Somehow, against all odds, I have become a pretty good time manager. This from a girl who used to lie on her back helpless under the weight of the world, AKA procrastination. For many years, I was unable to do the things I most wanted to do, namely my homework, any kind of exercise, or to practice my instrument. The needed effort to get up for any reason other than to open the refrigerator to forage for a snack just wasn’t there. But people can change.
I just celebrated my 45th birthday. 45 is a prodigious number, and for women it holds special significance, as 45 really is (usually, anyway) the age after which we won’t be having (any more) children. But I spent a lot of time on my birthday remembering another turning of the year: the birthday when I turned twenty. That was the year I began to grow up, the year I planted a lot of seeds that have been coming to fruition ever since. I told the blogging class I teach to do a practice post in which the writer offered some bit of wisdom or information in her/his own voice, concisely and with some humor. I thought I’d try to do the exercise too, so today, here is what I know about my topic du jour: time management.
Ten Time Consciousness Maxims
1. Get really clear on priorities, and do first upon awakening the thing that matters most. Getting clear on priorities is actually the hardest part of time management. If you don’t know what you want, you can’t do it. (More on this coming up.) Instead, you’ll race around doing what others want, or you’ll be like I was, flat on your back or glued to a TV screen with one finger in a jar of almond butter. How do you find out what you want? Get to know yourself. For me, this meant writing in a journal (another thing I wanted to do but couldn’t–until I took advantage of a wormhole.) Eventually, I just made myself write first thing when I got up in the morning. It was like having a therapy session with myself. The writing was awkward at first, but over time I got to like it. And more importantly, I got to like me. What mattered most? It changed over time, but when I was twenty, it was music. So on songwriting days, I’d pour the coffee and sit down on the carpet with my guitar and notebook. Later, it became journaling. Then exercise, then meditation. Now it’s my husband and kids; I am sure to give them my full attention when they first wake up.
Conversely, to find out what doesn’t matter, do this exercise: make a graph of a week and systematically write down exactly how you spend your waking hours (and how much you sleep, for that matter.) Don’t try to edit your actions. Honesty is key here. If you spend 14 hours a week watching TV, write it down. At the end of the week, see how much time you actually spend working, exercising, emailing, Facebooking (who knew that word would become a gerund? Sorry about that.) See where your “lost” time is. With this knowledge, you can move forward and make the changes necessary to do the activities you really want to be doing.
2. Maximize Your High-Energy Time Zones. You might already know when in the day you have the most energy. Then again, you might regulate yourself by dosing up with caffeine and beer. This might work for now while your body is at its vigorous peak, but sooner or later your circadian rhythms will take over, and at this point it will be very helpful to (in unison, please): Know yourself.
One miserable summer between sophomore and junior year, I decided I might as well sleep between 1-6, whether am or pm. I seemed to thrive from sunrise to about lunch, and then wilt until dinnertime. Undaunted, I just drank some more caffeine.
Later, I solved this problem by taking a fifteen-minute power nap at about 12:30pm. And then drinking some caffeine. But I still tend not to schedule anything very important during what I think of as my low energy zones: 11-1pm and after 9pm (though if we have a gig, I am usually still onstage at 9pm.
I do notice that my energy is highest when I first get up. (I recognize that this is not true for everyone). So I like to use this high-energy time to do something I might not have the wherewithal to do later. In the beginning, I chose to journal every day first thing. Later, this switched to meditation and exercise. After many years, I know that I write best in the evening, and that midday is a great time to read or watch a portion of a video. My appetite peaks at 7am, 11:30am and 5pm, so that’s when I eat. I used to eat dinner at 7pm when my parents always ate, but this meant I was “dalling down” (my daughter’s phrase for starving to death) and snacked like crazy in the late afternoon. Now I just cut to the chase and serve everyone dinner then.
Notice your own high and low energy zones. Eat when you’re hungry, rest when you’re tired. Don’t hitch your rhythms to anyone else’s and see what comes naturally.
3. Find a planner and get married to it. Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out strongly suggests choosing just one, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s when I write the kids’ friends’ birthday parties down on my wall calendar and neglect to put it on iCal that I get into trouble by double booking myself at a reading in Brookline. Keep all dates and to do lists in one place.
4. Your datebook and your to-do list are like Donnie & Marie. Apologies to those born after 1977. What I mean by this is that your to-do list is useless if you don’t schedule in when you are going to do each to-do. To this end, the first event you need to honor is an hour a week of planning time, and then five minutes a day following that up, with calendar and to-do lists in hand. I look at my week on Sunday night, and I write down what needs to get done and when I am going to do it. I refine this process each morning, going day by day.* Inevitably there are surprises: my manager will email me to remind me that I need to send out a newsletter to our fans, and then my two hours to write my novel or find my summer clothes in the attic gets postponed. I go through phases where housekeeping is more important, and phases where it takes the back burner. Ditto the amount of time I spend trying to look presentable. But I always make time for family, exercise, writing, music and reflection. (In fact, there usually ends up little time for anything else. Oh, well.)
5. Schedule Down Time and Family Time or Risk Burnout and Fallout. And Possibly Divorce Enough said.
6. Leave Space for God/Chance/Lila/Sh*t Happens. Whenever I schedule myself to the minute, I get tripped up. I am not running the show. If I don’t give myself big margins in between the things I want to do, nothing in my life seems to work. I have a strong sense that God wants me to help out. So I leave space to make phone calls, take phone calls, make a meal for a friend in need, pick up someone’s kid for a play date (and this means leaving space and margins in my kids’ schedules), have an impromptu date with my husband.
