A new way of budgeting your time and productivity
School started proper again yesterday, and that means that the makeup of my days will change radically from that of the previous four months. Although I’m writing today, the frequency of my posts will decrease drastically once work really gets underway.
I made the decision to take on a fair number of items this term, including:
- Continue to be a good husband (yes, continue);
- Continue to do well in school;
- Devote a non-trivial amount of time to an application I’m working on with some colleagues; and
- Teach weekly dance classes with my friend Jesse at a studio we’re renting in town
All of these items require substantial amounts of my time, and inconsistently to boot (meaning that I won’t get to choose when one of these items will need more attention – there will be peaks and troughs for all of them). I believe that I’ve got the skills and ability to meet all four of these goals while maintaining my own sanity. However, it will require planning to ensure that I’m ready when the storms start to strike.
This is a pretty short post, but if you’d like to jump to the summary, you can do so here.
A new way of looking at my available productivity
Because of these competing demands, it’s very important that I figure out the best way to maximize my productivity. If I waste my opportunity to be productive, things will start to get backed up, and I’ll quickly find myself with too many things to do and not enough time to do them in. Something will necessarily fall by the wayside (and if I’m being honest, I suspect it will be item #1 – it’s often easiest to let things slide with the person around which we’re the most comfortable).
Rather than try to plan everything down to the hour, I took a new approach to scheduling my productivity this term. To start, here are my assumptions:
- I can achieve what I’m setting out to do.
This is the most important assumption because it’s the starting point for everything else. If I don’t believe this, then I should return to my list above and remove one of the items. (If you don’t get this, ask yourself why you are planning to try and accomplish something that you don’t actually believe you are capable of achieving?)
- I was apathetic the previous term and often felt myself wasting time playing video games instead of studying.
While I found the feeling of apathy generated stress, my grades did not suffer and I exceeded the standards I had set for myself. This suggests to me that I had additional spare time that could be put to better uses.
- I don’t want to spend any time this term feeling bored.
That is an indication to me that I currently have too much spare time. Relaxing and just cooling out is one thing, but sitting around literally feeling bored is off the books. If I find myself feeling this way, I should be looking to engage myself with a different pursuit.
- I can be more efficient if I’m able to divide my time across multiple tasks.
Like most of us (all of us?), I experience diminishing returns the longer I spend working on any one particular task. If I can divide my time across a number of tasks related to the different projects I’ve set out for myself above, I should be able to avoid the fall off that results from working on only one task for too long.
- I have, roughly, between 3 and 5 good bouts of productivity in a day.
On really good days, I can get my process started first thing in the morning, and also find a second wind after the post-lunch tiredness. On a bad day, I can’t seem to get the gears turning until 11AM, take a break for lunch, and only just manage to accomplish things by the time 5PM rolls around.
- My bouts of productivity cannot easily be divided up into “clean” blocks of time.
Just like I don’t know what kind of day I will have until I find myself at the end of it (or mid-way through at least), I don’t know beforehand how long I will be able to stay in my flow for, nor how long it will take to read a particular set of readings.
Creating a workable system
So, with the above assumptions in mind, I set aside a couple of hours on the weekend to devise the system by which I would plan out my time and stay on track this term. That system is based on the concept of productivity units (PUs from here on in). PUs are what I call the blocks of productive work that I am talking about above in items 5 and 6.
Based on my assumption in #6, I don’t think that it’s a worthwhile exercise to try and map a PU to a specific amount of time. In fact, it’s clear that I don’t usually think that’s possible.
Taking my range from item #5, I estimate that on any given day, I can probably accomplish about 4 PU worth of work in any given day, with no other demands on my time.
What does this actually mean?
So, what does it actually mean to accomplish one PU worth of work, if you can’t map the block reliably to an amount of time?
Here are some examples of what I would consider a PU worth of work:
- Complete a set of readings for one of my classes
- Spend some time writing out a few pages of a paper
- Sit down and clear out my inbox, processing everything there and responding to any necessary e-mail
- Spend some time working on my development team’s wiki, organizing everything and ensuring that all of our recent thoughts have been captured and stored somewhere for later reference
- Attend one class
It is important to understand that these are the benchmarks I have drawn for myself. Based on what you see above, you could probably estimate that one of my PUs probably roughly translates to 1 to 2 hours worth of work. This is reasonable. However, this will not always be the case, and there are times when it will take two PUs to finish a set of readings, or only half of my available energy to complete something.
The important part of my system is that it is adaptive, flexible, and dynamic, as these are all characteristics that I wish to imbue in the work that I do. If my system does not embody the same traits that I myself wish to, there’s going to be conflict (which generally leads to the system being discarded and returning to old ways).
