This is the secret to “doing it all” when you’re really too busy to do any of it.
Simply: don’t do most things on most days.
This is a corollary to the idea of only doing one thing at a time. Choose the most important thing you think you could be doing, and do that. Even more importantly, consciously choose to not do certain other things.
This is how I finally started being early to things, instead of late. I made a list of all the stuff I would try to do in the mornings before I left, and I decided to quit doing those things. I allowed myself to:
If I wanted to do additional things such as bathe or eat breakfast, I had to count backward and make sure I got up earlier. Those were my incentives. Otherwise I was going to be eating a protein bar out of my purse. Which is fine! And certainly better than the sick, hurried feeling I would have been getting by running out the door late.
The idea was to replace that lateness feeling with some kind of reward. What I realized was that if I got somewhere a few minutes early, I could just sit and read something on my phone. Relaxation instead of consternation.
Let’s transfer that idea to other things such as errands, paperwork, and chores.
I’m a fussy housekeeper, and I clean things when I’m stressed out. This can snowball quite badly when you suddenly find yourself under a kind of house arrest for several months. I can’t document this? But I’m pretty sure it’s not a legal requirement to dust your baseboards every day. I knew I was going to need to set limits or I would be doing circuits around my house like a cuckoo in a clock.
My main goal in housekeeping is to only do it on weekdays. I like to know that I can kick back for a three-day weekend and not feel like there’s something I should be doing. Other people might like to bang it all out in one day, which is a perfectly valid system in its own right. Personally I just don’t want to spend four hours doing housework unless someone is handing me an envelope full of cash afterward.
Competing with this minimalist system is my other goal, the subconscious one that keeps overriding the sensible one. That is to have every surface 100% tidy and speck-free at all times. That way lies insanity.
One of the areas that I could be cleaning perpetually is the bathroom counter, including the sink and mirror. If I started doing it every day, how long would it take to morph into twice a day? It has its designated cleaning days, and the rest of the time, the rule is: Don’t do that today.
I remind myself of all the other things I want to do, and that I never feel I have time to do. Reading! Learning to draw! Lounging around listening to music and learning the lyrics!
Granted, I don’t always do those things, because I am a restless spirit, but at least I don’t waste all my time doing housework.
There is an opposite extreme here, the end of the spectrum that would rather live in a certain amount of chaos than, again, waste all the time doing housework. That is legit. At a certain point it also makes life more complicated. I would list off here: respiratory issues, any kind of trip hazard, not being able to find stuff, paying late fees, being late everywhere or missing appointments, relationship stress, and generally being unhappy and dissatisfied with the results.
Entropy is not the same thing as inspiration or creativity.
Three things happened when I decided that I just wasn’t going to do most things on most days.
One, I just... worked 44 hours a week and collected my paychecks.
Two, I started reading a bit more again.
Three, and unexpectedly, when I would go around to do whatever the day’s thing was... it would sometimes... already be done?
I created space for someone else to step in and do things.
The problem with being super-organized and efficient is that everyone in an ever-broadening gyre around you starts to relax and abdicate more. It’s not necessarily that anyone in the circle is unwilling or unlikely to do these things... They’re just not going to be the first person to do these things.
Unless you step back and make space for that to happen.
Most individual chores only take 2-5 minutes. Wiping down a countertop or squeegeeing a mirror. Taking out a bag of trash. Wiping down a shelf in the fridge. Putting a load of laundry in the dryer. Et cetera. I know this is true because I spent a couple of weeks running around timing everything I did with a stopwatch. The only exception is folding laundry, which is more like 10-12 minutes per basket.
When someone around you starts to realize that a 2-5 minute contribution will be noticed and appreciated, it starts to happen more often.
These are the goals:
Keep weekends chore-free
Do laundry once a week and don’t do it the other six days
Grocery shopping no more than two days a week
Automate everything possible.
Automate, delegate, eliminate!
Then what do you do with the remainder of the time? Where do you put the former feelings of habitual stress, worry, anxiety, or resentment?
My recommendations would be along the lines of: relaxing, making something beautiful, going back to get your degree, training for a marathon, or writing a book. That’s where the flip side of my directive comes in. Definitely do that today!
We’re on a 9/80 schedule and I’m still trying to make sense out of it. When I say ‘we,’ I mean that my husband has been working this way for a few years, while I generally exist in a timeless void. Now I’m back in the Time Dimension and trying to get my bearings.
