I have every day open to get what I want done, and I'm getting nothing done. Advice?
January 30, 2012 2:38 PM   Subscribe

My daily schedule is wide open, and I'm not getting anything done. How should I schedule my time?

I am officially unemployed right now. I also have a girlfriend that works long hours. I have all the time in the world, and I'm getting nothing down.

Even though I don't have a 9-5 job, I have plenty of projects I need to work on, from professional, to house, to personal. It would seem my open schedule would lead to great things, but it's been the opposite. I was much more productive when I had a 9-5 job and worked around my working hours.

I basically subscribe to GTD, in that I have a task list broken up according to context (errands, home, computer, etc.). This worked in the past quite well. When I was driving, I would look at my errands list. But the thing is with my open schedule, contexts are less helpful. I can get groceries ANY time I want. I can complete an errand task ANY time I feel like it.

And my calendar is basically empty. In GTD your calendar is for appointments that have a definite time, a time that they have to be done. But most of the things I want to do, no matter how important, don't have a definite time given by an outside source. I am that source.

(I know there's much more to GTD than this. I'm trying to simplify for the purpose of the question.)

I've thought of breaking from GTD for now and each night scheduling my day via my calendar. My thinking is, for now, I'm my boss, so if I say I need to work on project X from 8-10 AM, I need to do just that. But I'm worried that, because in the back of my mind I know nothings holding me to working from 8-10, I'll just put it off.

I realize some of this is basic discipline. I know there's no magical solution. But I was curious how others that found themselves with a ton of free time and lots to do actually got 'lots' done. Did you live in your calendar and scheduled your days? Or did you ignore the calendar and just attacked your todo list each day?

Any ideas or advice is welcomed.
posted by ratherbethedevil to Work & Money (22 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
One thing at a time, is the only way it works for me.

Don't think of it as having a "lot of projects." You have one project, work on that until it's done, then start another one.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:41 PM on January 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

And yes, too much time can be an issue- because if you have all the time in the world, why rush?

What worked for me in this situation was constraints. Basically I told myself my "work" day was over after lunch.

So wake up, work out, work on my project, lunch, relax.

You might feel like you're wasting a ton of time after lunch, but oh well. Your work day is over. If you tell yourself just that - "my work day is over" - then you can truly relax and not be in a constant state of "I could be doing X right now!!!" Working every working hour is just not realistic.

And you'll still get a ton done, as long as you do some every single day.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:44 PM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Working every *waking* hour
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:45 PM on January 30, 2012

I have a sort of GTD-based strategy that sort of goes like, "Ok, I have some time and I have things that need to get done. I'm going to do a thing!" And then I do a thing, where a "thing" is a discrete task off of the "next action" list. But, critically, it's any thing on that list, not whichever one I vaguely feel that I *should* be doing. This allows me to get stuff done without getting stuck in "But I really should do x! But I don't want to do x. So I'm going to play solitaire instead, because I can't do y or z until I do x, because x is more important."

The other key component is that I also say "OK, I need to do three things today. I need to do one thing before I make my morning websurfing rounds." And then I do a thing, any thing on the list, from making a phone call to cleaning the catbox, and then I do my reward thing. This works fairly well.

The downside is that I can totally get the house spotlessly clean in an effort to avoid writing the next chapter, but that still gets things done that need to get done. Time-sensitive stuff is basically not involved in this loop at all, because I need to think about it differently, but for everything else it's all about breaking it down into five-minute tasks and then stringing them together.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:58 PM on January 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

In this context I really like the pomodoro technique. It helps create really short term goals that make it harder to procrastinate. (not great for all types of work, but helpful for breaking up big tasks.)
posted by mercredi at 2:59 PM on January 30, 2012

After a year plus of retirement I have noticed a big difference in productivity for the days when I shower, get dressed and put athletic shoes on (or any shoes not easily kicked off). It is amazing how much I can get done inside and outside if I have shoes on.

