5 Steps to Taking Charge of Your Time

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After graduating from college in 2002, I enrolled in a contemporary dance BFA program in Montreal. My favorite instructor was a petite and dynamic member of the Marie Chouinard Dance Company. Annabelle’s mother tongue was French, but she taught in English. Her class started at 8:00 AM sharp every day, 5 days a week. We did our best to follow her, but it was early, and we were tired.  One particularly sluggish morning, Annabelle started impatiently shaking her head. She then proceeded to jump up and down and yell,

“You must grab the beast by its corns!”

Um. What?

Annabelle was trying to say “take the bull by its horns.” She wanted us to understand that to move forward we needed to squeeze everything out of the time we had. Every day. No exceptions.  Her phrasing was off (and invariably caused us to chuckle) but her admonition to show up ready to focus stuck with me.

I stopped dancing a long time ago, but I still often think of Annabelle and her insistence that we fiercely grab every moment by the horns (or corns as it may be). I think of Annabelle when I spend half of my productive working hours mindlessly cycling through all my social media accounts. Annabelle pops into my mind when I allow my morning to be fractured by the urge to respond to every email and text message on the spot (rather than batching them). I see Annabelle’s frustrated face when I forget to take a moment to assess if that “urgent matter” at work can wait until later.  

Grabbing the beast by its corns means using my time deliberately. Not because I am a productivity freak and workaholic. On the contrary.  I focus intensely on my work precisely so that I have time for other things I love: going for a walk in the woods, reading a novel on the couch, or weeding my prized Hokkaido squash plants. In short, I tightly grab hold of the corns during short intense bursts of productivity, so I can fully let go the rest of the time.

Proactively planning my week is the most effective way I have found to judiciously use my time.  Here are the steps I take so I don't get lost in the whirl of busy-ness:

  1. Every Monday morning I take ten to fifteen minutes to review my larger goals. I then fill out my weekly schedule.

  2. I always start by protecting the asset. This means the first thing I do is block off times for exercise, meditation, meal preparation and mindful eating.

  3. Next, I make sure to block off time for the important people in my life.

  4. Now comes the tricky part: I schedule large chunks of time for my productive work, the kind of work that requires concentrated effort. Productive work is the work that will move me forward in my career. In my case, it’s writing articles and conceptualizing new classes and workshops. For others, this might be drawing new illustrations or editing their films. I get the best results when I schedule my productive work session at the start of the day, ideally before I’ve even checked my email. During my productive work sessions, I commit to switching off my phone and logging off my email and social media accounts.

  5. Finally, I schedule time at the end of my productive work sessions and in the evenings (times when my brain is too tired for productive work) for what I call mindless tasks. Mindless tasks include answering emails, formatting my articles, looking up citations, paying bills and so forth.

Without a plan and a clear sense of what is important, it’s easy to waste time mindlessly reacting to other people’s agendas or compulsively checking your Instagram account.

Try planning out your week this way and see if it helps you grab the beast by its corns.

There is no way around it:  if you don’t take charge of your time, someone or something else will.

Have you found other useful strategies to help you manage your workflow? I’d love to hear about them.