Basically 9/80 means you work 80 hours in nine days.
This has been relatively unclear to me because my husband a) travels a lot and b) works tons of overtime. Trying to discern his underlying schedule is like trying to spot me under the many layers I wear to hockey games. Something’s going on in there, not sure what exactly...
So we work nine hours Monday through Thursday. On Friday, we either work eight hours or we get the whole day off.
Four hours of overtime each week, tape them together and turn it into alternating three-day weekends!
The reason I’m focusing so much on this is that I want to go to grad school (online anyway), and I’m trying to figure out if I can somehow create the time to study and do coursework.
Our weeknights are like this:
Clock out at 6 pm
Cook and eat dinner
Work out for an hour, half an hour to shower and get ready for bed
...because all of a sudden it’s almost 9 pm!
I’ve been here before. I went back to school during my first marriage, working full-time during my entire freshman year. We would get up at 6 am and carpool downtown. I would take my morning class, then ride my bike to work, put in a full day, ride my bike back to campus for my night class, then ride home and do homework, going to bed at 2 am.
Then I started collapsing, had to go through a bunch of medical tests, and basically discovered that even someone in her twenties needs more than four hours of sleep a night. I dropped out partway into my first term of sophomore year, and didn’t pick up the thread again until after my divorce.
That’s, ah, the other thing.
I want to do this - meet my outrageous academic dream - and skip the parts that didn’t go so well the first time. The health issues, the divorce, then the financial catastrophe.
Advanced education, to me, has always seemed like a gauntlet. You go through an intensive experience for a short time, something fraught with brain drain and all-nighters, and you come out the other side into a new world of opportunity and perspective.
This has been on my mind lately, because I had one of those articles that encourages you to ask your partner ‘deep thoughts’ questions. I asked him what accomplishment he was most proud of in his life. (I usually know his answers to most of that type of question). He surprised me by replying that it was going to grad school.
It’s making me feel like a kid looking through the window at a candy store. This place, this place where we work... I got to hear an interview candidate give a presentation today that he said nobody else had heard, as he is on his way to defend his dissertation.
Waaaah! *I* wanna defend a dissertation!
There are a couple of parts to this project, all of which I have to figure out in the brief windows of time that are available, unless I can somehow stave off my curiosity until the weekend.
First, figure out whether I can pass the GRE, which is a special standardized test - or whether there is some kind of nifty shortcut that allows me to get into grad school without it.
Second, probably do some self-study to make sure I can get a passing score. I haven’t taken a math class since 1993 and I suspect this may be a problem.
Third, figure out what other supporting documentation I will need, such as recommendation letters from professors who have not seen me since, at best, 2004 - or, again, whether I can get around this somehow.
Fourth, hack a way to get in for free, get someone else to pay for it, or, even better, get paid to attend!
Fifth, figure out how to get on the Dean’s List without disrupting my day job. Or, at least, disrupting it in only a positive direction. Which should hopefully be easier considering all those tasty three-day weekends.
I knew nothing the first time around. I had no idea, for instance, that there were study guides for the SATs or any of the other standardized tests. If I had known, I probably would have asked for one for my 12th birthday and read it over and over until the cover fell off. Neither did I realize what the three-digit numbers were that followed course titles. That’s how I found myself in a graduate-level course as a freshman.
No matter who you are or what you are doing, there is always something so “obvious” that nobody thinks to describe or explain it. I am going to be the person who finds that out. It’s like if ‘obvious’ had a loading dock out back, and I’m always wandering around out there trying to find an unlocked door, when the front has a giant neon sign with an arrow.
One ‘obvious’ thing would probably be, don’t try to go to school full-time while working full-time, since you already know that is too hard. Another might be, don’t start planning this type of project when you only got over COVID-19 like six weeks ago.
Ah, but it should be obvious by now, I can’t rest without a challenge. Maybe I’ll never do it, but it sure is fun to think about. Besides, if I can’t find the time to do it while we’re under a stay-at-home order and I have no work commute, then when can I?
People often used to ask me how I found so much time to read. Now I’m wondering that myself.
When I was young, I took the bus everywhere, and I would often have a 40-minute work commute. Reading created a privacy bubble and kept me comfortable. It also meant I always had a hard-cover library book in my bag, a bag that probably weighed 15 pounds on average.
When I had a car, I eventually discovered audiobooks, but the CDs only played at one speed. It would take me all week to finish a book.
