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A Simple Mnemonic for Being on Time

Strategies and goals

boarding a train at sunrise

Lateness isn’t an enormously complicated problem, but a lot of us have trouble with it, whether from time to time or on a daily basis. A few years back, I posted How Not to Be Late: The 8 Principles of Being on Time, which has become one of the most popular articles on this site. That post covers the most practical information I can offer about lateness. For most of us, I believe those 8 ideas cover everything we have to do to conquer it.

Yet ideas are one thing, and putting them into practice is another. It takes time, effort, and attention to remember and use new behaviors, while for many of us, all three are in short supply. With that in mind, I put together a mnemonic that covers the four steps we can take to master lateness. I still strongly recommend reading How Not to Be Late, which covers both actions and attitude, but from there we just need a single word. That word is EAST, as in where the sun comes up in the morning (a time of day when lateness is especially common, which I mention in hopes of making the word itself a little easier to remember). Here’s what it stands for:

  • Early planning
  • Advance preparation
  • Set aside time
  • Tackle priorities first

Here’s a bit of explanation for each step:

Early planning: One of the mistakes many of us make is not thinking about being on time until the clock is already ticking. For instance, if I have an hour’s worth of things I really need to do before I leave, and I start 45 minutes before go-time, I’ve made myself late long before I walk out the door. Early planning means being aware of the event, knowing everything I’ll need to do to prepare, and having a good idea of how long getting ready will take.

Advance preparation: We identify the list of things we’ll need to do in the “early planning” step. Advance preparation can cross things off that list long before there’s any danger of lateness. Some examples of things that can be done in advance are gathering information, packing, preparing food, finding items that need to be brought along, planning routes, figuring out travel time, looking up telephone numbers, and picking out clothes.

Set aside time: This item isn’t needed for any task for which we can walk out the door (or pick up the phone) at a moment’s notice, but if we need to get cleaned up or dressed, get information, gather items, take care of things around the house or office, eat, or complete any other tasks before being free to head to the thing we want to be on time for, it’s necessary to set aside enough time to get those tasks done. It’s crucial to identify the true total amount of time that will be needed and to avoid cutting time we’ll need or being overly optimistic. Failing to handle this step well probably causes most incidents of lateness.

Tackle priorities first: When getting ready, starting with the most important tasks can let us be punctual even if something goes wrong or if preparation takes longer than expected. For example, if leaving to catch a train, it makes sense to ensure the ticket is at hand before, say, having a leisurely breakfast. The lower-priority items at the end of the process can often be sped up or skipped, but if we leave the most important tasks for last, that option disappears.

Putting EAST into practice
Using EAST will take a little effort up front: it requires fully understanding each of the points and memorizing the four terms. It won’t help me much to remember “EAST” if I forget what “S” means, for instance.

I’d recommend bookmarking this article, printing it out and putting it up somewhere you can easily refer to it, or to saving it to a smartphone or other device you’ll have on hand when you need it until you have the terms down and you’ve used them a number of times.

As always, please share this article on Facebook, Twitter, or other networks if you find it useful.

Photo by David Ashford

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Overcommitted: Not Enough Time


The problem of overcommitment is the same whether we’re talking about not having enough time to write, not having enough time to exercise, or any other shortage of time. It’s a matter of deciding to take on more than you can reasonably do, and it’s a perennial problem for me.

One of my character flaws
My own experience of overcommitment seems pretty simple: there’s a lot of stuff I’m excited about, and I can’t walk three feet without running into another cool opportunity of some kind. I realize that there should be a non-fiction book about a particular topic, or get a story idea, or come up with an idea for a Web site to help do something that’s hard to do, or think about how I can help a cause that matters to me or improve our house or organize better.

Most of the time, thankfully, I ignore these impulses. I’ve probably thrown away a number of ideas that would have changed my life if I pursued them, but I’ve also thrown away a lot of just-OK or actually-pretty-awful ideas, and I’ve pursued some ideas that have changed my life (like starting intensive reading research about self-motivation or applying to study at Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp back in 2001). The root of the thing is that there will never be enough time to do all the cool things that could be done in the world. In a way, this justifies the fact that we’re all individuals. True, it means we sometimes feel alone and tend to repeat each other’s mistakes over and over, but on the bright side, by each pursuing our separate passions we can collectively do most of the cool things there are to do. If I can’t do all the cool things myself, it’s reassuring to me that someone can.

