Published September 29, 2020 || Updated October 22, 2020
How well we manage our time and the prioritization of the activities that consume our day govern our productive capacity—our efficiency. This article focuses on the first half of that equation—time-management—and a new strategy I have designed with a hope to significantly improve my ability to juggle all the things I attempt to accomplish in a day. I call this strategy Categorical Time-Blocking or simply Category-Blocking. (I haven't settled on a label yet.) Maybe it can help you organize your time as well.
The daily flail
Some days, we wake up with our day laid out for us. We hit the ground running, tick off one item after another, and then plop down in a chair at the end and let out an exhausted "Whew!" utterly satisfied with how much progress we have made that day.
Those are great days. Days we feel like we achieved something. And we did! Often though, those are low-hanging-fruit days—or, at the very least, lower-hanging fruit days. Days where we are productive, but only in the sense that we ticked things off a list and didn't waste a ton of time in frivolity. Typically, the tasks are smaller, accomplished on the same day, and likely of medium to low importance. Obligation or dependency or some due date may have been the primary driver behind completing several tasks. Days like that are feel-good, got-some-stuff-done, days.
A genuinely productive day—a day that moves the needle—looks a bit more like this: A day that's all planned out before bed, where bed means a reasonably good night's sleep followed by an early wake-up. It's a day where the to-dos include both long-term and short-term goals—a mix of important and not-so-important. It's a day where I pursue goals that are pragmatic, measurably improve my life, or move a project forward, but also goals that are for me and me alone. They are days where I balance time for writing, the farm, various other projects, real estate work, freelance work, and family time.
Those days are rare.
More commonly, I go to bed too late and get up far later than I prefer. Perhaps ironically, I do plan out the next day, but the plan is generally three-parts aspirational to one-part realistic. In the morning, I juice my brain by journaling for forty-five minutes to an hour (I have been forcing myself to do this daily). But then I distractedly flail about for the rest of the day, interrupted by sporadic bits of productive activity. I get this or that done or half-done, and then it is suddenly six in the evening, and I am spent.
Worse, I find I have squandered the most productive portion of the day—mornings—by allowing myself to sleep in. And when I finally get rollin' for the day, I often discover I had not adequately prepped ahead of time, and some bit of farmwork will prove to be more involved and take longer than expected. Inefficient. Reactive. Last-minute-ish.
What precisely do you do with your time, Todd?
I have to caveat all this by acknowledging that, yes, I am a very privileged human being. Here I am discussing my productivity woes, and I don't even have any kids. Additionally, I am married to a wonderful woman and we are both reasonably healthy. I am fifty and semi-retired—relatively uncommon. I don't work a nine-to-five, but I do manage a small farm and have other pursuits that take up my time.
Regardless of circumstance, productivity struggles are universal.
Of all the things I do, writing is the most difficult. Like all creative exercises, it requires a particular mental focus to accomplish anything. And when I write, I need to do so with little to no distraction. Some people can squeeze in a bit of writing here and there, and then WHAM! they have a book. Toni Morrison famously wrote her first couple of novels working a job and raising kids as a single mom. But Toni Morrison is a superstar (or was: RIP, Ms. Morrison). I have not ever been successful at operating like that—perhaps in my twenties, but not in my fifties. After her first book or two, Toni didn't have to work like this anymore. She became who she became. I am not Toni Morrison.
Writing requires focus and a rested brain. So for me, this means mornings. There are some evenings where I get a second wind and can be creative late into the night. Working late at night is not free, though. You pay the price the next day. I want to avoid that.
Generally speaking, all successful writers have a routine: hours of writing—surprise; surprise—every single day. Whether they are writing crap or channeling Hemingway (whose first drafts were also crap), they do it every day or nearly so. A routine. A discipline.
I do not have a routine other than my journaling time. I need to change that. I've been working on a novel that is a total mess for well over a year. It will never get done unless I take control of my time and develop a routine.
Slowly, over time, I have made the farm more manageable. I put up a ton of fencing that reduces the time it takes me to move the sheep from point A to point B. But since I have gotten into the habit of a more ad hoc approach to managing the farm, important tasks often get put off, and relatively simple tasks become more time-consuming. The result has been that I usually end up tackling preparatory tasks in the morning, tasks that should have been performed the day prior at a time when they wouldn't have disrupted other endeavors.
Mind you, sometimes the farm doesn't honor your blessed schedule regardless of how well you plan. Our local hay supplier is only open from 7 a.m. to noon, for example. June, July, and August can be brutally hot in the afternoon. Sometimes things simply have to be done when they get done. And no one sleeps during the lambing season.
Monica is a full-time real estate goddess, and I work at it part-time. But when I have a client, their schedule becomes my schedule. Fortunately, I can shove 99% of real estate tasks into afternoons and evenings. If I were full-time, well . . . I could still probably follow my proposed pattern below, but it would be more challenging and perhaps require a re-think.
Other work and side-hustles
. . . technical work, freelance editing, taxes!, woodshop projects, farm maintenance, blogging, website maintenance . . .
Like everyone, there are a lot of random things in my life outside of writing, farming, and real estate that chew up time. Some schedules, namely the technical stuff and freelance editing, are driven mainly by external obligations, and thus, they get done because they have to get done. They get in the way of things at times, but, in my case, they are generally not tasks that distract from the important stuff.
Some stuff is more ad hoc, time-consuming, and physically challenging. And since there are no set due-dates, they get perennially punted. It's that garden you intend to plant every year and yet don't. We brought down a large tree three years ago. It still needs to be chopped up and converted to firewood and is still laying on the ground in our front yard and rotting away. Unacceptable.
