Sometimes you just have to plow through

Some articles seem to write themselves, and others just… don’t.

It’s not always a matter of how interesting the subject is, or even how dense or complex the information that needs to be sifted through.

Sometimes there are competing demands on your attention, or something else on your to-do list is more time-sensitive. Or, once in a while, you accidentally have caffeinated coffee the night before, and it throws you off the next day. Groan!

I find it helps to break the task down into chunks (the Swiss cheese method of time management, from the 1973 book by Alan Lakein, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life).

Fifteen minutes here, 100 words there, and at some point – often after two or three “chunks” – momentum builds, and the rest proceeds smoothly. Here’s more on the Swiss cheese method and writing – a blog post I just found by author Gail Gauthier.

Sometimes you just have to plow through.


My time-management experiment

A friend of mine said to me the other day that she sees I like to be busy.

It’s true, up to a point. I’m very happy to be busy. When I was first downsized, I worried that I wouldn’t know how to fill the hours as I transitioned to whatever was next in my life. That was part of the reason I started to blog.

But being busy without being productive doesn’t feel satisfying. I’m still trying to fine-tune the balance between productivity and downtime, as well as working in all the other things that foster productivity – eating well, and getting enough sleep, exercise, intellectual stimulation, and meaningful connection with friends and family.

Sometimes I wonder where the time goes, when I’m busy but not as productive as I’d like to be. Yesterday – in an attempt to figure that out while I was home waiting for a delivery – I decided to write down everything I accomplished, and how long it took.

That lasted less than an hour, because I had too many small items to tackle before working my way up to “bigger” tasks.

It occurred to me that it might make sense, instead, just to list what I was accomplishing hour-by-hour. Maybe it would tell me something about what time of day is most productive for me, too.

But I think it told me more about the effects of recording all this information on paper, in my little orange notebook.

Even though I was the only one who knew about this experiment, the act of recording what I did made me accountable, and motivated me to make better use of my time.

Dividing the day into hours made a difference too. Every hour, I was able to make a fresh start. I assessed what I’d accomplished the previous hour, and used that information to help me decide what to do next.

I hadn’t planned it that way, but I guess I was using the “Swiss cheese” method of time management. The concept – from a 1973 book by Alan Lakein, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life – involves breaking down an intimidating or labour-intensive task into manageable chunks.

I tried to alternate small tasks with larger ones, and computer time with non-sitting activities.

I was busy all day, I was reasonably productive, and best of all, I gained insight from my experiment. I guess that means it was productive, too.




Time management

One of the books that made an impression on me when I was a kid was Cheaper by the Dozen, an exuberant 1948 memoir by siblings Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey about growing up in a family of twelve children.

Last night, I thought about that book for the first time in years. For the record, I’m a mom of two, but for a long time after reading Cheaper by the Dozen – probably at age 10 – I wanted to have a dozen kids myself when I grew up.

I liked the idea of a big, happy family – impractical as it might have been – but I was also intrigued by the fact that the father was an efficiency expert, incorporating all kinds of little time-savers into the family’s everyday life.

I guess the book came to mind last night because yesterday was a long stay-at-home, catch-up-on-my-to-do-list day. Despite the number of items I crossed off my list, I would have liked to accomplish more.

I do have strategies for staying focused and getting things done, although some are better than others.

For a journalist, there’s nothing like an imminent deadline to intensify focus. Early in my career, someone I interviewed gave me a card with the saying: “If it wasn’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done!” It hung on my bulletin board for years.

It’s not that I’d recommend leaving things to the last minute, but it’s reassuring to know that it’s possible.

There’s also the “Swiss cheese” method, which involves breaking down an intimidating or labour-intensive task into manageable chunks. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard of it, but apparently it originated in a  1973 book by Alan Lakein, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life.

That strategy was especially useful when my children were young, and my free time was fragmented and defined by their schedules.

Another helpful tool is the question I often ask myself: “If I get nothing else done today, what one thing do I want to do?”

This morning it’s posting my blog entry.

I may also want to revisit Lakein’s book, but not today. I’ve added it to my list.