Just trying to do better doesn’t cut it
In a sense, it occurs to me, overcommitment is a bit like being over-motivated. Unfortunately, the results aren’t all good. Whenever I take on more than I really have time to do, I’m really giving up some of the things I think I’m taking on, because in the end not all of it will get done.

One thing I can do to deal with overcommitment is to become more efficient: to organize my time, focus my efforts, and learn good habits for getting things done, but this doesn’t do anything to address the underlying problem, because when I have more usable time at my disposal, I tend to take on more things to do. Even doing the things I’ve already got on my list tends to lead to me finding new things to do. For instance, I might work on getting the word out about my latest book and in the course of doing that find several new places on the Web where I could get involved and learn something or connect with new people. It’s true that I’m on my guard about that, but I don’t seem to have pared things down to anywhere near a fully manageable level yet. I get a lot done, but I also leave things undone.

Prioritization helps–somewhat
One partly successful way to approach this–and this is an approach I’ve been using a bit–is to get really good at prioritizing. If you prioritize well, then even though you don’t get everything done, at least you get the most important things done, which is great.

Unfortunately, if I take this approach I’ll still have put some effort and attention into the lower-priority things that I never got to, so it’s still wasteful. Also, I won’t be able to say for certain what I will and won’t get done. It’s not very satisfying to have someone say “Can you do this?” and for me to respond “I don’t know: let’s see whether I get to it or not.” I can address that in part by bumping anything I’ve promised anyone to the top, but that means sometimes doing things that aren’t as important just because I talked to someone about them. That’s not the worst fate in the world, but it’s hardly ideal.

Letting go
So really the solution to overcommitment is figuring out what to let go of and consciously letting go of it–keeping the workload down to a manageable level. This has a lot of benefits: you know what you will and won’t be able to do; you can make promises and keep them; you have a lot fewer things to worry about; and you concentrate your efforts on things you’re actually going to finish.

Sadly, this is much easier said than done. Even putting things in priority order is hard, because priorities change over time. Putting things in priority order and then hacking off the bottom of the list seems too painful and destructive to be borne–and yet it also seems like the required behavior. So I’d love to hear your thoughts: how would you change an overcommitted life so that you’d be doing less?

Photo by timailius


Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To Do List

Strategies and goals

Let’s say an important e-mail arrives in your inbox, a message you have to reply to at length or do something about. You don’t want to forget about it, but you can’t take care of it right away, so what do you do? Put a star or a flag on it? Re-mark it unread? Put a post-it note up? Just hope for the best?

E-mail inboxes are lousy to do lists. An item in an inbox might have to do with one major task, a bunch of tasks, a task that could be done very quickly (like a one-sentence reply), or no task at all. It’s very hard to prioritize and sort them. Trying to use e-mails as reminders is kind of like trying to use a cat as a rolling pin: you might be able to make it work, but the process is going to be painful and you might not be happy with the results.

Taming my inbox
Almost a year and a half ago, I finally figured out how to keep my e-mail inbox empty. I don’t know if e-mail affects you the same way it does me, but it used to be that I’d go into my e-mail and immediately feel exhausted by the massive list of subjects I’d left lying around in my inbox. I’d look at the newest things, maybe delete some unimportant notices or spam messages, read anything quick and appealing, and mentally designate other messages to follow up on later.

“Later” would sometimes take weeks. Sometimes it would never come at all.

So e-mails languished in my inbox, growing from tens to hundreds to thousands, a huge mishmash of messages from friends I really wanted to hear from, junk mail, reminders of things to do (or that I had already done, or had let slip past), information I needed, and a lot of other noise. Just looking at it was enough to destroy my motivation for doing anything about it. The job always seemed too big until I finally figured out how it could be done early last year: see “How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty.” My e-mail box was still empty 10 weeks later, and it’s empty today too, though it’s had periods where ten to twenty messages accumulated for a while when I wasn’t being completely vigilant.

(By the way, for a recommendation on free, Web-based e-mail that lends itself to keeping an empty inbox–GMail is no good for this, I’m afraid–see my post “Free Online E-mail to Help You Keep a Clean Inbox.”)

