I'm in my own personal Groundhog Day. Help.
July 28, 2010 12:59 PM   Subscribe

How can I organize my life when I have no deadlines at all?

I work 9-5 as a web & graphic designer for a historical society. My work consists of huge, long-term, open-ended projects that have no deadlines -- whenever they get done, great, but there's rarely any urgency to anything.

Outside of work, I have lots of hobbies and do some other freelance work. Almost none of it has any real deadlines.

As a result, time has very little meaning for me. It's hard for me to stay organized (and motivated) when every day is pretty much like the one before it. Making up arbitrary deadlines doesn't work for me, I'm always aware that they're fake.

Most personal organization GTD-type stuff presumes you work in a fast-moving high-intensity career field with deadlines that have real dates. I barely even remember what day it is, because I never have to. How can I add some structure to all this?
posted by overeducated_alligator to Work & Money (9 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have someone else who could hold you accountable? The first thing that came to my mind was someone you hang out with a lot not hanging out with you until you get X amount of work done.
posted by theichibun at 1:09 PM on July 28, 2010

This is exactly how my life is right now... I've tried doing the structure thing, but I find it doesn't work too well. It's like, I can't fool myself, you know? If I don't have the structure imposed on me, I can't take it seriously.

I've been experimenting a bit with just freely working on whatever I feel like working on for as long as I feel like it. I'm finding that things get done in strange ways, like sometimes I might not work on a project for a long, long while, but then I'll just sort of get into a frenzy and finish it off in one sitting. When you think about it, that kind of freedom is supposed to be an advantage of being your own boss.

Anyway, I am still kind of experimenting with working like this. I think some structure is necessary, but perhaps more for less creative things/tasks, like chores and maintenance.
posted by Theloupgarou at 1:18 PM on July 28, 2010

Professional writers often have a similar problem; it is entirely up to them to decide how much time they want to spend writing. Many writers simply establish a schedule in which they write during certain times of the day, such as from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm (or whatever suits them). You could establish work hours for yourself and then work during those hours. No one would be forcing you to do it, but you could consider it to be an obligation to yourself to respect the decision that you made to work during those hours. It can be done.
posted by grizzled at 1:20 PM on July 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I do a mix of imposing my own schedule and just accepting that I work in bursts (like Theloupgarou).

I do best when I keep regular hours, even if they are my own regular hours; there's really only so much reading metafilter I can do before I start being productive just out of boredom. And what else am I going to do in my office?

I also like having a schedule for my other activities- Thursday I work on testing one project, Monday nights I go climbing, etc. I do those activities even if the day hasn't been productive otherwise. Good way to make sure non-work activities happen: arrange to do them with someone. (So, if one of your hobbies is knitting, go to a Monday night knitting circle. Every week.) Helps me keep track of the day if not the date.

Other than that-- well, sometimes nothing happens for a month. I just don't have any good ideas. But then there are the wonderous weeks when I don't even want to sleep because I've got so many things I want to work out; when those come, I make sure to give myself all the opportunities to use the productiveness, because I know it will pass. That's the nature of my work, and the nature of me, and I'm just not going to beat myself up about it anymore. (And you shouldn't, either, especially as long as you are overall productive enough for your job's expectations.)
posted by nat at 1:39 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Separate your workspace from your playspace.

When you work with computers, it's really easy to sit down to tackle a project and end up reading Metafilter for three hours. This is bad. It's really useful to have a desk or an office where you do nothing but work. Use Leechblock or Chrome Nanny to help enforce that idea for a while. If you feel the need to take a break, get up, walk out of the room, and do it somewhere else.

After a while, whenever you're sitting in that chair, your brain gets in the zone and you know that it's work time.
posted by chrisamiller at 1:58 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Agree 100% with chrisamiller about having a separate workspace. Also, get dressed as if you were going out into the world, even if you plan to stay in and work. Working in sweatpants sounds great, but your brain still interprets it as "time to relax!"

A system of incentives was most effective for me when I worked at home. "If I finish X this morning, I get to treat myself to [special food of choice] for lunch." "I'm not going to read Metafilter when I sit down at my desk, but if I work steadily for X amount of time, I've earned X amount of time to read Metafilter before I get back to work." Etc.
posted by spinto at 2:10 PM on July 28, 2010

Plan your projects. Figure out how long you think it will take to do something, then double that estimate (most people estimate very optimistically) and make a promise to have it done by then. I do consulting work, and I've found that I'm *far* more productive when I have some structure in place that lays out what the various steps of the project are, and when they're expected to be done, and when the overall project is promised to be complete.

Take regular breaks. At least every 2 hours, ideally every 60-90 minutes. Just 10-15 minutes of something relaxing and unrelated to work. Have a snack. Stretch. Walk around for a bit. Go outside. Take a 20 minute nap, if you feel so inclined and you can get away with it.

The human body has a natural ultradian rhythm of energy throughout the day. If you pay careful attention to yours, you can time your work and renewal periods and get a very nice balance of productivity and sustaining energy throughout the day. Can you imagine finishing work and feeling absolutely fantastic and ready to take on the rest of your day?

Do you have a morning ritual? I found that adding one to my day gave me a major positive boost—when I would stick to it, that is. Try waking early, and then some aerobic exercise, hydration, a healthy meal, and a few minutes of the spiritual practice of your choice (if you don't have one, try mindfulness meditation). A positive morning ritual sets the tone for your entire day.

The hard part is making it a habit. You'll have to do it consistently, every day, for several weeks before it becomes a natural part of your routine that you don't have think about anymore.
posted by brain at 2:17 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The War of Art.

Author Stephen Pressfield would say that feeling "time has no meaning" is a form of what he calls Resistance, a powerful psychological force that prevents us from doing our proper work.

His solution is to "go professional", something which entails a systematic almost bloodyminded devotion to craft. I can't do justice to it here in a simple answer but I would highly recommend the book.
posted by storybored at 2:22 PM on July 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in a vaguely similar situation. I think you're looking at it all wrong.

First of all, your time DOES have meaning. The clock is ticking. Not to sound morbid, but how many minutes are left until you die? How do you want to spend them?

Time is finite. What do you want to accomplish this year, this month, this week, today?

I bet if you sit down and think about it from a big picture perspective, you'll realize that you DO have goals.

For example, Project A for the historical society. Do you still want to be working on it when you're 90? Of course not. Eventually every project outstays its welcome. What's a reasonable target for it? The end of August? End of October? End of the year?

Now work backwards from that. Let's say there are five things you need to do in order to finish Project A by the end of the year. We have five months left in the year, so you need to finish one of those things each month.

Presto, you have a deadline: finish step 1 by the end of August. Now you can break that down with your GTD skills and put together a timeline for each week next month. And so forth.

The same goes for hobbies. I'm a knitter, and I recently sat down and wrote out what I'd like to have knit by the end of the year. Some gifts, some things for myself, and one or two unfinished projects I really need to either finish or rip back and re-use the yarn.

I distributed each project over the next five months, and now I have a schedule. Is it okay if I ignore the schedule? Sure. But it gives me a framework.

On a day-to-day level, I think you need to set some "office hours." Sure you could dawdle and fart around from 8AM to 10PM if you wanted. But you probably want to draw a line in the sand - be it noon, or 2PM, or 6PM - beyond which you go out and play.
posted by ErikaB at 2:58 PM on July 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

« Older How to teach a kid to write b's and d's correctly?   |   Old License Plates Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.