“How I do it,” part 1: time-management tips for poets
What’s the most common question I get asked? Without a doubt it’s “how do you do it all?” From week to week I work as a lecturer (which means heaps of marking and liaising with students on top of my scheduled teaching hours!), read for a PhD, run this blog, help co-ordinate this collection, make jewellery, run an online vintage store, organise/attend/read at events, edit a magazine (Read This is coming back soon!)… and on top of that I have to try to find time to write, edit and send out my own poetry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, everyone wants to know what the deal is — do I just not sleep?
Personally, I put all this stuff down to failings in myself, rather than to success — one, I am really bad at saying no. I get asked to do something, and often I know I have no extra time or I might be double-booking myself, but a little voice always says “hey, this would be really fun!” and I just go “yep, OK!” without really thinking it through. Then I’m committed and just have to do it! And two, I am allergic to downtime. A free day to lie on the sofa in my PJs and watch Sex and the City? That’s something other people look forward to, but it’s my idea of hell. I like to be busy ALL THE TIME, and frankly… well, that’s a bit weird, right?
However, there are positive factors that contribute to my ability to juggle loads of things at once, and one of them is time management. So since everyone keeps asking, I thought I’d pass on one or two things I’ve learned, picked up or fallen into the habit of doing. It might help to explain how I keep all those juggling balls in the air… and sleep, too!
I think I’ve said this before, but I really hate watching TV. It feels so utterly unproductive — sitting staring at a box in the corner, not really ‘doing’ anything, not even really thinking about anything. For nearly a year I lived without a TV in the house and my creative, poetic output was higher then than at any time before or since — TV really is a time thief, and it’s an inspiration thief too.
It can be a hard habit to kick though, even when you know it’s a waste of your time. But living with a Boy who loves his Top Gear and X Files, I’ve learned that the TV doesn’t necessarily need to be off for you to be productive. Sure, you probably can’t write poems while Jeremy Clarkson’s power-sliding a Lambo in your living room, but what about your blog, or hey, the ironing? I do most of my ONS-updating and jewellery-making and shop-tidying in front of the TV. Think about it: you’re essentially sitting still, doing nothing, potentially for hours. That’s a big chunk of time that could be spent doing other stuff… instead of/as well as worshipping at the altar of Clarkson.
Like death, taxes and James Patterson novels, procrastination is just a sad fact of life. It is going to happen to you, and it is probably going to attack you right when you could really do without it. You know how cleaning all the skirting boards suddenly becomes a major priority right before a big deadline? You can’t stop that from happening, so accept it. The key is to monitor and channel procrastination rather than trying to eliminate it altogether.
What do I mean by monitor? Mainly, watch the clock. There’s nothing worse than thinking “oh, I’ll just have a quick look at my Twitter…” and the next thing you know, you’ve wwilfed away three hours of your day. By all means go look at your Twitter, but do so thinking ‘in fifteen minutes I’ll get back to work,’ or whatever. If I have a big deadline or a task I need to get done but really don’t want to do, I even — and yes, this is pretty sad, but it works — timetable procrastination into my day. Eg. once I’ve written 1000 words of That Essay, I reward myself with 15 minutes of GoFugYourself.com (yes, guilty pleasure!), or something else mindless. As for ‘channelling’ procrastination… why not make it work for you? You want to do something — anything — other than the task at hand? OK then, go reorganise your inbox for a while. Go call someone you’ve been meaning to get in touch with for ages. Do something that’s technically procrastination, but also useful. You’ll feel less guilty about it and it’ll probably prove more productive than trying to get on with The Task while also itching to time-waste.
Write to-do lists.
I am the QUEEN of to-do lists, mainly because I have a terrible memory and WILL forget to do something vital if I haven’t written it down. My to-do lists are hilarious and horrifying — they’re prioritised and everything. For example, the lesson plan for my Wednesday class has to be done by Tuesday night… so that’s high up on the week’s list… whereas updating ONS (though more fun, generally) can be done whenever, so that goes lower down. And so on. But writing a to-do list is only useful if you follow through… writing it and then losing down the back of the couch helps no one. I keep all mine in my diary (more on that in a second), so they’re in one place and I look at them often. I also cross things off when I’ve done them, and I think this is the most important bit. There’s nothing quite like crossing off Terrifying Mammoth Task and knowing you can forget about it. There’s also nothing quite like coming to the end of the list and having nothing else to cross off… because then you can go to the pub!
