boundaries

Tips & Tricks for Tackling Your Email Inbox

Tips & Tricks for Tackling Your Email Inbox

I’ve set boundaries on my email before, but they’ve never stuck for the longterm. Can you relate?

Somehow, I always find myself back to that place of constantly checking my email on my phone throughout the day (sometimes, without even thinking about it). It’s the first thing we reach for when we wake up in the morning and one of the last things we do before we fall asleep at night.

But why check it if you’re not going to respond right away? Why let those messages take up valuable mental space?

You see, I’m one of those people who tends to overthink things. I’m a slow processor and sometimes, it takes me a lot of time to craft the “perfect" response. So, if an email lands in my inbox that needs a thoughtful reply, I let it sit. I tell myself I’ll think about what to say or how to say it. And so, I do. All afternoon. While I’m trying to work on other projects. There’s that email in the back of my head, using up mental energy as I write and rewrite and edit a response in my head. 

Reality Check

"i love you much (most beautiful darling) more than anyone on the earth and i like you better than everything in the sky." - e.e. cummings It was a typical Tuesday evening.  We ate a late supper, worked for a little while, exercised, and watched a TV episode to unwind.  At this point, 11:00 p.m., SD got up to get ready for bed.  I opened up WordPress to finish a post I had in progress.

“Time for bed,” he said rather sternly.  “Why are you acting like a Nazi?” I responded, defensively.  “I’m just trying to keep you from working 24/7,” he said.  The words stung a little and stopped me dead in my tracks.

I work hard.  We both do.  But there’s a difference between living to work and working to live.  I love what I do but that doesn’t mean it’s my top priority 100% of the time.  Life is made up of priorities that we set and boundaries we establish to protect the things that are most important to us.  No else can set those boundaries for us.  Tuesday’s late-night exchange made me question what I really value and how I show that with my time and my actions.

When I bring my computer down to the kitchen to continue working on emails while SD cooks dinner, I may be keeping him company and yes, I offer to help but I’m also showing that I can’t set my work aside.  I don’t have time to just be there, fully present.  When SD drives and I take out my iPhone to skim Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc., I may be able to carry on a conversation with him but I’m showing that I can’t focus on just him.

And, since I’m on a roll, I have another confession to make.  Part of me feels like I thrive on multitasking.  It’s almost like I’m competing with myself: setting the bar higher and higher, challenging myself to balance more things at once and not crack under the pressure.  Is that bad?  I whole-heartedly believe in challenging oneself, setting goals, and not settling for adequate when you can do and be so much more.  However, there is a time and a place for Wonder Woman and it’s not when we’re trying to unwind at the end of the day.  You see, I have this bad habit during commercial breaks.  I open up a new browser window and work on that blog post I started earlier or I begin editing my to-do list for tomorrow.  Terrible, I know!

Here’s the lesson I need to teach myself: Learn to just be.  Sometimes, we all need time to just sit a spell and be fully present, don’t you think?

Fast forward to Wednesday night at 5:00 p.m.  I stepped away from my computer, left my phone on the coffee table upstairs, and made a vegetable lasagna (from scratch!) with SD.  It felt like such a luxury, I thought it was the weekend!  At 7:30 p.m., I sat back down to work for a few hours but I was refocused and driven and I powered right through my to-do list.  No time for distractions – just clear, focused work.  What an incredible feeling!

Here’s to reality checks, to refocusing, to being fully present, and to treating every day like the weekend.

A Girl with Many Hats

As a musician, teacher, director, self-starter, etc., etc., I wear many hats. While I am certainly grateful for so many opportunities to work in music, it can be challenging to juggle multiple to-do lists, lesson plans, and professional responsibilities in a given week.  One of my goals for 2012 is balance: setting boundaries, giving my full attention to one thing at a time, and handling the day-to-day craziness with grace.  I am still working on this (read: Have you met me?  I am the QUEEN of multi-tasking!)  What I’ve learned, however is that trying to manage everything all at once can be is overwhelming and leaves me feeling under-prepared and very unbalanced.

Taking things one at a time, focusing on the task before me, making effective decisions, and moving forward one step at a time (rather than getting carried away) leaves me feeling much more in control, balanced, and empowered to do great things.

On a weekly basis, I am a piano teacher, a choir director, an adjunct professor, a pianist and organist, an artistic director, and a web designer (my latest self-taught venture).  This is not a 9-5 job.  Each requires 100% of me – my time, my energy, my creativity, my attention.  Confession: It is impossible for me to be all of these things at once.

My days are far from cookie cutter – things will always come up that distract me and vie for my attention.  The key (I’m learning) is to segment my time the best I can and to make choices that prepare for and support success.  Success does not mean being superwoman and doing the work of 10 men four days a week.  Instead, success means achieving that equilibrium of balance, control, and accomplishment… and learning to wear one hat at a time.

Purpose

This week, I want to live with purpose.  I want to tackle my ever-growing to-do list with purposeful effort, use of time, and decision-making.  I want to make great things happen for the WCMW this week (currently putting together some very exciting [and adorable!] sponsor/donor packages!).  I want to finish reviewing my 2011 financials and file my taxes this weekend.  I want to update my grade book so I can give back the stack of papers and quizzes that have invaded my workspace.  I want to refuel by exercising and spending more time outside.  I want to spend my working hours working with purpose so that I can be true to the boundaries I’ve set for my personal life.  I want Friday to be more like this.  I want each day to count for something.

