This second part of the course examines the more practical aspects to developing your autonomy. In this first chapter, we'll make your diary your ally!
The schedule defines the timeframe within which you work. Suffice it to say that, so long as you work autonomously, the boundaries between private and professional life can become hazy. An overlapping of activity and working time can, very quickly, cause symptoms of stress and exhaustion.
If you're independent, you’ll tend to devote most of your time to your specialism. Some people are very at ease in developing and marketing their business; whereas others realise themselves more in production. However, a large majority forget to allow for administration. Efficiency in this area can conserve your time and energy. 😊
Keep a diary
A diary, whether it’s paper or digital, still has its place in helping you stay on course. It’s up to you to choose the format that’s best for you. Once you've found it, centralise everything in the same place. The profusion of diaries using various media (CRM, paper diary etc.) and the multiple entries can get you really muddled and, even worse, waste time!
What do I need to write in my diary?
Everything! Include all planned activities (appointments, meetings, telephone appointments etc.) as well as free periods for yourself, time for reflection, alone and relaxation time.
Here are some other useful tips:
Assign a different colour code to your various tasks so that you can, at a glance visualise your day or your week. For example: green for appointments, red for production, blue for leisure, etc.
Be careful to anticipate overlaps. For example, travel time between two appointments that you don’t have complete control of, or the conference call that starts late and affects the start of the next activity.
Also, it’s better to allow a safety margin for unknown events to avoid any overrun. Multiply your first estimate by 1.5 for a task you know well, and by 2.5 for a new task. For example: you have to draft a file, something you’re used to doing. You estimate that it will take two hours. So, set aside 3 hours (2 hours x 1.5) in your diary.
Finally, even if others can make appointments for you, tell them that it’s subject to confirmation. To this end, online invitations like Google Agenda are very useful.
Mark out your playing field!
At some time or another, you will have to face multiple instructions that will upset your initial forecast. For example, you have a full workload but are given a last-minute assignment and a task you hadn’t identified which will quickly become time-consuming (e.g. an unanticipated report that has to be produced).
These uncertainties, which change the conditions of implementation, imply that you need to be able to realistically manage and reorganise things to best meet the requirements of your various clients and, above all, to avoid pointless stress.
Here are a few possible tools to frame your work:
List your tasks in advance
From the time you negotiate your assignment, list everything you can think of in detail to avoid problems of overlap.
If you’re working for yourself: it allows you to make the most exact estimate of the workload and give your client a precise calculation.
If you are an employee: using factual and shared data, it will also be easier for you to discuss and negotiate any necessary adjustment to your work with your employer.
The task file is the perfect tool for allowing you to design your workload and give a management overview.
There are also very practical tools available for:
Seeing all the tasks to be done at a glance;
Dividing up the work into components that are easier to analyse and control;
Drawing up a rational plan to organise the timing of tasks when creating the schedule.
Track your tasks
If your project is a complex one, don’t hesitate to produce an organisation chart of tasks (also known by the name of “OT” or “WBS” - Work Breakdown Structure). Using this will allow you to allocate the financial, human and technical resources needed as well as the time it will take to carry out each task in the WBS.
If your project is more simple, you can rely on task management tools (to-do lists). There are many of these online with various functions.
Mind map tools are also very effective. There are many free options to choose from, as well as web apps – both offline and online. If there are security concerns, it's best to choose offline tools. Consider Coggle, FreeMind, MindMapple, XMind or Spiderscribe to name a few.
Don’t hesitate to also list, in a not-to-do list, the things to stop doing in order to stay focused.
Parkinson's Law, or the law of expansion states that: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
That means that if you allow half a day for a task, it will take you half a day. But, if you schedule a day for it, you will effectively spend a day on it. The task expands to occupy all the available time!
In order to be more efficient, don’t hesitate to set yourself timescales and to think in relation to the time that it will take you, and not the time you have available to devote to it. ☺️
Give yourself priorities
Here’s a table to help you in your daily choices:
Level of importance
Degree of urgency
I do it
I plan it
I delegate it
I delay it
Observe how you manage your tasks, in order to reduce the discrepancies between real work and prescribed work.
