Using your time series: building a system

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!

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  1. I love electronic tools! I loosely follow David Allen’s Getting Things Done philosophy, but I’m terrible at certain aspects of it. I’m good at managing my inbox. I’m pretty good at getting tasks out of my head and into the system. The system is a little more scattered than he intends. I primarily use Things to manage recurring things — My FlyLady Control Journal (against FlyLady’s advice) is implemented in Things. My paper one? Sitting next to me, and I haven’t opened it in four years (yes, it’s clutter). Things? I use it daily and even have downloaded maintenance scripts to keep it clean and managed. It’s good for key areas and SomedayMaybe projects and ideas.

    For pure unadulterated lists, I use an app on the iPad called EasyNote. I have grocery lists (great for recurring but not consistent items), HomeDepot/Lowe’s lists, San Antonio lists, Temple/Ft Hood lists, a prayer list, a Hershey prep list, and more.

    The latest tool I’ve added to the toolbox is Trello (thanks to Linda Sprinkle for introducing me to it). I have recurring house and property lists in Things, but Trello works better for me as an ongoing project manager. I created boards for each house, each yard, the shop, the store, the museums, and writing. I haven’t done much with the museums or writing boards, but the House and sub-boards for that have gotten a workout over the last couple months since I started working with it. If you have someone else you’re coordinating with (say you’re helping organize a family reunion or something), other people can participate as well, so you can collaborate using this site/software.

    I have about twenty items in Things that just get ignored for months on end. Eventually, I get tired of seeing them and spend the five minutes or so it takes to do the task and check it off my list. Silly, isn’t it?

    As for schedules, I love the ability to create different calendars in iCal. I have about 14 of them. One for the blog schedule, one for Central TX, one for San Antonio, one for Health, one for the Spurs, one for Sticker Burs, and a few others that don’t really get used much. Oh, yes, and one for archived Things items.

    Bill payments. I have automated them to a credit card, then I go in at the beginning of the month and schedule a payment for a few days to a week before the credit card bill is due. For the most part, I go in at the beginning of the month and electronically pay two or three credit cards and my insurance payment. I pay one electric bill (the one for keeping the service to the pole at the ranch) for a year, so I have to worry about that once in January. I have a couple more erratic bills that come in when they are generated that I don’t want to go to a credit card, and I pay them when they come in. I found this was necessary when we were spending more time splitting between Central TX and San Antonio. It’s really not good to have a bill arrive in a place you aren’t at and won’t be back to before it’s due. The Central Texas water bills are the only ones I haven’t figured out how to automate yet. So far, we’re making them work by just paying them after the first at City Hall.

    I enjoy playing with schedules far too much.

    • I think I’ve looked at Things before, but with the $50 price tag, I’ve never seen a lot of reason to jump into it. What are the differences between Things, Trello, and Evernote that makes it useful to have three different programs? They all seem to be able to create different lists, for today, later, whenever, plus to-dos. The collaboration feature on Trello is unique, but what else? (And although I have Evernote on both my iPod and my Mac, I still haven’t figured out what to do with it!)

      I used to have a TON of different calendars in iCal (they’re still there; I just don’t use them), but I never liked cluttering the calendar with to-dos, or having reminders pop up to say “Pay bills today!” (Though that’s exactly the sort of thing I need, if I’m not using my tickler file reliably.)

      I think I need to make the mental switch to actually relying on these tools, rather than on pen and paper, or I’ll never get much use out of them.

      You have an amazingly detailed system. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Through painful experimentation I’ve discovered that one system doesn’t work for me. I could never seem to stuff everything in to one ‘thing’. So …

    We have a whiteboard for household chores and general notes for each other.

    I have a very fat spiral notebook that I use as a writing log book – blue pen for writing stuff in, red pen to cross it off or make additional notes.

    Each story I complete has its own log of where it’s at in its submission process – I tried using a spreadsheet, but I think I am cognitively resistant to their logic!

    My ‘Outlook’ calendar takes care of just about everything else.

    And for those ‘gotta write that down now’ moments, I have a bunch of small loose leaf notepads scattered hither, thither, and yon.

    What surprises me the most is that this system works!

    • Ah, yes, notepads and notebooks . . . they are everywhere, and I don’t write in them chronologically since I grab whichever one is handiest. I journal, jot ideas, free-write, outline, create shopping lists, plan Christmas projects . . . can’t survive without something to write on! But they are most definitely NOT organized.

      We don’t have a whiteboard, but we do have a shared family calendar (through iCal), and my husband and I both share our work calendars, so he knows when I have three overlapping freelance projects and I know when he has meetings running until 6 p.m. That helps.

