Organization and Procrastination
[This timely hottake on being the most organized, on top of your shit you in the new year is coming straight at you from the archives of my old website. I wrote it in January of 2015, while I was working several “gig-economy” acu jobs, teaching CM Diagnosis for the first time, and waking up at 5am every weekday in order to commute 100 traffic-ridden miles RT to study Mandarin Chinese at UCLA. The details of my life may have changed, but the hectic pace has only increased. Thus, I offer this guide once again to you, readers, who may wonder both “how does she manage it all” and “why does she take months on end to post to this blog?” Answer: coffee, my trusty hobonichi planner, a rough version of this system, and background self-loathing/low self-esteem, just like every other grad student I know, yippeee!]
This is not a guide for avoiding procrastination in its most basic (and base) of forms. If you need that as well, definitely check out Wait but Why’s article here. More so this is meant to be a how to guide proffering advice on how to manifest priorities, aka structuring your day-to-day as a means of overriding the chaos of having too many things to do in barely adequate time.
This guide is specifically being written for a handful of friends whom have commented on my preternatural ability to be “always doing dozens of things at once.” To these few I say, “ha! Remember that day in the first week of January when you asked me for this and I said, ‘hrmm… I think the earliest I can have that done is by Martin Luther King Jr. day,’ remember that? And then you see how it took me one week beyond that, sitting at home in my pajamas on a sick day, before I actually manifested it? This is because friends and blogging both rank below studying, teaching, working, and striving for personal health. Far, far below – welcome to my callous reality, friends.
It all starts here, with defining short, medium, and long term goals. Are they mutually achievable? What steps do you need to take to achieve them? Are you capable of taking these steps? If not, what steps to you need to take to get yourself capable, or, how will you alter your goals accordingly? My assumption in writing this post is that you’ve already set goals, and have them in mind as you plan.
Tried and tested knowledge of your personal limits is vital to learning exactly how much workload you can carry in a given day, week, or academic term. And, corollary to that, fostering conditions that allow you to create great work, rather than merely passable work, is an important part of limit setting. What are your end goals, and how do you want to be known to others? Is your day-to-day default so crowded with obligations that you have no margin for error, time for a sick day, or ability to amp up the pace during the final home stretches of a big project because you already get too little sleep? If so, you definitely need to find ways to scale back.
As I am reminded every time I walk into Westwood Trader Joes, “If you can’t find time to do it right the first time, how are you going to find the time to do it right later?” Yes, ghost of John Wooden, I couldn’t have said it better myself: it is important to do things right the first time, and not get stuck in a roofie circle of playing catch up for past slacking, with that moment in turn creating slacking, which only further limits potential output overall.
The most important way to avoid this game up catch-up is to schedule manageable amounts of things. Before a clown can juggle ten balls, while dancing, whistling, and not smashing into her near-sighted, tricycle riding bear friend, she has to learn to juggle only three balls, whistle, and dance all separately. It is only once she masters each skill on its own that she can begin combining, adding, modifying, and avoiding the path of that bear all at the same time. Life is like that: only by pushing your limits can you take on greater and cooler responsibilities, but you have to do it judiciously, in layers, working up to managing more over time.
A lot of people think of scheduling and shudder, thinking but what about living in the moment? I’d like to point out that New-Agey conceptions of Daoism are no excuse for being a selfish and irresponsible asshole – if you cared enough to commit yourself to a given manner of spending your time, you should care enough to both follow through with being there AND being fully present during the time you are there. Period.
- How to make a schedule:
- The first, fun part, is to draw out my “mandatory attendance/pre-scheduled” weekly commitments on a sheet of paper, like so:
- The second part is less fun, because it involves tallying up the bits that are otherwise flexible and sometimes harder to quantify. Make a list of:
- how many hours you need, on average, to study/prepare for each class or task on your schedule
- how many hours things like grocery shopping, cooking and eating take
- how many hours you spend sleeping and showering
- monthly hours spent paying bills, cleaning house, being a grown up, etc (divide by 4)
- allocating “flex time” that will cover anything ranging from dental cleanings to routine car maintenance to extra study hours for really hard classes
- how many hours of recreation and leisure you need (needs are not wants, remember, but some time in this category is good)
- prioritize the hours you set in part 2. what fits in, what doesn’t? add this into the visual aid you created in part 1, and voila! schedule!
How to stick to your schedule
- Follow the chart you made in part a. Seriously, I know that sounds like a troll, but you as your schedule
draws tighter like a noosecompacts into a cozy and fixed routine, you’ll begin to recognize that anything skipped or fudged or procrastinated on one day becomes another thing that must be done on another day, and that’s how OVERWHELM happens. Avoid the overwhelm, and get your shit done when you told yourself you would: that’s living in the moment, my friends.
- Learn to say no: to social invitations, to exciting new projects, to whatever – if you’re already at max capacity, why let your desire to be agreeable to others set your other projects up for failure?
How to schedule really large and daunting projects
Apart from time estimations, which in my experience always woefully fall short of the actual time it takes to say, write a 30 page paper, scheduling large tasks is quite easy if you can figure out a way to break them into stages. To clarify, your stages should NOT look like this:
Instead, they should be a detailed outline, including sub-points of sub-bullets, until your large project literally becomes a series of manageable tasks (ideally no more than 4 hour blocks, so that you can check them off as they get done). If you’re struggling with conceptualizing this, please contact me, and I’ll send you some resources.
Your body is your most valuable tool; treat it well.