When I quit my day job, I might read five hours a day.
Then I got a smartphone and eventually rediscovered audiobooks. Over the course of a few years I learned that I could play them back at 1.25, then 2x, and now 3x. I could finish half a book on a distance run. I’d listen to the other half while I cooked dinner and did laundry.
Then I figured out how to speed-read ebooks. I can read a digital book at double the speed of a paper book.
Sometimes I would read two books a day.
Then I got COVID-19 and I couldn’t really read much of anything at all for a couple weeks.
Then I got a day job again.
When do you people find all that time to read all those books??
I don’t have a work commute. My desk is 20 feet from my bed.
I used to read during my breaks and at lunch. Now I find myself doing chores or running errands.
We work a 9/80 schedule. That means we work 9 hours Monday through Thursday so that we can have alternate Fridays off, which means two three-day weekends a month not including holidays. This is magnificent!
It also means we’re done for the day at 6 pm. Four hours until bedtime.
Hour to cook and eat dinner
Hour to work out, half an hour to shower
That leaves 90 minutes of leisure time. But... that’s not enough time to read a book!
I hear that other people supposedly watch 5 hours of TV a day on average. When, is what I’d like to know? Do they start at 6:00 and just leave it on until 11 pm? Aren’t they tired??
This is the great danger for me, the fatal attraction: the desire to read “one more chapter” until it’s 1 am. What I need is a sleeping helmet that somehow delivers entire plots directly into my brain so I wake up knowing what happened.
...although if that were possible, surely it would work while we were awake and doing other things?
I looked back at my records, and I’ve read 14 books in the last three weeks. Others might think that was quite a lot. For me, doesn’t it mean it’s taking me a day and a half to read a book?
This is why I’m thinking it’s time for a reading weekend.
Reading is relaxation. Reading is my way of connecting with an outside world that I’m not spending much time visiting lately. Reading is the thing I do that makes me me. If I can’t do it during the week, then I’m hereby canceling everything else and doing it over the weekend.
Somehow I will eventually adjust and figure out how to make more time for reading on weekdays, too. All I really need is another hour, an hour created out of waking time and not robbed from sleeping time.
Now I have only two questions:
What should I read this weekend?
What are you reading?
I’m closing in on 300 books read for 2019, not the most I’ve read in a year and not the first time I’ve done this, either. It’s not that I think everyone should aim for a book a day - although plenty of people read that much - it’s more that I feel bad for people who love reading and can’t seem to find the time.
If you love books, I’m telling you, you are missing out on reading opportunities.
I met a woman at a party, and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that we were both book nerds. Her husband popped up, wondering what we were so excited about, and it turned out that one of their favorite things to do is to listen to audio books together on road trips. Yay!
Then it turned out that they only used one smartphone app (the worst one) and they had been struggling to find books they both wanted to hear.
THIS is why it’s a good idea to go to parties even when you hate it and you really don’t want to. I proceeded to whip out my phone and blow both of their minds with all the portals they were missing out on.
Now, because I’m nice, I’m going to tell you as well.
If you only like print books, that’s fine, good for you, and you can skip the rest of this post, but you are probably still missing out. I’ll throw you a few ideas. One, I didn’t realize until I was thirty that I could put books on hold at my local library, and that’s why the books I found the most interesting never seemed to be on the shelf. Two, it’s also possible to put books on hold *before they are even in print* and that’s why there is always a line of 375 people already waiting on publication day. Three, most libraries take suggestions for purchases, and they will notify you if they buy your suggestion. They’ll usually put your name on the waiting list, too. Four, the Large Print section is likely to have popular books in stock when the regular scale is checked out, and they’re easier to read during your workout.
Okay, done with all that. Next point, anyone who buys most of their reading material off the bookstore remainder table probably has a house full of partially read books. Shopping is not reading! Just like shopping is not crafting. Look around and ask yourself if you are choosing books based on price rather than preference. Don’t feel beholden to books that couldn’t keep your interest past page 40. Free yourself of any feelings of obligation, give those books away, and try not to pre-commit to more than the next three books you plan to read.
Oh! And if you have books that you have borrowed from other people, there is probably a reading-related curse on your head, and you should give them back right away.
Back to the 21st century, where we have ebooks and audio books and futuristic speed-reading tools that would have been worth a king’s ransom a century ago. Imagine poor Abraham Lincoln reading on horseback, and then the rains came...