Good luck to you!
posted by francesca too at 3:02 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pomodoro technique? Couldn't be more simple but it's really effective at getting rid of that floating-in-a-sea-of-time feeling. It's important to start right away in the morning at a set time, 9 am or whatever. Once you pick up the 25 -ding 25-ding habit it eats through the hours.
posted by Erasmouse at 3:02 PM on January 30, 2012

Every day you look at your errands list and make a list of things to do today.

Prioritise things by urgency (I know you say you can get groceries any time, but you must get more groceries before you run out of food, laundry has to be done before you run out of clean clothes etc), then by preference. Then order your list in a sensible way based on the tasks at hand - I like to start with small tasks I can get out of the way quickly - checking things off my list gives me a happy :) But I also like to save some smaller/easier tasks to split up the larger/more difficult tasks.

Sometimes it makes sense to do things in a certain order eg. if I have laundry, cleaning the floors and cardio on my list, first I would put the laundry on, then clean the floors and then workout (there may be other tasks in between) that way after my post-workout shower, I have fresh, dry-warm clothes to put on and my feet aren't getting dirty again from dust/fluff on the floors. That specific scenario may not apply to you but there may be other things like, if the dishwasher noise disturbs you, you'd want to arrange your day so that you're not doing your taxes when the dishwasher is running etc.

Then once you have a small list of a reasonable amount of work to achieve in a day, in a sensible order you just work through the list one item at a time.

Another thing I do when I'm really not in the mood is decide, ok I have to achieve x,y,z before I can do something fun. So the quicker I get them done, the quicker I can go do what I'd rather be doing.

Its not a fool-proof plan, because you can always say "fuck it, I'm going playing skyrim anyway" but I find it works for me most of the time
posted by missmagenta at 3:04 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I feel like I'm writing to a cousin! Missed you at the last -devil family reunion.

For me, the answer has been to make my own deadlines and take them as seriously as I would a client's or employer's deadlines.

I like drjimmy11's idea of self-imposed tunnel vision. One project at a time can really help with focus.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:35 PM on January 30, 2012

I had pretty much this situation in grad school. There was very little imposed structure on my time other than a 2-3x / week teaching schedule (and some semesters, I didn't even have that). I tried scheduling my time by writing in my calendar, for example, "2:00 - 5:00, work on dissertation." That failed miserably, because as you say, I always knew I didn't really have to do that specific task at that specific time. (Plus, I had a lot of anxiety and dread about the dissertation, and could find endless avenues of procrastination.)

What ended up being the best solution for me was what I called my "two out of three" plan. I had three main areas in which I needed to get stuff done, but tended to procrastinate: teaching, research, and exercise. (Sounds like you have three areas as well: professional, house, personal.) I told myself that every day, I needed to make some kind of substantial progress in at least two out of the three areas; I'd let myself off the hook for the third area. So for example on one day, I'd write a page or two of dissertation and do class planning (research and teaching); on the next day, I'd skip the dissertation, but teach class and then go to the gym (teaching and exercise). The nice thing about this approach is that it lets you choose which thing you really, really DON'T want to work on today, and ignore it without getting into a guilt-procrastination-guilt-procrastination vicious loop. Having given yourself a free pass on one responsibility, it feels easier to buck up and handle the other two.

"Two out of three" also worked for me because my natural tendency was to procrastinate in all three areas equally; if I were a lot more zealous about teaching or getting exercise, for example, it would have been more likely for one of those things to dominate the week. Usually after two or three days in a row of working on one area, I'd be longing to take a break, so there was a natural rotation of my focus among the three areas.

Obviously, if you do the "two out of three" approach, you have to make yourself choose a big enough chunk of your task list so that you can feel like "yes, I legitimately accomplished something in this area today." I did not find that hard. In fact, at times it's best to under-estimate your capacity and set the bar really low. I find that talking myself into getting started on a task is often the hardest part of doing it.
posted by Orinda at 3:35 PM on January 30, 2012 [10 favorites]

I work a super wacky schedule and frequently have random days off with nothing scheduled but much to do.

