good side of the force.
Me, the young, impetuous Padawan, resisted the force.
She insisted. “Make a list of everything you have to do.”
“There’s not enough paper in the world,” I said as I backstroked through my drama.
She summarily dismissed me to perform the given task.
I ended up following her directive. But, I wasn’t doing it because she said so. I had revenge in my heart. I would go home as she ordered. I would get on my laptop, open up MSWord, set the font size to 9, make a two column document, and start typing up EVERYTHING I had to do at work!
I typed with a maddened fervor. Oh, how I would show her! How dare she ask me to perform such a trivial task while the company was crumbling down around us? How dare she assume I didn’t know how to do my job; that I needed a list to understand my function? How dare her!?!?
Within an hour I had two pages of double-columned, double-sided, tiny-typed to-dos! I had data dumped everything out of my brain onto two pieces of 8.5×11 paper, a veritable tidal wave of impossible tasks! How could she ever think I would complete them all? Oh, boy! Wouldn’t she be mad when I shoved reality into her arrogant face?
Brimming with righteous indignation, I stomped into her office the next morning and plopped down in the chair opposite her desk. I unfurled the pair of parchment and slapped it on her work station, my head swaying with “deal with that!”.
Grabbing a blue ink pen, the COO gently picked up the two-page document and began to scan the list. I stared at her awaiting the moment when she would burst into tears, ridden with guilt that she ever doubted the existence of my insurmountable hill of world-ending projects and tasks. But she was near expressionless. Her calm palpable. I wondered if I had printed out the correct list, even scooching forward on my chair to verify what I handed her. Then, like a master chef verifying the contents of her pantry, she began to circle items that were scattered among my exhaustive form.
She handed me the paper. I quickly looked at the seven encircled tasks and projects. Her voice interrupted my quizzical stare. “Just focus on the items I circled. Bring me back the list when you are finished and I will be happy to help you decide your priorities,” the wise COO said.
“But…but…” I stuttered.
“I know. There is a lot to do,” she said. “But don’t worry. It will get done. And please make a photocopy of that paper. I will see what I can delegate to others on the team.”
I was flabbergasted. She had given me permission to focus on a few key items that she agreed where of top import. The weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. And, amazingly, we survived the acquisition with great success.
And it all started when I learned to Think on Paper.
What is the psychology behind thinking on paper? How can it help with improving your time management skills?
The Maintenance Shed
Let me illustrate why you’ll benefit from learning to Think on Paper:
I’ve worked in the property management industry for over 15 years. When I walk onto a site, I will oftentimes inspect the maintenance shed. Fewer times than I can recall, I have been blown backwards by an explosion of trash that has collected in the shed for possibly hundreds of years.
When I come across this situation, I immediately command that the shed by cleaned and organized. What is the first step to take when organizing the shed?— It has to be completely emptied out.
Once the space is clear, the process of prioritizing what goes back in the shed can begin. Admittedly, about 75% of it is junk. What remains can be placed into various logical categories—electrical, plumbing, carpentry, paint supplies, tools, cleaning agents, etc. Once complete, you have a nicely set and organized maintenance shed.
The Moral of This Story
This illustration reflects what my boss has me do when I was feeling overwhelmed. She commanded me to empty out the maintenance shed of my mind onto a piece of paper.
Once it was all out on display, 75% of the mass was minutia that could be tossed out or delegated. The rest of the information on my list could be clearly seen and prioritized.
Tasks vs. Projects
One of the things I needed to learn early on in my career was the difference between a task and a project.
For example, I might say that I have the task of washing my car. In fact, this is a project because it takes a series of steps for me to get this completed. I need to make time to drive to the car wash, select which wash I want, leave my car in the attendant’s car, pay for the service, wait, then drive home. (Wait a minute. You didn’t actually think I washed it myself, did you? Haha. That’s funny.)
All of these tasks actually form a project. And that project might take 45 minutes to an hour.
Likewise, you need to separate out tasks from projects. How? This is where the ability to Think of Paper comes in.
Suppose you have something to do and you aren’t quite sure where to start. If something is too big, break it apart into smaller pieces—tasks. Now attack each piece separately and the project will look a lot easier than when you were treating it as a whole. I use this handy tool to help me focus and organize a larger project into bite-sized doable morsels.
Once you have devised your plan, you need to stick to it.
Are you not quite sure where to start? Are you afraid that your goals are not aligned with your boss or your team? Then share your list with them. Allow them to give you advice on what their expectations are for the day or week. If you do this, you will avoid exaggerating your plans or overestimating your abilities. An external, unbiased check helps to make sure that you have indeed sanity-checked the plan.
At the end of the day, you want to reduce the risk of going over budget in time, money, or effort. This will relieve a lot of stress. It will make you feel so much better knowing that your team comprehends your work schedule, like my COO did with me.
And it all starts by learning to Think on Paper.
To this day, whenever I start to feel overwhelmed or have competing priorities, I Think on Paper, making a list of everything I need to do. I separate out the Tasks vs. Projects. I then compare it to my personal mission. This makes it way easier to select priorities and move forward.
After you Think on Paper, take 15 Minutes Per Day to select your priorities. This will emphasize the importance of keeping a daily to-do list.