Staying focused is important—and hard. My biggest faults in this area are procrastinating, getting distracted during worktime, and taking on too much and getting overwhelmed (especially when I’m supposed to be writing). Case in point: I probably should have started this entry an hour ago.
As I’ve talked about before, structured Day Jobs make it easier to get things done because they provide goals, timelines, set environments to work in, and incentives to get things done, since not getting our Day Job work done tends to get us in trouble with the boss. But as creative people who work at our own pace, we don’t have anyone to build that structure for us and have to do a lot of it ourselves , which makes life hard.
Structure makes it about a million times easier to turn vague goals into real ones, but as always, everybody’s different and has to structure their working lives differently to stay motivated. A while ago I talked to Paul Hanson Clark about his stacks of To-Do cards that help him structure his day, so I figured I’d share my own system to give people some ideas.
I use a hardbacked moleskine At-A-Glance planner with one week spread over two pages and empty squares for each day. The hard cover makes it more durable for carrying it around in a bag, and the elastic keeps the pages from flopping around. I don’t mind hyping this planner here even though At-A-Glance isn’t paying me, since this one’s legitimately better than cheaper planners I’ve used in the past. I wholeheartedly recommend you use whatever planner works best for you, though, and that fits your budget.
The cover of my current planner came with some wrinkles on it (probably from shipping), though I decided not to return it since my books tend to go through a lot of tear anyway. I also tend to cover them with stickers, both for style and so I can differentiate between books from different years, though I’ve kept 2017’s clean so I could do this review ;-)
The bookmark ribbon is classy, though I tend not to use it since I usually just keep the current week open on my desk. This works because the binding’s strong enough to keep the pages open without much trouble, especially after you’ve flattened them. Pressing down on the current week’s page also makes it more likely to spring open when you undo the elastic, which makes it easy to keep your place.
Each week spreads out over two pages, with an open area for each day and an extra notetaking space at the end. I like the empty areas better than lined areas because I tend to have more things to do in a day than there are lines in a regular planner, and I don’t care if the empty spaces make my writing come out crooked or too large.
Having full days for Saturdays and Sundays is also helpful (a lot of planners split weekends between one day-sized square), since I usually do a lot of work on weekends and can use the extra space.
I start each week by making two lists in the lower Notes area. One’s a list of active, bigger projects I’m working on, and the other I use for smaller To-Do items. I put bigger, more creative projects like “Finish Novel Draft” or “Do interview with X” in the Active Projects category, while smaller tasks like “Change Kitchen Bulb,” “Buy New Belt” and “E-mail X Person about Y Thing” go in the To-Do list. Both lists usually have a mix of creative stuff, paid work stuff, and life stuff—for example, if I’m editing a longer manuscript, I’ll put that in the Active Projects list.
It’s helpful to keep the two lists separate so that the To-Do stuff doesn’t overcrowd everything and I can focus on bigger picture items easily. Rewriting both lists each week also helps me remember them better, especially as I add things and cross them out.
Now comes the important part. Every day, after getting ready and eating breakfast but before anything else, I pull out my schedule book and make a list of what I’m going to do that day. I do this EVERY SINGLE DAY I have independent work to do, as a kind of promise that I’m going to try my hardest to do all the things on the day’s list. I try to be realistic in my daily goals but also shoot high, since anything I don’t get to can be pushed back to later. I also make the day’s list even if I’ve got a full Day Job workday ahead, since knowing I have stuff to do in the few hours after work prevents after-work slacking.
Before I started the schedule book system, I used to get overwhelmed at the seemingly BILLIONS of things I had to do, so that even when I was relaxing I’d be fretting about those invisible things and whether I’d forget them before they got done. Writing daily lists helps me hone in on just that day’s tasks, so I can leave everything else for another day knowing I won’t forget it. This gives me more control and ultimately makes me feel more relaxed.
I check tasks off as I finish them, usually right away to instill a sense of accomplishment. I used to scribble things off entirely, but I found that I liked looking back on what I’d done that day, with the added bonus that I could also look back on what I did on, say, June 16, 2014.
If I don’t finish something for whatever reason, I draw a box around it, making it easy to spot and reminding me that it still has to be done. The formula’s simple: More Boxes = Less Productivity (or setting goals that were too high), which motivates me to push harder, while More Checkmarks = More Productivity, which brings me more confidence.
I also use the planner for things scheduled in advance (appointments, Day Job shifts, meetings with friends, etc.), since my schedule varies from week to week and I can’t possibly track it all mentally. I tend not to use the large monthly blocks and instead stick to the week-by-week pages, since I can just flip through them to see what I have going on.
The schedule book system works really well for me, and I recommend you try something like it—especially if you find yourself juggling a lot of smaller tasks like I do. The routine of writing each day’s list and the physical book adds a set structure to my life, since without them I’d just be dashing between a whole bunch of different things as I thought of them, leaving me more confused and overwhelmed.
This is just my specific system, so feel free to tweak it to suit your own strengths and weaknesses. Or, maybe reading this will motivate you to fine-tune your own system or make it more consistent—but either way, I can’t recommend an organizational system enough.
Have a setup that works for you that you’d like to share? Let me know in the Comments below!