Two things that have really helped me are setting a definite wake up time and making a list of specific things I have to do each day. I try and make start each day's list the night before, and finish writing it while I'm eating breakfast. Today's list, for instance:

dye hair
pay bills
sewing room cleanup
big shelves (books to sell back, set up printer)
shopping list (list of things I want to cook this week to help jumpstart the shopping list)
prep for traffic court tomorrow
pick up laundry
wash dishes
clean off windowsill
water cut flowers
gather dead forced bulbs/replant

Today's list is pretty ambitious, but I just got back from a vacation and have a bunch of energy and drive to get things done. Making a list specific to each day rather than just keeping one big list helps me feel more accomplished and allows me to just assign myself tasks that I feel I can get done that day. One big list never goes away, whereas I get the satisfaction of crossing off the entire little list every day.
posted by mollymayhem at 3:42 PM on January 30, 2012

Read The Now Habit by Neil Fiore. The basic insight is that you need to get over the feeling that you have unlimited time to get things done, and provides some strategies to do so. As a bonus, it plays very well with GTD, and won't require you to redo your task list approach.
posted by psycheslamp at 3:52 PM on January 30, 2012

If you can manage to set up any sort of schedule that you do need to hold to, it can be very helpful. The classic example here is setting up regular times to jog or go to the gym with a friend. Something like this might work for some of your projects -- even for things that aren't really amenable to doing with someone else, you can plan for regular "progress checks" with someone else who has similar scheduling issues. You don't even have to know anyone else in that situation, find some related message boards and set a deadline to post regular pictures or updates of your projects.

You can still use GTD to track projects even if you schedule things on your calendar daily. Daily to-do lists can be helpful as well, or you can think of them as daily goal lists. Use paper if you like the action of drawing a line through the task.

Having things on your schedule that have a set time can be helpful, even if they seem like "wasting time", you might be more productive with a few of them. You can find free lectures at libraries and universities if nothing else, but a little digging may turn up things more relevant to you.
posted by yohko at 4:01 PM on January 30, 2012

When I left my job to stay home with my son, the best thing I did was give myself a weekly schedule. It looks like this:
- Monday - laundry
- Tuesday - clean house
- Wednesday - errands
- Thursday - desk time (bills, letters, responding to those e-mails I've been procrastinating on)
- Friday - other projects (mow the lawn, make some jam, those kinds of things)

These things give me something to structure my days around. If I'm running errands on Wednesday, I probably can't set up a play date that day or have a contractor show up, so it forces me to plan accordingly. They don't have to be household chores like this; they can be anything.

Having a morning routine helps, too. (Walk dog, write, breakfast, shower, dressed.) Days when I skip my morning routine, I have a harder time getting started. Yeah, sometimes, like today when the baby is sick and everything went to hell, I feel like I got dressed for no reason at all. But almost all the time, going through those motions gives me a little bit of momentum to overcome my inertia and start DOING things. (Also, I will not walk the dog at all if I don't do it first thing in the morning, and skipping it makes us both sad.)
posted by linettasky at 5:06 PM on January 30, 2012

Seconding The Now Habit and the Unschedule.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 5:10 PM on January 30, 2012

I just had a conversation today with my husband about this. I retired two years ago and I'm just now figuring out how to get things done. For me, the solution was scheduling a regular activity twice a week that I could not change. Mine is volunteer work. I MUST be there on Monday afternoons and Thursday mornings. For some reason, I'm much more motivated to get all the other stuff done and out of the way with just a little structure. I've always used lists, weekly schedules, etc, but when there's no real urgency it becomes really hard to stay motivated. But I can hang my hat on two appointments a week and work around them.
posted by raisingsand at 8:18 PM on January 30, 2012

Also mostly unemployed over here. This is what I've done, with the help of AskMe, to get things done.

- Write a to-do list the night before, never more than 5 items that you absolutely must get done the next day. Then make the last item "finish this list" and cross it off. There! You've already accomplished something and you'll be starting the day fresh.
- Schedule things early in the morning so that you absolutely must get up. When I have completely free days, I'll find myself only starting up around 2pm.
- Put up a calendar and X out the days when you were able to complete all of your tasks. Then, don't break it. Don't break the chain! I've had days where my only goal was simply to take a half hour walk. It doesn't matter as long as you get that one thing done and then you can put an X.
- Don't berate yourself for the days when you slip up. Celebrate when you get back on the wagon.
- Also, I find that it really helps me to get out of the house to do things that I can do on the computer. Otherwise, I'll clean up the house, wash dishes, make tea, and before I know it, the whole day has passed.
posted by so much modern time at 1:24 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I feel particularly unmotivated, I break my todo lists into tiny, incremental lists.

