A few days ago I posted about the tools I use to stop my life from descending into disorganised chaos and ensure that I remember to do basic things like feed myself properly, and also stay on top of academic deadlines.
Today I’m honing in on how I create a routine for days when I have no externally-imposed structure. I do not do well with unstructured time. Give me an entirely free day without any specified tasks and I am likely to spend it in my pyjamas, eating toast and biscuits and watching catchup TV on my laptop. Obviously that isn’t a very good way to get things done. It’s fine on the odd occasion, but for various health-related reasons I’m currently only going into university for a day and a half each week, so I had to find a way to make sure I actually got round to some constructive studying on the days I was officially “working from home”. My tutors are very supportive, but I think even their tolerance would fail to encompass a month’s worth of vegetating. Plus it would drive me to a pit of stinky, malnourished depression.
So! A two-pronged attack. Firstly I added a couple of new Daily tasks to my HabitRPG list: get dressed (I fought fiercely against my dad’s insistence on this when I was a child, but now I concede that it makes a huge difference to productivity), and eat a proper home-cooked meal. Toast doesn’t count. I also added a Habit for getting dressed within 1 hour of waking up, to ensure I get started on my day before dusk rolls in.
With those frankly very basic foundations laid, I set about constructing a routine to sit on top. Schedules don’t really work for me. During my last degree I did timetable my days very tightly, even specifying when I would brush my teeth or reply to emails, because I was often so ridiculously busy that it was the only way to fit everything in. These days I live a more sensible life so I can acknowledge my natural tendency to rebel against being told to do something at a specific time. Instead, I prefer to plan the order I’ll tackle my day’s tasks in, so that I can easily move on from one to another without the risk of distraction sneaking in while I’m deciding what to do next.
Trello is brilliant for this, because you can list all the things you need to do and then move them around until they are in a sensible order. As you can see from the image, I have a list for today’s jobs, a list for academic work that needs to be done in the near future, and a list of household-related chores I need to remember about. The academic work cards were shuffled around into an order that’s partly influenced by urgency, partly by the availability of necessary resources, and partly by the amount of brain power each one will require.
I had already decided that I should be able to do at least three hours of concentrated work today, so I created six Pomodoro cards (each Pomodoro lasts 25 minutes, as timed by the little Tomighty app on my taskbar). I also knew I needed to do laundry, which involves multiple trips up and down the stairs and the surprisingly time-consuming task of draping the wet clothes around my flat in the hopes they might dry some time this week. I wanted to space out the longer breaks (meals, hanging up the laundry, watching this week’s episode of Waterloo Road on iPlayer) so I reorganised the cards until it looked manageable.
What you can’t see from that list is that I am currently writing this blog post in between Pomodoro number 4 and Laundry hung up; the wet items are sitting in the basket patiently waiting for my attention. After two hours of concentration I found I couldn’t face reading about septic shock or miscarriage without a longer break. So an extra task snuck in there. But no need to despair: because I haven’t set specific times for each task, I am not tempted to throw up my hands and declare the entire schedule ruined by an unplanned break, so all I have to do once the clothes are finally drying is start the next Pomodoro and keep plodding through the list!