By Eric Barker
February 26, 2016
MOTTO
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Your life is busy. Work/life balance is a challenge. You feel like you’re spreading yourself so thin that you’re starting to disappear.

Most of us feel that way. But not all of us. The most organized people don’t.

As NYT bestselling author and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains, the VIP’s he’s met don’t seem scattered and frantic.

They’re calm, cool and “in the moment”, not juggling nine things and worried about being done by 7PM.

It’s not hard to figure out why: they have help — aides and assistants to take care of these things so the VIP can be “in the moment.”

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

Must be nice since you and I have to multitask and cut things short to try and get everything done, stressing the whole time.

But here’s the thing: You can be like that too. And it doesn’t require a staff of 10.

So who is your assistant? You are. Then who’s the VIP? You are. (Yes, I am actively encouraging you to develop a split personality.)

With enough planning ahead of time, you can make sure you’re as calm and organized as the President of the United States.

(For more on what the most productive people do, click here.)

We just need to get a few systems in place ahead of time. What’s the first step?

Related posts: 6 Things The Most Productive People Do Every Day

1) The VIP’s Brain Is Empty. And That’s A Good Thing.
The President of the United States is not desperately trying to remember his to-do list.

He has outsourced to his staff all the things that come next so he can focus 100% on what’s in front of him.

No, you don’t have a group of aides but there’s still a key principle you can use: Get it out of your head.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

Everything you’re worried about, every to-do, every concern gets written down in one place.

One. Not scattered across a notepad at home, your iPad in the office, your email inbox, sticky notes on your monitor, and your unreliable memory.

That scattering makes you wonder if you’ve forgotten something — and research shows it produces anxiety.

So get it out of your head and on one list. Afterwards, Getting Things Done author David Allen says break it up into 4 categories:

  1. Do it
  2. Delegate it
  3. Defer it
  4. Drop it

Once you have those 4 lists you know what you actually need to do and it’s all in one place. Just having that list is a big step toward VIP cool.

Why does this work? There’s some neuroscience behind it. Writing things down deactivates “rehearsal loops.”

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

Research shows that when you leave things unfinished and worry, it actually makes you stupid. Solution? Write it all down.

(For more on how the great geniuses of history leverage notebooks, click here.)

So you got all the to-do’s out of your brain and onto a list. You know what can be delegated, deferred and dropped — and what you actually need to do.

Now how do you get through the day like a calm VIP?

2) “Mr. President, Your Next Meeting Is About To Begin”
The President of the United States doesn’t check his watch. He’s scheduled down to the minute and aides tell him when it’s time to go.

You may not have assistants but any smartphone has alarms and reminders.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

Ironically, your phone probably interrupts you with unimportant texts, emails, and status updates — but not about the key priorities for your day.

Few of us have our calendar so organized ahead of time that we can let it dictate all our actions moment to moment.

What’s the key? Alarms don’t work with to-do lists.

As Cal Newport recommends, assign every to-do a block of time on your calendar. Then you can gauge how much you can actually get done:

You’re less likely to procrastinate when an activity has an assigned block of time, because the decision was already made.

And once it has a time block, you can be the VIP. Alarms allow your mind to be calm knowing you’ll be reminded about the next thing.

(For more on the schedule successful people follow every day, click here.)

I know what some of you are thinking: But I get interrupted. I get distracted.

But there’s a way to deal with interruptions — even if you don’t have a Secret Service detail to keep people out of your office.

3) Set Up Filters
Every morning the President gets a top secret document with everything he needs to know from the agencies beneath him.

What’s key isn’t what the document contains, it’s what it doesn’t contain: 50 status updates, 100 tweets, 10 cat pictures and 1000 unimportant emails.

He can focus on what matters because he isn’t distracted by what doesn’t. Meanwhile, you probably feel overwhelmed by information.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

“I have information overload!”, you scream. But as technology visionary Clay Shirky says, “It’s not information overload; it’s filter failure.”

Your attention is limited and valuable. You need less information. You need good filters.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

A good low-tech solution is to hide for part of the day. I’m as serious as a heart attack. Go where people cannot reach you and get solid work done.

That’s not an option for everyone. I get it. No problem. But people who feel technology has left them overloaded with information are using it wrong.

