A couple weeks ago, I complained of troubles with managing my free time. Literally a few days later, they were solved so abruptly, I’m tempted to call it a miracle. Namely, I started to schedule tasks; and it turned out that sticking to the schedule is something I’m very good at. In a matter of days, I turned from feeling that I don’t have nearly enough time for all my hobbies and interests, to writing daily, finishing artworks in progress, and even games!
It all started when I stumbled upon some article on Medium (sadly, I can’t find it anymore) that listed four simple habits for making better use of one’s time and limiting procrastination. They are:
In other words, sticking to a schedule. To create a schedule, you divide your day in 30-minute or 1-hour blocks, and block in the activities you want to work on. This is best done in the evening, for the next day. It takes a bit of thinking ahead and prioritizing. It also makes you realize just how many hours there are in a day, and how many tasks you can tackle if you minimize your downtime and procrastination.
This is what my typical free-time schedule looks like:
I realized early on that it’s necessary to plan for some downtime, especially on workdays. Here the arbitrary “dinner” slot serves that purpose. I might or might not actually eat then, but I’ll use the whole hour to do house-chores, scroll social network timelines, read, or do whatever else I might feel like.
Regarding social networks — I’m gonna go on a bit of a tangent here — a while ago, even prior to the post linked at the beginning, I realized that I’d grown addicted to them, and that I spend a lot more time there than I’m aware of. Nothing new, of course; we’ve all been there. But oddly enough, just unpinning the Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram tabs from my browser instantly cured me of that habit. Out of sight, out of mind, apparently. Now I hardly remember to visit these sites at all — unless it’s in the schedule. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Another thing I quickly discovered is that being relentlessly productive comes at a cost. I don’t stick to the schedule religiously, and am especially prone to shortening, randomizing or outright skipping the final block because I’m too tired to start things after 9 pm, but even so, comes bed-time, I am tangibly more exhausted than I used to be. Mind you, this isn’t a complaint: I think it’s fair enough to be tired when it’s time to sleep anyway. But I was surprised. Being disciplined takes energy, who would’ve thought!
I could end the post here, because scheduling solved my free-time problem in one fell swoop and I didn’t even consider adopting the other three recommended habits because I don’t need to. But I’ll list them anyway, for completeness, and for the record:
When you start on a task that you scheduled, you turn on a timer that counts down the allotted time, and then you work on the task till the time is up. It doesn’t have to be one continual block of time: if you’ve scheduled a 2-hours task, you might run two 1-hour timers, or four 30-minute timers. The latter is what I do when I work, only the purpose isn’t to count-down scheduled blocks, but to remember to take breaks for stretching and looking at things that aren’t my PC screen. But I can easily see how this might help you focus if you’re prone to distractions and/or allow interruptions. You let the timer run, and don’t worry about the time, don’t glance at the clock, and don’t leave your station till the time is up.
Before you go to sleep, spend a few minutes imagining what it will be like to start your scheduled tasks on time, work on them with due focus, and achieve everything you set out for yourself in the next day. I do this occasionally, but not as a habit, or with any clear intent — more because I’m the sort who worries. The idea is to rehearse the task mentally so it’s not as daunting or as hard to begin when it’s time to actually do it. In my experience, this can be helpful with tasks that require discipline, such as various chores, errands and workout; but it might be more stressful than it’s worth with intensely unpleasant things.
Eat the frog… thing
The Medium post used the metaphor of eating a frog for unpleasant tasks that might generate the most resistance and procrastination, and there are two recommendations about it.
The first is to eat the biggest frog as early in the day as you can. I can confirm that this works from recent experience. My whole life, I tended to exercise in the evenings: after classes, after work. It had been utterly impossible for me to imagine working out in the morning because I often rise in a foul mood, all stiff and groggy. But this year, I finally resolved to try it, and boy, was I in for a shock. Working out the first thing in the morning is awesome. Not only does it get rid of the foul mood, the stiffness and the grogginess, but it also leaves me knowing that I won’t have to work out later in the day. Going through the entire day with some unpleasant thing looming ahead is bad for morale. Best get it over with as soon as possible, and enjoy the sense of freedom and achievement that comes from eating a big fucking frog.
This recommendation has some confirmation in neuroscience too. Humans go through hormonal/metabolic diurnal cycle and typically have the most energy to tackle problems in the morning, and the least, in the evening, due to the delicate balance of neurotransmitters that regulate alertness, responses to stress and exertion and so on.
On top of that, the acts of making decisions and starting tasks aren’t only difficult in some vague, psychological sense. They produce a measurable drop in blood-sugar; which is to say, they require, and expend, actual bodily energy. So the more tired you are (which typically coincides with how late in the day it is), the harder it gets to make yourself do things. It’s not just in your head. It’s in your body too, and one of the best ways to overcome it is to do the most difficult things when you’re the most rested.
The other recommendation related to eating frogs might sound a bit strange at first. Namely, when facing a difficult task likely to produce resistance/procrastination, get yourself going by saying, aloud, “5… 4… 3… 2… 1…” and then start the task. There seems to be research showing that, if more than several seconds pass between thinking about starting a task and making some physical action to actually start it, you’re much more likely to postpone. Speaking out loud is that physical action.
From my own experience (and podcasts on popular neuroscience), I actually know about this, thought I’ve never done it in this specific form. And it does work. It doesn’t have to be speaking out loud. Moving your mouse pointer and double-clicking the document with your long-suffering WIP absolutely counts. Basically, once you resolve to eat that frog, open your mouth at once.
Phew! This turned out longer than I expected. I’m gonna wrap up by bragging about all I’ve managed to make and do in the three weeks since I started scheduling:
- Finished a digital art WIP I’d started in June
- Finished a pencil drawing I’d started a month ago
- Finished the revision of Fury’s Embrace, something I’d been postponing for months
- Made 6 traditional paintings (one acrylic on canvas; two oil on canvas; one watercolor; and two metallic acrylic on colored paper)
- Almost finished a musical arrangement that I’d started working on in August
- Wrote 3 blog posts (this included)
- Finished playing Metal Hellsinger
- Finished playing Remnant: From the Ashes
- Started playing Frostpunk
- Made huge strides with my big writing project, Shalome
The most important thing, especially in the light of what I said in On Art and Writing, is that I’ve made time for writing without having to sacrifice any time for art. I have written almost every day since I started scheduling, and it feels great. In general, I’ve rarely felt better about my creative pursuits and never about the use of my free time. Let us hope it will last, and will not end up in burnout.