Cutting It Close

scissors cutting close

We’ve all been there. Something needs to get done, but we aren’t sure if we have enough time to do it before we need to be somewhere else:

  • Can I run to the grocery store before picking up the kids?
  • Is there time to stop at the post office before class?
  • Is it better to swing by the dry cleaners on my way to the train or should I do it on my way home?
  • Do I have time to shower before the repairman arrives?
  • Should I make this call or wait until after the meeting?

Situations like these are common. Our “to do” lists are longer than our available time, and we struggle to use each moment as productively as possible. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to know when we should (and shouldn’t!) try and squeeze in one more chore. For instance, if I have 30 minutes before I need to leave for an appointment, I can comfortable tackle a task I know will require only 10 or 15 minutes (e.g. writing a thank you note). In contrast, I won’t even consider something that I know will take at least a couple of hours (e.g. going to the DMV to renew my license.) The tricky part is when I’m faced with tasks that may take 20 minutes, but could also run 45 minutes or longer.

The reason for the difficulty is that there are typically a variety of unknowns over which we have no control:

  • How long will the lines be?
  • Will I be able to find convenient parking or will I need to circle and wait?
  • Will there be traffic that adds time to my errand?
  • Will everything I need be ready for pick up?
  • When exactly will the repairman arrive?
  • Will the person on the other end of the line be “in the mood to talk” and make it difficult to end the call?

When faced with an “on the spot” decision about whether or not to begin a task that could result in a time crunch, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Is this urgent?

If the task absolutely must get done, you may no choice but to take the risk and try to get it done.

Is this necessary?

While picking up a latte might seem nice, is it worth the frenzy it could adds to the rest of the day? Be mindful about how you use our time. 

Can I reschedule this task to another time in my day or week?

If there is another window in your day or week when you could perform this task without time pressure, do it then.

What will happen if things go badly?

If the consequences of having the task take more than your allotted time are severe, better to put it off.

Will trying to do this now ­­ — even if I can get it done — put me in a bad mood or add stress to the rest of my day?

We often undervalue the cost that hurrying around can have on our state of mind. Entering into a situation late, scattered and/or unprepared undermines confidence and can sabotage success. Make the momentary decision in light of its potential impact on the day in its entirety.

Am I tempted to procrastinate this task if I don’t do it right now?

If the answer is yes, plug this task into your schedule as an appointment at a later time when you can reasonably work on it. Put it on your calendar, and if necessary, ask someone to hold you accountable.

Is there a smaller piece of this task that I could do now without having to rush?

Sometimes we may not be able to complete a big job, but we can perform one or two smaller tasks that will keep us moving forward (e.g. I can’t clean the whole kitchen, but I can empty the dishwasher).

Can I plan better next time?

Planning can’t solve all our time management challenges, but it can minimize them. Having a plan for the day, and referring to it throughout the day, is an effective way to stay nimble and productive.

*     *     *     *     *

Have you ever found yourself wondering whether you have sufficient time to undertake a task? How do you decide whether to proceed or wait?

17 thoughts on “Cutting It Close”

    1. Hopefully the summer will bring a bit slower pace to all of our lives. I bet the girls are out of school – enjoy the long, warm days Janine!

  1. You have spelled out all the If-Then options that need to be considered. This would make a great bookmark for use in calendars and planners.

    1. What a great idea – I love the way your mind works. Isn’t it surprising how much the words on a bookmark can stick with us? I have a few, and I really do read them over and over. Now if only I had a connection with a planner company 🙂 Have a great day, Susan!

  2. Susan is right! This would make a great bookmark.. maybe planner pad would consider it? I love your comment about how rushing affects our frame of mind. That’s a wonderful concept to hold onto and to respect. For me, being out of sorts – starting late because I tried to jam too much into a short period of time throws my whole day out of whack. I try very hard to remember that feeling and honor a calm start to my day.