Whatever plan I implement has to adequately incorporate these tasks! And geez, I'd love to find time to hunt this year.
The productivity reboot
All this flailing is primarily the result of three things: (1) inadequate planning, (2) poor sleep schedule, (3) distraction. Here's how I intend to improve things.
Step 1: Get up at 4 a.m.
For twenty+ years, I got up at 5 a.m. every single day. I woke up at that time with such regularity that I didn't need to set an alarm. I just . . . woke up. My internal clock tracked the time and my eyes would slam open at 5 a.m. sharp. It was a rather magical talent. I don't do that anymore.
To be more productive, I need to stop wasting the morning, the time where my brain is primed for creativity. Four in the morning is a good time. I may adjust it forward to 5 a.m. at some point, but 4 a.m. seems to be the right time for now. It's the most peaceful and magical time of day.
Step 2: plan ahead
I bullet journal every day. I have for years now, and lemme tell you, it is indeed a great tool to keep yourself grounded. It acts like a keel and keeps your life from spiraling out of control. A bullet journal is both a planning tool and a journaling tool. But it's ability to help you plan (or journal) is only as good as you allow it to be.
In recent months, my planning has degraded in spite of my dedicated bullet journaling. I have gotten into the habit of only planning only one day ahead, and I only really think about it at night right before turning in. Sure, the next day is less of a surprise (some planning happens), but I have often sat down in the evening to plan out the next day only to realize I should have thought more in-depth about any prep-work required to support tasks scheduled further out than a single day.
I call this hand-to-mouth planning and it is sub-optimal. It works to keep me marching forward, true, but I would be far more effecient if I could plan with more depth and intention, taking into consideration longer spans of time. I need to plan smarter: what needs to be done for the next day, the next week, the next month, or even longer term projects.
Step 3: Divide the day into categorized blocks of time
Going to bed and getting up earlier, combined with better planning, will give me some elbow room and eliminate a lot of wasted time. Bucketing tasks into blocks of time more appropriate to the type of activity will really help as well. It will also help reduce distraction.
My categories of activity:
- Mental — mentally exhausting and creative work — writing, planning, journaling, blogging
- Physical — working with my hands — farm, woodshop, outdoor maintenance
- Miscellanea — everything else — in my case, predominantly desk work: email, computer work, real estate, freelance editing
- Life — everything else — rest and relaxation, family stuff, dinner, a movie perhaps, reading, whatever
I think combining like-activities will be more productive. I will continue to use my bullet journal for planning out my days, weeks, and months, while also attempting to honor the blocks of time dedicated to each category of work.
Now let's align blocks of time to those categories . . .
|Fall, Winter, Spring
September - May
June, July, August
|4 a.m. - 10 a.m.
|10 a.m. - 3 p.m.
|3 p.m. - 6 p.m.
|6 p.m. - . . .
Why is Summer treated differently?
The summer months can be brutally hot. If the temperature outside is flirting with 100°F at 3 p.m., well . . . we need to adjust the timing of those categories.
Similarly, from day to day the time-block beginning and end times will shift around as needed. And 4 a.m. may be a bit ambitious on my part, but any attempt to adhere to this plan should add a gravitational pull to the schedule and move the needle towards an improved result. Most of the square pegs should land in their corresponding square holes. At least, that is the idea.
Categories not pigeonholes
Corraling similar work into slots of pre-allocated time will lead to more efficiency and better quality work. Some productivity gurus advocate half-hour-by-half-hour time-management planning. Some even advocate planning down to the 15-minute or even 5-minute block of time. Now, that may make sense for folks that have a particularly intense or rigid schedule, but I think a more fluid—but still organized—approach is more flexible and efficient. Luckily for me, I am the one in control of my schedule. I don't have to allocate time explicitly based on whether an activity perfectly fits the time-slot.
You can combine the two ideas, of course: categories and pigeonholes. Divide each category in your time-blocks of choice: 5-minute, 15-minute, half-hour, whatever. But then allocate similar activities into those time-blocks (categories). Don't have enough room? Shove some work off to another day. Or . . . expand the category block. Personally, I think it is important to spread out the time of work you do throughout the day, so be careful if you find yourself, for example, expanding that mental category to all day. Try to avoid that.
Categorical blocks of time are simpler than per-30-minute or per-5-minute time-management strategies if you don't need that level of intense planning. I think anyway. With this plan of attack, I hope to avoid doing work in a time-block that could be better utilized for something else.
But what about prioritization?
Managing a prioritized task list is important as well. It's the second half the effort to become more productive, but is beyond the scope of this article (keep an eye out for a future article focusing on this topic). That being said . . .
Managing that task list, constantly sorting what needs to be done sooner than later, is just as important as organizing your time. It's not rocket science, but like time-management, task-management also requires vigilance and conscious effort. Really think about what needs to be accomplished when. Focus on the most critical and time-sensitive tasks, but don't entirely dismiss the less important ones.
Wish me luck. This starts tomorrow
I have been thinking about this for some time but only really put pen to paper and mapped it out today. October 1st would be a nice clean beginning date to flip the 4 a.m. switch, but then I realized waiting until then would itself be a procrastination. So, tomorrow be the day! I will get up at 4 a.m., probably have to fight extreme sluggishness, but it will be a start.
Increased productivity is something for which we all strive. Some folks seem effortlessly productive. Don't be fooled. They are productive out of long practice. The most notable often have a team of people to help them stay that way. But they too have their down days. Similarly, your productivity will ebb and flow. The trick is to recognize when you are off your game and course correct.
Wish me luck.