Last night at dinner I thanked Graham for being so supportive of my busy life. He took my hand and said, “Every time I tell you to take a break you just pick up three more projects. I’ve learned it’s better to keep quiet.”
It’s not that I go seeking out new projects! It’s just that there’s a lot I want to do with my life and I hate saying no to opportunities (provided they move me towards the mountain).
But I won’t lie, holding down a full day job and juggling everything else is tough. Aside from my own writing, I’ve been writing for a small indie videogame studio, I run a cover design business and a writers’ Facebook group. I’m also the marketing arm and member of the leading council for an author’s co-op. It’s a lot.
But, as I reminded my poor husband who worries for my health, I’ve always been like this. I was the kid who had some sort of creative extramural every single day after school and who took on three different jobs in third year varsity. I love being busy!
Here are some tricks I’ve learned over the years to get a lot done without getting overwhelmed or burning out.
I envy people who can remember everything they have to do. I’m not like that. I strive to be reliable, but all my memory strives for is to remind me of embarrassing events that happened ten years ago and what I was eating when I first heard a particular song. It’s not good at juggling multiple responsibilities.
So this is where the to-do list is essential.
A to-do list is different from a goal list. A goal list is about finished things. A to-do list does not involve finished things. It involves individual tasks that one day will combine to create the all-powerful goal. You’ve heard about eating an elephant, right? (Why we all use this particular gross cliche to illustrate breaking tasks into small pieces, I don’t know). You can’t do a big thing all at once, you have to do it one bite at a time.
If you’ve worked in any sort of technical corporate job, you’ve probably encountered Scrum, which is a jargon-heavy framework for team collaboration built around this very idea. I won’t go into it. Just the explanation of what it is is too jargony for me. But one thing that you do when working in Scrum is build up a “backlog” of tasks – basically a master task list of stuff that needs to get done at some stage. Only once you have the full list written down do you start dividing it into what you’re going to do now.
I’ve found this approach very helpful for managing my own stress levels and would highly recommend it. Put everything that you don’t have to do today out of your mind, but not out of reach.
I put my backlog into a program called Trello which is free for individuals, and I split it up into areas of my life. Writing gets a list, covers gets a list, etc. Each is colour-coded and the tasks with deadlines get put at the top. I also have one list for “this week” and I have one list for “done”.
Every Sunday (or sometimes on a Monday, I’m not too hard on myself with this), I drag tasks from the other lists into “this week”. And it’s pretty satisfying to drag them into “done” when they’re completed.
There are lots of similar programs you can try out. They’re called project management systems. I like Trello because it’s so simple. You’ve probably seen ads for one called Monday. I can also recommend Asana, Wrike and Basecamp, but I find these work better with teams and can be overwhelming for individual use.
This is where I use my bullet journal. I find it really satisfying to cross stuff off. At the start of every day I make a list of things to do (that also includes day job stuff and meetings/events that are happening). Again, keeping the tasks small is essential. They have to feel easy to achieve. You also have to feel free to add and remove tasks as needed. If you remove or don’t get to tasks, it can be difficult to remember to reschedule them. That’s where the Trello master list is so useful. They will still be on your “this week” list and won’t fall through the cracks!
Einstein said that time is relative and used fancy math to prove it. But all I’m gonna say is compare how quickly an hour goes when you’re watching an episode of your favourite TV show vs sitting in a meeting or lecture.
Finding hidden pockets of time
Our lives are filled with hidden pockets of time that get wasted. Some of this time is spent waiting (in line, in traffic), some of it is spent with other people (which is important if it’s people you want to spend time with!) and some of it is just spent sitting in front of the TV or on social media doing things we’re only half interested in.
We often don’t recognise these pockets of time as productivity time because they’re small or unpredictable, and our brains don’t like the idea of settling down to do important tasks in small pieces of time. However, our brains are wrong! You can achieve a lot in small pieces of time.
I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique, especially if I’m on a deadline or I’m struggling to concentrate. Basically you do focused sprints of work (with a timer) and take breaks in between. You’ll find it amazing how much you can do in simply 10 – 20 minutes if you focus all your attention on just one thing.
Multitasking is the primary reason you’ll find it difficult to get me on the phone. While my eyes are busy with cover design, I’m usually reading a book with my ears. While waiting for pasta or the laundry, I’m usually responding to emails or making social media posts. You get the idea. Certain tasks don’t play well together – when I write, I need silence for instance – but overlapping multiple tasks when possible frees up a lot of time.
This is my secret weapon, and I have mentioned it before. It’s kind of like bulk shopping. You know how most things are cheaper if you buy in bulk? Take that and apply it to your time. It takes less time for me to organise one Instagram book photo shoot and take pics for the next few weeks than it would if I found an hour every Saturday. It takes a lot less time to schedule a month’s social media posts using something like buffer than sitting down and hunting for links every day. If I’ve got a number of clients who’ve ordered 3D book mockups, it makes sense for me to create them all in one sitting while I have all the software open.
