When I retired in 2014, I had a number of goals I wanted to accomplish, including finishing my first novel, posting to my blog on a regular basis, and establishing a healthier lifestyle. Unfortunately, I have always had plenty of trouble with focus, even in a structured work environment. I wondered what on earth I was going to do without concrete deadlines and no one to answer to except myself.
About 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Prior to that, work had become very frustrating for me because I was constantly scrambling right before every deadline. I lived in constant fear that I would be found out, that they would realize I couldn’t do the job, and I would be fired. I didn’t sleep at night and I became very depressed. This is a pattern I’ve repeated over and over all my life, in school and at work. I’ve never actually been fired, but I never stopped worrying about the possibility. Even though I was getting all my work done, I always felt like a fraud.
When I finally decided to get help, I was diagnosed with ADD. I had always thought I was simply lazy and disorganized. It never occurred to me that there was an explanation for my behavior, because it seemed inexplicable. I spent far too much time beating myself up over it instead of looking for ways to cope, because I thought that was just who I was. Even if I read an article about an adult woman with ADD, I would really relate to her story but then think, “at least she has an excuse.”
Once I knew what was causing my behavior, I also realized that the diagnosis was anything but an excuse. It was an opportunity to learn how to manage it. Instead of focusing solely on what I was doing wrong, I was able to let it go and work on coping with it so I could be more productive. That doesn’t mean that it became easy, and it definitely got harder as my workload continued to increase. But it did mean that I stopped beating myself up, and that made me a happier person.
In our incredibly busy lives with tons of information being thrown at us nearly every second of the day, I think most people can relate to my struggle to get things done. Prioritizing and following through on tasks is often difficult for everyone except those few lucky souls who seem to always know what to do when (my husband, Stephen, is one of these). Time management tools and organizational methods are in high demand for a reason.
Because I was concerned about moving toward my goals after retirement, I had to come up with a good system for staying organized and managing my time. My system is always evolving, but I’d like to share with you what seems to be working for me right now. I’ve broken it down into the most important elements.
1. Create a Weekly Schedule
The first thing I did when we arrived in Boulder last fall was create a weekly schedule. I downloaded a one page Word template and made a few changes so it would work for me. I’ve got my time scheduled from 8:00 am to 7:30 pm every single day. That may seem excessive, but I need a lot of structure in order to get things done. Because I have a routine, my days go more smoothly. Occasionally I have to switch things around when there’s a desperate need for a grocery run or I’ve got a class or a webinar, but mostly I try to stick to the schedule. I have free time and gym time built into the schedule, which is really important.
2. Create a To-Do List
Although the weekly schedule provides me with an outline of what I should be doing at any given time, I need a way to track specifically what I should be getting done each day. I’ve tried keeping a to-do list on my computer, but I hated having to print it out over and over. I also really didn’t like that when I accomplished something, it wasn’t preserved. That line would just get deleted, and the next day I’d print out a new list with no check marks on it. I wanted to be able to see my progress on an ongoing basis, and also track how I was spending my time.
When I happened across the concept of bullet journaling, I knew it was what I was looking for. It’s a great system, and I just focus on the parts that work best for me. Not everyone likes it, though, and it is important to find what works for you. I’m not going to go into great detail about the bullet journaling system and the symbols, because there is a ton of information available that explains it better than I could. Start with Ryder Carroll’s official Bullet Journal website. His introductory video is below.
Briefly, the bullet journal has you add entries into your journal using symbols to divide them into three categories: tasks, notes, and events. I use squares for tasks, circles for events, and a dot for notes. Zaira Ivette Sierra has a wonderful Bullet Journal Key that you can download and print from Google Docs and paste into the front of your journal. Here’s my Pinterest bullet journaling board, which has tons of examples of different types of bullet journals and planners.
The notebook I was using as my bullet journal has been discontinued, so I am trying out some other notebooks to see what I like. I try to get the most urgent tasks out of the way first (eat that frog!). Then I can work on other, easier tasks. I generally put more on my list than I can likely accomplish that day, so unfinished tasks get moved to the next day. I do this mainly so these things don’t fall off my radar. I do sometimes add a task I’ve already completed that wasn’t originally on my to-do list. This helps me remember that it was completed, and it gives me a more accurate picture of how I spent my time on a particular day. I’m also trying to train myself to write absolutely everything down, instead of saying, “I’ll remember that!” Chances are, I won’t actually remember.
When I date a new page, I check my calendar on my Mac to see if there is anything I need to add from there. I keep the electronic calendar because I really like the pop-up reminders. I don’t put daily tasks on it (other than a reminder to take my medicine), but I use it for events and travel dates and things like that.
Note that on my weekly schedule, I’ve got planning time at the end and beginning of each day. This is when I transfer unfinished tasks to the next day and add new tasks. I also check my calendar for any upcoming events that I need to put in my journal.
