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How to Control Your Day Before It Controls You

Your success is limited by how well you can balance driving your own agenda along with being responsive to others.

If you allow yourself to be knocked off track by everyone else’s requests, you won’t get done what YOU need to get done–and that will hold you back.

But if you are not responsive to others–like your boss, your colleagues, and your customers–then you will not be able to garner the support needed to be successful in your own endeavors.

Stretching your time and energy thin to “do it all” creates anxiety and exhaustion, which ultimately defeats you on both fronts. You might get everything done, but you become miserable and resentful.

A smarter strategy is to develop a practice of weaving priorities and responding to demands with more nuance. This takes time and effort, but it’s also foundational.

If you can build and hone this capability, you will be more effective AND avoid straining yourself out.

Here is what I have learned in this struggle, which has helped me enormously. I hope it will help you too.

Everyone else is disorganized too

First of all, it may be necessary to let go of the illusion that you are the only person who doesn’t have their shit together. Everyone struggles with this balancing act, even if it doesn’t always look that way.

Once you realize this, you can be less hard on yourself. There is no need to compare yourself to some mythical state where it all works perfectly.

Perhaps more importantly, you will be able to recognize that there is a distinction between appearing to have things well in hand and the messier reality that may lurk behind the scenes.

People have told me that I’m the most organized person they know. This amazed and confused me every time I heard it. Because any desk, office, or filing cabinet I have ever occupied has papers and things strewn about in meaningless piles. The same mess surrounds my personal items at home.

Eventually, I realized that what people saw from me was clear, complete, and focused thinking around projects and plans and execution. I usually presented this thinking on well-formatted documents while dressed neatly and projecting confidence. They never saw the struggle behind the scenes, only the result.

The way you appear to others is important, but it doesn’t solve the issues of stress and time management behind the scenes. We’ll get to that in a moment.

The important point here, I realized, is that cultivating an image of being on top of things gives you power in negotiating and influencing others. The way you are perceived can help you to manage your own behind the scenes balancing act.

It’s easier to react than it is to act

For many of us, it is easier to react than it is to act. Taking a leadership role in everything you do requires consistent energy and attention. Decision making and diligence are draining. Fighting the fire of the day is in many ways easier and more comforting, even though we may say (and tell ourselves) otherwise.

I find it energizing when something urgent and unexpected happens. It’s a chance for real-time creative problem solving and “saving the day.” That’s usually way more interesting than the boring stuff I had planned. 

But it’s that boring stuff that pays the larger dividends in the long run. Anyone who has achieved anything will tell you that it is the result of laborious efforts on mundane tasks. Frequently displacing these important but not urgent tasks are precisely what stifles our success in driving ourselves forward.

Taking responsibility is the only solution

The only way to make sure you hit your personal goals while satisfying the needs of others is to put yourself squarely in charge of the matter.

Taking responsibility for this means tactical planning day in and day out. It means deciding what the most important task of the day is each day and then making sure that it gets done. 

You can’t afford to drown yourself in a long and unrealistic to-do list. You must take responsibility for DECIDING the number one priority each day. You have to make strategic choices, which means there will be trade-offs. You will make mistakes, but you will learn from them and you will improve how you approach these choices in the future.

Through these efforts you will be able to more confidently project a sense of being on top of things. You will be far more intimately familiar with what you are trying to do, what roadblocks are in the way, and how your tactical efforts need to be adjusted. This enables you to be more realistic in your assessment of things and in the promises you make to others. Perhaps most critically, it will provide you with tremendous insight with which to query others about what they are asking of you.

The more you realize what it takes to drive things forward, the more you will be able to help others to triage, define, and plan their work. You will likely find that many people come to you with requests that are not well-formed or completely thought through. As you help them review and refine what they are asking from you, it helps you to navigate and negotiate the best way to respond. This helps you manage your todo list more competently while also adding more value than acting simply as an “order taker.”

In the end, taking control of your own agenda is an act of leadership–leading yourself and others toward  a more productive and better organized way of working.