Your to-do list is probably full of these opportunities and all that you need to do is cast your eye over your backlog and figure out how to fit them together, overlap them or cram them into little time pockets. It’s fun. Kind of like doing a puzzle.
Managing my own mind
If you’re anything like me, the greatest barrier to productivity is your own mind or a little thing called procrastination. I actually wrote a whole other post about beating procrastination. It boils down to one of two things: mind gets scared, mind gets bored. So here are the tricks I use to get around that:
Make tasks small enough that they don’t intimidate you
Don’t put “write a novel” on your list. Don’t even put “write a chapter.” Put “write 100 words”. Because anyone can do that, and you won’t scare yourself out of completing it. You may find you do more once you get started. Most of the time, with writing in particular, it’s enough for me to just put down “write”. Which can mean just opening the document and having a look at the last three paragraphs if I’m having a bad day. Or it can mean writing two chapters if I’m having an amazing day. I use a grid in my bullet journal to track the days I write and I try to get as many days in a row checked off as possible. It’s a small task that is neither scary nor boring.
Don’t over commit
Try to avoid promising too much or setting too many unnecessary deadlines. The more stuff you have to do, the more reluctant you’ll be to get started. Stick to two or three tasks a day (outside of work) and you can always add more if you’re feeling up to it. It’s not a nice feeling to never reach the end of your to-do list, and it can put you off the whole to-do list thing altogether.
Make it fun
This is where the bullet journal really shines. I’m a creative, artistic person. So I get joy from colouring in little blocks (as with the writing grid I mentioned), using colourful tape and stickers, experimenting with curly writing and buying special bright pens for it. Because the act of updating my to-do list brings me joy, I’m way more likely to do it. If you don’t get the same joy out of creativity, you can try some other methods like giving yourself half an hour every morning to drink hot tea and listen to your favourite music while you write your to-do list.
Reward yourself for a job well done
Practice positive reinforcement on yourself. If you manage to get through your to-do list, get yourself a treat. If you manage to achieve a goal (through completing multiple tasks), make a big deal of it – even if the big deal is in your own head. Or throw a small party every time you get a hundred tasks done. Find a simple reward system that works for you. Remember to say thank you to yourself, it’s polite.
Keep records of when you kicked ass
Lost in the deluge of day-to-day tasks it’s easy to become bogged down with the negatives. So when you manage to achieve goals or get good feedback, write it down somewhere (I write it down in my bullet journal). When you’re feeling down, or intimidated, or bored, go back to those records for a good pep talk.
Don’t give in to negativity
Moaning about things takes time, and tasks take longer if you drag your feet. Try to remember why you’re doing the task and focus on the dreams you’re making happen.
The most important thing of all is to know when to go easy on yourself! There’s a difference between being productive and pushing yourself towards a breakdown. It’s a line that I toe all too regularly (which is why Graham worries about me). I tend to be far too hard on myself, I stay up way too late and I go into a sort of hyper-focused mania when I’m excited about something. Here are some things to remember:
Not everything on your to-do list can be super ultra important. Give yourself permission to not do some things, or move some things to another day and a better time. Sometimes time with your loved ones is more important, sometimes sitting in front of the TV and vegging out is more important. Some stuff on your to-do list doesn’t have to be there. Move it. It can wait.
Make allowances for bad days
Some days you won’t be able to push yourself. Some days you won’t feel well or your mental health will be at an all time low or you’ll just be too tired or unfocused. Try to work ahead enough that you can give yourself the day off. Absolutely everyone has bad days sometimes. It’s okay! Failing to complete a task does not make you a failure.
Get better at saying no
When time is precious, you’re entitled to protect it. Don’t agree to do things you don’t have time for, and try to get out of things you don’t enjoy or don’t want to be a part of. See the point about priorities. BFF’s 21st? You should probably be there. Random get together at the mall to see a movie you don’t want to see? It’s okay to miss it and catch up with your friends some other time. Don’t let the FOMO cost you your dreams.
Remember, it’s okay to do pointless things
Don’t feel like you have to fill up every pocket of time with something productive. You’re not a robot. You need to give yourself permission to have some down time. Play video games, go to the movies, sit in front of reality TV for a whole day if that’s what you want to do. Just because something doesn’t actively contribute to your goals, doesn’t mean it’s actively harming them either. As Graham likes to say to me: fun is productive too. It produces a sane Tallulah.
Don’t be a bad boss
Don’t treat yourself any less than you’d want to be treated by someone else. You wouldn’t stand for a boss refusing to let you take breaks, making you work all night or denying your sick leave. So don’t take that from yourself either.