    1. Well maybe I’ll give planner pad a call:) I find that when I go beyond my comfort limit to squeeze in a task I often regret it. For example, last week I was trying to decide if I should go to the grocery store before heading to the office for a call. I technically had enough time, if everything went perfectly, and it would have saved me a separate trip. But then I envisioned even one small piece of the puzzle not running smoothly and decided it just wasn’t worth the risk. I went to the office and calmly prepared and executed my call, and then headed back to the store later in the day. I tend to want to check things off my list, but peace of mind is important, and I would not have brought my best to the call if I had rushed.

  3. Have you been checking out my desk before you wrote this post? 😉 I am the scheduler in our family, and I have a stack of things that need to be added to the calendar. Not right now so it waits to be handed in my “current to be done” papers. On Mondays, I flip through them and see if there is anything that needs completing right now.

    In the past, I found that looking at these unfinished tasks would stress me out. So to combat the stress, I would deal with them right away even if it wasn’t important which made me late on other tasks that were more important.

    Now, to reduce stress, I ask myself, “Is it necessary to deal with it right now?” If the answer is no, I place it in this pile to revisit it weekly.

    1. Having that discipline to re-evaluate weekly is what makes this system so terrific. You don’t have to worry that you will miss something because you know you will be checking again next week. Love that we ask the same question!

  4. I sometimes have the opposite problem too. I put something off, because I think it’s going to take up a good chuck of time, then when I get to it, it only takes a few minutes!

    1. What a pleasant surprise to have a task take a lot less time than expected – I love that feeling! Nothing like a little found time. Estimating the best time for each task can be more an art than a science, but trial and error can provide valuable learning so we should get better and better at it!

  5. I totally relate to this, Seana. Before I leave for my client appointments, I’m usually handling a variety of tasks from calls to emails to errands and more. I use a timer/buzzer that lets me know when I need to stop and transition to leave. I always give myself a cushion because I don’t like to rush and I do like to be on time. However, sometimes, I reset that buzzer for just a few more minutes and then a few more because I want to finish what I’m doing. Most of the time it works out just fine, but there have definitely been occasions when I gauged the available time incorrectly and then had to rush or ended up being a few minutes behind schedule. I love the series of questions that you’ve shared.

    1. I love the buzzer idea. Since most people now have smartphones, it is possible to set an alarm to remind you when you may be moving into “dangerous territory.” I agree that I like to show up to clients with time to spare. I can always check emails or do a little reading. On the flip side, worrying about being late stresses me out. There just aren’t many good excuses for a professional organizer to be late!

  6. All. The. Time. I feel like I’m always cutting it close – or at least every morning. That’s really rough. I’ve been using a timer for work related tasks but it’s so hard with a new puppy in the house and the change in routine with the kids starting camp instead of school! I was thinking today about the chronic busyness and rushing and how that must change our spirits.

    1. The change of schedule that comes along with the end (or beginning) or school can be rough. The habits we’ve developed quickly slip away, and new ones need to be put in place. Toss in a new puppy and that is doubly busy:) I do think that chronic rushing is damaging to the psyche and steals joy. There is tremendous value in being able to calmly prepare for a meeting or spend a leisurely few minutes talking with loved ones. Unfortunately, these are rarely linked with “success” or financial accomplishment, but I believe they truly are part of the success equation.

  7. Seana
    I am very familiar with this scenario. I find I often schedule too many things to do “while I’m in the area” and end up stressed when I can’t do them all. It is inevitable in our busy world that there are nearly always more things to do than we can do at a comfortable pace, but it is important to be realistic about the priorities and not let them ruin our day. I often put too much importance on getting it all done when some of it could really wait for another time. Your suggestions are always helpful.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by Dianne. That urge to “get it all done” is real for me too. Sometimes I push it too far, and then I have regrets. I’m trying to be more intentional in that moment of the potential cost of trying to do too much. Having some breathing space around my tasks is worth the effort.

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