Organizing How We Spend Our Time

Fist daily square in my series Windows 1.0. The design parameters are to have one grey square of different sizes surrounded with bands of warm color rectangles like a window frame.

My first job out of college was as a project manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency working on hazardous waste cleanups called Superfund. This job was intense like being thrown into a hot frying pan or a pack of wolves. The wolves were the powerful corporations I had to work with to get them to do the cleanup. They were older very experienced attorneys, scientists and project managers who had a very different agenda than me. Mine was cleanup. Theirs was cost savings and reducing the scope of the cleanup. This was how I learned to become a project manager on the fly. By nature, I prefer to be a little more free-form with my time but all that changed in my first job at the U.S. EPA. Then three small kids really put me over the edge and I needed some serious time organization skills just to get everyone out the door on time. When I say I have been looking for a time management system that works, I mean I've been looking for decades.

First, you may be thinking, but what does this have to do with creativity? Everything. If you are worrying about what you actually need to do today or always playing catch up with the things you forgot to do, you are wasting valuable time and mental effort that is taking away time available for your creativity.

I just switched over from a application called Things which helps you organize your to-do list. After using Things for several years, I made the switch because I was looking for a more robust system and I wanted to see what else is out there.  So my husband recommended a product he uses for work called Wrike. I made the adjustment over the weekend. After giving the system a chance for a few days, I decided to move on. My tasks within a project were not showing up in my Today area. All my tasks in the Later area were jumbled with no way to organize them by date. Too much work and it added to my mental clutter. There were some technical glitches which have not made me super happy right from the start. I moved on. 

Next stop Asana. Beautiful and simple design. Great for collaborating on projects with others. But I learned that my tasks would show up separately from tasks I included in projects. That means looking in 2 places for all the things I have to do today. No thank you. 

Now my new idea is to check out Omnifocus 2. This is what the proponents of David Allen's Get Things Done people like the best. I will try it this week.

Has all of this searching been worth it? I think yes, because it has gotten me to re-think how I spend my time during the day and how detailed I want my to-do list to be.  For example, if I want to meditate every day I don't think I need to put it down as a to-do. I can trust myself to get it done. When I was building new habits, I used my detailed to-do list to help me stay on track. I'm hoping I have graduated from that step.

One insight has been to use project timelines on a group of tasks I may have pushed to the back burner. This will help me stay on track or decide the project is not worth continuing. 

My new discovery has been to use my calendar to block out times for certain activities. For example, studio time from 10 to 11:30 am every weekday. Afternoons are devoted to a new project I'm working on. In between these blocks of times are for errands and administrative tasks. 

My plan is to not include every single detailed task in my daily to-do list.  I know what I need to do generally. Writing down every single detail can lead to overwhelm for me when I see a daily to-do list with 50+ items on it. So I'm going to trust myself more and give myself the block of uninterrupted time to do the things I need to do. I still need the daily to-do list for administrative tasks that have to happen by a certain date. But I've been writing my articles and making my daily squares for years now. I know my schedule. I know what I need to do. I don't need to have one more item that I have to cross off my to do list.

This may seem like a slight shift but to me it feels rather liberating.

Have any of you struggled with a time organization system? I'm always attracted to Zen Habits' Leo Babauta's idea of Achieving Without Goals.  I'm trying to do this without letting important to-do's slip through the cracks.

Wish me luck in cracking the code of organizing how I spend my time and having my productivity system be a light touch guiding system that supports me and not overwhelms me.