Monday, October 4, 2010

Insane Time Management


Benjamin Franklin said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.

Of course, that’s not entirely true. Presumably, doing something like striking a golf ball over and over will make you a better golfer. Writing stories over and over will make you a better writer. Practice of a skill or craft is how you increase expertise and ability.

Also, sending out query letter after query letter even after you’ve been rejected is how you get published. That’s hardly insane.

Yet, humans often do the same thing over and over and indeed expect different results when we try to change a habit, go on a diet, or start an exercise regimen. We keep trying what doesn’t work, hoping that this time maybe it will.

1151807_to_doFor me, this thinking can apply to managing the hours in a day and the to-do list on my desk. I plan my work and work my plan, prioritize for effectiveness rather than efficiency, and pay attention to keeping balance in my life. But while I do get a lot done, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like every day I fail to accomplish what I wanted to, what I should have. For the most part it has nothing to do with actual accomplishment, but with my own expectations.

So I decided to address some of my insane thinking. Here are a few things I’ve been trying.

For a long time I kept a master to-do list that was, literally, pages long. Too long. Too mentally heavy. The false sense of busyness and importance wasn’t worth it.

Out with the long list. Out with the notion of to-do lists altogether. In with a much shorter reminder list, a helpful thing rather than a pile of obligations.

There are only so many hours in a day. I have a terrible habit of making [another] list of things I want to get done each day, and it’s always too long. Granted, I try to include things like taking a walk or calling a friend, but there is simply no way anyone could do all of it in the allotted time. Estimating the time it will take for each task, even when I underestimate that time as I often do, actually demonstrates that I’ve scheduled sixteen solid hours of activity and still haven’t added things to the list like shower, eat, talk to K, pet the cat, and breathe.

Out with the extended daily task list. In with three tasks I want to accomplish each day (and not things like “write a novel” or “weed all the gardens”). Once those things are done, I can do more. And will. But at least I will have met my goal.

The habit of writing every day somehow became extended to other things. In the name of balance, I began to approach each day as if there was a quota for activities associated with all the different parts of my life: writing, promotion, cooking, gardening, home keeping, socializing, etc. This doesn’t work over the long haul, though. There isn’t enough time for all of it every day, and it’s a recipe for failure. There is, however, time for all of it over the course of a week.

Out with daily quotas. In with weekly balance. Larger chunks of time – even a whole day – devoted to specific areas of my life have allowed for deeper engagement in whatever I’m doing at the moment.

Sometimes I become involved in one activity and don’t want to move on to the next. Transitioning from, say, writing to gardening or from socializing to writing can be difficult. Something along the lines of an object moving in one direction will continue to move in that direction until forced to stop.

In with a very simple transition ritual. Depending on what I’m doing it might be a cup of tea, a drink of water, or a few minutes of deep breathing and doing absolutely nothing. The fact that I’m acknowledging the need for a transition seems to be enough for it to work.

That’s a start, at least. Will any of this work long term? I’m guessing about half will. And no doubt my attempts at thinking differently about managing time and tasks will need some tweaking – most plans do, after all. But I’m giving it a shot.

Do you have any bad time management habits? Or better yet, have you managed to break any bad time management habits? I’d love to hear about it.


  1. Cricket, I've been in the same place with the To Do Lists, and like you, I've been trying to simplify to a few daily priorities. One of the things I did to help myself was drop the weekends from my blogging schedule.

    This is such a good post I'll be linking to it tomorrow from my own blog.

  2. Hi Cricket,
    Great post. I'm more of a "keep it in my head" kind of list maker. And it's wearing me out. So I'm trying to write more down. Not huge lists, just doable tasks for the day. At least that's what I'm trying to do. Thanks for the reminder to be more conscious about how iIm using time.

  3. I quit writing to-do lists because they made me feel so inadequate when I didn’t cross everything or anything off. I need to go back to them though as trying to keep everything in my head doesn’t work either. I think I’ll take your advice and try to keep them short and manageable this time.

  4. Thanks, Pat. Isn't it amazing how bogged down we can get?

    Jean and Jane -- Mental lists can really take a lot of energy. Most of the things I took off my overall to-do list were things I didn't HAVE to remember. Either they weren't that important or else I'd do them anyway, without a reminder. Keeping thing simple is freeing.

  5. Some good ideas in there! I've done the 'three things' thing before, and it worked (although if I finished early there was always a compulsion to write three *more* things, and then be cross if they didn't get done - watch out for that one!)

    I use a diary, which has appointments, and also things that *need* doing on a particular day. Each day I draw a mind map, with branches like 'home', 'work', 'phd', 'other (for errands or whatever), and 'cheery' :) And then I put in things that NEED doing that day, and some other things that I'd rather get done if there's time. The NEED doing things go in capitals, the rest in lower case.

    The advantage of this for me is that it's nice and colourful :) All fits onto a small page (I've started putting it onto a small piece of card, feels nicer!), and it feels more fun than an endless list.

    Thanks for your tips though, I too get the overwhelmed feeling when I don't get absolutely everything on the list done. Perhaps I'll try to go back to the 'three things' tactic...