Two topics I return to over and over in The Tending Year are self development and productivity.
Although on the surface they may seem disconnected, they blend together to help me to find balance in my busy life as a graduate student and blogger who works three jobs and has chronic pain.
I’ve been wondering if my energy and labor output are really enabling me to live the life I want to live, so I decided to spend last week monitoring how I spent my time. I practiced monitoring my time and money spending way back in week 10′s post on Conscious Input & Output, but I return to it now because
- a lot of things have shifted in the last 36 weeks (can it really be that long?!), and
- I want to feel in control and optimistic about hitting some big deadlines on my horizon.
Keep reading after the jump to learn how Monitoring 2.0 went, what I learned, and how you can adapt my process to make more intentional output choices when it comes to your own productivity + self development goals.
My Monitoring Method
I started last week monitoring by hand on a print out of Gretchen Rubin’s Daily Time Log. I switched over to using a Google Sheet because I need to be able to type more than I could write in the little boxes (on reflection, this is likely because I often did two things in one time period, like laundry and blogging). I filled out the boxes throughout the day with notes about what I had done during each half hour block.
Here’s a look at part of my Wednesday:
I also used the bottom of the monitoring sheet to take notes on reflections I had throughout the day in response to how I was spending my time. Here’s a sample of that:
What Did I Learn?
I learned that there are things that I like to do at particular times, things that I really don’t like to do at particular times, and things that I should probably stop doing entirely or at least reserve for particular times.
Below, I walk you through how that looked for two of my primary tasks (dissertating and blogging), and I share interesting findings about three time sucks that I encountered.
I batch my days, which means I reserve certain tasks for certain days. The point of this is to give myself permission to not work on all of the things every day. I usually do pretty well (thank you, Must-Do Method!), but sometimes I let things like Instagramming or errands interfere with my dissertation days. As you can see in the above picture of my Wednesday monitoring, I did an early morning writing session and then did another 1.5 hours of dissertation work later in the afternoon. Not bad, except I want to spend most if not all of 12-5pm on Wednesdays on my dissertation. I chose to do an Instagram live on Lisa Ben (the subject of my dissertation!) because I care about her a lot and it was her birthday, so I don’t want to beat myself up about that one, but I do want to stay aware of what I allow myself to do in place of dissertating on Wednesdays.
How to Dissertate with More Intention: Block out time
I already had an inkling, but last week proved it to me: my ideal dissertation work time is between 7-10am. I move right from my bed to my kitchen table (still in my pajamas!) and dive in enthusiastically, cheered on by a hot cup of coffee. I am focused, clear-minded, and optimistic, and it feels phenomenal to check “dissertated” off my to do list before 10am.
I can only do 7-10am dissertation work on Wednesdays and Fridays this semester, but after school ends in mid-December I intend to rearrange my office manager and writing advising hours so that I can reserve at least 7-9am Monday through Friday for my dissertation. This will require some scheduling sacrifices like doing remote advising hours later in the days or on Fridays, but the benefit will be dedicated time to dissertate when I know I am at my best.
Blogging is something that falls into a weird gray area. Is it work? Is it play? Is it self care? Is it an investment in building my skillset? Is it a combination of all of these things? The answer to all five of those questions is yes, which is both exciting and dangerous, in that I sometimes forget that blogging = labor.
In just this last week, I spent around 15 hours on blogging.
I am able to distribute some of my blogging tasks throughout the week:
- listening to podcasts and audiobooks while I commute or do errands,
- reading blog posts, books, or articles for research,
- posting on Instagram,
- creating Canva images,
- jotting notes in my blog notebook or recording voice memos when I get an idea for the current post or a future post, and
- finding an hour or two to write a blog outline.
There are only a few things that I reserve for specific days:
- I spend around 5 hours writing and revising my posts on Monday evenings,
- I spend 1+ hours on Tuesday mornings doing final revisions, and
- I spend a half hour to one hour posting my blog on my website, Instagram, and Facebook throughout the day on Tuesday.
How to Blog with More Intention: Space the writing and revision process out over the whole week vs. doing it all in 1-2 days.
Even though I spend the whole week researching and practicing a particular topic and taking notes, I usually don’t sit down to write the post that you read each week until Monday evening. Mondays are batched for commuting, working as an office manager, and blogging. Although that schedule usually works smoothly, it can be made difficult by chronic pain flareups, which I experienced on and off all day yesterday.
