Creating a Focused Schedule

We have a lot more free time than we think. Even very busy people have favorite TV shows, or make time for Facebook, Twitter, personal email and the like. But one reason we feel like we don’t have free time is that in our distracted society, leisure moments come in disjointed chunks. 

How do we solve this problem, and seize these chunks of time for recreation? One approach is to start thinking about using “bits of time for bits of joy.” Make two lists of things you enjoy doing:

  • One of things that take 30-60 minutes
  • One of things that take less than 10 minutes

That way, whenever a spot of leisure appears, you can do one of these, rather than stewing.

That will solve part of this problem. But ultimately, the best defense is a good offense — and I think that we can do a lot to eliminate the disjointedness, both in our leisure time and at work. With free time, this often means scheduling in big stuff: putting that canoeing trip on the calendar. With work, it means being strategic about our schedules. Here’s what I try to do.

First, I identify which important projects will require longish stretches of uninterrupted work. Usually, this means writing a column or book chapter or feature.

Second, I jealously guard open spaces in my calendar. If I have a choice of when to schedule phone calls for a day, I’ll try to put them in the afternoon, stacked as close together as possible. Often, my phone calls involve interviewing people, and so I need to think through questions and prep, and so these involve a lot of mental energy. It’s hard to focus on writing projects around that. The holy grail is to get all of my phone calls or meetings on 2-3 days per week, so the other 2 are completely free.

Third, on these open days or (more usually) mornings, I tune out. I try to turn my email program off to fight the temptation to go check. Because, let’s face it. As soon as you check email, you find that someone’s sent you a note on Facebook. You go check it out, then read the feed, then comment, then follow three other links and…. hey! Where did my open morning go?

I recognize that, working for myself, I have a certain leeway in creating a focused schedule. But people come up with ways to do this in offices too. One great, if underused method, is to work from home two days a week, and make those the focused days, and the other three the collaborative days. A more usual approach is to come in earlier than other people, and use the early hours to focus. If the office thins out over lunch, this is another option, though lunch is also a good time to get a workout in, or establish better social ties in your office, so you don’t want to do this every day.

Sometimes, the best approach is the obvious one. I remember a colleague who would tape a sign on her door saying “Reporter on deadline! Please do not disturb!” Fool proof? Of course not. But it made people think twice about interrupting her focused schedule.

3 thoughts on “Creating a Focused Schedule

  1. I use a similar strategy of trying to batch phone calls and meetings so that I have chunks of time during the rest of the week for focused work. That way I can be in socializing “mode” when I have lots of meetings and in thinking mode when I need to get stuff done. I think people underestimate the cost of switching from task to task. It’s one reason I don’t like to accept small assignments — it’s much more efficient to have bigger gigs even though they take more time.

    1. @Katherine – exactly. This was the point I was making on my tax receipts in an earlier post. Even though it doesn’t take much time, opening the spreadsheet and logging only a few receipts feels like it takes a lot of mental energy — deciding to do it, then doing it, etc. I’m trying to get better at batching lots of things. Pre-scheduling blog posts and doing lots of them at the same time, for instance.

  2. @Laura, glad you reminded me of the 2 lists I had made. I have to find them. I have also started batching phone calls, errands etc. It gives me those larger chunks you are talking about.
    As you know my husband has to switch his work hours in the Fall when I return to work, and he is unhappy about it. I have finally convinced him (as you have often suggested) that since he is a salaried worker, he can log on before the kids wake up, do breakfast and bus, and then go into the office. If need be, he can log on after bedtime to see what has been done after he leaves at his regular (currently earlier) time.

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