Sustaining tremendous output, be it physical or mental, requires ritualized self-care. This is the most foundational aspect of this entire post, so I will repeat it: you need to schedule in time, regularly, in which you care for your body by feeding it nutrient rich foods that it digests well, as well as allowing it adequate time for physical recreation and mental relaxation, which I like to call “do nothing” time. That sounds somewhat paradoxical, given that if you’re reading this you’re striving for great productivity, but don’t underestimate the importance of proper downtime in allowing you flashes of insight that allow you to view some idea, situation, or project in a new light. Particularly if your work involves writing, brain rest is a must.
Food: it should be eaten hot, and eaten often.
Used to skipping breakfast, forgetting lunch, and throwing some whatever into a bowl for dinner? Your body hates you for that, and particularly if you’re also skimping on sleep, sooner than later your body will rebel against your callous mistreatment of it in an ugly and untimely way. Think catching the flu, spraining your back, or being laid up with a migraine just happens to happen to you every time you most need to kick it into fifth gear? I hate the common overuse of mechanical metaphors to describe biological processes, but I think it applies here so I’m going with it. How often to bad things “just happen” to a relatively new car that is regularly gassed, with tires kept at pressure, and serviced at proper intervals? Proper service intervals for the body are roughly equivalent to standard mealtimes.
Prioritizing eating warm, well cooked foods over cold, raw foods is of great benefit for anyone working long hours, especially at very intellectually intensive tasks. Your motive force for thought and reflection is easily damaged with overuse, and even more easily damaged by deranged eating. Buffer against this by setting regular meal times for yourself and not leaning too heavily on uncooked convenience foods. Obviously cooking in this way takes time, so the easiest way to cheaply allow for this is to plan a half day once per week in which you batch cook, creating small “ready to eat” meals you can grab and heat with ease. Alternatively, invest in a slow cooker, which can help you alleviate food preparation pressure on the days of the week your workload is heaviest.
Sleep: it is more important than your social media feed at ten o’clock at night.
Seriously, no matter how interesting that Atlantic Monthly article is, no matter how much you want to chat with friends, or binge watch another episode of “Popular Show with Obvious Plotline,” doing these things is not going to help you function optimally and achieve your goals. So close your laptop screen, and if you must be doing something at ten o’clock at night make sure that you’re, a) finished with all the work you need done by tomorrow at noon, and b) working in analog, to help yourself fall asleep by whatever your desired bedtime is. Ideal sleeping hours are from about 11pm – 6am in Chinese Medical theory, by the way (and in Winter ideally you add an hour to either/both sides of that), but I respect that some of you will argue “cultural construct” on that and fight for your funky nocturnal circadian drummer. Whatever works for you, so long as you wake up refreshed and don’t need eleventy cups of coffee every day to stay awake, alright?
If you’re already doing this, great. If you aren’t, don’t go crazy on it. Slow, steady, small lifestyle gains (taking the stairs, walking or cycling for local trips, stretching, etc) beat jumping into P90x by a long shot.
Obstacles in sticking to your schedule
There are three big obstacles you will encounter in sticking to the nice schedule you’ve drafted for yourself: yourself, your friends, and acts of god. Let’s walk through them one at a time.
- Yourself: Although this one may seem the most daunting, in many ways it is the easiest factor to control because it only involves you. And because this involves you, your psychology, and possibly necessitates the intervention of a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) specialist, I can only offer up the following suggestions on this score:
- Take pride in a job well done. Seriously, learn to get off on this feeling, turning it into an energy rush you cultivate and gather steam from.
- Do two tasks in the morning, do two tasks at night, do two tasks before you do two tasks, have I made my point?
- If you’re going to “reward” yourself by doing something non-productive, make sure you’ve been productive first.
- Your friends (and family): Downtime with friends is a great way to reset and regain enthusiasm for reaching for your goals, but, you can’t do it all of the time, and the busier you are, the more you’re going to have to delay hanging out for the sake of getting stuff done. Your better friends will understand this, and anyone who doesn’t probably was never your friend to begin with. And for a very trusted few in the middle, there are GSD days. GSD stands for getting shit done, and it’s a concept I’m borrowing from my awesome friend Mischa who [at the time I originally wrote this was] finishing her psychology program at Stanford. While I was finishing up at Berkeley, Mischa and I would rarely have any actual free time for hanging out, but we shared a love of working over good coffee. Cue GSD days, wherein we would meet up at Ritual, Sightglass, or some other hipster clusterfuck, briefly check in with each other over our first sips of a double shot capp, and then headphone-up for several hours of uninterrupted work. Why, you ask? One, it was a reason to put on decent clothes and go to a spot we otherwise wouldn’t have much reason to hit up (Philz Coffee may as well have been my living room given the number of times I rolled in to study there wearing sweats with bedhead, bleaagch). Two, meeting up with Mischa gave me a way to see my friend, socializing during brief breaks and over the inevitable burrito for dinner, while still providing mutual accountability: we went to Ritual to GSD, not get lost in some reddit-sparked internet research rabbithole. In short, if abstaining from friend contact for weeks or months on end seems a bit extreme to you, find an equally busy friend and set up a GSD day with them every couple weeks. (Note: I miss Ritualling with you so bad, Mischa – this post, and many other things on my to-do list, might have been done weeks ago if you were around ;_;)
- Accidents, Emergencies, the Unforeseen: It’s called the unforeseen because there’s no way to plan for it. And yet, sickness happens, and keys get lost. This is why you should never be constantly working down to the wire, and you should always plan to be five minutes early – because it allows you a buffer against the unexpected.