A Scatterbrain’s Guide to Time Management

Some of us don’t work well with schedules. As time constraints go, setting up a block of hours as “work time” and trying to stick to it every day doesn’t happen, no matter how we try to drag ourselves to the desk every day. I used to punish myself for not doing what I was supposed to by not letting myself do what I’d rather be doing. I ended up doing nothing, which is lame and had to stop. So I came up with a few strategies to keep myself honest and help me get work done.

The first step is self-awareness. I figured out how I spent most of my day with retroactive day planning. I’d record everything I did in a day, color coded in a calendar app so I could see how much of what I was doing at a glance. I have different colors for working, house stuff, health stuff, and dicking around. At first “dicking around” time made up the bulk of my time, which was a little depressing.

Next I figured out what kind of dicking around I was doing, and if some of it was needed downtime for my brain. I separated productive relaxation, like reading novels or watching documentaries, into another color called “Filling the Well.” More wasteful dicking around isn’t forbidden, but removing some of that color from the calendar made me feel better.

I also started noticing patterns, such as when I’m most productive and when my focus sucks. This let me aim my productive hours for when I typically have the most energy. When I made my vow to write an hour a day, I added a repeat “writing” block to my best hour for writing. I frequently shift the time around, but having it sit there in my calendar, reminding me of the promise I made to myself, has helped keep me honest.

Since I started blocking time in 15 minute segments or more, I also started using time changes as triggers for action. While reading articles on the internet, I’ll notice another hour rolling up and decide, “Do I continue doing nothing or do something?” If I’ve been dicking around for more than an hour, and I haven’t done much that day, I’m usually spurred to get off my ass and do something. It doesn’t always work, but productive hours have gone up since I started treating time this way.

Note: this method can backfire, such as running 5 minutes over with the last activity and deciding to say screw it until the next hour. I’ve come up with a couple strategies to combat my slacker tendencies. For example, if I haven’t hit the 15 minute mark I’ll tell myself, “If I start before 15 minutes are up, I can mark it down as productive time (even if I start 14 minutes in).” I know I’m lying to myself, but it works because I keep going once I’ve started. I also have the fight the tendency to put off writing until the hour is up by reminding myself: if you’re serious, start now. The clock is not a ruler, just a guide.

Checking the clock works better at limiting behaviors I don’t want. For example, if I hit a point where I don’t know what to do with myself, I’ll block out 15 minutes to let myself chill. Making tea is a great activity for reorienting myself. The point is allowing space for thinking. I know this probably sounds like I’m micromanaging my own life, but it isn’t when you consider how much relaxation time I allow.

The fact is the average office worker only manages about 2-4 productive hours a day. Because they have to be there for 8 hours, they spend more time looking busy than actually accomplishing things. When I set goals for myself, I aim for that 2-4 hour sweet spot and dedicate that time to single-purposed focus. So if you’re trying to hold yourself to an 8 hour workday as a freelancer, can’t stay focused and waste a lot of time, stop beating yourself up. Cut it down to size before it burns you out, and stop sacrificing “me time” to the false altar of productivity. Unless you hit a manic flow where you can’t stop working because your project is seriously awesome and you can’t let it go, you don’t need to push yourself that hard.

After committing to two hours of solid work, I have the freedom to do what I want for the rest of the day. And it definitely works better if I get it done early, even though my best writing hour seems to be in the evening, because then I can spend most of my day guilt free. Willpower is also depleted as the day wears on, so every expert on productivity recommends getting the stuff you don’t wanna do out of the way first. Knowing you don’t have to do it all day helps as well. I often work one or two hours in the late morning and another one or two in the evening after dinner. Whereas if I spent the whole day dicking around and start in the evening, I get half as much done. In any case, I started getting my projects done at a steady pace. Sure, it’s not miracle worker pace, but the work is getting done.

Sure, some people are so driven they can work 20 hours straight on a thing they love and keep that pace up until their project’s done. I’ve done that myself, but it leads to burnout. It also leads to massive guilt when you can’t keep up that pace, and fuck that. Stop comparing yourself to others, figure out your own patterns, and work within your own needs.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

4 thoughts to “A Scatterbrain’s Guide to Time Management”

  1. I have to keep reminding myself that non-disabled people have some of the same problems I have, namely, wasting time.

    Much of mine isn’t actually procrastination, though I have to do something each minute – surfing, playing Sudoku, etc. – because otherwise I will go mad. It is that I cannot compel a brain that isn’t on yet to do anything; if I do, it’s only by the use of adrenaline because something has to be done NOW, by ME, whether I’m up to it or not. This unfortunately carries a common pricetag: I lose the next day – there will be no writing either day if the adrenaline gets out of hand, because I can’t process it quickly. You can bet I don’t use that option if I don’t have to.

    I’m not at all saintly – but I’m also SLOW, so if I don’t manage my time, how little of it counts as ‘good’ being immaterial, I get NOTHING done. For days. Novels don’t write themselves, and for some crazy reason I have decided to do the one thing I CAN do, so that I don’t go mad, so I keep at it.

    It gives me those periods of flow that artists love. And a sense of purpose. And a possible legacy. And a reason to hide in my office and not clean the basement. Really? You want me to use the two precious hours in which my brain actually works today to CLEAN THE BASEMENT?

    And now – back to work.

    Thanks.

    1. Earlier in the year I went on cleaning binges and I noticed I wasn’t getting anything else done those days because I wasted all my energy on that. I suppose it’s what they call “moral compensation” where you choose an activity that feels worthy and productive to avoid your obligations.

      Even with all the good habits I’ve been building, increasing how much I can do in a day has been plainfully slow. I’ve had to come to terms with my how limited my daily energy is as well, though not as severely limited as it is with CFS.

  2. Right now I’m experimenting with a work-play alternation method. It’s not as refined as it could be, yet, but it’s already getting me to accomplish more than chaining myself to my desk did. I’m still not over the guilt of spending most of my day having fun, though…

    1. I find the guilt is best assuaged by setting a reasonable goal and getting it done right away. Then I feel like I’ve earned my fun for the rest of the day. The days where I dick around until the evening don’t feel quite as good. I still do it of course, but I’ve been paying careful attention to my own mood as my schedule shifts all over the place.

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