Use technology like a DVR to time-shift your communications. People should reach you when you want them to, not when they want to.

Handle all communications in specified “batches“: a set time when you check email, voicemail, etc.

Some people say, “I can’t do that.” But you probably can do it more than you think, especially early and late in the day.

Maybe your boss wants you ridiculously responsive. Fine. Set up an email filter so only the boss’s emails get through immediately.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

(For more on how to achieve work/life balance, click here.)

So you’ve got reminders and filters and you’re not running around worried anymore.

But when you sit down to work you realize there is still just too much to do. How can you keep calm when there are so many decisions to make?

Related posts: 8 Things The World’s Most Successful People All Have In Common

4) The Incredible Power of “Good Enough”
The President doesn’t make little decisions. The thousands of people working under him handle those so only the big stuff bubbles up to his agenda.

But given you don’t have thousands of people working under you (or maybe any for that matter) you handle every decision, business and personal.

As I’ve said before, “You can do anything once you stop trying to do everything.” Be a perfectionist about it all and you’ll have a nervous breakdown.

Save your limited decision-making power for the things that matter. Everything else should be “satisficed.”

What is satisficing? It’s the art of quickly picking the option that is “good enough.” And research shows it’s the path to productivity — and happiness.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

Will this decision result in you losing your job? No? Then opt for the “good enough” solution and focus on what matters most.

(For more on what the most successful people all have in common, click here.)

Your boss’s priorities change midday. More stuff keeps getting added to your list. How can this not throw a monkeywrench into your well-laid plan?

5) “Mr. President, There’s Been A Change…”
When changes come up for the Commander-in-Chief he shifts seamlessly because his aides have already revised the day’s plans. So he stays calm.

You can stay cool too, but it requires a little bit more effort. New things will come in, priorities will change and you need to process and adapt.

Always have your notebook ready to capture new ideas and to-do’s.

And throughout the day you need moments of triage and “active sorting” where you restructure the list from your big brain dump.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

Once you update your list, apply the Eisenhower Matrix.

When you know which category everything fits into, you can attack the list in a prioritized way.

(For more on how Navy SEALs, Astronauts and Samurai make good decisions, click here.)

Okay, you are master of your schedule, your mind is empty and you’re ready to focus… Now what?

Related posts: How To Achieve Work-Life Balance In 5 Steps

6) Have A “War Room”
Ever seen a picture of the President’s desk? Does it have piles of papers and 1000 random post-its? No.

Research shows a desk that looks like the aftermath of a natural disaster saps your ability to concentrate.

You don’t need to be a neat-freak but when it’s time for you to stop planning and be the VIP, have a separate work area designed for focus.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

According to productivity guru Tim Ferriss, focus is just the product of removing distractions.

Related posts: How to Have the Most Organized Year of Your Life

So you want your VIP work area to have what the VIP needs. And nothing else.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

I can hear the whining already: But I don’t have two offices! I barely have one!

This isn’t about real estate, it’s about mental space. Your desk can be where you plan, but the VIP works on the couch.

Or your desktop computer is for preparation, but the VIP works on your iPad (which deliberately lacks apps for Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

When it’s time for VIP work you want everything you need to get the job done — and nothing else.

Your immediate environment should make what you need to do easy and what you don’t need to do hard.

(For more tricks successful people use to make themselves great, click here.)

So how do we pull all this together?

Sum Up
The steps to being as organized and calm as the Commander-in-Chief:

  1. Get your to-do’s out of your head and onto one document.
  2. Lock in your calendar and set alarms so you don’t need to think about what’s next.
  3. Use “batching” and filters so you only get the info you need when you need it.
  4. Opt for “good enough” on the little decisions so you can focus on the big ones.
  5. Regularly capture, triage and prioritize new items.
  6. Have a “War Room” that contains what you need — and nothing else.

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You used to need a secretary vigilantly monitoring the phone all day… then came answering machines and voicemail.

Technology has come a long way since then and with some planning you can use it to keep your cool and accomplish great things.

It’s hard at first. And, yes, you’ll stumble. You’ll need to tweak and customize. But with time you’ll evolve a personal system that works.

And you’ll learn the lesson that every VIP knows:

The trickiest thing to learn to manage is yourself. But once you can handle that, you can handle anything.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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