Find the Time to Be Productive

We’re all busy. Once you reach a certain age, it becomes nearly impossible to do anything above and beyond THE MOUNTAIN of adult responsibilities facing you. You’ve got to take out the trash, cook dinner, mow the lawn, fix the kids’ lunches, do your laundry, and check your email that one last time, all before calling it a day. How in the hell could you possibly find time to do anything else?

The truth is, “finding the time” to do what you want in addition to what you must is one of the most difficult aspects of trying to get ahead of the usual rat race. HOWEVER, if you want to live the life you choose instead of the one that chooses you, you’ve got to take some time — preferably every day— in order to find your passion or just relieve yourself of the feeling that you’re always behind and struggling.

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You can find a way to get the ball rolling on becoming more productive without working 24/7, too. No need to transform into a guru, either. Just a few tips to start the process, and sooner than later, you’ll start to feel like you’re moving in the direction that makes you happiest. Below, I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks I find to be helpful to getting things done, and since I’m on a lifelong quest, this article will be consistently updated as I discover new techniques for what David Allen might call GTD. So, without further ado, here we go.

Figure Out What You Want To Do

Plenty of people have a vague and overly idealistic concept of what it is they want out of life. However, sitting down and honing in on that single thing is HUGELY important to being able to create a plan for tackling it. If you want to become a best-selling author, maybe start by thinking “I want to write.” If your goal is to master your inbox, then let that be your guiding force.

See, you can’t accomplish something if you don’t know what it is, and though you may have a general sense of what would make you happiest, if you haven’t identified your goal, you can’t work toward it. This is what I refer to in my own mind sometimes as “duh advice.” Of COURSE you should do this, and you might be thinking, “Be a little less obvious,” but you wouldn’t believe how many people I talk to don’t know what it is they want to do with their lives. It’s as if they haven’t actually thought about it. Do yourself a favor and get into Soul Searching Mode (which may require you to bellow it out like  the theme to a groovy dance show from the 70s), and you’ll be the better for it.

I also suggest you put it into writing. It can be in a digital GDoc you create for yourself, a notebook you pick up at Office Depot, or a Sticky Note taped to the front of your computer monitor. But the first decision in changing anything is recognizing what it is you are going to change.

Make a List of Steps Toward Your Goal

Okay, so you want to make a Shera costume for Comic Con or design a board game about flesh-eating action figures. (These are your dreams, after all.) You can’t just sit down at 5 a.m. and start cutting away at fabric. You’ll need to set some mini-goals within your big goal to be able to visualize the scope of this thing.

When I first started writing, I thought the whole “becoming a best-seller” part would be a piece of cake once I finally got through the first draft of the manuscript. My writing plan consisted of two very distinct but hapless steps, much like what I’ve written here:

  1. Write book
  2. Sell millions of copies
  3. Retire to a mansion in LA

At the time, I thought the writing was the only part I needed to worry about and that the other stuff would take care of itself. I had no idea that I might need to write book synopses or query agents or even hire an editor to get my manuscript in tip-top shape. I just thought I was talented enough to become a novelist, and it was the dream of becoming a writer that got me to the point of writing a book.

The obvious point there is, I had the drive to do it initially, so maybe I have some inherent drive, but the truth is that I should have taken a step back to recognize what I needed to do in order to get the book done, let alone edit / sell it. A revised list might look like this:

  1. Write the book (This is the easy part)
  2. Write a killer query letter
  3. Revise the book
  4. Hire an editor
  5. Attend conferences; have an agent read / critique your work
  6. Revise
  7. Revise
  8. Revise
  9. Research agents willing to take unsolicited work / new authors

…And on and on and on. I could make a list of literally hundreds of steps that lead to a published book, but it wouldn’t help your anxiety in reading this article.

Plus, you don’t have to make a list of one hundred (or more!) steps. All you need to do is make a few steps that lead to your goal, whatever that goal may be. Once you get into the groove, you’ll likely want to make a few more steps along the way.

Find the Time to be Productive

So far in this article, I’ve talked a lot about things other than finding the time to be productive. But productivity is a mindset. Most people who are productive procrastinate because they haven’t found the thing they need to do, the next thing in their line. If you know what it is you are going to do, then you can jump right into doing it.