This is my secret: I can acquire and read any book while it is still red-hot, fresh, and desirable, then immediately move on to another.
The most interesting thing about ebooks to me is that you can boost a library’s circulation figures even if you’ve only walked in their door once. As a corollary to this, ebooks make it easy to be a member of multiple libraries. As I showed my new friends at the party, I have no fewer than four library apps on my phone, and I’m an active patron of five library systems.
I can theoretically check out 75 books at a time and have 70 on hold.
That’s only through one app (OverDrive), and it doesn’t include magazines.
My new book-loving friends had never heard of OverDrive, even though it’s the most popular library app with the biggest selection. The other three I use are Hoopla, cloudLibrary, and RBdigital. Some ebook editions can only be read through a web browser, and some are only available as Kindle Editions. (Note: using the Kindle app does not require using the Kindle device)
I seem to have discovered an exploit, because often books that are on hold for months through one app will be sitting there available for checkout through the same library on another app. I think almost all library users of digital materials download one app and use that as their portal, rather than going through the library catalog, where they might see more options.
Something about digital books seems to outrage many traditional readers. NO, they will tell me, I PREFER REAL BOOKS! Ebook readers still read print books, and we tend to read more than we did before because we always have our books with us. We increase library circulation numbers, which increases sales. I’ll tell you what else. I quit buying used books years ago - zero of that revenue goes to the author - and I’m much more likely to buy a new book in hardcover now.
Me: $120 on four new books in hardcover and a couple of digital downloads
Others: $10/month on used or remaindered books, stacked all over the house unread
= SAME PRICE
(But my way, at least the authors get paid)
My enthusiasm for reading is at least as strong as it ever was, when I was two years old and couldn’t read at all, when I was six and learning to sound things out, when I was seven and sprawled on the floor reading my first chapter book, when I was twelve and discovered an entire library shelf dedicated to Stephen King. So many people are like me, book people! Yet we deprive ourselves of our favorite activity because we don’t feel like we have any leisure time any more.
When you were in line at Costco, so was I, but I was reading
When you were washing dishes, so was I, but I was reading
When you were folding laundry, so was I, but I was reading
When you were playing Candy Crush, I wasn’t, I was busy reading; but I bet you could play an audio book in the background
When you were watching TV, I wasn’t, but I probably read the book when it came out
When you were cooking dinner, so was I, but I was blasting a Hoopla audio book at 3x
When you were at the bookstore, I was in the next aisle, playing one book while looking for another
Just writing this is making me want to quit and go back to my book. We’re both missing an opportunity here, because I’ve run out of room before I had time to talk about my secret speed-reading tricks for print books. Suffice to say that because I read so much and so fast, I feel like I have plenty of time to stay current on nonfiction, business books, pop culture, memoir, YA, and literally whatever else crosses my book radar.
The only reading opportunity I worry about missing now is what will happen if I ever run out of books.
It wasn’t until I nearly missed my flight home for Thanksgiving that I realized something important, something deep in my character. “You call yourself organized,” I lectured myself, looking at my textbook-sized day planner, “and you almost missed your flight.” My desire to feel “organized” often leads me to do things that actually CAUSE the problems that make me feel DISorganized. I was missing something fundamental and obvious, something that other people seemed to do effortlessly. This is when I had my bright idea.
The very next day, I pulled out my return tickets and my calendar, and I told myself a story.
The story itself doesn’t matter so much as the format. “You’re going to [DO THIS] because [OF THIS REASON] and then [THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN].”
I walked myself backward, step by step, through my upcoming Monday morning. Vivid in my mind was the major ramification of being late: MISSING MY FLIGHT! Pain! Sorrow! Long lines! Wasted money! I needed to estimate the time each segment of my trip would take: to the gate from security, through security from drop-off, to drop-off from my parents’ house. How long would it take me to get ready?
Hang on, this is relevant to tasks as well as event planning. Do you see why yet? Because you shouldn’t be doing tasks unless they are useful to you in some way. If something is useful for you to do for yourself, then you’ll want to do it by a specific time. If it isn’t time-bound, then you’ll want to do it in relation to some result that matters to you. This is why we work backward. We want the intended result to happen and we want to do the things that lead to that result. Often, when we start with an “organized” “to-do list,” we wind up doing things efficiently that have nothing to do with our intended results.
That’s why I was able to feel so “organized” even as I arrived at the airport forty minutes late and nearly missed my flight.
