Tuesday, June 27th, 2006
A few months ago I caved in and bought Getting Things Done. Although I didn’t get it read, I did get as far as the bit about To Do lists, and closing mental loops: you keep thinking the same thing over and over again, until you either do it or write it down. So I started a master to do list and that seems to sort of help by getting all the stuff I have to do out of my head and on to paper.
But I’m still left at the end of each day wondering what I have accomplished. I reach a point, around 7 or 8pm… or 10 or 11pm, when I think that it’s about time I gave up for the evening, yet I rarely feel that my day is done, that I’m finished. There’s always more to do. The list just gets longer, never shorter.
Now, for some clients, I have to keep a record of my hours. I’ve been doing this in an Excel spreadsheet, because it’s easy to add things up in Excel. What’s not so easy, though, is jotting things down. I tried keeping multiple spreadsheets, with each project on a different sheet, but it didn’t work. I’d get confused as to exactly how much time I’d spent on different things - the only reason Excel worked for my client is because I was working on-site, so I knew the time I arrived, the time I left, and what breaks I’d had, so therefore I knew how much time to bill them for. When I am sitting at home with blog posts to write, email to answer and all the other bits and bobs that I need to do, it was harder to separate out how much time I spent doing what.
Then, my god! A flash of genius. (Here’s where the new weapon comes in.)
I bought a desk diary. Yup, that’s write, a book made of paper with dates printed on each page. I can jot things down in it. It’s great! Who’d've thought?
So I now have my three-pronged approach.
1. My master to-do list allows me to clear out my brain as much as possible, and hopefully helps me to remember to do stuff.
2. My ‘45 mins’ rule - that I work solidly for 45 mins, then make myself have a break (often turns into 50 or 55, but the idea is to get up and move about at least once an hour).
3. My diary in which I write down how many hours I have worked on which project.
What this undeniably does is tell me where my time has gone. For example, yesterday I spent 4.5 hours replying to Open Rights Group email. I went through my inbox, replying only to ORG emails, and after 4.5 hours I had had enough. I hadn’t finished, but I had done about as much of that as I can cope with in one day.
I had never realised that I was spending so much time on email. Previously, I would have felt like that was a day wasted, that I’d achieved nothing. After all, no documents prepared, no campaigning done, no client meetings, nothing that you can pick up and show and say ‘This is what I did’.
I think knowing what you’ve done is a key part of battling procrastination. You put off doing things that are big, because you think “I need a clear 5 hour to do that”, or you interrupt yourself with email when working on something else, or you sit there answering endless streams of emails and wondering where the time has gone. Knowing what you’ve done, and how long it’s taken, puts a shape on your day. You can say “I’ve done one hour of my five hour task”, or “I’ve spent 4.5 hours answering emails”, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so much as if you’ve wasted your time. You realise that some of that stuff that felt like procrastination was, in fact, work.
The other thing it lets me do is say “OK, I’m gonna have one hour a day of ‘Suw’ time, where I blog, or work on my site, or do whatever the hell I need to do”. The thing about being a freelance is that admin and finding new clients may not be ‘billable’ time, but it’s still stuff that needs to be done. Yet it’s infinitely easy to put off. When you have a client who needs something, or you have a deadline, your own admin is the first thing to be put on the back burner.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve spoken to other freelances and heard them say “Oh, I really need to update my website, but I just can’t find the time!”. But if you don’t make the time, you end up falling into that feast/famine cycle, where you spend your feast times working like a dog on your client’s stuff, only to discover when that contract ends that you have nothing to take its place and that famine is on the horizon. You just have to recognise that the tedious admin you don’t want to do is still work, and you still have to find time to do it during the working day.
The other thing I’m trying hard to fight is my over-developed work ethic which would, if I let it have its way, have me working every hour I am awake. I’ve done it in the past - and I don’t know many people who haven’t. Insane hours. Exhaustion. And a perverse sense of misplaced pride in it all.
I want to write a full post about that, but suffice to say, I’m becoming more and more jealous of my weekends, more and more jealous of my evenings. When you accept that your To Do list is more like a Mobius Strip than an actual list, you accept that it will never been finished. The question then becomes “At what point do I abandon my day as ‘finished’?”. Sometimes it’s dictated by deadlines, but more often than not it should be dictated by “When I have worked a full working day”, which I interpret to be between 7 and 8 hours.
With my old-fangled invention of a desk diary, I can at least now say “OK, time’s up!”. Emails which have not been replied to will have to wait. Documents that still need work will also have to wait. When my evening begins, that’s my time.