Toxic Time Management

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with time management. I blame Batman. Batman, you see, is just a normal guy sans superpowers who made unbelievably effective use of his time. So, as a kid, I read about productivity, and concocted time management programs to support my lofty goals of becoming a real-life superhero. The philosophy behind my programs was generally pretty simple: spend all my time doing productive stuff like practicing martial arts, exercising, studying, building grappling guns. Batman didn’t have time for stuff like making friends, building community, watching movies, and so neither would I!

I have since given up on the idea of being Batman. I’d like to say it’s because I recognized that Bruce Wayne was an unachievable ideal though it’s more likely that I just found music more compelling. The idea of using every moment as effectively as possible, however, feels like an inexorable part of my identity. There are pros and cons. The pros: I have grown a lot as a musician and also as a person. The cons: I have avoided putting real effort into anything that can’t be checked off, and that’s a lot of important stuff!

A month or so ago, after a couple very productive weeks, I was feeling pretty depressed and lonely. In the name of productivity, I put a ban on things that weren’t goal related, and had isolated myself from friends and community. It took me a couple days to climb out of the slump. Previously, I would’ve gone straight back into full-productivity mode thus propagating the cycle. This time, however, I stepped out of action to reflect on this pattern, and come up with some new rules for how to think about time management.

I have recently updated my time management spreadsheet so that it reflects these rules. It might help you to have a look before continuing. Also, feel free to make a copy and use it yourself if you like.

Productivity is best optimized by optimizing for balance

The reason why my time-management systems continue to fail is because I have previously made productivity my primary and, really, only goal. So, by the 2-week mark I’m usually feeling dried up and isolated. For a sustainable time-management system, I believe we have to plan time for restorative activities, and aim for balance. How do we do that?

Make a list of all your projects: everything you do with your life. Now, ask yourself this question: what are the important things that I’m avoiding or just don’t naturally spend time on? For me, this was community, journaling, and therapy. Make sure these go on your project list as well. Now, every week, come up with your goal budget – the number of hours you have to spend on your projects altogether – and distribute those hours amongst your projects according to their importance. Remember those really important things that you don’t naturally put time into? Make sure they get some attention.

Once you have your week’s budget established for each of your projects, break those goals down for each day of the week. This may sound like a lot of work, but I can’t tell you how freeing it is to wake up and already have a plan for what that day has in store. Also, your daily goals will help keep you balanced. Without this, you’re likely to get to the end of the week without putting any time into those very-important projects that you have difficulty getting yourself to do.

One word of warning: you’ll occasionally start working on something to be stopped in your tracks by the BEST IDEA EVER. You’ll be tempted to drop your whole plan for the day, and maybe even the week, to get started. Resist!!! Seriously, if it’s the best idea ever, it can wait until next week when you can budget some time for it. If you still think it’s imperative, take 5 minutes to rebalance your budget and allocate some time for this new work.

Easy success is sustainable success

When we’re devising goals for ourselves, we often default to something like “learn this etude by the end of the week.” If the end of the week comes and we don’t have a polished etude, we’re likely to feel as though we’ve let ourselves down regardless of how hard we worked. It’s pretty hard to estimate how long it’ll take to complete a given task. If there’s a strict deadline, sometimes we have to. If there’s not, we can avoid estimation altogether and go with tasks like these: “this week I’ll put 6 hours into learning this etude.” It is much easier to succeed with a goal like this. When you get started, make sure to err on the side of allocating too few hours. Resist competing in the battle for who can do the most work, and battle instead for contentedness and a sense of fulfillment.

Don’t let good and bad get in the way

I have previously thought of different activities as good or bad uses of time. Practicing piano = good. Watching a Netflix show = bad. I’ve come to realize that this is a dangerous, and unnecessary classification. Instead, you can just moderate your activities based on a desire for balance (see above). For some, that means 1 hour of Netflix a week. For others it means 5 or more. You choose. That said, there is a category of things we do that probably aren’t that important, but are easy and fun to do. For me, this includes Netflix, movies, and time on Facebook. If you can, try using these activities as rewards. Please take care here not to use all of your self-care activities as rewards. Investments in community, seeing friends, or taking time to relax, for example, are probably not good rewards. These are too important! Look for things you love to do that really aren’t that important for you to do. Those are good rewards.

If you’re at all like me, you might try to use your reward time productively. If that’s the case, decide ahead of time (during your weekly budgeting) what you want to do as a reward. It’ll be a little harder to blow off.

For the love of all things holy, just treat yourself well

I think the true test of any time management system is quality of life. Are you happy? If the answer is no, you might not be balancing your time well. Loneliness and depression are formidable foes though. A better approach to time management could be useful but it’s probably just one facet of the battle. Here’s a great article about battling loneliness from my friend Ashley Kirsner of Skip the Small Talk. There’s a great section on self-care which is a category of activities that we could all stand to put some more time into. I wish you all the luck in achieving a balanced and fulfilling life. Now go forth and be awesome!

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