For example, let's say I have three things on my agenda:

- wash dishes
- change oil in car
- learn python

and I don't feel like doing any of them.

One thing that gets me going is to break every task into tiny steps.

Next to "wash dishes", I'll write:

- empty dishwasher
- collect all dirty dishes in house and take to sink
- rinse out dishes, etc.

I basically write down the mini-steps untiil I feel like I can do one of them. Once I do the ministep (or several of them) I go to my list and cross them out.

Similarly, with "oil change", I'll break it down to: look for oil change coupon, call and make appointment, etc.

Crossing out mini-steps usually gets the ball rolling for me.

This works especially well for concrete, mundane projects.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:52 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also make sure you schedule a block of free time every day and weekends for yourself. If you don't have "free time", you're more prone to goof off or procrastinate. And you'll feel much better about the free time you do have, instead of feeling like you're slacking.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:54 AM on January 31, 2012

The Pomodoro idea works great. Flylady has a similar sort of method for doing those jobs you dread, basically you can do anything for 15minutes (or 10 or whatever works for you) I tend to do it in 15 minute bursts.

Set a timer work for 15 mins. Ding. Set a timer faff around for 15 mins. Ding

What usually happens is if I am really into what I'm doing I keep going past the 15 mins until I stop, then I have my 15 minute break from there.

While a lot of the Flylady things are aimed more at housekeeping, a lot of their ideas are good and easily transferable to other areas.

Get up at a set time, get dressed to do things so you have no excuse for not leaving the house to do errands, have routines you do every day to keep things maintained.

Do certain jobs on certain days, so have an errand day that you go run all your errands on and the like, which I find tie into the whole GTD thing nicely. Monday is say make phone calls day, so I set the timer, find my list of calls to make and start ringing, and it's all done usually in less time than I spent beating myself up for not doing it. If I know I am going to do certain jobs on certain days then it takes a lot of the stress off. Oh I haven't cleaned the bathroom, but Thursday is cleaning bathrooms day so I'll worry about it then sort of thing.
posted by wwax at 9:22 AM on January 31, 2012

I've been a list-maker since high school (yikes, 15+ years ago), when a friend of mine showed me her beautiful and well-organized list. For about 15 years I had a very exact system, where I had just a list of things, broken down by subject. Homework lists, personal lists, job lists, research lists. I even used the same types of notebooks for the lists.

Then, when I was put on furlough earlier this year, and suddenly needed something with more structure. I started using TeuxDeux. It's organized so that you can use it for both day-to-day, and subject-specialized long-term lists (there are five columns at the bottom you can use). It took me about a week to break my 15+ year habit and fall in love with the new structure.

So, for example, you can use it for tasks that depend on the day--every Tuesday, I have "put out trash". But then I also have my long term projects broken down into manageable pieces in the five columns below. As I want to work on things, I move these pieces from the bottom to the top. So, for example, if I have a paper I'm working on, I'll break it up into sections, and for example, move "write introduction" to Saturday if I know I'll have time on the weekend to work on it. If you don't get things done, they automatically move to the next day. That's also handy. If I have a bunch of things I want done this week, I'll move them all to Monday, and then just pick them off one-by-one throughout the week.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 11:15 AM on January 31, 2012

I work part time and I struggle with the same thing. My therapist's suggestion was to make myself accountable to another person (who is not my spouse or close family member). So, for example, volunteer to work on projects with other people in your career field. Invite people over once a week for a book club so you're motivated to clean the house regularly. Join a running club. The point is that someone is expecting you to show up and/or do something. You'll be missed if you're not there. This is what happens when you're working, after all, only right now you get the luxury of choosing the specific task and time.
posted by desjardins at 12:21 PM on February 2, 2012

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