I read a quote yesterday that reminded me how powerful purpose-driven days can be: “Go forward in life with a twinkle in your eye and a smile on your face, but with great and strong purpose in your heart.” – George B. Hinckley.  Let’s live this week with purpose, with meaning, and with intention.  Be intentional about the way you work.  Eliminate distractions.  Make decisions.  Work hard.  Invest yourself in what you do.  Go forward with purpose.  Let’s do this!

The First Friday

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It's 10 a.m. Friday morning.

It's the end of the first week of 2012 and the first Friday since setting these personal boundaries.  It's a great feeling.  I have several projects to tackle today but I feel refreshed and empowered to make decisions and get things done.

In fact, I felt so much better after setting boundaries for myself this week that I took things one step further - no email after dinner.  It's just so easy to reach for my phone. . .just to see if there's anything there.  I very rarely respond to emails in the evening - I find I have much more clarity for formulating responses in the morning - so really I'm just taking on an extra burden before climbing into bed.  Who needs that?!  I've had two successful nights of not checking my inboxes and I have to tell y'all, I haven't missed it!  It frees up my evenings for conversations, writing, and organizing my thoughts.  And, when I check my accounts in the morning, I feel ready to make those decisions (after all, each email is a decision waiting to be made, is it not?)

Here's to a quiet, productive Friday (2012, I love you already).

P.S.  I wish it looked like this outside today!  Still waiting for snow...

Setting Boundaries

This time last year, I started using TeuxDeux to keep track of my everyday and long-term to-dos. Though I really only use it when I'm at my computer, it helps me keep track of bill payments, emails, and those more involved to-dos that I don't want to include in my daily lists. For day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month planning, however, I hold on to the traditional pen and paper method. I need an agenda that lets me see the whole week at a time, that includes space in the margins for notes and reminders, and that's small enough for me to carry around on a daily basis. For all of these reasons and more I am loving my new Moleskine!

The vertical layout shows a week at a time with monthly views up front for reference. I like that it includes the hours for each day so I can easily keep track of lessons, classes, and meeting schedules. I spent part of yesterday filling in a few recurring things in preparation for the scheduling that will take place over the course of the next few weeks. Choir starts back this week, my Westminster studio starts back next week, classes at the college start the following week, and my Fitchburg studio begins the first week in February.

This semester, I have decided to set more personal boundaries on my time. I will be adhering to my work-from-home Friday rule and I am setting more boundaries for my teaching schedule in both studios. I have classes at the college on Mondays and Wednesdays this semester so my availability for my Fitchburg students will be limited to those days. Thursdays are choir days and I've found it's simply too hectic to shift gears to private lessons in the middle of the afternoon. This limits my Westminster studio availability to Tuesdays (a matter of rescheduling for three students). This schedule feels balanced and manageable when I have boundaries in place. However, it puts me in a difficult position. When I limit my availability, I run the risk of losing students.

For the past year, I've kept Monday evening students despite spending the entire day teaching at the college. I drive home, drop my things, change my clothes, and run back out to teach. I confess that I'm not the best teacher I can be on Mondays at 6 p.m. I never feel 100% up to it. I complain on the way out the door and I check my iPhone every 7 minutes to see how much more time is left in the lesson. It's not that I don't enjoy my Monday student(s) it's that I'm exhausted. I've been out teaching all day, I have quizzes to grade, and my mind is a million other places. Who does that benefit? No one. Why did I do this to myself on a weekly basis last year? Because I thought setting personal boundaries would affect enrollment. It might. But walking into a lesson with anything less than 100% readiness and attentiveness is not the right approach. It's not fair to me and it's not fair to my students.

This year, I want to make more decisions. It begins with balancing my work schedule, setting goals, and sticking to my personal boundaries.

Keeping Up

We're at the 19-day marker, y'all.  It sounds a little better right now to say "a little less than three weeks" - seems like that gives us more time to get everything in order for the BIG DAY.  We have collections of pewter dishes, ribbons, wine bottles, and Christmas decorations (from the Christmas Choir Kick-Off this weekend) lining our entryway.  I have about eight pieces of clothing hanging on my closet door (literally since the first week of August) to bring to the dry cleaner.  I am going to try on my dress this weekend for the first time since April.  The pace of life is fast right now... and by fast I mean flying. This week, that meant typing up grant applications for the WCMW while driving to VT for wedding errands, emailing schedules to the wedding vendors while sitting at the laundromat, checking emails on my Blackberry in between choir rehearsals, and writing out the seating chart for the rehearsal dinner on scratch paper in the car.  Oh, and I downed my coffee/hot chocolate this morning in three minutes flat before running out the door to get ready for church.

The question, "Am I keeping up with everything?" is one that I ask myself at least five times a day.

Albert Einstein has some pretty great words of advice for people like me: "Life is like riding a bicycle: In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving."  I think balance is a key word here.  Forward motion is important, but it doesn't drive everything.  In order to get everything done that needs to be done, I need balance in my life.

For me, balance means:

- taking a breather from emails on the weekends (at least from my school account) - spending less time on my laptop/Blackberry on the weekends in general - taking time to cook dinner with Steve on weekend nights (last night, we made apple- and bacon-stuffed pork chops with a maple glaze) - not lingering at church after the service - cleaning up the Choir Room can wait until Monday evening - making time to do something on the weekend that I wouldn't normally do during the week (Yesterday, for instance, I made fresh guacamole... up until the point when I sliced my finger open with our brand new tomato knife.  Steve had to take over on this one.) - spending a few minutes at the end of each day writing down everything I want to remember in the morning - taking a short walk to the Post Office after lunch (fresh air + exercise + no Blackberry = mental breather) - sending more emails from my Blackberry during the day (in between things) rather than waiting until I am at my computer again

How do you keep up?  How do you achieve balance in the everyday work?