In case this hasn’t been made patently clear in earlier posts of this series, I am not an expert on time management. It’s something I’m always investigating and learning about because I’m so abysmally bad at it (as anyone who knows what my latest week has looked like knows). So this series is an attempt to synthesize the latest information and put together a system that will work going forward, and to help others do the same.
One of the things I’ve learned recently is that we are, generally speaking, cognitive misers. We can only pay attention to so much at one time. And when we’re trying to keep track of everything and do everything — pay off debt, lose weight, earn more money, be better parents, read our TBR stacks, engage in our hobbies, follow the news, on and on and on — we keep dropping stuff. This gets back to what I mentioned last week about automating tasks. If we can make some of the things we’re trying to do automatic, it doesn’t matter that we don’t have to think about them.
An example, to put that into perspective: do you remember learning to drive a car? Check your rearview mirror, keep an eye on traffic to either side of you, watch the traffic in front of you, keep some attention to either side in case something or someone comes into the road unexpectedly, shift gears, make sure your speed is consistent with the weather and posted limit, do you need to adjust the air flow or temperature, what’s your passenger saying, make sure to use your turn signal . . . After a few years of driving, most of that’s automatic. If there’s a traffic jam or someone’s trying to have a serious conversation with you, it might take more concentration, but you don’t remind yourself “check the rearview mirror at least every two to five seconds.” (Um, not that I’m sure I check that often.)
So how do we make things habit and automate them? And do multiple things at once?
The answer is probably something you’re going to hate. I did, when I realized it, and I’m still not 100% certain I can implement it. You start with lists, so you know what you need to get done — and then you do the same thing you did in school to deal with six different subjects every day: you make a schedule and you follow it. If you have kids, they don’t come home from school saying, “Yeah, we got so busy with reading today that we didn’t have time to get to math class.”
This is hard. I’ve really relished that as an adult who works for herself, I have complete freedom to do whatever I want when I want, as long as I get things done. But there comes a time when I admit I’m not getting as much done as I want to, and to get more done, I need to make some changes. I have to actually act like I’m an adult.
Things to remember about schedules:
- They can be as general or as specific as you need. You can break them down by time (8:35-8:45 Get hot beverage, set up computer for writing session), by general order of doing things (30 minutes free-writing, 30 minutes editing yesterday’s work, 30 minutes new material, 15 minutes checking e-mail . . . ), or just by weekday (Monday, edit; Tuesday, outline . . . ). And they don’t have to be specific time blocks — you can use “write 1,000 words on novella” instead of “write for 1 hour.”
- They don’t have to be the same every day. This can be something like having a block of exercise time set aside two or three days a week, a different project to work on in the evenings every day of the week, or something special that you only do on weekends.
- They need to include both things you know you’ll do and things you’re working on doing. Your brain will lump these things together. If you know you’re going to have lunch every day from 12:30 to 1:00 and use the next half hour to touch base with other people you’re working on shared projects with, whatever you schedule from 1:30 to 2:00 is going to have a feeling of inevitability: I did this, did that, this is next — okay, working on it.
- They should account for things you have to do — dinner time with your family, weekly shopping trips, that hour-long meeting with your boss every second Tuesday. This goes with the item just above: the more you know your schedule is what you will do, the easier it is for your brain to accept the new to-dos as part of that.
- Work with times that work for you. If you are fresh and ready to go at 5:30 every morning, go for it. If the best time for concentrating on minute tasks is late afternoon, put things like budgets and planning in that time slot.
- Don’t try to schedule every minute. You need down time.
- There will be times when the system breaks down. We’ll talk about that next week.
Specific challenges I find myself facing:
- I don’t always know how much time something’s going to take. I get freelance projects, I have a specific deadline, and I have to work at it each day to meet the goal — which means I know how many pages or chapters I need to do, but not how much time to block off. This is one of the reasons I’ve resisted schedules; I tell myself, “If it takes longer to do this, then I won’t get to the next thing I have to do.” The solution? I know that I will get done what needs to be done (generally), even if it requires sitting back down and working after getting the kids to bed. So if I really want to do other things (like write a certain number of words per day), I need to schedule them first.
- Sometimes, something that I know I really should do, I don’t want to — and because I know I should, I hesitate to do anything else instead. That means nothing gets done. There are two basic ways of coping with this: go ahead and do other things while procrastinating, and when all else fails and I have to knuckle down, remind myself why it’s important to me.
- I have too many things on my list to get done. Yes, that’s the hard one. It requires brutal honesty and cutting things. Do I really have time to read an hour every day? What do I have to give up to keep that time?
I’m still working on drafting a schedule — and this week is so far out of the ordinary that any schedule would’ve just been scrapped at the outset. But I know what needs to be done; I just need to figure out when and how I’m going to do it.
Have you had any luck with schedules? Automating tasks (like bill payments, maybe)? Any questions or insights into today’s post? Let me know in the comments!