Keep a diary.
I don’t mean a spill-all-your-heartfelt-secrets kind of diary, though hey… if you like! I mean a business-y, what-am-I-doing-today? kind of diary. I learned the power of a diary when I was working as a legal secretary a few years ago — I was in awe of the fabulously kick-ass female lawyers I worked with. They were always so ‘together,’ so prepared-for-anything, and I soon learned that was because they ran their lives through their diaries. They would refuse to make an appointment — or, sometimes, a decision — without first checking their diary. Now, I am never without mine (a softcover Moleskine planner. Get one, for they are amazing!), and if it’s not written in there, it’s not happening. I’d advise you to invest in one with week-to-a-page layout but also space for notes (mine doubles as a writer’s notebook so I only have to carry one book around with me), because then you can see how your week is shaping up all at once. Recently, I’ve started blocking out a free afternoon — or even a whole day — if my week’s starting to look very busy. I know I need time to mark at some point; I know I need time to clean my house, etc. If the page is filling, I’ll draw a line through a section of time to make sure I can do that. I’ve also stopped double booking myself, which used to happen all the time (that whole unable-to-say-no thing). Diary management might seem like a chore, but it’s a good idea. And I usually do my diary-updating on the bus… another section of otherwise empty time used up!
Unplug your internet.
Since I’m probably starting to sound a little pathological, here’s a tip that I’m still struggling to master. I spend a LOT of time online and not all of it is productive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who never goes outside or never uses a phone or never speaks to anyone in real life or doesn’t enjoy things that don’t involve my broadband connection, but I do sometimes wonder if I could benefit from unplugging my modem a little more often. A while ago I was speaking about this with one of my tutors, who told me that he tries to go internet-free for one full day every week. I really liked this idea and have been trying to do the same myself ever since. The results are still variable, but I do feel like every time I try this I’m clawing a little of my life back from the jaws of Virgin Unlimited and the information super highway. Regardless of how often you’re online, chances are you could benefit from lowering your internet intake, too.
Don’t do addictive stuff.
And on the internet topic… don’t do other addictive stuff either. Generally, things that are addictive are bad for you — even being addicted to exercise is potentially harmful. Addictions are also a waste of your time — Boy is a reasonably light smoker, but even so he probably spends an hour a day on the front step with his Lucky Strikes when you add it all up. And other addictions are even bigger time-eaters. Computer gaming, for example… yes, it’s downtime, but it’s just as pointless as TV. How about actually going bowling instead of Wii bowling? Are you telling me the pixels really match up to the real thing? Sure, Wii bowling is free but how much did you spend on the Wii console and your big-ass TV screen? Addictions are bad, we all know this. Spend the odd Saturday night not in the pub. Back away from the Sudoku. Switch off your bloody iPhone. See what else you can find to do with that time.
Get up early.
This one’s a no brainer — get your butt out of bed earlier and you will get more stuff done. Don’t worry, I’m not one of these nutters who thinks everyone should get up at 4am and force themselves to write ten poems before breakfast… but 8.30am is not an unreasonable hour, and staying in bed till noon can only result in guilt, not enough time in the day for everything you want to do, and a messed-up sleep pattern. On that topic: trying to burn the candle at both ends and staying up til stupid o’clock trying to get stuff done is also pretty daft. Your body is just not productive at 3am, Red Bull or not. Better to get a decent night’s sleep and get up a bit earlier to work on your projects than sleeping til the afternoon and then burning the midnight oil. I usually sleep from around midnight to around 7 or 8 in the morning. I’m most productive in the evening. I manage my time around this stuff and it all seems to work. Know yourself properly in terms of when you can work intensely and when you need to sleep, and plot accordingly.
I’m always interested to hear other people’s time management tips, however loopy! So let me know what you do to keep all your own juggling balls in the air! & watch out for Part 2 soon :)