Using a spreadsheet, note the time forecasted and the time actually spent on a task. Make a diagram to visualise the trends and measure the discrepancies. Then try to analyse the causes of overload. There must be an explanation:
Were you being regularly interrupted?
Was it a new activity that required longer than anticipated to complete?
Was it an activity that you find difficult and would be better not to pursue?
Far be it from you to procrastinate!
The biologist Henri Laborit (made famous by the film My American Uncle by Alain Resnais) dedicated his life to the study of human behaviour. He showed that humans are endowed with a biological survival programme that makes them flee stress and prioritise the seeking of pleasure. This law was popularised under the name of “the law of least effort”. It mirrors Freud’s ‘Pleasure/Pain Principle,’ whereby we prefer to seek immediate gratification and avoid what is painful with delayed gratification.
Thus, to be more efficient, we need to counter our natural instincts and deal effectively with what feels more difficult. For example, it’s better to start with the painful or difficult tasks first before we deal with what interests us more!
Put another way:
If you follow your natural inclination and postpone boring tasks, you’ll rush at the last moment and botch them.
Solutions: be hard on yourself, reward yourself once it’s done, act quickly (immediate action).
Here’s some advice to apply to your daily life:
1. Free your mind
How many tasks and projects do you have to accomplish in your work life, especially if you are slashing between several assignments and employers? A hundred? Two hundred? In your personal life, how many uncompleted tasks and aborted projects can you count? And how many are there in relation to your leisure interests and your friends?
Take a moment to add up all those things that clutter up your mind and you probably come to a number between 500 and 1,000.
Experience teaches us that the human mind can only juggle a limited number of tasks or activities. How does that overload affect your work?
Your attention is constantly wandering. The mere accumulation of activities can distract you from what you have to do. You probably can't concentrate on your immediate obligations because you are distracted by your unfinished tasks.
If you want to avoid work overload, get rid of the minor tasks that weigh you down and divert you from what is essential. Draw up a list of them and take a moment to sort them out one by one.
By eliminating the overload and distractions, your level of concentration will rise again. You’ll often complete the work you’ve begun better and faster.
2. Find a solution to problems as soon as they arise
Get into the habit of acting instantly and dealing with problems before they become a crises. You'll have lost less time and you'll be able to concentrate on the more important things.
3. Get rid of the backlog of work
If you’ve run up a serious backlog, deal with it first before you tackle anything else.
Identify your backlog;
Decide which of the overdue tasks need to be treated as priorities;
Allow a certain amount of time each day to clear part of your backlog;
Work out what caused such a situation;
Take steps to avoid it recurring.
A backlog of work forces you to concentrate your attention on the past and diverts it from the present and the future.
Imagine that you’re running a race: the starting line is the present and the finish line is the future. If, instead of starting from the present, you start from the past, you’ll have a longer road to travel to arrive at your goal.
4. Deal with the most onerous task first
Everyone tends to put off unpleasant tasks for later without considering the consequences. People who put things off for later are often obsessed by the incomplete work. That guilt makes them lose time and slows down their activity even more.
Consider the problems that you’ve encountered. Does thinking about them get you anywhere? The solution didn’t start to appear until you set to work.
Certain tasks that we anticipate weigh heavily on our consciousness and create avoidable stress.
Mark Twain said: “If you have two frogs to swallow, hurry up and eat the big one first." Its a strange but memorable quote, perhaps, but, If you have the choice, start each day by sorting out the most unpleasant task. Not only will you find the next one far less onerous, but you’ll grow in confidence.
Working autonomously implies having your time well-structured and prioritised. Efficient use of your diary will give you a framework in which to situate your various tasks. It’s also a matter of self-discipline, on a daily basis, to deal with all your activities as they arise, without waiting until the last moment.