My careful one-bag packing, checking the weather report, coordinating my clothes and footwear, selecting books to read, menu-planning with four other people, doing laundry, clearing my desk, and cleaning house were all great things to do. They all tragically missed the real point, which was to GET ON THE PLANE ON TIME.
I caught my flight (read: made my cherished goal) by accident, unfairly and undeservedly. This was a negative result because it had the potential to teach incorrect lessons and reinforce destructive behaviors. Namely: being a derpy derp.
A flaw is a flaw everywhere. My tendency to space out and ignore important details, losing track of the main point, is a flaw in everything I do. That’s why this matters. It hurts me, myself. It also usually ripples out and annoys other people, damaging their trust and staining my reputation. Ultimately, though, why would I annoy my own self? Why would I keep doing things to myself that I hate?
This, then, is the bedrock, the foundation of the problem. Being “disorganized” means perpetually annoying myself. “Getting organized” means doing the relentless root cause analysis and taking the corrective action. Find the flaw and shake it until all its withered little poison fruits shake loose.
When I look at a clock time, say: 10:10, it means nothing to me. It’s just a series of numbers and punctuation marks. I can’t possibly care less. I’ve tried both analog and digital clocks with the same effects. I don’t work well in the time dimension. Those symbols are not real to me.
When I arrange it as a story problem, suddenly it clicks into place. “Once upon a time there was a charming young derpy derp who got to the airport late and missed her flight. Because it was a busy holiday weekend, she was not able to get another seat until Saturday. She missed Thanksgiving dinner. It was her only chance all year to see her nephew, and by the time she arrived, he had already gone home. Instead of the nine-person dinner party she’d anticipated for months, her favorite people in all the world, only three were still free to get together. And all the pie was gone.”
Now, when I do my planning, I see the face of my sweet nephew, surrounded by my family, arranged at the table one by one. This is my motivation. My reason for spending an extra ten minutes making my schedule is a human reason. I want to be with someone who is important to me, and I don’t want to let him down. Or any of the others. Or let myself down.
This is how to turn an ordinary to-do list into a story problem. Who will be affected by my inaction or procrastination? Who will be disappointed if I don’t follow through? Who will have to cover for me, even with everything else that’s going on in their life right now? Conversely, how will they feel if I pull through? How will everyone react if I do everything I said I would do, on time or early?
My next-level planning revolves around a more familiar face, derpy though it is, and that face is my own. What expression will I have when I realize that, despite my planning, I’m still so late that I won’t get any breakfast? That I’ll have to wait four hours to have anything to eat? SAD FACE! I estimate how long it will take me to order food and plug that into my story.
That’s the personal level of the story problem. How will I myself feel if I screw this up? What will I miss out on if I skate through with only the vaguest of intentions and no specifics? How embarrassed will I be if I put in a significant amount of effort on something, only to blow it at the last minute because I forgot a major detail?
I wrote a story to myself and put it in my reminders. First, I set an alarm with the label: “Order a Lyft by 8:00 or you won’t get any breakfast!” Bone-chilling. Then, I set an alert for my reminder story. It went like this: “This morning you’re going to go to PDX and get breakfast. You’ll land in Sacramento and have about an hour to get a burrito. Then you’ll fly to LAX and head home.” Following were two more sentences about what I had to do after I got home, reminding me of some preparations I could take during my flight and while I hung around at the airport.
It worked! I ordered the Lyft on time, I got to the airport on time, I had quite a nice breakfast, and three hours later I also had quite a nice lunch. I didn’t have to sprint, not even once. Not only that, I helped two different people by noticing something they had dropped and picking it up for them. My attention was where it needed to be.
There’s a productivity technique called “interstitial journaling.” It involves pausing between tasks and meetings to write notes about what you are thinking, what decisions you need to make, and why you are doing what you are doing. Something like “I need to eat dinner early tonight if I want to make it to class on time” or “I’m going to get a nagging email if I don’t submit this report by Tuesday.” This is similar to the narrative to-do list that I’m describing. If clock times and schedules don’t work well for you, as they don’t for me, then maybe this will help. If to-do lists never seem to get you anywhere, again, maybe this will work better for you.
“Once upon a time there was a faithful reader who saw a great blog post. A big lightbulb went on. Suddenly it was so obvious that a bunch of things on that musty, dusty old to-do list could just be removed and never thought of again! Suddenly it was so clear and simple: what to do next and why.”
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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