Tips On Getting Things Done For The Person Already Stretched

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I am a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional stories about Middle-Earth. There are times where Tolkien paints a picture with words by putting down a phrase that leaves you with more of an impression than outright explicit description. Thus it is when Bilbo describes how his considerable years are wearing on him.

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter, scraped over too much bread.”
Bilbo Baggins on the occasion of his 111st Birthday - J.R.R. Tolkien

Although I’m far from my one hundred-and-eleventieth birthday, there are days when I know exactly what Tolkien was getting at when he put those words in Bilbo’s mouth. There is too much that is expected of a person who has a job (or in my case, jobs), a family, and a faith in the context of a “right now” world that’s always pushing onto the next big thing with the hope instant gratification.

I have been asked several times over the years how I’ve managed to accomplish certain goals, or (essentially the same question) how I find the time to do certain of the things that I do. The answer is easy enough to articulate, but it’s also complicated. The answer is not simply “just do it,” despite the bravado of some marketing slogans.

  • Choose. If you have your eyes set on a specific goal, then there are choices you must make. As it’s unlikely you have great swaths of time waiting for you to fill them with activity, you’ll need to give something up to have the time needed to meet your goal. For example, when I’m blogging, I’m not watching TV. If I try to do both at once, I fail at both. I can’t follow the TV programming if I’m trying to write. I can’t write if my train of thought is constantly interrupted by incoming sights and sounds from the TV. A choice must be made.
  • Sacrifice. When you make a choice necessitated by a finite amount of time available to you, something else will be sacrificed. Do you sacrifice time with your family? Following your favorite sport? Working at your hobby? Playing at your recreation? Sleep? Maybe you postpone a wedding to finish an advanced degree. Getting something done will require that you are committed enough to hit the reset button on your life in such a way that you can make progress towards your goal. The really hard determination is in what to sacrifice. There are no easy answers.
  • Prioritize. Don’t sacrifice your existing family. Your kids need you to be aware of them, as well as being truly interactive and tuned in. That’s hard even when you’re not trying to accomplish something unusual. Don’t ignore your wife just so that you can go after your goal – she needs your love and attention. Don’t ignore your husband – he needs to understand that you admire him more than you admire the dreamed-of plaque you’ll hang on the wall when you’ve made it to the end. There is no goal worth sacrificing your family for. If you’ve got a family, then raising that family IS your goal to achieve, and one that’s remarkably challenging to do well. So yes, prioritize your life so that you can meet your goals, but not at the expense of commitments you’ve already made.
  • Plan. Any worthy goal must have a well-written plan that you will follow. Without a plan, you’re running blindly with no sense of direction, just a vague hope that somehow you’ll make it across the finish line. You won’t. You must write down specific steps to make this happen. For example, I wished to complete a double major in four years of college, as opposed to five or six. To accomplish this, as a freshman I sat and planned out every semester, populating a list of what classes I would have to take in what order, and then got a stamp of approval for that plan from my alma mater. Then I followed that plan diligently for four years. Another example is that a couple of years ago, I signed up with a church program to read the Bible through in ninety days. This required a very simple but very necessary plan. What will I read on what day, so at the end of ninety days, I will have completed reading the entire Bible?
  • Commit. Once you’ve got the plan in place, you must follow the plan. You must be committed to each step along the way. You’ll be tempted to slack off a day here and there, but those small choices to ignore the plan prolong the achievement of the goal. That doesn’t mean your plan won’t need some tuning. Plans tend to be overambitious at the outset, might fail to take into account circumstances of life beyond your control, or could miss important steps you didn’t think of or were unaware of. Therefore, you’ll doubtless have to make some adjustments. But if you’re truly committed, then you’ll find that you won’t need to make too many changes.
  • Focus. I tend to get work done in concentrated bursts. When I have a task to achieve, as perhaps laid out in a plan, I shut out the rest of the world until that task is completed. No social networking. No e-mail. No funny cat videos. No TV. Probably some music from the Baroque or early Classical eras in my earbuds to drown out the local cacophony while not being in and of itself distracting.
  • Sleep. Top tip – if you decided that sleep was the thing you’re going to sacrifice to achieve your goal, you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t sleep enough, eventually your mind and body will betray you. For me, I become mildly depressed when not sleeping, and my attitude turns negative towards the world around me. My thoughts are dark. I become exasperated easily. I am overwhelmed or annoyed by tasks that are normally routine. I am suspicious of others and their motives. I doubt my own abilities or place in the world. Once I’m caught up on my sleep? Life is back to normal again, and my views are much more balanced. A lack of sleep will indeed put more hours back into your day, but I argue that those hours will come at the cost of your mental well-being and overall productiveness.

With these steps in place, you should find that you’re making steady progress towards your goal, despite being a busy person stretched beyond their ability to cope at times. It’s true what they say – you can do anything you set your mind to.

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Comments

  1. says

    I really liked this article. As one who is missing a few hours in each day (we need 27 hour days) I appreciated some of the insights and comments. Thanks.

  2. says

    Thanks Ethan, for sharing this. I’ve always been someone who could pick things up easily, which, I’m discovering now, has had some downsides I wasn’t previously aware of. I never developed any real study habit/pattern at school – either I wasn’t paying attention on the day they taught this important skill (likely), or it wasn’t part of the curriculum (not as likely). I did well at school regardless, but that lack of discipline is catching up with me now, much later in life.

    In any case, I now find the road ahead paved with vendor certifications (required by my employer) and other constant study needed to fill gaps in my fundamental networking knowledge and, well, it’s really quite daunting. This post has inspired me and, more importantly, given me the kick-in-the-butt to get better organised about what needs doing and how to approach it. Thanks again.

    • says

      Ben – I identify well with what you’re saying. School was never overly challenging for me, at least as far as understanding what was being taught. I was guilty too often of wrecking the grading curve, that kind of thing. I never liked rote memorization, though – no interest in memorizing arcane facts I’ll just be able to look up if I ever actually need to know them. When it comes to vendor certs, too often that’s what you need to do to get past the test. Just learn tedious facts. And yep, that takes discipline…yuck. I’m struggle with self-discipline too, and thus…the plan.

      I don’t HAVE to do any certs this year. but I want to. I need to recert on CCIE I suppose, but no one’s making me. There’s a number of security certs I’d like to do. But I haven’t quite been able to push myself beyond the “I want to” stage into the “I have a plan” stage.

      I think maybe I was trying to get back into that mindset needed to get a cert done when I wrote this. It’s not like I don’t know how to do them…just finding the motivation is hard lately.

      • says

        “When it comes to vendor certs, too often that’s what you need to do to get past the test. Just learn tedious facts.”

        …VCP…

        I hear you regarding motivation. For me I believe it’s got to do with anxiety. I love to learn and I’m still fascinated by networking, naturally :) However, it seems that learning something because I “have to,” whether it be to pass an exam or not, introduces a level of anxiety to the study process that makes study more difficult and harder to enjoy.

        Life is a classroom :) It seems learning how to learn isn’t the obvious cliche a much younger version of me once though it was.

        I’ve picked up some good tips from this post, from within the podcasts, as well as the blog posts on PacketPushers. Now it’s time to implement and hope that it makes a difference for 2012!

  3. says

    You had me at J.R.R. Tolkein! And that is one of my favorite quotes, I’ve used it often myself! Your tips are all very good, especially the last one …sleep. That’s where I find myself cutting corners when I’m busy. Kind of self defeating when you think about it!