Structuring Alone Time
July 16, 2019 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I’m at the beginning of a year that’s going to involve LOTS of time by myself, with few responsibilities (but juuuusst enough to make getting a job impractical). I’m already sliding into a place where I’m spending lots of time on my phone and making very slow progress on things like unpacking my new apartment. Help me save myself from myself.

I’m already going to the gym daily, and have therapy 2x per week (yay trauma). I’ve got a class to go to on Friday mornings as well.

My biggest tasks right now are unpacking my apartment and studying for an exam that’s coming up in three weeks.

How do y’all handle long chunks of unstructured time? I haven’t had to do this since before med school (part of why I chose medicine is because I’m best when I’m busy!), and I’m really not good at it.

  • I’ve got ADHD, though I’m medicated.
  • I’m trying not to spend a lot of money right now; my family are covering my bills and that’s already plenty expensive
  • The last time I was unemployed for a significant amount of time I got quite depressed, so it feels important to get ahead of this
  • I’m not just looking for things to do; I’m more looking for strategies for making those things more inviting than turning into a bed burrito (she says, typing from her bed, where she is currently in a duvet burrito)
posted by ocherdraco to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Before it is suggested: I unfortunately can’t get any sort of pet. If I could, this question probably wouldn’t be happening because I’d be off on adventures with my faithful pup.)
posted by ocherdraco at 12:30 PM on July 16, 2019

When I was writing my dissertation remotely, I got a lot of mileage out of coffee walks (idea from the Doris zine about depression). Every morning, fill a travel mug with coffee and walk around your neighborhood. Print a reasonably-sized map and make it a project to walk every path over time, if that sounds interesting. Stop and get a refill if you feel like you want one. Your day is started and you've already gotten some exercise, A+. It's kind of an active version of writing "morning pages".
posted by momus_window at 12:35 PM on July 16, 2019 [18 favorites]

I find chores or projects to be easier when I have music linked to the project. The old way I used to do it was 1 CD clean-up. Pick a CD I liked, hit play, and then I have to clean for as long as the CD is going. Once the CD is over, I'm finished. This approach works best with open-ended things that are a long-term issue, like housework (or unpacking!) Now I use playlists on the internet. Podcasts also make for good company while doing menial tasks.

I'm also not above giving myself small prizes for tackling something that I really don't want to do. I don't get myself anything big, it just has to be something indulgent. It helps me to establish a habit and then prizes aren't needed anymore.

Also, you're already going to the gym daily and making your therapy appointments. You're on the right track! You're already doing well. Add something new this week. Make an appointment with yourself for a 1-CD unpack for 3 days within the next week. If you do more, great. If not, you're still getting it done. Slow and steady.
posted by quince at 12:40 PM on July 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

Public radio can be a nice companion throughout the day. Its predictable schedule is comforting, the rhythms of news developing throughout the day and over time help you feel connected to the hosts and therefore the rest of the world, and it helps set up subconscious associations like "Simply Folk = meal-prep time" so then you don't have to do all the work of motivating yourself because your brain's already in the right mode.
posted by teremala at 12:44 PM on July 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

"Unstructured time" describes most of my life now. Random tips:

1) If you’re like me, isolation would be bad. Find at least one weekly event that gets you directly interacting with people (a volunteer shift is nice, or perhaps a class study group?) and rigidly stick to going
2) It’s easy to get unmoored from time and feel you’re accomplishing nothing. Break down your big tasks into checkmarkable items so that you have a record to look at when you start to get down on yourself.
3) "Western man had relearned — what the rest of the world had never forgotten — that there was nothing sinful in leisure as long as it did not degenerate into mere sloth."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:48 PM on July 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

I live alone and I totally get this. Here's some of my strategies:

* I have a whiteboard and I write things I want to get done on it. Usually this is just for the day, but sometimes I'll write things that need to get done that week on it as well. I cross them off as I do them.
* I have a timer on my watch or on the microwave for 5, 10, 15 minutes. For example: I'm going to clean the kitchen for 5 minutes. I'm going to pick up things in each room for 5 minutes per room. I'm going to knit (or read or something else pleasurable) for 15 minutes before I clean the next room. Or for bigger things: I'm going to take out the trash at 3:00. I'm going to go get my prescription at 6:00.
* Getting up at a decent time with my alarm and not just getting dressed, but getting fully ready to go out, even if I don't need to. So: teeth brushed/flossed, dress on, makeup if I'm wearing it, brush hair, eat breakfast. This is really good for getting shit done later.

