or, Schedule-Based and Task-Based Structures
So a month or two ago, I spent a fair amount of time working on a really fancy time-tracking idea. The idea was to carefully track how much time I spent on various things throughout the week, assigning point values to time spent on each such that, if I performed the right amount of work on each one, all of the point values should be the same most of the time. At any given time I could look at the relative point values and quickly see which thing – reading, writing, coding, what have you — I needed to shore up. I tried it for a week, and then I dropped it. It didn’t work. I felt a bit guilty, as one of my good friends is a bloody wizard with Gdocs (erm, Gdrive now, I guess) spreadsheets and spent some time helping me doctor it up. It really was a beautiful spreadsheet.
The interesting thing is, the reason I originally put it together – encouraging me to allocate time wisely, and the clever point-balancing thing – ended up being entirely secondary to a minor feature I just sort of threw in there, which was a cell that tracked how much free time I had remaining in the week, based on some things being overbudget on time or having already used portions of my free time. That was fantastic to have, and it was very motivating as the week went on to look at that amount of free time and think, “I want to save most of that for the weekend, so I’ll work on . . . erm . . . programming for a little while.” It was also nice to see the number go up when one of my unavoidable time expenses ended up taking less time than budgeted.
The point is, it was a very nice spreadsheet. It took a fair amount of work to keep track of where all my time was going, though, and by the end of the week, I could tell I was on the wrong track. I didn’t need to mandate exact time periods for all of my goals, but I definitely needed to keep tracking my free time. So I immediately went and didn’t do that.
Like I said, it was a bit of trouble to track where my time was going that closely.
Still, it got me thinking. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to find ways to organize my time so that I have more of it. (It’s a zero-sum game. It seems like every time I manage to get an extra hour in a day it goes somewhere else, and I can’t seem to break 24 hours per day. I keep trying, though.) I often fall into a pit trap I’ve heard called the cardinal sin of productivity, in which I spend time fiddling with my productivity tools when I really, really should be spending time, you know, being productive. Nonetheless, it’s become clear to me that I need some sort of structure to build my life around if I’m going to get anything done, and it’s similarly clear that the structure(s) I’ve been using aren’t cutting it.
So there’s an idea that’s been floating around in my mind for a while. It started with my general irritation at months and weeks not lining up properly, an irritation I’m sure I share with a great many people who are payed biweekly and billed monthly. I mean, yes, it does mean you occasionally get months with three paychecks and the usual number of bills (. . . is this one of those months? It is? Hurray!). But on the other hand it makes it irritating to set up regular . . . hang on. Is this just me? Is this just me being weird? Does this actually bother other people? Sometimes I can’t tell.
Anyway. Idea. It goes something like this: “When I am a self-employed writer and can set my very own schedule, I will totally take monthends off as well as weekends.” In this context, the definition of “monthend” varied, but generally meant the end of the month after the last week of the month, except that the weeks don’t line up properly so sometimes the last . . . the point is, I decided that the way to implement this that would irritate me the least would be to throw out any correlation with the days of the week and just arrange my schedule according to the days of the month. So my first workweek would be the 1st through the 5th, with the 6th and 7th being my weekend; then the 8th through the 12th; and so on, until after the 26th I took an extended monthend, lasting from the 27th to the end of the month*. (75% of Februaries have a monthend the size of a weekend, but I’m not too worried.)**
Well, the natural next step was to just go ahead and implement it, since, you know, I’m trying to be a writey-type person right now. Sure, I can’t arrange my day-job schedule that way, but I can arrange my writing and chore schedules. So last month, about halfway through, I did that. I went through my Remember the Milk tasks and set most of them to repeat according to the monthend-based schedule; daily writing goals, for instance, repeat on the 1st-5th, the 8th-12th, the 15th-19th, and the 22nd-26th. Certain weekly tasks (like thoroughly cleaning each room of the house) repeat on a particular day of what I’ve come to call the taskweek: cleaning the kitchen, for instance, is a Monday activity, repeating on the 1st, 8th, 15th, and 22nd. Then I got to work.
Now, I immediately fell behind for various reasons, most of which were that I kind of just threw myself into it. However – and this is the important part – I’m now in a state of perpetually catching up with my enormous backlog of tasks stretching back months and months, whereas my previous state was one of steadily feeling guiltier about how much said backlog was growing. Most days I get most of my tasks for the day done, and some days I get all of them done, and the really important stuff is actually getting done reliably. For now. This could all go to crud at any moment, if past experience is any cue, but I’m really trying.
My big takeaway from this (or at least, one of the big takeaways) is one of those stunningly helpful self-realizations that turns out to have been obvious to your significant other for a while: I’m not good at schedule-based structure. I’m not good with planning out my day and saying “At five thirty PM, I will write.” It just doesn’t happen. I’m not much better at saying, “I have three hours of free time tonight, which will be evenly split between reading, writing, and programming, in whatever order I choose.” It’s a bit better, but not great. What I’m good at is task-based structure: I will get 1500 words of prose written each “weekday,” and I will read eight chapters a day, and if I fall behind I’ll catch up tomorrow or on the weekend. And if I get all caught up, well, there’s nothing stopping me from working ahead.
*As I write this out I realize this is kind of a large-scale implementation of the Pomodoro technique, in which you use a timer to work for short bursts interrupted by 5-minute breaks, with every 4th break being longer. Interesting.
**Another unexpected benefit of building my schedule around virtual weeks based on the actual day of the month is something I expected to be a detriment, namely that what days of the actual week my weekends fall on varies from month to month. Now that I’ve experienced the shift once, though, I actually really like it. It keeps is fresh. One month my weekends might overlap or even line up with Saturday and Sunday, when friends and family are off; another month (like this one) they might overlap with Tuesday and Wednesday, when Kat and I are off. It’s working rather well, really.