Monday, August 25, 2014

SelfControl and toggl: mastering my time

Photo credit: Ducks in a Row by whitepines on

Every so often I go on a productivity bender, where I start obsessing about how unproductive I am and how I Need To Do Better. This inevitably results in the acquisition of apps, because in my nerdy brain nothing helps creativity more than surrounding yourself with time-wasting technology. I’m beginning to wonder whether my productivity benders are in fact a magnificently twisted form of procrastination, invented by a brain that has decided to work against its owner’s best interests for reasons best known to itself.

And yet I keep trying, because every so often one of my productivity ideas sticks and becomes a valuable part of my life process. Like the 365K challenge, which has led to me writing over 256,000 words so far this year, mostly in the form of fiction, reviews and blog posts that will actually be used as the basis for future output (I’m going to analyze what I wrote at the end of the year and give predictions on how much of it will be worth publishing).

I’ve tried the Pomodoro Technique and similar time-chunking methods, like my critique partner’s 10 Minute Writing method where you do your writing in ten-minute bursts, followed by ten minutes of chores. These techniques work very well for me when I have a deadline and MUST work on one particular project for most of the day, for example. But most of the time I prefer a slightly more organic, or perhaps I should say holistic, approach to time management.

Time-chunking techniques work by imposing order and structure on an otherwise chaotic day: in a sense, you take control of yourself by issuing commands to yourself about how much work you’re going to do. And that works for me for a while, but then failure starts to creep in and I abandon the method until the next time I decide to give it a try.

So I started thinking about the causes of that failure, and realized that they had to do with the way my life works. My schedule just isn’t all that predictable—it may jog along in a fairly routine pattern for a couple of weeks, but then I’ll get a week crowded with meetings or one of my commitments will need extra attention and all my carefully structured time-chunking routines go to pot. Not to mention the fact that I spend a lot of time in England these days. Given that it can take longer than a month to form a habit, what’s a writer to do when her schedule refuses to stay constant for longer than about two weeks?

So I decided to tackle the problem the other way around, by observing the ways in which my life uses up my time. On my bad days I’m known to whine to my family that I spend way more time doing stuff I don’t want to do (meaning for their benefit) than I spend doing the things I actually WANT to do, i.e. writing and doing writerly things. How true is this, I wondered? Also, I’m nastily aware of the fact that I don’t spend much time building up my writing business, which as a self-publisher I MUST do if I’m ever going to achieve my very modest income goals. I realized I needed to do the following:

  • Track the time I spend doing house/family-related tasks vs. time spent on my own pursuits
  • Find ways I can increase time to work on my business
  • Monitor how much time I spend on social media and work out just how productive that is

The last item, of course, is a very vexing one for many writers. Yes, you need an online presence and platform. You also need to be real and authentic when online, because if you only go on social media to ask people to buy your book, their reaction will be to ignore you or block you. So a certain amount of posting cat photos (or your personal equivalent—mine rarely involve cats) is necessary. How much time is productive for ME, i.e. beyond how much time spent on social media am I no longer productive? Where can I find balance?

So I decided I needed a way to track my time both on and off the computer, and then fortunately someone mentioned toggl in a blog post. I like the fact that it syncs across my phone, iPad and Macbook, so I can track offline activities via the phone (it will accept entries when offline and sync them later, if necessary, so you can use it with a wireless-only device, which is what my iPhone becomes when I’m in England).

After the initial learning curve, which was short, I realized that I could track individual tasks separately and use color-coding to see where my time went. I’ve grouped the activities I record into broad categories: writing production, writing business, family & house (tasks that involve doing things for other people) and me time (exercise, reading for fun, lunch with a friend). I don’t tend to track things like eating dinner and watching TV, because my purpose is to concentrate on how I use what I regard as my working day. Each broad category has a color code—social media is a separate category, colored red, as I’m targeting that for possible reduction.

At the same time, I’ve recently started using the SelfControl app (Mac only; there are Windows alternatives) to cut down on my jumps into social media when I’m working on something. I put Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter on my blacklist, and set it for an hour at a time—my concentration wanes sharply after about 40 minutes, so more than an hour would be counter-productive. When I turn on SelfControl, I also turn my phone face-down so I can’t see those notifications and be tempted to continue the conversation on a mobile medium. Knowing it’s only for an hour is a big help, because seriously, I can wait THAT long before rejoining a conversation.

I’ve been using these methods for about a month now, and have confirmed that my estimation of how much time I needed to run this house and be Orangina’s executive assistant is fairly accurate. I’ve greatly improved my grip on my to-do list over this last month, too, and the combination of toggl, SelfControl and efficient lists are helping me to reduce the number of procrastinated tasks in the “urgent” categories. My ultimate goal is to move away from a to-do list, which is reactive, toward a planning list, which is proactive.

So the next step is to carve more time out of my day for the “not urgent but important” tasks, which is pretty much where all of my writing business tasks lie. I am, toggl shows, spending less than two hours a week on business tasks, and that’s way too low. So that’s the habit I have to work on next! And I have an app for that…