Your mileage may vary – you may find that you prefer to work in smaller chunks, but fit more of them into a day. Whatever works for you is what you should do. For me, this provides a clean and lightweight way in which I can rapidly estimate how much work I can accomplish each day.
This approach also provides me with a metric by which I can determine whether or not I should really be feeling upset that I’m not being maximally productive. Let me explain.
I have no classes on Tuesday, which means that this is a wide-open day. However, I have no shortage of work, and so ideally, I’d like to get 4 PUs in on Tuesday. If I’ve finished one PUs worth of work, it’s currently 3PM, and I’m sitting on the couch playing video games, things probably aren’t going too well. I should be kicking myself back into work. But, if I find myself in the same situation, having completed 3 PUs worth of work, I’m actually doing pretty good.
Why is this distinction meaningful to draw – isn’t this pretty obvious and intuitive?
No – it isn’t.
These kind of separations are always obvious to us when we’re external to them, having them explained to us or reading about them on someone’s blog. It’s easy to divide everything into bright clean lines when you don’t have anything at stake and you’re not in the middle of all of the chaos and demands placed on your time. However, when you do find yourself in the middle of everything that’s when you will most need to be able to determine if the way you are feeling is due to something legitimate or simply a pressure external to yourself that actually doesn’t matter.
Thinking in these terms provides a quick “escape ladder” that can be used if I need to pull my head up from the mess and figure out if the way I’m feeling is really something that requires my concern.
The honest truth is that sometimes you’re going to feel guilty for taking some much needed time to recharge. It doesn’t matter that that is the best thing you could do – your psychology will play games with you and tell you that you could not possibly take the time off from working on that paper!
Dividing my time up into these kind of chunks is a convenient way for me to check the way I’m feeling and determine if I really need to get the gears turning again, or can relax knowing that the break I’m taking is well-deserved (and will actually make me more efficient on the whole).
The view from my desk
Here’s the example that I’ve created, to provide you with some context. My class schedule roughly looks like this:
- Monday: 3 classes
- Tuesday: 0 classes
- Wednesday: 2 classes
- Thursday: 1 class
- Friday: 1 class
On Monday, I also run a dance jam down at Centenniel Square in Victoria, which eats up a decent chunk of time. In short, I don’t have any additional PUs available for Monday.
Tuesday is wide open, and so I can aim for my maximal goal: 4 PUs. The plan going forward will be to divide this time between reading/studying and the necessary time required for me to continue PMing the project I’m working on. I have my time loosely divided in half between the two, but I can be flexible and if needed, I can devote all 4 separate PUs to studying (though I would rather not, as that will increase the diminishing returns that I experience).
Wednesday I have two classes, which means I have about 2 PUs remaining. Likewise, Thursday and Friday each have one class, so I have 3 PUs for both of those days. Just at a glance, this way of looking at my spare time gives me a rough idea of how much time I will have available to devote to the demands on my time.
If things get panicky or packed in tight, I may need to adjust my schedule, or attempt to squeeze an extra PU out of my day. While this may be possible for brief bursts of time, I’m skeptical that that would be a sustainable practice. Being productive for 10 of my 16 waking hours, on an extended basis, intuitively feels like I would be pushing the limits of my mental, emotional and physical health, not to mention my marriage.
That’s all I’ve got for today. In general, writing a blog post is probably about 1 or 2 PUs worth of work. It requires writing (a task unto itself), then polishing and editing before publishing. I’ve finished three sessions worth of reading, and completing this entry makes a total of four PUs. That means that I can now devote the rest of my day to relaxing and pursuing hobbies that are less intensive, and ignore any guilt that may pop up from time to time trying to tell me I should actually be working harder. Not only should I not be working harder, I’m not convinced that my yield would be worth the extra effort.
Here’s the summary of what we’ve covered:
- To maximize your productivity, break your time up so that you can focus your energy on multiple things throughout the day;
- Breaking your time up into productive units, or PUs, can provide a convenient way to get a loose handle on what you can realistically accomplish in any given day;
- Your PUs may be different than mine, and that’s fine – do what works for you;
- If you’re feeling lazy or like you should be doing more work, check in to see what you’ve accomplished in terms of your PUs, and ground the way you feel based on that. Sometimes you need to kick your ass back into gear. Sometimes, you need to relax. Both of these things will be equally hard to accomplish at different times;
- A system doesn’t need to schedule or track every last available minute you have for it to work for you; and
- Check in with yourself from time to time to see if the way that you’re feeling is a reaction to your circumstances, or something external (eg, unrealistic societal pressure that you can or should be productive for every single minute that you’re at work).