How to gain control of your work life (again)
In 2011, I started law school at UMN. Immediately, I became overwhelmed with the readings.
I took the procrastination to a whole new level.
Night after night, I’d be in the library until 3-4am before finally giving up and going home, without having done my readings. Even though it felt good to tell myself I’d stay awake as long as needed to do my readings, in reality I knocked out before everything was finished. I also had much less energy and focus during the day time since I spent so many sleepless nights browsing Youtube.
I needed to do something. I needed to change.
The “Key” to Growth – Measurement
I read over and over about the importance of measuring ourselves. Tim Ferris wrote about people who measured their weight every day. By doing that one action and watching their weight, they lost weight. Other people wrote about diet journals. Keeping track of their food subconsciously forced them to eat better.
I started by measuring how much time I spent reading
Each evening, I made a tick in my notebook for every half hour I read.
It was great that I got started. Still, there were a number of problems with this method.
For starters, I measured the wrong thing. What mattered was that I got my readings done, NOT the amount of time I spent on them. My method (tick in my notebook) took way too much time and effort. It was hardly sustainable, and depended on my willpower and motivation (both of which will run out sooner or later). It took my focus away from reading (which mattered) and towards measuring (which didn’t matter). Since I wrote out marks in a notebook, it became difficult to compare results over time since I had random entries every few pages.
The ticks were a bad start, but a start nonetheless. Having something going made it much easier to try out something new.
Goal Setting (What’s the Real Problem?)
What was my goal? Getting my readings done in less time. I needed to measure whether I got my readings done or not day to day and how long it took me, without focusing on it. This would take some reflection.
My first year, I noticed that my work fit the time I allotted to it. If I had an hour before class, I got 20 pages read in that hour. If I had 4 hours in the afternoon, my readings took 4 hours (making sure I understood everything, reviewing the material, etc.).
To solve this problem, I needed set times to read. I also needed to limit the time I worked, so I got more done in less time. I needed a system that allowed me to manage my time without thinking about it.
Enter: The Schedule System
I had heard about setting a schedule up, and how beneficial it could be. I grew up being undisciplined most of my life. Yet, it was time to finally give this a shot.
My first week back at school for the second year, I set a weekly schedule. I wrote out actions I had to do. I needed to read, write, email, and go to class. I set up my time each day with those tasks in mind.
This solved a number of problems.
By having a set schedule, I never had to think about what I needed to do next.
I got SO much more done than before. Simply having a schedule forced me to get started. For instance, on some Saturdays, when I had no schedule set, I would sit around all day, trying to convince myself to get up and get to work. The Saturdays I had something set up, I focused on getting out the door as quickly as possible. If I missed a time slot, I knew it in the back of my mind. It drove me to meet the schedule, even if I missed a few slots.
More importantly, measuring was built in to the system. If I missed a slot, I simply deleted it.
At the end of the week, it was visually clear which days I did better than others (you can see in the example that on Tuesday I wasted time after Neuroscience). I knew the story of each day. I could visualize what it took when I set up my week as well.
It also allowed me to put in bursts of work and set small goals (like trying to write this blog post in 1 hour, then editing it in the next), while still allowing for breaks.
This system allows you to move all decision-making to the weekend. You free up your precious mental energy for the work that matters.
During the week, you can keep your focus on a single task: following your schedule.
Add-Ons: The To Do List
A great addition to this system is a targeted to do list. I used a spreadsheet in Google Docs, called “Categories”.
Any time I had a new task, I put it under the corresponding category. Tasks are prioritized with colors.
Your Turn: Getting Started
Before we dive in, know that this may take up to 30 minutes. If you’re pressed for time, set up an appointment this Sunday for yourself. You owe it to yourself to at least test this out.
The most important thing is getting something going. We’ll walk through a few steps to get something up right now. There’s no need to have it be perfect. All you need to do is get something up and running, and then you can adjust the following weekend.
Prep: Grab pen & paper, open your calculator, & then open google.com/calendar & drive.google.com.
- Answer: What 4 categories does your work fall into (5 min)? Suggested: Email, writing, creating (coding, art, designing, music, etc.), & learning (reading, class, etc.).
- Answer: What % of time do you want to spend in each category (5 min)? Here’s mine: Creating (write/create) – 45%, Connecting (email) – 30%, Learning (learn) – 25%.
- Answer: How many hours will you spend per week in each category (5 min)? The formula is (hours per workweek * % per category). EX: I do Creating for 18 hours each week (40 hr * .45 = 18).
- Go to google.com/calendar. Set up repeating events based on each category (10 min). Tips: make each category a different color. Use the same time each day for a particular category. When you create an event, make it repeating (as seen below).Again, all that matters is that you get something up and running, NOT that it be perfect.
- Go to drive.google.com. Create a new spreadsheet called “Categories”. Enter your 4 categories into the top (5 min).
This is your new to-do list. Any time you have a task, throw it in the appropriate category.
That’s it! Now you have your very own system to keep yourself focused.
I’d love to hear feedback, especially after you do this yourself.