      I like your system. It sounds like it helps you get everything done that you need to! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Cognitive misers…I like that term! I have tunnel focus. This week I’m concentrating on final details for my book and everything else goes out the window.
    I do have lists. They are buried under paperwork on my desk. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I think I may devote a whole post to the concept of cognitive misers and decision making. It turns out that willpower actually can be measured, and the more decisions you make, the harder it becomes to make them. Again, this means the more you automate, the less mental work it is because you don’t have to make those decisions again. (And this can be as simple as, say, always wearing black jeans and a black turtleneck so you can focus your energy on approving design decisions. ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

      Yay for getting down to the end on your book! And LOL on the lists.

  4. I’ve been struggling to establish a schedule, since between my day job and publishing deadlines I have a lot on my plate right now! I’ve also found that I’m not so good at writing in the early mornings any more, at least not on weekdays. As a result my productivity has fallen, so I’m working on ways to improve that. Right now I’m building a schedule piecemeal, starting with sitting down for an hour after I get home from work and writing. Once the hour is up, I do all the other evening stuff that I enjoy (dinner, watching TV, reading). My productivity still isn’t great, but at least it’s not zero!

    As for automating stuff, I’ve been paying bills by direct debit for years. On the downside, this means I get very little urgent snail-mail, so I’m terrible at processing my physical in-tray!

    • You really do have a lot on your plate, and you’ve added in both fencing and tai chi! Glad you’re building up the schedule into something that works for you.

      Getting direct debit on the bills is on my to-do list for next year, although eventually I might do what Jean does, and pay them by credit card (on the card that earns a bonus), then pay that.

      Good luck with the physical in-tray! And thanks for commenting.

  5. Hi Erin!

    This is Random interview I hope you’ll find time to answer:

    Happy writing!

  6. I have time for writing and exercise blocked out on my home calendar.

    I’ve taken to giving my to do programs a daily once over and scheduling the to dos on my calendar. Otherwise I try to do too much in one day–when I actually block out my time, I can see how much I have. Or don’t have. Plus, it eliminates the clutter of looking at my full to do list, or even just today’s list that’s full of the ten items I meant to have done by today…

    Technology wise, I use Things for everything except writing stuff and Firetask for writing stuff. (And Firetask at work.) I like having entirely separate lists for writing and not-writing. It means I have to check two programs, but it’s nice when I’m in writing mode to not be distracted by things like calling the bank or weeding the garden. It makes it much easier to see how many of my self-imposed writing deadlines overlap with each other.

    • I’ve tried to block out my time before and realized I couldn’t fit everything in. My reaction was to assume that there was a problem with time-blocking, rather than with how much I was trying to do. This time, trying to go the other way around and accept that time is finite. (Hard lesson to learn!)

      I’d never heard of Firetask before. I might have to try the free trial of that. What do you find the relative pluses and minuses of Things and Firetask to be?

      • Things and Firetask follow the same basic GTD concept, but Firetask pays a lot more attention to dates.

        For example, Things has a Today list for tasks you’ve starred or that are due, and a Next list that lists every task by project.

        Firetask combines the Today and Next lists. Mine has “Due today” at the top, followed by “Due next 5 days” (the number is somewhat customizable), followed by “Next task per project” which lists the *first* task under each project. You can hit the “All” button in the Today view to show all due tasks followed by all tasks without due dates.

        Firetask’s Organize view is a cool columnar view: the columns are In tray, Today, Tomorrow, Due (all tasks with due dates, in order), and Next (all tasks without due dates, grouped by project).

        Firetask also has a calendar, which shows all the due tasks on the dates that they’re due. This is why I bought the program–I wanted a better way to see what was due when than looking at a list. It’s surprising how few to do manager programs offer this feature.

        Basically, Firetask offers a few different ways of looking at your tasks. I mostly check the Organize or Calendar views once a week or so, and work off the Today list the rest of the time.

        One annoyance is that I can drag tasks from Things to iCal but can’t do that with Firetask.

        Syncing varies. Things now syncs over the cloud, which is convenient. Firetask syncs either over the cloud or directly over the local wifi network, which I like better because it feels more secure.

        So there you go, probably way more than you were looking for. ๐Ÿ™‚

        • No, actually, that’s very useful. I wasn’t sure how well either would fit with my workflow, since I do depend on iCal to track deadlines — and the “Next task” is usually along the lines of “keep doing the same thing, next chapter,” whether it’s proofreading, copyediting, indexing, or writing. (In other words, I don’t find “Next” to be too useful a way of thinking about things until I finish the main task.) Maybe I’ll try the free trials sometime when I’m not over my head in meeting deadlines . . .

          Thanks for the info!

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