I’ve always been a person who very much needs routine. I thrive creatively in chaos, but never actually accomplish anything unless I am so over-scheduled that I have no choice but to get shit done. I’m a full-time student, which means taking the same classes every damn day for 16 weeks at a time, and I’ve also been a nanny for many years now, which gives me a pretty regular working schedule five days a week. In my life, I have gotten used to always having things I have to do at certain times, and leaving myself only a small window of chaos for planning fun activities around my almost excessively structured schedule. Although some people don’t love being scheduled down to the very last second of their day, I truly feel most productive when my life is like this. However, this all changed dramatically in recent months.
During my last semester, I was on an overload course schedule of 18 credits, and worked every day once I left campus. That meant that five days a week, I knew exactly where I was going to be every second of every single weekday: awake at the crack of dawn to do yoga and shower, driving to school by 7:00am, in class until 1:00pm, then working until 6:00pm or later. From the time I left work on for the rest of the night, every minute was dedicated to homework (and occasionally binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy). I had my schedule planned and structured almost to a fault.
This all changed once summer hit. I ended my busy semester, but enrolled in online summer classes, (because god forbid I miss a dang second of learning!) which are structured in a way where I have only one or two deadlines for assignments throughout the entire course, and therefore need to schedule myself entirely without any strict daily or weekly assignment deadlines. I also started as media fellow for TFD around the same time, meaning that I now had a job to do that was structured in a way that gave me a reasonable amount of freedom to decide the hours I was going to work on writing.
These changes meant adjusting my way of life dramatically. Instead of having to be awake, alert, showered, and ready for my day before 7:00am, I now was hardly even expected to leave my bed in the morning if I didn’t want to, provided that I got all of my work done. In terms of school, this type of freedom tends to lead me to an exceptional amount of procrastination. I am ridiculously on top of my school work and would never in my life miss a single deadline – but I do feel like I kind of need that deadline pushing me to get the work done. If I have an assignment that I know is due a day or two from when it was assigned, I’ll do it immediately. I sometimes will start it before even leaving the classroom. But when a professor tells me that we have 13 journal entries to write over the course of a semester, and they are all due on the day of the final exam, my ass will put those suckers off until the night before the exam. What can I say? I’m flawed.
In order to prevent myself from procrastinating, I had to come up with a series of work-specific practices to make sure I actually kept my shit together once my schedule switched to being entirely from home. These five things helped me make sure that I didn’t let everything pile up until the last possible second, and didn’t allow my flexible schedule to make me lazy to the point of being unproductive.
1. Writing lists. So many freaking Lists.
Home Goods is one of the most important places on planet earth for many reasons, one of them being the fat To-Do List notepad I bought there for under $5. It has about 200 small sheets of lined paper complete with little checkboxes for me to mark off my accomplishments on my list throughout the day. I write one every night with a list of everything I need to do the next day, and leave it out on my desk so it is never out of my sight. I’m 100% convinced this is the only reason I actually get anything done, ever.
2. Multitasking. (Seriously.)
I know everyone likes to say that multitasking is bad. I’m sure there’s a lot of research out there proving that it cuts down productivity or whatever. But as hard as I’ve tried to actively single-task, I can never seem to actually get the output I’m hoping for. I’ve found that, although it isn’t exactly easy to multitask in certain ways, like talking on the phone while trying to take an online quiz for class, or reading a book while trying to write a TFD post, there are other ways that actually help me focus and increase my productivity. Sometimes, putting a sitcom rerun I’ve seen a hundred times while trying to write an essay gives me something to laugh at during my moments of writer’s block, and actually prevents my mind from wandering to a place much further than Netflix. I also find that if I have two different assignments or tasks to accomplish at once, jumping back and forth between the two sometimes helps me stay actively engaged in each one, rather than focusing all of my attention on one and stressing myself out so much that I give up.
3. Having a physical calendar.
I’m not sure if I’m the only one, but I am entirely stressed out and confused by the iPhone calendar. I know a lot of people who swear by scheduling their lives electronically, but for some reason, I miss every single date and deadline I program into my phone rather than writing it down on an actual piece of paper. I have a good old fashioned monthly calendar hanging right above my desk, where I can write in big block letters exactly what I have to do at exactly what time on exactly what day of the week. Seeing it visually helps me place it in my mind-calendar, so I’m way less likely to forget. The calendar also happens to live directly above the To-Do List notepad I mentioned earlier. Seeing all of my daily and weekly tasks written twice – once in list form and once laid out visually on the calendar – helps me to really absorb it all and make sure I never miss a single blessed date.
4. Having a morning “getting ready” routine, even though I’m staying home.
I tried waking up and doing my work in the morning without even changing out of my dinosaur pajamas, but it just doesn’t work. Until I’ve brushed my hair and teeth, consumed a generous amount of coffee, and put on some real street clothes, I am truly not fit to be a contributing member of society, even if I’m just logging on to my computer. Instead of setting my alarm for a decent hour, then just opening my laptop and beginning the daily grind from my way-too-comfy bed, I’ve set up a routine similar to the one I had when I had to be on campus every day. I wake up early and give myself a good cushion of time to work out, shower, eat breakfast, and remind myself that I am, in fact, a human being.
5. Taking (somewhat) intellectually stimulating breaks – often.
It is easy for me to get distracted by all of my stuff when I’m working from my bedroom. This means taking a decent amount of breaks each time I remember that I have internet access, or a puppy, or a television, or anything else fun I find to distract myself with. I’ve found that my need for little breaks is hugely real, but if I find less mindless activities to do during those breaks, I’m more likely to actually get back to my work immediately after. Example: I mustn’t ever allow myself to get sucked into Twitter during the day when I’m trying to get real stuff done. However, if I reach for the dog-eared copy of whatever book I’m reading at the moment and allow myself to breeze through a chapter, I have a hard end to my break when the chapter ends, and usually jump right back into working or studying. I also take a lot of hydration breaks. I get lethargic as heck if I’m not sipping on something at all times. I also find seltzer bubbles to be a really good way to keep myself alert when I start to get bored and nod off.
I’m still figuring out how to most effectively manage my own schedule and make sure that I’m on top of my game at all times. I don’t exactly have a perfect system yet (I sometimes decide it is a good idea to paint my nails while trying to type something, and then realize that is dangerous for both my assignment quality and my MacBook keyboard) but the point is that I’m trying. Some people are innately organized and on top of their junk 24/7, and I will never be one of them. But with all of these to-do lists and calendars at my disposal, I could definitely have the world fooled.
Mary is the summer Media Fellow at The Financial Diet. Send her your summer intern stories (your lessons, failures, triumphs and good advice) at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image via Pixabay