Posted in Personal life

Springing into Action

(First published in the Tetbury Advertiser’s May issue)

Dusters on a shelf with hazard sign
Who knew dusting could be this dangerous?

The unseasonably warm weather after Easter makes me buck up my ideas about housework, a topic  never front-of-mind for me. With spring sunshine streaming through smudgy windows, I can no longer pretend that it’s fairy-dust adorning the piano.

I brace myself to brandish a duster and head for the under-sink cupboard. First task: awaken the cleaning materials from hibernation. Second task: dust the can of polish. Continue reading “Springing into Action”

Posted in Writing

My New Time Management Trick

For the start of the new academic year, a new post outlining a way of using school timetable methods to manage an adult’s workload

Photo of Laura in her new school uniform
Maybe a smart uniform would make me feel more efficient

Enviously examining my daughter’s beautiful school journal, provided by her new secondary school to help pupils manage their school timetable, homework and extra-curricular activities, I realised that I’ve been missing an obvious trick for my own time management: using an academic diary to manage my workload.

If, like me, you work from home, or just want to get more out of the hours in your day, I hope my new time management plan, outlined below, will help you.

My Working Day

During my many years of marching to the beat of an employer’s drum, I often had to complete time-sheets to demonstrate how many hours I’d worked on various client contracts. Now those days are behind me, and I have the luxury of working full time from home. My natural antipathy to housework ensures I’m not tempted to leave my desk other than for a mid-morning tea-break and lunch, scheduled to ensure I stretch and breathe, and to reassure my retired husband that I haven’t forgotten his existence.

The pattern of my working day is geared around my eleven-year-old daughter’s school timetable. Since she started secondary school (high school) last week, I’ve gained an extra hour, as she leaves homes nearly an hour earlier than when she was attending the village school. It’s as if the clocks have gone back an hour: I’m normally at my desk by 8am.

Everyone tells me that as children get older they need you more, rather than less, so I take time out when Laura gets home to talk to her about her day, supervise homework and take her to evening activities (flute lessons, Guides, Youth Club, Stagecoach and tea at Grandma’s – phew!) But I can usually grab an hour or two of time in the evening after she’s gone to bed.

My To-Do List

A combination of regular paid work, short-term contracts, public speaking gigs and speculative personal writing projects means my workload is busy and varied, and I’m never, ever bored, but trying to squeeze such a mixed agenda into a fixed time-frame is challenging. It can be frustrating to feel that I’ve worked all hours, cutting corners on sleep, without achieving all that I need to do. As a result, my to-do lists can often be classed as works of fiction. I’m also conscious that I should be getting more exercise, and would like to squeeze in a thirty-minute daily walk.

It’s a classic problem for self-employed creative types: to be full of ideas, enthusiasm and energy, but to fail on the practical side, overpromising and underdelivering. Even if your only client is yourself, rather than a paid customer, as when you’ve committed to yourself to write a short story or novel, it can be disheartening, and end up sapping your creativity as well as your income.

My New Plan

I’m therefore uplifted by by new plan, which is to follow the structure and principles of a typical school timetable to make the finite number of hours more productive:

  • start with a grid of available time slots, broken down into short segments that match a realistic concentration span (no more than two hours each)
  • create a list of “subjects” (e.g. blog posts, articles, fiction or non-fiction writing projects, contract work, planning, financial management)
  • allocate an appropriate number of periods per week to each subject, according to their priority (writing projects every day, financial management weekly)
  • schedule the slots into a grid in a varied pattern that reflects when the different parts of my brain work best (creative writing first thing, admin later in the day)
  • include some free time for rest and refreshment (mid-morning playtime, sociable lunch break)
  • allow some free periods for contingency e.g. for rescheduling an activity if I need to go out for an appointment during its allocated time slot (I usually go out at least once a week to meet an author friend for coffee or to take a brief for a new contract)

I’m resisting the urge to dash out to the shops now and buy a shiny new academic year diary, complete with timetable to fill in. Instead, I’m going to create a template on my computer and print it out at the start of each week, adding details of the specific projects I need to complete each week. I’m also going to schedule a series of “school bells” on my phone to make sure I move on to the next “class” as necessary during the day. If not, it’ll be detention time for me!

Will it work for me? Will it work for you? Only time will tell. I’m just trying not to be discouraged by the fact that I’ve just drafted this blog post in a time slot I’d allocated for fiction writing…

Do you have any top tips for time management that you’d like to share here? Please feel free to join the conversation via the comments box below.

Photo of Laura in Dark Ages fancy dress
Going back in time at the Scottish Crannog Centre

 

If you liked this post, you’ll find my daughter’s attitude to action-lists entertaining, in this post from the archives:

What A To-Do! The Tale of My Young Daughter’s Action List

 

Posted in Family, Travel

Say Swiss Cheese!