Neat is good, but functional is better
Even with this e-mail organizational systems, I’ve still had trouble sometimes keeping on top of tasks that show up in my inbox. Some have languished in my Reply/Act folder for much too long, while others have been attended to when they weren’t the highest priority at the moment just to get them out of the way. Since I keep a separate task system, having tasks in e-mail too meant that I had to go back and forth between the two systems and try to decide which one had the most important task at the moment. That’s distracting, demotivating, and a pain in the neck. The best way to get things done is to know the one thing you’re going to do next and focus your energies on it alone. Prioritizing tasks needs to be something you can do once and then be done with, not something you have to reevaluate every time you finish something up and are looking for the next priority.

(For how and why to get organized with a kind of task list that actually works, see “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips,” “My Top 1 Task,” “Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule,” “Why Task Lists Fail,” and “Useful Book: Getting Things Done.”)

Making tasks out of e-mails
So what’s the solution? It’s a pretty simple one, actually: when you have an e-mail that needs further action, and when you can’t do that action right away, make a task to remind you to take care of that e-mail (making a note of the e-mail you have on the subject, for reference), then prioritize that task in your task list. If you don’t have a task list, read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done  and start one. It will make your life happier and simpler, believe me.

This approach works regardless of whether you keep an empty inbox like I do.

I know that making tasks for e-mails may feel like extra work, but the amount of effort involved is hardly anything, and keeping everything in your task list means the end of a lot of distraction, annoyance, and potential anxiety from having to remember and review multiple places that each might have things needing to be done. If you prefer not to go to the trouble of keeping a clean inbox, this approach even frees you from having to worry about whether your inbox is empty or not because you no longer have to worry you’ll forget about the important e-mails buried in with all the other stuff.

Photo by Darcie


You Can’t Do All That Stuff at Once! (And Neither Can I)

Strategies and goals

I love organization. Seriously. Not in an OCD, “wait, wait, that doesn’t go there!” kind of way (I think my girlfriend is laughing at this point, but let’s please disregard that), but in a “wow, now I don’t have to spend time worrying about all that crap because I’m taking care of it!” kind of way. I love looking at an empty inbox: see “How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty“–more than a year later, this is still working as originally planned. I love to check Todoist, my preferred freebie task management system, and realizing that I’ve actually done everything necessary to keep the world from exploding for the next little while.

Yet organization gets away from me, and my problem is simply losing confidence in my system.

How to undermine an organizational system
For instance, I’ll look at my inbox, and there will be several things I would like to respond to soon. Sometimes I succumb to temptation and leave those things in my inbox, since “surely I’ll get to them soon.” Sometimes I even do get to some of them soon, and off they go into my “already read” folder or the trash bin. Other times, though–many, many other times–I won’t get to them soon, and they will linger in my inbox until I get real, actually take the steps, and put them where it really goes (often in my “Reply/Act” folder, while other times an item may need to be briefly read and then added to my Todoist task list).

Similarly, sometimes in Todoist I’ll let several things pile up in my Top 1 category, and before I know it I’ll have a list that stretches off the page–and “Top 1” is the place I’m supposed to be able to look to know exactly what I need to do next!

Confidence making confidence possible
The problem with “yeah, but”ing my organizational systems isn’t just that it holds up dealing with the items I’m not handling properly: it’s that it chokes up the whole system. If I’m preoccupied with trying to decide on which, if any, of the dozen e-mails in my inbox to respond to, then that means I’m not paying proper attention to my “Reply/Act” folder or periodically reviewing my Pending folder, and at that point the whole thing falls down. Only when everything gets sorted into its rightful place does the system really work again.

To put it another way, if I don’t continually show complete confidence in my organizational systems by following them even if I’m worried about one particular item or another, this will tend to undermine the whole system and make it fail. It’s natural to worry about individual things getting lost in an organizational system, since we focus on one thing at a time and tend to minimize the importance of other things while we’re doing it, and since most of us have a lot of experience with failed organization systems in the past, even if our present systems are working beautifully. Yet there’s still no reason to jump ship and land back in the Sea of Chaos.

Taking the steps
None of the complications of not sticking to an organizational system should surprise me. After all, in my post “Why Task Lists Fail,” I specifically point out how not prioritizing (that is, not sticking with a clear and effective organizational system) is the kiss of death to a task list.

In asking myself “Are you taking the steps?” recently I was immediately forced to confront this situation. I did a little triage on my task list and the one inbox (out of two) that wasn’t already cleared out, and literally within a few minutes, I was back on track. This doesn’t mean that I was caught up on everything I needed to do, only that I had my ducks in a row after that so that I would know what that next thing was. If I don’t know what specific thing to do next, how can I get that thing done?

Photo by iBjorn

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