Self-help techniques often ask you to come up with a schedule that works for you. Go to the gym “x” times a week. Set apart 1 hour daily for some self-improvement activity. Only spend so many hours on this and only so many hours on that.
In my experience, such strict scheduling only works for tasks that you like doing. If there is an unpleasant task, using a schedule might get you started. But when unforeseen events upset your schedule, then the first things that get cancelled or postponed are the tasks that you don’t like doing or you are not used to doing regularly.
To give an example, let’s say that you don’t find time for reading books. So, instead you try reading 1 chapter every day, so that you can complete two books in a month or so. But let’s say some guests come over and you miss your reading for the day. Suddenly you are under pressure to read 2 chapters to catch up what you missed. And if you miss it again, then you have 3 chapters pending. And suddenly, it becomes a huge burden.
In such cases, it may be more useful to get rid of the schedule and instead set goals tied to a longer time period. For example, you can attempt to read 20 books this year and not set weekly or monthly goals. So perhaps one month, you may get more time and finish off 5 books. And another month, you don’t do anything because you are still on track.
What this does is allow you to balance many different goals at the same time. So, maybe you start the year by making a few resolutions like losing 10 pounds this year, writing that book you have been thinking of, blogging regularly, etc. If you make a schedule that requires you to do some task for each of these resolutions frequently, then it becomes a chore and chances are that you will fall off the bandwagon pretty quickly. Of course, if you are the type of determined person who will always stick to their resolutions, then more power to you, but most people I have seen exhibit initial excitement, then quit within short time.
So, instead of a schedule, just focus on your resolutions and use idle time and unscheduled time to catch up on them. You could catch up on your reading through different means: audio books in a CD or on an iPod, e-books delivered to your Kindle, the paper version while on the can or trying to fall asleep. You could get some exercise while watching TV, or walking or cycling instead of driving. You could write some code for your forthcoming game whenever you feel like it.
I know this doesn’t seem like a very “professional” time management technique, but practically it seems to work for me for some activities. Instead of being under pressure to adhere to a strict deadline, I manage to make some progress on a variety of tasks and, over time, they get completed. Although the work is not being done on a regular basis, this method does result in both minor and major accomplishments.
This is obviously not a technique for every single thing you do in life, but sometimes I wonder whether it can apply to work too. It is kind of ridiculous to expect that people, especially knowledge workers, work exactly 8 hours every day in the same manner. Sometimes, it may be more useful for them to work 10-12 hours at a stretch when they are in the “zone”, and, at other times, they are better off not working than producing substandard products.
[Photo licensed from ToniVC]