Making time for time

st_joseph

This year I’d like to make better use of my time. I’ve not had to make real long-term plans for quite a while – projects happen, I work on them, they finish and I move onto whatever is next. Planning has paid very little part in any of it.  But with a series of books coming out, and the events and marketing that have to go with them, I’m realizing that a greater part of my year is already mapped out for me. If I’m to do all the other things I want to do I need to start planning.

I love what I’m doing and I feel very privileged to be able to work for myself and to have the opportunities I have, but my career is not my life: I have a family I want to spend more time with, a home that needs maintenance, a small garden that needs attention, a new dog that needs exercising and training, friends I want to see and places that I want to visit. I want to do things that don’t involve drawing, writing, books and comics (I think it makes for a healthier, balanced mind – the body needs looking after too, don’t forget – but all experiences add depth and roundness to your creative work as well, so it’s all for the better in the end). And yet I also want to have time to experiment on my art and improve my craft and travel down some wonderful, creative blind alleys. I want to read, for education and pleasure (I buy books regularly, as I have a large bookshelf that needs filling, but haven’t read any of them). I want to surf the web and watch crap, pointless TV without feeling guilty about it. And then, of course, there are those chores that are never-ending: house-work, laundry, shopping. Having a panic-attack yet?

I don’t think I’m asking for the world, just a bit of balance and some time to breathe. During the Christmas period, I researched and experimented with tools and techniques to help with this. Fairly basic things as it turns out, but I’m hopeful that together they’ll make a difference to the way I work and live. I’ve had some experience of project management from previous jobs, and have an idea of the kind of working methods that go best with the way my mind functions – logical, linear, focused. Everyone is different and I’ve cherry-picked those tools that I feel work for me. There’ll be times when the rules have to go out of the window, but a good foundation means you have something to go back to when the world returns to normal.

Before:

Previously, I’ve made use of a paper diary and a (paper) to-do list. The diary was for events: meetings, birthdays, trips. The to-do list was for work tasks. There’s nothing wrong with lo-tech methods: I recently read an interview with Caterina Fake, who co-founded Flickr, where she said (perhaps surprisingly) that the tools she couldn’t do without in her work were a pad of paper and a pencil. But there were two problems with this for me. Firstly, they were never around when I needed them. Secondly, they didn’t work together: time (the diary) was never a factor associated with tasks (the to-do list).

Now:

Hardware:

To get around the having-things-to-hand issue I’m making better use of my smart-phone and the way it integrates with the PC/virtual universe, rather than just treating it as a texting device/clock (I appreciate I’m five years late to the party with this but you have to bear in mind I still view the microwave oven as a miracle). It’s very rare that I forget my (Android) phone when I’m out and having it sync with my (Google) account so that everything I do is available on any piece of hardware with an internet connection is a real blessing. But, as mentioned above, it’s how you use the tools that’s important.

 Software:

Google mail/calendar: I use other Google services too, but these are the most directly useful.

Trello: very basic project management software. Group related tasks (“cards”) together for small projects (“boards”). I’m using this to keep track of all the renovation work that needs doing in my home – each room becomes its own project. Having the phone app means I can go to B&Q with a ready-made shopping list of things that are needed. The ability to assign a task to others means I know that I’m (probably) not going to be doing something the other half is supposed to be doing.

Evernote: a personal database of anything you like, which I use for collecting images, text and ideas for projects when researching.

Twitter/Facebook: These are on the list as they are both now essential ways of fast communication with friends, colleagues and customers, and are particularly helpful with events.  I use them (just about) but mostly as a consumer of other people’s news. They devour time but limiting use through the day means you can’t be genuinely interactive and so you end up using them merely as marketing tools. I can’t think of anyone who’s got this right in a way that works satisfactorily both for them and their ‘audience’ – the information flow always ends up one-way.

Other things:

Wall calendar: I have a year planner stuck to my wall for a quick at-a-glance view of the year. I have a different coloured sticker for meetings, deadlines, events and key dates. It sounds infantile but I’ve found colour-coding to be amazingly useful (see below).

Methods:

Evernote and Trello are fairly self-contained and I use them for specific purposes within work and home life, with Evernote for storage and Trello as a sub-management tool dependent on my calendar. The real key to time management for me is in the use of calendar/email/task list.

Email use: I’m trying to stick to the five sentences rule. If I need more than five sentences, I question whether I’m using the right method of communication. If you receive emails containing screen after screen of text do you ever sit and read them all the way through straight-away? Or do you think “I’ll read that later”? How often do you actually go back to those emails again? This is worth a read too: the email charter. Some methods listed here can sound a little cold, particularly if you are using email to cultivate a relationship with a client, but the bottom line is that less time on email means more of the good stuff gets done.

In Gmail (and I assume other email systems are similar) I make use of the labels (with colour!) to organise mail into subject matter and urgency. Emails that are effectively work requests can be turned into calendar entries with a couple of clicks.

I’m going to try to restrict email use to three periods a day (first thing in the morning, lunchtime, and around 3pm). Of course, some emails have to be answered straight away but this should be less painful if I’m dealing with all the non-urgent stuff better.

Calendar/to-do list: I’m a great list-maker and my to-do list has been the foundation of my organisational methods up until now. But every day when I came to re-write my list the exact same tasks would be on it as the day before. Frustrating and demoralising. When I used my calendar to assign time for these tasks I realized that I had massively under-estimated the time these tasks needed and I needed a 60-hour day to do what I wanted. Hence, tasks would never get done. It reminds me of when I kept a diary of my drinking habits and found out I drank twice as much in a week as I thought I did: it’s not obvious until it’s written down.

I’ve now thrown my to-do list in the bin and assign time in the day for doing a particular task using the calendar. It’s made me more realistic about how long things take to do, forced me to make more concrete plans if I really want to make a particular project happen and face-up to those things that I know, deep down, I’m never going to do. Google has its own task list function which I use to make temporary note of tasks that don’t get completed in the time allotted. I obviously try to avoid this if I can. Below is the template for a normal week-day for me, assuming I get up at 7am and go to bed between 11-12pm. I try to do a 9-10 hour working day (I’m too old for the all-nighter thing nowadays). NB: colour!

calendar

 

The “domestic half hour” is the daily period when I do laundry, clean a room, tidy a cupboard or whatever needs doing. Half an hour is short enough to stop it being boring, but 5 x 30mins= 2.5 hrs a week means the home should stay in good order. What I noticed when I first created these daily tasks is that once you’ve put all the admin stuff in, there is a surprisingly small amount of time left in the day for actual creative work.

Another key thing is that you need to spend time on time management. The calendar needs daily maintenance – I allow about 30 mins a day, with an hour on Sunday evenings, just for planning.

So that’s it – my life is officially organised. I’ll let you know how I get on, and if I’m back to pen and paper by the end of the month. Maybe everything I’ve written above sounds obvious (and I suppose it should, as it’s mostly common sense) but how many people actually practise this? If you’ve any ideas or experience in these things I’d be very interested to know.

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