I'll think a bit and see if there's anything else, but those are my most used strategies for structuring my alone time to be productive.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:37 PM on July 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

Fellow ADHD person here. This is an issue I struggle with as well. I work better in the company of one or more other people but am self-employed. Eek! Luckily, I have found several things useful:

1. As noted above, going for a walk in the morning. It doesn't have to be long.

2. Working at cafes, public libraries, or in the offices of buddies who have their own offices so we can do joint work sessions.

3. Getting my ADHD meds changed up (after realising I had become a sad bed burrito; turned out brand-name Ritalin did the trick after the generic stuff was no longer working; thanks MeFites for making that suggestion!).

4. When I am on my own, using a Time Timer (there is also an app, apparently) so I get a visual cue about how quickly the time is passing.

5. Developing a sense of "enough". Like, my ADHD brain lies to me in various ways: It tells me there is no point in trying to do anything productive because everything takes longer than I expect and that, as a result, I can only get started on something if I have a whole day clear (and I never do) because, obviously, anything I start I have to finish on the same day (grrrrrrr). Not one of these things is true and yet, it is my default framework.

Over time, after getting some outside help, I have figured out that 3 hours is pretty much the most time I can give to any particular project/task/chore on any given day and do a good job in the process. So for important projects that are urgent, in my calendar I will slot in 3-hour chunks over several days. And let myself stop after that instead of being more demanding, which is not helpful.

6. I set many phone reminders and put things in my phone calendar so I get more than one nudge to do the thing I was planning to do.

7. I practice productive procrastination. If I cannot effectively focus on the most important thing I have decided to do, I spend time on the next most important thing. Often I am able to go back to the #1 thing later in the day.

8. In the past, I scheduled in fun. Not as in a reward but as in, humans need fun. Myself included. I seemed to feel better in those days so I am attempting to get back to that.

9. Remembering from one of the zillion books on ADHD that A. I can start on a task at any time of the day and that it is never too late to start if I am willing. B. Deciding to spend just 10 minutes on a task and reminding myself that after that, I can quit. Mostly it is the starting that is painful (that I expect to be painful, that is); after 10 minutes, I am most often happy to work longer and then I feel better afterward because I have been productive.

Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:39 PM on July 16, 2019 [9 favorites]

This might sound silly, but if you know anyone else who needs to study, or to get a certain amount of writing or other work done on their own, schedule daily sessions to work in the same place or over Skype. (If you don't know anyone you might even post on Jobs or someplace similar - a lot of people are looking for that kind of accountability or structure.)
posted by trig at 1:41 PM on July 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

If unstructured time isn’t working for you, I think you need to create your own structure.

What are your goals for this time besides unpacking and studying for the exam? Can you think of a few things that would be really meaningful to you to make progress on, even if they’re hard? Getting super into yoga? Getting involved in a volunteer project?

I’d first make a list of anywhere from two to five things that are priorities for you in your life, whether you love doing the thing itself (hiking, say) or whether you’d like to be able to just wave a magic wand and get to the outcome (you’d love to be fluent in French, for instance). Both types are valid.

Next, figure out how to make progress on these priorities. Break it down from the big picture to daily tasks, and from nebulous ideas to concrete goals.

Say one of your goals is to read more classic literature. You might go from “I want to read more literature!” to “here’s this list of 100 classic novels” to “I want to read these three books by September 1st” to “I will commit to getting my library card and checking out the first book tomorrow, and reading 30 minutes per day until I finish those three books.”

Do the same thing with the rest of your priorities, turning them into small manageable daily goals. (I love this stuff so would be happy to help you do this if you MeMail me.)

Then add a tracking system. I love a paper calendar and a pen with a color designated for that goal - say, purple for literature. Every day that you read for 30 minutes, you get a purple check mark on the calendar. You’re aiming for a purple check mark every day, though give yourself grace if/when you fall short.

Then add a reward. If you get at least 20 purple check marks in the month of August, you’ll treat yourself to pizza and a Netflix binge night, or to dinner out with friends, or to a day trip to the beach. Whatever motivates you.