7. Wisely Use Small Pockets of Time. For things I don’t like to do, I work well in tiny increments, say 15 minutes or less. Any more makes me anxious. So I trick myself by saying, “I don’t feel like cleaning up the dishes right now, but I’ll just do it for 5 minutes.” Then I set the timer and go. Usually, if/when the timer goes off, I ignore it because by then I am immersed in my task, it’s almost done and I have a rage to finish it. Here are some things I can do in small pockets/packets of time:
-make one phone call
-meditate (15 minutes, sadly, is really my limit, even though I have been a meditator for almost 15 years and honestly believe it is the key to all happiness)
-run around the park (I shoot for 20 minutes of running per day or 30 minutes of walking)
-dishes (I say 5 but it’s usually 10-15)
-my daughter’s violin practice (30 though I trick us both by saying “short practice today”)
-guitar practice (my own, sadly, 10 minutes, once in a blue moon)
-check in/snack with husband (every evening, 20 minutes)
-“reading” audiobook on iPhone (every chance I get, especially while cleaning or running)
-yoga (5-7 minutes-good for one sun salutation or the stomach series in Pilates)
-journaling (Dar Williams gave me a Five Year Journal five years ago. It’s the best. I can only write about 1″ by 2″ worth of text per day. But over time, I can look back and see what I was doing the previous year(s). I used to write 3pp of long hand every day. Not so much since having kids.)
8. Don’t Kill Your TV. That’s what I did. Yes, I’m way more productive, but I miss out on all the cool shows. I am hopelessly behind on Downton Abbey, and I have never even seen Mad Men. When I used to watch TV, I would multitask. I would knit and mend clothes and sew on buttons, or I’d prepare a mailing. Since I don’t have TV, I don’t have any pockets of time to do these sorts of tasks, and so I don’t do them at all. Plus, there’s something really great about watching a show with your honey. Then again, there’s something really great about actually talking to your honey, which is what I get to do.
I’m being a bit facetious, of course; and partly I am reacting from having just read Laura Vanderkam’s awesome book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think in which she makes many good arguments for killing one’s TV. I did stop watching TV, about 10 years ago, and I don’t miss it (that much). Vanderkam’s book is excellent at showing how to minimize wasted time, and she defines wasted time as driving around to do errands, cleaning up one’s house, making meals, doing laundry. She says that if you can afford to, offload all these chores onto someone else. But I’d argue that some of these tasks can become “found” time, the way I used to “find” time to do my knitting while I watched TV. Here is what I do while simultaneously doing housework, including laundry.
-listen to an audiobook like Laura Vanderkam’s
-listen to music or a podcast or the radio
-catch up with myself
-think about a song idea or plot for a novel
-talk to my husband or child
-make a phone call
-plan my week
9. Do It Now. My parents taught Katryna and me this major life lesson when we were wee lassies. They had it embossed on some Scotch glasses (naturally), and I must say, they modeled that behavior pretty darn well. The idea behind Do It Now is that you are and you will be busy. So busy that if you don’t do it now (“it” being, let’s say, a bill from the phone company, and “do” being “pay it”), it will become an annoying piece of paper in your inbox whose little burst of energy has been lost. It won’t get paid on time, and you will end up paying a penalty. Same with answering email: if I read the email and don’t respond right away, I inevitably lose a bit of my enthusiasm for the response. (Though sometimes, if the email invokes a too strong response from me, it’s probably better for me not to do it now.)
Whenever you get the idea to do something worthy, at least consider doing it now. This works really well if you’re in the kitchen and have just finished a meal and there’s not a lot else going on and you remember that you need to call the plumber to fix your toilet. It doesn’t work so well if you’re in bed with your lover and you suddenly think about alphabetizing your books.
The other big time management life lesson my parents taught, which went along with Do It Now, is “you’ll feel really good about yourself if you do what you’re supposed to do when you said you would do it.” Of course, this might come under the category of “brainwashing,” but it was an effective way to internalize a strong parental directive.
One caveat: I am especially keen to organize my systems—RIGHT NOW– when I have a project due, especially a book. If I am supposed to be writing, I suddenly become very interested in organizing my spice rack and sorting through my children’s clothes. There is a reason for this. The creative part of one’s brain feels safer when it’s in a structured environment. I have no idea if this is true, but I do know that every writer I’ve met agrees that, helpful or not, they feel compelled to clean house before they sit down to write. It seems the very act of cleaning and sorting gives the brain a burst of serotonin and energy. After de-cluttering, I write like a fiend, have fantastic conversations and am prone to do spontaneous handstands.
10. Give Perfectionism the Boot. Perfectionism, says Anne Lamott, is the enemy of the people. It’s a sad, evil lie, the single worst foe of all creative types. Perfectionism is the Devil Incarnate. Perfectionism whispers to us, “This is your one and only chance. Don’t blow it.” And then we’re stymied. God tells us, “I’ve got your back. Go for it. You’ll learn from your mistakes. There are no wrong turns, as long as you follow the dictates of your heart and stay honest.”
*By “I” I actually mean Julie Morgenstern. If I, Nerissa Nields, were to actually do this step, I’d be so evolved and productive that I would probably not be writing this blog, having realized that it’s impossible to both maintain a blog and write songs and novels and other books. But I have not planned well, and so here you have this post.