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Three Ideas for Taming the Whirlwind

Nancy Ellen Dodd, MPW, MFA  

Life is hectic, complicated, involved, full of interruptions, full of demands, full of people, full of multi-tasking, and everyone wears a plethora of hats. So how do you tame that whirlwind of activity?  

Like you, I’m involved in a variety of activities and have more than one career. I’m also a big picture kind of person. The devil may be in the details, but I get lost in a morass of details. I need to be able to pull back and see the big picture in black and white, then color in what immediately pertains to the goals I’ve set.   

Because life is multi-faceted, I’m continually looking for ways to organize ideas, work, and activities, plus figure out how to prioritize and piece it all together. We all need a system that keeps us on top, rather than drowning in unfinished projects and lost to-do lists or sublimating what we really care about doing far beneath what has to get done. Aren’t we all trying to find that magical formula for project management or an activity structure that keeps us moving forward, notes all the details and facts, but cross-links our lives to be more efficient and balanced? Do we ever really succeed at that?  I’ve read the books on getting organized, and every once in awhile I go online and do searches for project or time management. Usually what I find is either too complicated, too time consuming, or is more about managing what other people are doing rather than what I’m doing. There are a zillion forms with lines and boxes and headers that captures all the wrong ideas. So, if you are having these same issues, here are a few simple ideas.  

Idea One: Old-fashioned Paper and Pen  

Don’t feel compelled to use technology if it doesn’t work for you. There really are people who prefer to jot it down rather than key it in. Things to consider: Do you like being able to pull out your calendar or planner to quickly jot something into it or refer to a date without waiting for a light and an image to pop up? Do you hate scrolling and thumbing info on those tiny letters? Do you like archiving used planners and date books? Of course, you can always throw them away once they’ve served their purpose. The key is to find a planner that you’ll use and that you can easily flip through to find the information you need. One or two pages per day if you are a detail person and a big note taker, one to two pages per week if you like less details, but need a broader overview, and one to two pages per month if you want the big picture and just the facts, please. Add pages to create a to-do list and for keeping track of details or addresses and you are good to go. Once you are finished with a task or info cross it off, tear it out, wad it up, and throw it away and be done with it—your mind should be clear—or file it away for future reference.  

A journal, notebook, or composition book in a favorite color and look works well for people who don’t like pre-printed formats. Organize it by topics or use the next blank page to start the next day or next project or next thought. To-do items can be highlighted, crossed out, or check-marked. Choose blank pages if you like the artist approach of drawing the words in a formless manner. If you think more like an engineer, you might prefer a quad-ruled layout. Or choose between college- or wide-ruled pages. Think about how the information on the page would best serve you visually. When you look at a picture or a diagram, how do you scan for information? Do you notice the details or focus on the whole image?  

Idea Two: The Simple Project Overview  

IT offers many solutions for organizing and time managment. One of the ways I’ve used, which I think is very effective and that my former managing editor Danielle Scott left us for ongoing projects, was to create a spreadsheet as a simple project list. Each row is a different project and each column lists something you need to know: date, project, deadlines, next steps, notes, contact people, whatever, but keep it simple. Within the cells of the spreadsheet, hyperlinks direct you to a myriad of other pages that give more explanation, more details, a form, an example a proposal, etc.  

If you use this method, remember to keep your folders intact and together, or at least put enough information in the cell that you can figure out where to find it. The reason I stopped using this method was that sometimes I would move a document out of folder into a sub-folder, or I’d move files to another hard drive, forgetting they were linked somewhere, and of course, losing the link. Then I’d have a hard time tracking the document back down.   

Idea Three: A Time Map  

This is more complicated, but it combines keeping track of your appointments with your projects and to-do items. One day a few years back, I sat down and drew a picture of my thought-flow process and what I needed to be better organized. I incorporated color and design for project topics to structure what the architecture should be for storing, finding, and retrieving. Since I couldn’t build that program, I went online and searched using key words representing my design. Lo and behold, I found a software program organized almost exactly the way I had drawn my idea, including jewel-colored silos and a background map that funnels info into a pool of information. I was so excited I purchased it immediately. Total waste of money. It was not user-friendly, nor were my thought processes intuitive to its functions—like the way PC and Mac devotees argue over the better system. It was complicated to use, and because there were still glitches in the software, I couldn’t trust that once I learned the system it would retain my setup or all the information I put into it.  

However, what I learned from that experience was what needed to be thought through.  

  1. How do you best utilize and process information?
  2. How do you approach problem-solving?
  3. Do you visualize the big picture or are you more detail-oriented?

In my case, I realized I needed a “time map.” A time map allows me to see what my day, month, year look like, what the major events or deadlines for the day are, and what I need to accomplish that day in order  to meet my goals and follow my life plan. I also see at a glance when I am overcommitting myself.  

In the example below, row 3 is any major project or event for that day. Row 4 contains the hours my student assistants are in the office. Rows 5-10 are appointments. Subsequent rows contain my to-do list. Not shown is column H, which is screen-width, where I list any pending items so I can quickly scan them. I also created a secondary time map for the students, putting their names down the first column, with an overview of their assignments and deadlines for Monday through Friday. Now, at a glance, I can see the big picture for the week, and what’s coming up by scrolling down, thus more easily setting my to-do list to plan goals and priorities.  

Time Map
Example of Time Map with appointments and to-do list combined in a spreadsheet.

I’ve also figured out my “tipping point”—I know I’ll stop using the process when there are too many details and I no longer see the big picture. Keep it simple silly.  

So, how do you organize your life? How do you set up time management parameters? How do you prioritize?  

Have your own activity management tips or stories? Share them in the comments!

Author of the article
Graziadio Business Review
Graziadio Business Review is an online journal that delivers relevant business information and analysis for business, government, and non-profit managers. From accounting and finance to ethics and work/life balance, the Graziadio Business Review extends current business debates in new directions that you can use to advance your business and professional career.
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