If you find that bullet journaling isn’t for you, there are tons of other methods for keeping track of your tasks. Stephen hand writes his tasks on a single 8.5×11 sheet of paper. This would drive me crazy, but it works perfectly for him. I just came across Mark Forster’s Autofocus Time Management System, which shares some elements with bullet journaling. He has a free PDF on his website you can download with the instructions. A lot of people use apps, like Wunderlist or Evernote, for tracking to-do lists. HabitRPG is kind of a neat idea that is popular with gamers.
3. Eliminate Distractions
When I am writing, I close my browser and my email. I also turn the sound off on my phone and put it face down so I can’t see any notification lights. It’s too tempting to check my email or social media if I have that stuff open, so the only thing I have on my desktop is my word processing program. Of course people can be big distractions too, so it’s ideal if you have a workspace to yourself. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury right now, so I just have to let Stephen know when I need to focus on something. Wish I could communicate that to the dog, too!
Another way I eliminate distractions is that I keep my desk and work area clean. I try to have only the tools that I need and not a lot of decorative stuff around. When I am working on a particular project, everything else gets set aside. On March 3, I’ll be posting about setting up a simple home office, so you may be interested in checking that out too.
4. Track Progress Toward GoalsIn addition to simply checking off items on your to-do list, it’s also good to track your overall progress toward your goals. It’s important that you be able to see your forward momentum. A really great example of tracking progress is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I participated in NaNo last November, and the goal of all participants is to write 50,000 words of a novel in a single month. Each day, you update how many words you have written, and the website displays a graph showing your progress. There’s also a page that shows you how many words a day you need to write for the rest of the month based on how many words you have written so far. This is a wonderful way to track a numerical goal.
Of course, not all goals are numerical, but if you can find a way to quantify your progress, it does make it easier to track. That’s why many so many people track weight loss, even if it isn’t necessarily the ideal way to monitor your health.
In general, your list of goals is your master to-do list. It’s easy to procrastinate on large projects that seem overwhelming. Break each project down into smaller parts, and it is these parts that should go into your daily to-do lists. My daily list won’t have an entry for Write a Novel, but it may have Edit Chapter 7.
5. Schedule Breaks & Rewards
Note that I never have more than two hours in a row of working on the same task on my weekly schedule. Don’t expect yourself to maintain focus on a single task for hours at a time. Give yourself breaks to look forward to, and you’ll probably get a lot more done when you are working.
When I was participating in NaNoWriMo, I set up rewards for myself for when I hit certain word goals. For instance, when I hit 20,000 words, Stephen took me to dinner at a local restaurant I wanted to try. But small rewards work too. A friend sent me a package of chocolate for writing inspiration, and I would have a bit of that whenever I hit a smaller word count goal. Often, I find that getting to slack off a bit and maybe watch something on Hulu or Netflix is enough of a reward when I’ve accomplished a lot on a particular day.
6. Get Plenty of Exercise
If you look at my weekly schedule, you’ll see that I have some sort of physical activity every day except Saturday. This is a critical piece of my time management puzzle. Going to the gym or hiking gives me a daily energy boost that I need to stay productive. Exercise is a proven mood elevator, and it really helps me stay positive. In addition, if you have to spend a lot of time sitting at a computer, it’s important to get up at walk around every 30 minutes or so. Sitting for hours at a time is extremely bad for your health. In fact, a study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that exercising 30 to 60 minutes per day is not enough to counteract the deadly effects of a sedentary lifestyle. I had a standing desk at work, which was wonderful, and I recommend that if at all possible.
7. Create a Separate Journal for Notes and Ideas
Although this doesn’t specifically relate to time management, it’s important to have a place to keep all your notes and ideas for every project. The bullet journal system actually tells you to keep those notes in the same journal as your to do lists, but I like to have a separate notebook for this. I don’t separate notes about personal stuff from notes for my blog and other projects. I prefer to keep it all in one journal. If you don’t want to have multiple notebooks, you can use tabs to mark particular topics. I do have a separate notebook for my novel, as it’s important to have all of that material together.
8. Have a Weekly Reading Topic
This is a new addition to my time management repertoire. I have a ton of articles that I want to read and I’ve been bookmarking them and pinning them on Pinterest, but I never make a dent. So I’ve created a schedule with a new topic to read about each week, and I put it at the top of my to-do list pages. Then I try to read at least five articles on that topic each day and make notes of the useful information. For instance, I’ve just finished the first draft of my novel, so this week’s topic is first draft revision. This seemed to be the easiest way to try and plow through some of the reading that I’ve put off. It became a little overwhelming, so I realized I needed to get more organized about it.
When you go from winging it to a much more structured system, it can take some getting used to. I look at my weekly schedule and my to-do list often to help me stay on track. But creating a time management system that works for you is a vital tool for accomplishing your goals. I’d love to hear about what works for you. Please share your time management hacks in the comments.