On Time Management

People often ask me how I get so much done. How do I possibly go to school and work as an editor and do freelance writing gigs and volunteer and read for fun and exercise and do those frazzling adult errands that must get done and socialize with friends? I’ve even been asked how much sleep I get each night, and when I answer 8 hours, people always look shocked.

I’ve always been a fan of hustling (not the illegal variety – I’m talking about working hard). Many of my artist mentors are also wizards at the art of the hustle, and I find myself looking at them the same way that others look at me. I think, “How in the world does [insert my dream writer or professor] have kids and a good marriage and a full-time job and write and eat and stay fit and thrive as a social being and…?”

I’ve thought and thought about it, and the answer always seems very counterintuitive. It seems that to get “more done,” one needs to be “more busy.” Think about it. The most wasted of days are the ones where  you have long languorous periods of time in a day with “nothing” to do and suddenly the moon is up and the time is 9 pm and you think, “Wow, where did the day go?”

An important note: I am a person who feels satisfied by crossing off items on my to-do list. That mark of achievement gives me great pleasure. It is important to know what it is that gives you pleasure. What are your goals for the long term and how are you going to get there?

Time management really comes down to knowing yourself: knowing when you feel most energetic, knowing what makes you feel fulfilled, what you find rewarding, and when to say yes or no to something else. It’s about setting aside time for the things that are important to you, and sometimes may involve making sacrifices – choosing one thing you love to do over another at any given moment. It’s about creating a ritual for yourself so you can get into your “zone” faster. Time management is just like a sport or a musical instrument. You have to work that muscle memory, so that you can snap your fingers and get into your “working flow.” It’s the closest thing we can do to stopping time, freezing the world around us.

Paradoxically, learning how to manage your time takes time! It’s a practice. You have to want to do it. You have to be dedicated to learning how your individual body needs to manage time. Don’t look at your neighbor. This is a very internal practice.

I’ve created a few exercises to help people reach their full time management potential:

  • Make a list of a perfect day from sun-up to sun-down. Once you have done that, really analyze it. Do you have “tasks” on your list? Do you have social engagements? Exercise? Do you make time to read? Or sleep?
  • How do you stay organized? How do you keep track of what you do or if people are counting on you to do something? What materials do you use? On a scale of yes, this works for me – I could try something better – or no, this doesn’t work at all, how is your method working for you?
  • What kind of environment do you need to be in to get work done? When are you most productive? Describe the setting (room temperature, what you are wearing, desk/bed/couch, noise level, lighting, alone or with others, time of day, what’s the view)?
  • What do you do before and after you are most productive? These will be non-“work” related activities. Do you eat? Exercise? Talk on the phone? Listen to music? Nap? (Remember, this may not be every time you work, but can also be your ideal activities).
  • What makes you happy? That seems like a silly question. But really, list specific things/actions that you do that make you happy. For example, in my note above, I feel happy when I can go to sleep knowing I have accomplished the PRIORITY items on my to-do list. I also feel happy when I have started the day with yoga (which is why I do it everyday first thing when I wake up) and when I have sufficiently exercised. I feel happy when I have read even a chapter or two of a book (not assigned reading – just pure fun reading).

Have fun with answering these questions, and please do let me know how it goes! I’m curious to see if this helps structure or organize anyone’s daily routine. Once you have your answers, the next step is to begin adding them slowly into your life. If you need to buy a planner, do that and use it. If you need to set a timer every day for a 20 minute nap at 4 pm, do that and don’t press snooze. Ask friends and family if they will help keep you accountable for your actions. Ask them if you can check in with them daily or weekly to let them know you’ve completed a certain task.

I recently read a Paris Review interview with Toni Morrison and was surprised to see that she said something very similar to my list of questions. She wrote: “I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?”

If Toni says it, it really must be true. Now go boil some tea and have a grand conversation with your most productive self. Interrogate it. Interview it. Squeeze all the citric vitamins that you can from it. And then go off and do great things!

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