A doable solution is to intentionally spread out those 5-6 hours of writing and revision throughout the week. If I dedicate even a half hour every other day to working on content, I’ll experience a real shift in how I spend my Mondays and Tuesdays.
Time Sucks: Two Bad and One Okay-in-the-right-context
Three things caused me to fall out of my intended time-spent-well groove last week:
- reading the news on my iPhone News app and on Facebook,
- researching my chronic pain (“Web-MDing”), and
- reading webcomics on Instagram.
The problem with the first two things is that they never actually make me feel better.
News: Although I believe it is my personal responsibility to stay updated on important things in the news, it is very easy for me to tip over from well-informed to obsessive. Once I read a news story about something that worries me, I seek out more news stories on the topic or bop from one topic to the next to the next, constantly searching for resolution. I rarely find the comfort I am searching for; in fact, I often feel too distracted to transition my focus back into the things I should be doing.
Web-MDing: Researching health and chronic pain symptoms—or “Web-MDing”—has the same effect on me. Since I still don’t have an actual diagnosis for my chronic pain, I sometimes try to research my symptoms and self-diagnose myself. (I know it’s not good for my mental health, but I imagine that this is a very common move for others with mysterious chronic pain, too.) I liken it to filling a bucket with a hole in the bottom: it never actually comforts me, and I get stuck in an unhealthy pattern that sucks up my time and drains my mood.
Once I realized what I was doing, I chose to cut myself off. I deleted the News app from my phone (on iPhone: swipe left on the lock screen, scroll to the bottom, click “edit,” and remove what you don’t want to see) and I subscribed to the New York Times podcast “The Daily” for a limited breakdown of the news once a day. I admit that I have yet to listen to it (out of similar fears that I mentioned above), although I appreciate that it is an intentionally limited foray into the news of the day. I also admitted to my Sweetie that I was Web-MDing, which prompted me to share with her what was really feeling: sad and scared. We ended up talking about it and I actually did feel better, because what I really needed was validation and comfort—not WebMD-induced hopelessness.
Webcomics: I really resonate with this thing that Alanis Morrisette once said on her podcast: we addicts often check in with ourselves when we notice we want to do something a lot because we want to be sure we aren’t addicted to it. I don’t think that I’m addicted to webcomics, but I can very easily lose an hour to scrolling and smiling (and sometimes actually LOLing) at them, sprawled out on my bed, usually pre- or post-bath, so sometime between 6-8pm or 10-11pm. It’s important to note that I’m doing this later in the day, as a way to chill out and intentionally shift out of “work mode.” Could my time be better spent doing a craft by hand or reading a book or knitting? Probably. But I’m an introvert, and sometimes I just want to zone out and read cute cartoons or watch videos of pigeons with little emojis imposed over them so it looks like they’re carrying around purses. As long as I’m not putting reading Instagram webcomics over doing important work or healing tasks, I think it’s okay to sometimes intentionally go down that hole.
PS: Some of my favorites (many of which are bird themed, I notice) are Liz Climo, Chuck Draws Things, Art by Moga, Pigeons by Nathan, Poorly Drawn Lines, and False Knees. Feel free to share your faves with me!
Monitor Your Time
If you’d like to try monitoring, here’s a sample of my online Google Sheet! It’s publicly editable, so please first download it or copy and paste it into your own Google Sheet or Excel file before you start filling it out.
To really get the most out of it, set aside some time to update it throughout the day and be sure to make use of the Reflections section at the bottom of each day. Use it as a guide to get to know your patterns and your preferences!
Make Your Time Work for You
One of the most common questions I ask my advising clients is “When and where do you get your best work done?”
Think of a recent memory where you felt really focused, in flow, and proud of the work you were doing. Identify what exactly about that experience felt so wonderful: write a list, write a paragraph, or talk it out to a friend. As I said above, mine is between 7-10am at my kitchen table, in pajamas, with coffee.
Once you’ve identified your sweet spot for productivity, see if you can prioritize doing the work that is of highest personal priority to you in that time and space.
You might not be able to make a huge shift right now, but see if you can start shifting with just an hour or a day a week, or see if you can bring something from your sweet spot (coffee, silence, working near people, a particular playlist, warmth, sunlight, etc.) to those priority sessions. The goal is for you to enable yourself to feel your best while you’re doing your best!
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.
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