Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Time management

A bit of light reading.

I am the sort of person who performs much better under pressure. Deadlines, as much as I hate them, spur me into action. I do my best work the night before, or sometimes the morning of (no really). I love having a long list of things to do, even if I can never really accomplish them all in a day.

Yet for the past couple of years, I have more time on my hands than I know what to do with, and as a result, I've gotten very little accomplished. I am bored, constantly tired, and more prone to headaches and muscles spasms; in short, I am actually more stressed out by this lack of pressure than I ever was back in college. This has been especially true since I returned from Thailand, and I had a nice head start this time thanks to the crippling jet lag.

So I decided to make a change. I'm only 23, after all, and that's far too young to lead a bored, uneventful life in the suburbs. Plus, I actually do have things to accomplish - finding a job, applying to grad school, sorting out my life. Without structure to my day, however, I was having a hard time buckling down and actually getting the work done. (Perhaps this is all proof that I should never work from home.) Here are the things I've learned to do in order to create some of that delicious pressure all on my own, thus accomplishing some actual life stuff.

1. Maybe this isn't true for everyone, but I have a really hard time working in a space that is unappealing or impersonal. Some people prefer spartan surroundings, but not me. Even in the library at CofC, I would bring books, notebooks, my computer, a snack, water, tea or coffee, and maybe even a magazine for breaks. At home, I like to have pictures artwork around me while I work. There is a balance - too much stuff gets to be a distraction - so I have a large, clear surface, no drawers, and just a few things on the wall. To be fair, this is because the desk was already in the room, but I am finding that it works. I also have a large pin board, which is great for displaying personal items as well as resumes, articles, and to-do lists. For me, it's like a visual mini-break from the task I'm working on, and if I'm not stimulated by my space, I'll likely just wander off and not complete anything at all.

2. Organize. I clear everything off my desk at night and organize it anew. I don't have that much going one, but I do make sure that I have a place for everything, whether it's a folder or loose papers or cup for pencils. I leave important things visible, like my planner or the practice Goethe exam I am working on, and everything else gets put away.

3. Clean. I, of course, don't have an office. I work at a desk in my bedroom, and if my room isn't spotless, I have a hard time concentrating. This is partially due to my procrastination habit (I actually think this is what led to the development of my neat-freak tendencies), but the fact is if something is out of place, I'm probably not going to get much done until it's cleared away. I'm not very messy anyway, but as a part of my morning routine, I pick up anything that might have been left out and I make my bed. Making the bed is key; I actually prefer unmade beds (more nest-like) but if I don't make my bed immediately, I'll spend a lot more time in it and do little work.

4. I don't know if this merits a separate number, but oh well. Given that most of my work is on the computer, and given that I work in my room, I have "zones" for myself. The desk is for work and dedicated tasks or hobbies, like drawing or making jewelry. My bed is for Facebook, reading for pleasure, and watching Netflix. It's very possible that I'm just crazy, but have separate spaces designated for work and fun, even in the same small bedroom, has helped me to be more productive. Also, since the computer officially lives at the desk now, when I retrieve it or put it away, I am more likely to get a little work done in the transfer.

5. I love lists. I make lists for everything. But what do you make a list of when you don't really have any deadlines or errands? I have started writing down things like "Take a vitamin" or "Make a cup of tea." It's a little stupid, but by listing a lot of things, it creates a little bit of that pseudo-pressure. And when "Call Lindsey" is listed with "Write cover letters," they take up the same amount of space visually, so when I accomplish the first, it somehow seems easier to accomplish the second. It also makes it easier to get into the routine of completing the things on your list. If you start with "Make breakfast" and end with "Go to sleep by 12," you are not only basing your list off of your daily routine, you are making your list part of your routine. Just sneak the actual work somewhere in the middle.

6. Set an alarm. I don't even get up with my alarm every morning, but at least if I set an alarm, I start my days deliberately. Then I have an easier time continuing my day deliberately, by which I mean I don't just while away the hours (as much). It's like making up a job for yourself!

7. Get away from the screen. This is sort of a life philosophy of mine, and not just for time management purposes. I confess I love TV, movies, and the internet. Still, even with that great love, I know that more often than not, these things contribute to my boredom and lack of productivity. You turn on the TV, and before you know it, you've been there for an hour watching asshole women try on ugly wedding dresses. You get on the computer, and you have checked Facebook, read 15 blog posts, and watched half a season of Law and Order SVU. What's that? It's time for dinner already? You get the point. I have tried to break this cycle as best I can, and that usually means unplugging. At first it can be hard to know what to do instead. I've been writing more than I have since high school, for a start. Since I live far away from my friends, I make a point of calling them on the phone more often (and the phone isn't a problem for me as I can hardly text and I don't have smartphone). I read a lot. I go for walks with the dogs. Now, I'm moving on to excursions in the area that involve more than Target. The world is a big place, go look at it!

8. My last point. I always like to have events scheduled in the future. Whether it's a trip, a lecture, a play, etc, it helps to have something to look forward to. It can also serve as a deadline - get everything done before going out on Friday, have job by Dad's birthday so I can get him a present, whatever. Right now my event is the TestDaF, or the massive exam I have to take to prove I can speak German. Not as fun, but it involves a trip to DC to see Kathleen on her birthday weekend, and it gets me one step closer to grad school in Germany. As an added bonus, it gives me lots of tasks to fill my days that are actually urgent, unlike that vitamin.

Well, this list is probably just evidence that I have a few screws loose, but I have actually learned how to better manage my own time, something that I wish I'd figured out a long time ago. Because for me, it's not just about the big stuff, although that's important. I've really been trying to set myself up to make better use of my free time once I do start work (on Friday, I might add!). Making sure I don't let the big stuff get away from me is key, but so is getting enjoyment out of my hobbies, something that I've had a hard time with lately. Of course, free time is a luxury, and I don't mean to downplay that, but even if you are busy, you might be more fulfilled in the little free time you have by trying these (very) basic tips.