But time is “what we want most and what we use worst,” said William Penn. We only have 168 hours in a single week, and very often we hold the time we do have in low esteem. We check FaceBook, Instagram, Snapchat. We go onto Reddit and surf Google News. We “wind down” from a long day at the office with a couple of beers and the Braves game, and, hey, I’m in the same boat. I love horror movies and my PS4 like I love my left arm. I come home tired and wanting nothing more than some couch time.

What I do, though, instead of use all my non-working time to relax is designate some time to do the things I want to do. I don’t forgo dinner or wake up crazy early or even work during my lunch breaks, and I’ve managed to publish two books in two years (and write two other as-yet unpublished novels), record or post nearly one hundred podcast episodes, teach full-time, and work part-time as a cheese maker.

Without belaboring the point, let’s move on to actually finding the time to get that the board game designed (or costume made or whatever you want)! And let’s also establish a realistic timetable here, too. You work a forty hour week, 9-5 most weeks, unless some big project is coming up. You have a significant other at home and the normal chores. You think you have zero time to get anything personal done, and maybe you’re right. But let’s take a look.

Ask yourself a few questions here:

  • I like my phone, but am I using it to fill time instead of be productive?
  • Reddit [or Twitter or Instagram or SnapChat] is great, but do I spend way too much time on it?
  • I love the Braves, but do I need to watch every minute of every home game?

Maybe even take a week to do what you probably did in high school with food and track your hours. Map out when you sleep, when you work, when you exercise and when you surf the web. Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, has a wonderful spreadsheet on her web site for you to download, if you want to go whole hog on it. (And I’d suggest you do.)

It may sound asinine to go into every hour of your day and mark off the hours you spend checking your fantasy football stats or flipping through your Twitter feed. It might even make you a little sick to your stomach, but if you want to make some real change in your life, it’s a step you may have to make.

You may find that you take waaaaay too long to get ready in the morning, or that you spend an hour-and-a-half on the internet after work. You might think it’s valuable. You might think it gives you happiness and provide your life with some meaning, but it’s probably more likely that you’d easily sacrifice at least some of it in order to make some strides in your personal life.

This time is yours. You can use it how you like, but keep in mind the old nugget: “Lost time is never found again.” If you’re on this page, you’re here for a reason. So, no matter how much you like the new GTA game or Game of Thrones — and I love both A LOT — you might slowly be coming to realize that turning them off for an hour a night might actually give you back some of your life.

Here are some times I’ve found to be successful for me to be productive:

  • Waking up an hour early to “Eat that Frog.” It might take some getting used to, but you’ll prevent a lot of unnecessary stress by getting THAT THING done right off the bat.
  • Taking an hour right when you get home from work to work on THAT THING before settling into your evening routine. You might be able to bargain with your SO to have that time for yourself.
  • Using that hour just before bed to create a routine for yourself. Stephen King wrote the majority of ‘Carrie’ on a typewriter in the laundry room of his home after his wife, Tabitha, and son had gone to bed. I write just before I go to bed, because I find my imagination to be most productive then.

Making Time Work For You

Now, you’ve wedged out some time for yourself. How do you make it productive for yourself? The easy part is over. Getting down in that chair and doing to work — or going outside and doing it — can prove to be the most difficult aspect of this whole situation. There are a thousand excuses to do a thousand other things, and each one of them sounds as tempting as the last, so long as you don’t have to do WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING right now.

However, life’s not that easy, so you’ve got to start small. If you’re having trouble getting started, here are a few tips:

  • Start Small. Set a timer for 10 minutes. If you don’t feel like working after that 600 seconds, stop. You’ve made an in-road you can pick up tomorrow. However, if you keep working, then hey, the system is working out for you.
  • Start by getting everything out of your head. Or, if you’re working on your email, for example, maybe start by answering that one email that’s been on your mind for a few days. That will break the dam of your creativity more quickly than you think it will.
  • Reward yourself for a job well done. If you accomplish a minor goal, treat yourself to some ice cream or a night of binge-watching ‘The Night Of.’ I once heard that Bruce Springsteen said to celebrate the small victories. You won’t remember the happiness of your successes if you don’t take a moment to remind yourself that you’re on the right track.

…And that’s kind of it, for now. I’m going to continue updating this page whenever I feel like I have more to say, but for the time being, go out and do THAT THING you’ve been dreaming about.

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