When you end up with 2-5 daily goals of thirty minutes to an hour (unpacking and studying could easily be two of these goals), you suddenly have a full day of stuff to do! But, importantly, a) it’s flexible (you decide what you fit in when, and once everything is checked off, you get to be a bed burrito for awhile if you want!) and b) you’re making real, demonstrable, visual (on the calendar) progress on things that are important to you.

This kind of situation can be really hard to manage, but if you set up some structure, it can be really awesome. If you went to med school, you know you can be self-disciplined, so you just have to point that discipline in the right direction. (If having another person hold you accountable is helpful, I’m happy to help with that as well.)

Good luck!
posted by bananacabana at 1:45 PM on July 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

As far as getting unpacked/cleaning/doing regular chores type things, if I find myself getting into a rut where I’m not doing anything, I’ll invite someone over for a couple of days in the future. That gives me motivation to clean/unpack/do whatever and a couple of days to do it in, but there’s a hard deadline. I like deadlines. I procrastinate a lot, but I can always meet a deadline if there are consequences to not meeting it.
posted by Weeping_angel at 2:19 PM on July 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Volunteering is job-like enough to provide structure, but without the commitment. Schools or tutoring, habitat for humanity, eldercare, library.

I apologise if this is beyond the scope of your question, but you are partly through medical training, correct? And usually wherever you're applying to or going next will be pretty concerned with what you've done to improve yourself in the past year. So that might provide some sort of framework for you to figure out what to do with yourself.
posted by Dashy at 3:28 PM on July 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Get a regular volunteer gig. It's sounds like you like animals - go ask a local shelter if you could come in every morning/afternoon/once or twice a week and walk dogs or socialize the cats.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:42 PM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I create structure with Todoist and loosely planning my day right when I wake up. Mostly I'm trying to generate a feeling of accomplishment for things that need doing. Unpacking is a challenge for me too so I pick the section I want to tackle and what the results will look like and then just do the middle part. I give myself 20 minutes with a timer just to get me going and often I'll go for longer.

Walking is my way of getting out of my head and changing perspective and scene.
posted by kokaku at 3:53 PM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Daily journaling is helpful - set aside a time to jot down some notes about what you did/thought/saw/ate/felt in the previous 24 hours. When I had a bunch of unstructured time I found it to be a good morning routine but I could see other times of the day working as well.

Generally I found the strategy of using mornings to knock out any tasks that actually needed to get done and/or spend some time doing something that felt substantive (for me, drawing or coding) helped me relax into the rest of the day and be cool with whatever I did or didn't do with the afternoon/evening.
posted by yarrow at 5:59 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Routines! Do not get too hung up on not having a job-job, there are a lot of ways to be a useful productive person (to the world or just to yourself) and that can be your job for right now. For me, an underemployed person who doesn't like to spend a lot of money, the big deal is having a combination of things to work on. I split them into a few categories

- making the house better (fixit stuff, cleaning up, going food shopping, deferred maintenance)
- making me better (I sort of split this into mental and physical since they are sometimes but not always the same: reading, communicating with friends,exercise, eating good food, getting rest, getting clean, pampering)
- making the world better (volunteering, listening to a friend, doing civic projects, political activism, service to others)

And then when I get tired of doing one of the things, I try to switch to another. This is "the virtuous cycle of procrastination" Don't want to do your shoulder exercises? OK unload the dishwasher. At night I make a list of things I'd like to get done the next day. It's often a short list and can literally have things on it like "eat carrots" but it helps me structure my time.

So right now you have a few things on the list. Maybe you can stretch those.... have a thing you do on the way back from therapy. Or a stop by the library on the way back from the gym. Maybe it's literally checking your email from a coffee shop instead of home. If you're prone to burritoing at home, maybe you want to wedge yourself a little more not-at-home

At a basic level you can literally turn this into a checkmarks/reward system to make sure you're sitting your marks.

And then the last part is sort of limiting your potatochip time just idly surfing social media and reading news in a non-productive way (you'll have to determine how much of this is useful vs time wasting) and trying to give yourself limits. I have an app called Awaerness for my computer that makes a noise at 45 minutes. I get up and stretch then, no matter what I am doing and then often I can move on to another thing. Maybe something like that will work for you.
posted by jessamyn at 7:49 AM on July 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! I haven’t burritoed yet today (though I did take a nap). I’m heading out into the world for a little while to read somewhere other than my living room.

