Taking Control of My Time: The Power of Productivity Challenge

Written by Rachel Bauer, co-founder, Gild Collective. Photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash.

I am the co-founder and co-owner of a small business, a mother to a toddler, a spouse, a member of a large and mostly local family, and an involved friend. Over the past several months, it has felt like life has been spiraling, and each day my time felt less and less my own to control. I work from home with part-time childcare, and had been struggling more and more with balancing my emotional labor (aka “invisible work”) with my professional and personal life. This struggle is certainly not unique to me – many women find it difficult to manage their time as they are constantly bouncing from role to role, task to task. 

The event promised organizational skills and productivity strategies to take control of my time. I immediately and desperately registered. 

As my stress began to build, my ability to control and be productive with my time hit a new low. I would start each day with a large “to-do list” and accomplish next to nothing. Unsurprisingly, I began to feel depressed and to lose hope in ever getting out of my hole. By an amazing coincidence, it was on one of my lowest days that I received an email from my co-founder Kelsey inviting me to attend a Cincinnati Business Courier Classroom event called “Fueling Personal Productivity for Company-Wide Impact.” Hosted by professional organizer Elisabeth Galperin of Turn Leaf Organizing, the event promised organizational skills and productivity strategies to take control of my time, space, and information. I immediately and desperately registered. 

The Power of Productivity: My Personal Challenge

Elisabeth’s workshop delivered on its promise and more. She began by asking us to define what inhibits our personal and professional productivity, and then spent two hours delivering actionable strategies to combat those barriers. My list of “ideas to try” after the workshop had over ten items on it, but rather than get overwhelmed and try everything at once, I decided to start strong by challenging myself to a “productivity hack.” For two weeks, I would institute the following behaviors to see how my life was impacted: 

  • Morning & Evening Routines

    • One of my biggest takeaways from Elisabeth’s session was my total and complete lack of routine. It’s difficult to institute a routine when my schedule, including childcare availability, changes so much on a daily basis, but I had clear opportunities to institute a routine at the beginning and end of each of my days (personally and professionally). After the session, I created the following plan for establishing a morning and evening routine:

      • Exercise first thing – I love to exercise, but realized that I don’t have time for it during the day. When I had been feeling stressed and overwhelmed, I would work out at 2 p.m. This is NOT conducive to a productive workday, so for two weeks, I would commit to establishing a morning workout routine, starting at 6 a.m. (on weekdays – I’m not insane).

      • Uninterrupted time with my daughter – On days that my daughter goes to the sitter, I baked in time from 7:30 to 8 a.m. when I would hang out with her and not worry about anything else. 

      • Preview my work day – At the beginning of each day, I would see which tasks I had blocked (more on that below) for which times. I would anticipate any interruptions or distractions and make adjustments to my schedule based on meeting changes or the like. In essence, I would spend a few minutes each day getting a handle on what the day was going to look like. 

      • Close out my work day – This may seem intuitive, but ask any entrepreneur about it and they’ll tell you it doesn’t come naturally. Workdays for entrepreneurs tend to stretch into work nights regularly. Because I am never productive at night, even at my best, I would spend purposeful time each day closing out my work. This would include taking stock of what I had accomplished that day and planning what still needed to be done for later in the week.

  • Rethink My Tasks, Reset my Priorities

    • For years Kelsey and I had tracked our tasks in the same way, but my recent productivity slump told me it was time for a change. Rather than lumping all of my tasks for a given week together, Elisabeth inspired me to begin identifying a “big three.” My “big three” tasks are the most important and essential things to get done in a given week. Other tasks on my list might be important, and they may even be time sensitive, but priority in scheduling and headspace should always go to the big three first. For me, the big three were going to be the tasks that most directly support Gild Collective’s vision, mission, and goals (so most likely client work or new product development).

  • Weekly Planning Session: Time Blocking 

    • As I have mentioned, my schedule changes every day due to childcare and work factors, so a traditional time blocking approach where I do the same thing during the same time windows each day of the week would not work for me (and hasn’t in the past). Instead, on Monday mornings, rather than exercise, I would still wake up at my normal early hour and spend that time planning my week. I would assess my scheduled meetings and plot all of my tasks on my calendar for the week. I would do so realistically – meaning that I would bake in time for my beginning and end of day routines, breaks, travel time, and the like. My days would be set with a schedule, taking out a lot of guesswork on how to spend my time. 

My Results 

As I said, I dedicated myself to implementing these new behaviors for a two-week period. While I did not perform all of my strategies perfectly, I am proud to say that I have stuck with (almost) all of them and have seen great results: 

  • Morning & Evening Routines

    • Implementing these routines has truly changed my life. 

      • Exercise first thing – I am invigorated beginning my day with exercise, and less stressed because I am not worrying about when I will get it done. There were a few hiccups throughout the few weeks, such as my daughter getting sick overnight and throwing my plans to wake up at 5:30 AM out the window. But for the most part, I’m thrilled with my results. 

      • Uninterrupted time with my daughter – Having dedicated time each morning to focus on my daughter and not worry about my work day has been perhaps the most positive of all the changes I’ve made. 

      • Preview my work day – I no longer feel disorganized and flustered throughout the day because I know what is coming when, and I have anticipated interruptions. It has not been perfect, but it’s been great nonetheless. 

      • Close out my work day – I haven’t worked at night in a significant way in over two weeks. By entrepreneurship standards this is gold. 

  • Rethink My Tasks, Reset my Priorities

    • I have struggled with sticking to my “big three” tasks because most of the time they are the most time consuming and intimidating task on my list. It is also challenging to figure out how to prioritize the big three items while also finishing other time-sensitive tasks efficiently. That being said, simply identifying the most important and mission-driven tasks on my list has been enlightening and caused me to focus more than I had in years! 

  • Weekly Planning Session: Time Blocking 

    • Life-changing. There have certainly been days, or even several days in a row, where my blocks have been set completely off-kilter. But having tasks mapped out with realistic time blocks to complete them has allowed me to move things around when needed and be honest with myself about what I can get done. It has made me much more organized than I ever thought I could be in just two weeks. 

Even when nothing goes according to plan, having a plan at all is what matters the most.

My Key Takeaway 

My productivity hack didn’t go perfectly. I made mistakes and I certainly still got distracted. But my biggest takeaway from the entire progress is that preparation doesn’t need to result in perfection. Even when nothing goes according to plan, having a plan at all is what matters the most. Why? Because having a plan empowers you to see the whole picture, and only by having a firm plan can you be agile in shifting it when needed rather than panicking. Taking five minutes to make a plan will result in hours of time saved from unnecessary stress. And what could be more valuable than time?