Plate Theory of Time Management

I met a colleague for coffee on a recent afternoon, and she rattled off all the projects she was working on.  This woman, I thought to myself, has a full plate!  Her three client projects could each be full-time jobs and on top of that she works part-time for a consumer goods company.  She casually brushed off the notion that she’s busy as she sipped her latte and told me about her volunteer projects and the trip to India she’s planning. (I’m exhausted just recounting the story!)

It’s a stark contrast to another friend who is always overwhelmed and tired.   He works full-time as a professor and has an elementary school-aged son.  His wife manages the household.  His plate is also full.

How can two people with very different workloads both have full plates?  They have different sized plates.  And everyone’s plate gets full with different amounts of work and life commitments.

I like to think I have a pretty big plate.  I managed 20 clients last winter and still found time to take a vacation, plan a conference, secure two book deals and plan a renovation on my house.  This fall, however, my plate shrunk.  Or maybe I managed what was on my plate less effectively.  Working on The Farmer’s Office consumed all my time and energy – just 2 clients in addition to book-writing felt overwhelming.  What happened to my plate?

Build a Rim
For the past few weeks, my days have been filled with client meetings and writing; and the evenings booked up with networking events.  While I didn’t have a particularly large amount on my plate, it felt full.

Last Wednesday evening was my first evening at home in over a week.  I had a glass of wine in the garden, cooked dinner, read a book, and was in bed by 9pm.  I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed with extra capacity.  I realized that having down-time was critical for me to be able to do more.

A 9” plate with a rim can hold more than a 9” plate without a rim. That extra empty space ensures that everything on the plate stays on the plate.

The blank space can be time at the gym, a walk with a friend, or a glass of wine in the garden.  It’s an opportunity to take a deep breath, rest and recharge.

Slow Down
I recently started working with a new entrepreneur. In our initial meeting, he explained how he works 90 hours a week: seeking investors and clients, and developing his product.  He barely had time to see his wife and questioned if he could take time off to celebrate the Jewish holidays.

For sure, he had a full plate!  And no doubt, he would have liked a bigger plate.  I started thinking further about my plate theory: how to expand one’s plate and better manage what’s on it.   As an entrepreneur, there are always more things you can put on your plate: a marketing initiative, a new product launch or business development.

My client arrived 15 minutes late to our meeting, and then spent another 15 minutes explaining why he was late.  As we sat down to look at his financials, he spent another 10 minutes trying to find the right file.  He interrupted our meeting regularly to take important calls. Each time he got off the phone, it took him a minute or two to transition back to our work, review where we were and jump back in.  He was moving so fast that he expended more energy just moving rather than moving forward.

Sometimes, slowing down allows you to speed up.  When you take time to carefully put things on your plate, they can be neatly arranged, and you can fit more on.  If my client had taken the time to organize his files as he created and used them, he could find them more easily when he needed them.  If he had better blocked the time of our meeting, we could have accomplished our goals in one hour instead of three.

Think about What you Put on Your plate
I shared my plate theory with a friend.  It reminded her of mesclun – the leafy lettuce mix that can fill your plate with very little substance.

I have a project that’s like mesclun – it seems to spill over and consume more hours than I can bill; calls and emails at random times need a quick response. The communication plus the transition time back to what I was working on eats up time I could be working on other projects. Because the work itself is not engaging, the project has become burdensome and unsatisfying.

Some projects are like risotto – deeply satisfying but still manage to take over the plate. My book is like risotto. Other projects are like scallops – also satisfying but very contained. I recently coached a client on her business plan. It was a defined 6 hour commitment.

To some degree, both mesclun and risotto can be contained, but it requires a concerted effort.  Clients that demand attention at inconvenient times need to be trained to only expect responses at certain times.  On-going projects, like my book, need to be scheduled on the calendar at specific times.

We’re all busy and most of us wish we could fit more on our plate – even if it’s more time to relax with friends and family.  My suggestion: slow down, create some white space, and ditch the mesclun.

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