I appreciate all of these strategies.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:19 PM on July 17, 2019

Get yourself a unique and attractive looking box. You might find one in the gift box section at the dollar store, but it needs to be something that you would not ordinarily buy or have in your house but which is noticeable and you like the look of it. Put your phone in the box.

Your phone goes in this box immediately after a timed morning check in where you have maybe an hour - with a timer set - to check your social media. And it stays in the box unless you have a very good reason to take the phone out, such as that it is ringing. You can certainly grab it and look something up. You can absolutely grab it and text a family member when you need to check if you should pick up anything before you head over to see them. But unless you have a valid reason, the phone stays in the box. The box is your reminder that your phone is a time sink and you do not really want to spend more time on angry birds or Instagram. You might also make a commitment that the phone will only come out of the box six times a day. That way when you have the urge to grab the phone you will have to think if this is something you want to do enough to do it, even if it restricts your later in the day use, and you can't look anything up on the internet, or post that little item that you get the urge to share with your friends.

When you get the urge to use your phone, figure out what the trigger for the urge is: Gunna log into metafilter? Why? Are you bored and hoping to read something interesting? Lonely and hoping to find community? Brain dead and need to do something when you are too mentally exhausted to do anything but click links? Think of alternative ways to meet those needs that do not require you to use your phone.

The sixth time you log into fb, this time to see if anyone has liked your comment, the chances are you are trying to get a need met and even if there are four likes, the experience is not meeting that need, or else the previous time you logged in would have done it. So if you go looking for recognition and still need it after looking at the likes, or if you go looking for stimulating reading and you still need more stimulation, even after going to informative creative and original websites five times previously you can tell that you are getting just enough payoff to keep logging in, but not enough payoff to make you content.

Instead of logging back into those sites, ask yourself what would be enough to make you stop logging in repeatedly.If you are clicking links due to being ADD and brain dead, having a cup of coffee might do the trick. Or if you are feeling lonely and keep looking for human voices, go meet someone you know and have an in person discussion. If you are looking for stimulation, don't just go randomly grazing, pick a topic and research it in detail.

Get into the habit of asking yourself, what can I do today that would make me feel I had used by day well when it is time for me to go to bed. The answer is not "Finish my project" unless the project is a really short and simple one but "Make progress on...."

Then get into the habit of asking yourself, "What can I do right now for two minutes to make progress on my project?" Keep asking that whenever you are not engrossed in things. Don't forget that you can stop when you have a feeling of accomplishment that will last until tomorrow. You will probably find that doing five minutes of good work that gets things moving just a little bit on five different projects will give you a feeling of accomplishment - got my laundry started, phoned Beryl, found my grant application papers and put them ready-to-go on my desk, did a rough sketch of the layout for my drawing to get the proportions figured out, and read ten pages of that book that you've been planning on reading -. You will only have put in twenty-five minutes work, but you will have met five goals. You can ask the same question"What can I do right now to make progress on my project?" an hour later and get the wash into the dryer, call Nicholas, fill in the easy personal data on the grant application, sketch out a second version of the drawing that is lower on the page and will allow you to add a background, and wrote down three sentences summarizing what was in that book so you will retain it.

If you do this repeatedly through the day you will get small but important bits of work done, progress on multiple projects and a strong feeling of accomplishment and yet still have had plenty of down time, since you only put in roughly twenty five minutes out of every hour for eight or so hours.

One thing that is important is to remember that you are getting vacation recharge time, so you should be scheduling fun, useless, trivial and rejuvenating thngs to do. If you schedule things to study, work and hard productive things with goals at the end of them you will perhaps finish your summer ready for a vacation. So make a list of things that are pointless and fun: Go to a few art galleries and have an iced cap. Go to the beach. Make a sword out of a cardboard tube and look up fencing stances on YouTube and try them out. Binge watch the Godfather movies. Invite a couple of friends over for a mutual grooming session. Put them on your calendar and schedule them.

If you make a list of these things it ensures that you won't just watch whatever, and you won't forget to leave the house and you won't actually move while watching YouTube and you won't just hang out with your freinds. It will mean that you pick some experiences and have them. These experiences aren't goal oriented, they are just alternatives to letting things happen without steering your activities a bit.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:30 PM on July 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

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