In continuation from my last entry, I wanted to go into a bit more detail about how to organise your tasks and time in a way that will fend off the Short Time Mob.
I have dubbed this the “Mynah Method” after the mynah birds in Aldous Huxley’s novel Island.
I once had a client who complained to me he just never seemed to have enough time to do anything at all. After asking him a few questions it transpired that he spilt his day into three parts; morning, afternoon and evening. Breaking his day into such large chunks made it seem incredibly short. When he thought of each day, it only had these three chunks and if he had anything on in any of these chunks, even if it was only 15 minutes long, in his mind that chunk was then “full” and he couldn’t do any more.
Over several sessions, we systematically increased the number of chunks in his day, first by splitting each of his chunks in half, so he had six chunks, and after a few weeks got them down to half hour chunks. That meant he had gone from three chunks to 32 chunks (a 16 hour day split into 30-minute chunks). Having smaller chunks gave the impression that his days where much, much longer. And by making a focused effort on a single task at a time (one per chunk – see below) he got much more done.
I must admit, I didn’t get the idea from any time management or productivity books, I got it from the film “About A Boy”, the adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel. In it Hugh Grant’s character, because he inherited money, has never had to work in his life. In it he explains how he fills his day:
“I find the key is to think of a day as units of time, each unit consisting of no more than thirty minutes. Full hours can be a little bit intimidating and most activities take about half an hour. Taking a bath: one unit, watching countdown: one unit, web-based research: two units, exercising: three units, having my hair carefully disheveled: four units. It’s amazing how the day fills up, and I often wonder, to be absolutely honest, if I’d ever have time for a job; how do people cram them in?”
We used 30-minute chunks as this tends to be the length that most of us can comfortably concentrate for.
1. Break Your Day Into Units, Chunks or Blocks (whichever description you like the most)
So, step one is to organise your day into appropriate chunk lengths. I wouldn’t suggest anything shorter than 30 minutes. If you suffer particularly from theft by the Short Time Mob, you may want to start with larger units (an hour or a couple of hours), or just concentrate on shorter units for a limited time period (say do four 30-minute chunks in two hours each day).
If you want to use this idea specifically to get things done, rather than just a way of breaking down your day, then split your time into four units of a 25-minute block with a five minute break between each (to a total of 2 hours) then take a longer break of 30-minutes or so:
- 1st 25 minute block
- 5 minute break
- 2nd 25 minute block
- 5 minute break
- 3rd 25 minute block
- 5 minute break
- 4th 25 minute block
- 30 minute (or longer) break
2. Decide What You Want To Do With Your Time
Now you have your time units, you need to fill them. Your brain understands time via mental tasks not clock time. So if you do nothing in the time block it somewhat defeats the object, fill your chunks with things (if you are “doing nothing” at least actively do nothing).
Get a sheet of paper (or file card – see below) and do a massive brain dump – write down everything you want to do in the day, priorities it and then assign it to a block or blocks. It isn’t really that hard! It often astounds me how people make such a big deal out trying to work out what they need to do, this tends to occur because of two reasons:
a) they relay only on task lists or “to do” lists without assigning them to a time unit. This encourage your to jump about from task to task and not set specific time aside for each one.
b) They don’t write anything down at all and try and mentally juggle their daily tasks. Our memory doesn’t work well like that and it takes a lot of effort to hold everything in our “working memory” causing fatigue, which leads to frustration and forgetfulness (which is somewhat counter productive). It also creates the impression that you have more to do than you actually have as you keep cycling through the same tasks over and over again.
Say hello to your new best friend – The file card.
I am very low tech when it comes to organising my time. Yes, there are loads of apps out there that promise that they will organise your time for you. What I have found with those is you spend so much time messing around and inputing the information that it just eats into your day. It is tech for techs sake. It takes a few moments to scribble down your tasks on a file card and then you are on your way.
Why a file card? Well, it is robust, easy to carry and around and the limited space means you can’t write too much on it and overwhelm yourself. I have been using file cards for all sorts of things since I read “Lila” by Robert Pirsig way back when I was on holiday in Ibiza in 1999. In it he explains how he uses a file card system to write his books, I took that and adapted it to a variety of uses, including organising tasks. I get through so many I buy them in bulk, 2000 at a time!
How you lay out the file card is up to you. You may use one a day, one a time chunk or one for every block of four time chunks. I tend to do one a day – writing my tasks in a brain dump on the one side and then flip it over and use a line per chunk to write down what I want to do.
You will notice very quickly that by mapping out your day in this way, it will seem much longer before you even begin.
You may find you have a number of tasks that will take less time than a single time unit, you can bundle them together and just call it “chores”, “admin’, or something else that makes sense to you. I often use a time chunk for emails and just call it that – “emails”. I know what I mean. I may have to make an additional note as to anyone specific I need to contact.
You may find that some things take longer than a single time chunk (going to the gym, or for a run, or going to see a film, or a meeting ). That’s fine, just block out the appropriate amount of chunks. However, if you are using this for productivity – to get things done – it is important to change emphasis or task each time unit. Say you have couple of projects you are working on that are going to take longer than one unit (writing an essay or blog for example) that cannot be broken down into smaller tasks, make sure you change project each unit of 25-minutes, no matter how far you have got. This breaks the day down, makes it seem longer and allows your unconscious to work on the project, often undoing blocks and creating that “Eureka” moment (by swapping you will return to each project refreshed and inspired).
3. Attention! Attention!
So far so traditionally time blocky. So here is the secret sauce that will help you make the most of this method. And it is extremely simple. Even breaking your time down into smaller chunks, you may find your mind wanders, you get distracted, start playing around on the internet, looking at Facebook and so on. Before you know it the chunk has gone and you have done nothing in it.
How do you avoid that? Simple (and this makes all the difference), set up a separate alarm on repeat for a time period shorter than your time chunk. So, if you time chunk is 30 minutes for example, you could set it for 10-minute intervals. Every time this goes off, it will act like a Mynah bird in the novel Island, drawing your attention back to the present moment and the task in hand. There are dozens of timer apps and stopwatches out there for this, but I really like the excellent “Mindful Mynah” app here.
4. Practice Mindfulness
Use a time chunk for meditation and practice mindfulness. Trust me, this is the single most important time chunk you will have each day. By practicing mindfulness you will slow time down, and increase your concentration span (as well as a whole host of other positive benefits that I won’t go into here). It will create a state in you that the Zen Masters called Joriki which, as Zen master Yasutani Hakuun Roshi explains, is
“…a dynamic power that enables us even in the most sudden and unexpected situations to act instantly, without pausing to collect our wits, and in a manner wholly appropriate to the circumstances.”
(learn more in my “Pocket book for the Flaneur of Life” here)
Remember, this is your life and it is going by a moment at a time. Pay attention to it!
I hope these simple process helps you be more present, organised, mindful and productive.