Tell me if this sounds familiar to you:
You get to the computer first thing in the morning, excited that you have six uninterrupted hours to get everything done: make a dent in your freelance work, add a chapter to your memoir, do your daily Method Writing, answer emails…
Oy, the phone’s ringing.
When I started this blog, I knew I’d have to revamp my day. I got up at 6:00 every morning. My workday started at 7:30. Some days I’d work on my latest freelance project for two hours, and then leave the house for another job. Other days I worked at home, changing tasks every two hours.
I found that working every day on each project for a relatively short amount of time was in keeping with my energetic personality. I even wrote a blog post about it.
What happened when everything fell apart
I recently took three months off from one of my part-time jobs, and as June 1st rolled around I started panicking: how was I ever going to get everything done once I started back at the office?
The leave of absence helped me to concentrate on this blog as well as complete a few freelance projects, but I can’t in good conscience say that I was consistently organized and did the same thing at the same time every single day. Many times I felt as if I were spinning my wheels, never really focusing on anything to the exclusion of everything else.
And sneaking in a few chapters of whichever novel I was currently reading was not exactly helping either.
I knew I could not continue at this frenetic pace of switching tasks every two hours, putting in a load of laundry between paragraphs, and answering “urgent” emails.
Now to be fair to myself, I do get a lot accomplished in 24 hours, and have had a lot of successes in my life. I’m also very fast, and capable of multitasking even though it’s inefficient and bad for you.
With two weeks to go until the beginning of June, I stumbled across this video on one of the best business and finance blogs I know. Ramit Sethi, the man behind the blog (and the man behind the course I took to start my business), basically says that a lack of focus is really an inability to set boundaries.
Read that again. It changed my life, and it might change yours.
Lack of focus is really an inability to set boundaries.
My husband, who is super-focused and -disciplined, has been offering to help me create a weekly schedule for the past…how long have we been married?
Joke. But the truth is that I have been resisting his organizational advances for months.
By the last week in May I was in full panic mode, and I knew something had to change. I finally agreed to have my husband help me. One evening, I stuffed pen and paper into my purse, dragged him to a bar (I had mint tea and vegetables; I am not making this up), and watched him sip his beer and work his magic.
90-second (I promise) goal-setting
The first thing I realized was that my lack of boundaries was preventing me from getting closer to my work goals, which are…
I had no idea what my work goals were.
Here’s what I came up with:
- to work a certain, set number of hours per week on each project.
- to have very little or no work time in the evening.
- to have leisure time for reading
trashy novelswell-written fiction and nonfiction.
- not to work on Fridays (my husband’s suggestion)
Lesson learned: You need to have at least a loose goal before creating a schedule. And it takes about a minute and a half.
Once I articulated (and actually wrote down) my goals, I asked myself some questions:
- Should I get out of bed later and start later – or get up earlier and start earlier? Or continue getting up at 6:00 am?
- Should I have a “daily theme,” or divide my day into several 2-hour task windows?
- How much time should I give to my blog? My in-house projects? The editing job that requires me to go to an office?
I discovered that I had been way too rigid about how many hours I had to devote to certain tasks. My husband assessed my goals and my clients’ needs/demands, and suggested I try some new ideas and adjust as necessary. He was able to think outside my self-created box and visualize something different.
Lesson learned: Be flexible, and believe that there’s always more than one way to look at a problem.
My new weekly schedule
Here’s what we came up with (Sunday is a regular day where I live):
Basically, my husband cleaned out my work time to be work time only, carved out four long but doable chunks of work, and gave me several shorter chunks for lesser tasks and longer-term projects.
Two years ago, I wasn’t ready to buy in to the idea of working longer chunks at a time and actually counting the hours I work on each project, but by the time I entered that bar and sat down with my husband, I was prepared to trying something new.
Lesson learned: It’s okay to ask for help. Someone who isn’t you is more objective; you’re too emotional about it and can’t see the big picture.
The tension between boundaries and flexibility
Above I wrote to be flexible, and know there’s always more than one way to look at (or solve) a problem.
However, what if you are too flexible?
That’s my issue; I haven’t been strict enough.
Having boundaries is not only about getting up in the morning and starting to work, I would argue that it’s more about knowing when to finish each task.
It’s easier for me to start a task than to stop working on it for the day. If I have a lot of loose ends to tie up, it makes me crazy to just leave them for the next time I work on that project.
My husband – let’s call him Francis – made it clear that if I wanted to meet my goals I had to be more strict about starting on time and ending on time.
As I’m still working on this, Francis has given me a large lunch break twice a week (and a lunch break at my out-of-house job), which I can shorten if I go a bit too long on the morning’s task or simply had to take that phone call from my daughter. This has helped me to keep my afternoon schedule more or less intact.
Right now I’m working on sticking to my project boundaries in order to use some of this lunch time for between-project exercise and mini-breaks.
Lesson learned: You must start on time and end on time, but be sure to pad your schedule with transition time.
It’s not just about keeping to the schedule
- No social phone calls
- No social media
- No email
- No answering phones unless it’s a family member
- No doing laundry
- No kitchen work
Lesson learned: It’s not as hard as you think.
If you’re worried you’ll never be able to stay off social media during your work time, try Freedom, a free app that blocks Internet for however long you decide. I like it, and have discovered that after a while I don’t need it anymore, as I have developed a rhythm to my work.
Time to get serious about your writing
If you’re a writer – professional, avocational, hobbyist, whatever – you must find time to write.
Sit down with someone this week and set your writing and/or work goals. How many hours/words are you going to write each and every day? What other projects are on your plate? What are your priorities?
Let your partner then help you carve out a schedule that works for you.
Experiment with “daily themes,” in which you work half a day on one project, or try to create smaller work periods for each of two or three different tasks. Or mix and match, like I did, with a daily major project and one or two minor tasks after lunch.
If you’re a night owl, you might want to adjust your schedule to reflect this. I’m super-focused and alert in the morning, which is why I do my hardest and most important tasks then.
If you’re still not convinced of the importance of a daily routine, read this.
A couple of offbeat ideas
I find that eating more protein helps me avoid the ten o’clock and two o’clock slumps (am I the only one who gets two a day?). Since I started a new diet, both slumps have disappeared – instantly, I might add.
Deadlines are great, but what if you don’t have any? Perhaps you journal, or you’re putting together a memoir for yourself, or maybe you’re writing a novel but don’t yet have an agent to breathe down your neck.
Try making your own deadline, or find an accountability partner. Give someone a signed check to send to your least favorite charity if you don’t fulfill your writing quota or finish that book by X date.
Buy yourself a nice diary such as a Moleskine, or just print something out from the Internet! You can even use Google Calendar – whatever. A diary works for me as an auxiliary schedule because I like writing down everything I need to do tomorrow, the night before.
Life is dynamic, and priorities change. Right now I’m happy to use my new schedule, but perhaps in a few months I’ll take on fewer freelance jobs and devote even more time to this blog. As important as it is to stick to a schedule, nothing is ever written in stone. Try to find the balance that works for you.
I can’t wait to hear from you! Tell me about your new writing/work schedule in the Comments, or shoot me an email; you can even show me a copy of your new weekly regimen.
And let me know: Do you find it harder to start or to stop?