Graphic of a smiling DaddyIn the gloomy month of February, it’s easy to slump into a state of inertia. If that’s how the shortest month makes you feel, don’t despair! There’s one easy-to-learn technique that will help you conquer even the most daunting task, at home, at work, or anywhere else: the Swiss Cheese Method.

What is the Swiss Cheese Method?

My husband just explained it to me, to spare me from despairing over my lengthy to-do list. All you have to do is tackle any big challenge by eroding it one tiny hole at a time. Disregard the larger task and focus instead on smaller, more manageable chunks. Need to spring-clean the whole house? Start by cleaning just one window. Overwhelmed by the state of your garden? Focus on weeding a single flowerbed.

Stick at it, and before you know it, you will have eroded so many holes in your apparently insurmountable task that it now looks like a Swiss Cheese – full of holes, and about to crumble to nothing before your eyes.

Do enough of these small tasks and you’ll have no cheese left at all.

Which suits me perfectly, because, as my friends already know, I really don’t like cheese.

Postscript

HU5K Run logoThis system also applies to training for a long-distance run, such as the HU5K Run on Saturday 14th June. You’ll find more ideas to help you prepare for this famous Hawkesbury Upton Fun Run its website at www.hu5K.org, where you’ll also be able to register for the 2014 Race which will take place on Saturday 14th June.

(This post first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, February 2014 edition.)

Posted in Family, Travel

What A To-Do! The Tale of My Young Daughter’s Action List

Laura in Bronze Age costume at the Scottish Crannog Centre
Laura and friend travel back in time to the Bronze Age at the Scottish Crannog Centre

This evening, I’m intrigued to find my nine-year-old daughter preparing for a playdate in a very grown-up way: she’s made an action list.

I thought I was the only one in our household to use this method to try to squeeze more tasks into the day than time allows. Action lists, shopping lists, book lists – I’m constantly finding scribbled strips of paper stuffed in pockets and handbags that I’ve promptly forgotten without completing.

Even so, the act of writing down my plans gives me the illusion that I will at some point complete them. This is in spite of my self-scolding mantra: “The best way to get something done is to do it” – chanted to remind myself to stop messing about and get on with it.

Sometimes my lists are thoughtfully numbered in priority order or prefaced with egalitarian bullet-points, to deem no one item more important than the others. Either way, jotting the items down gives me the illusion that I’m in control of my hectic life. They usually contain at least 10 points.

I was therefore taken aback recently to hear an excellent management trainer declare that no action list should be bigger than a Post-it Note. My friend, who masterminds A4, Excel-formated to-do lists to manage all aspects of her life, was equally aghast.  When it comes to to-do lists, less is apparently more.

Wearing the ancient plaid at the HIghland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
Sometimes I join her to travel back in time: enjoying life in an 18th century croft at The Highland Folk Museum

But it’s not the size of my daughter’s action list that impresses me: it’s the breadth and ambition of her planned tasks. Whereas mine is full of practical mundanities that I am not looking forward to completing (place grocery order, do ironing, buy school uniform), her neat, bullet-pointed list  is positively adventurous:

  • travel back in time
  • get ship-wrecked
  • start an animal hotel

She pays no heed to  boring time constraints, budget, nor the rules of nature. I am dazzled by her exciting prospects. Her to-do list certainly puts mine in the shade.

As Walt Disney said, “If you can dream it, you can do it. Just remember this whole thing was started by a mouse.” I reckon my problem is that I’ve not been dreaming enough. So I’ve put my old action list in the bin, and I’ll share with you my new list of things to do today – all the stuff of my dreams:

  • become fluent in a language that uses pictograms instead of lettters
  • have lunch with George Orwell and Gerald Durrell
  • discover the secret of how to become invisible
  • take a trip on a real flying carpet

And even better, I can fit it my new list easily on to a Post-it note! So what are your plans for today?

The Flying Carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880) Photo credit: Wikipedia
And I’m off…

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy these posts on a similar theme:

How To Get Things Done

How To Lose Weight By Feeding The Birds

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Tidying up, Gary’s way

Keep tidy
Keep tidy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let the spring-cleaning commence! Well, more importantly, the tidying up. Because until that is done, we won’t be able to see the surfaces that need cleaning.

As always at the start of the school holidays, my first thought is to tidy the house. This is so that we can enjoy the rest of the holidays in an orderly environment.

Also, whenever I’m planning to go away for more than a few days, I like to blitz the house so that it looks extra appealing when we return. It’s amazing how a few days away can give you a fresh perspective on your home. Stepping through the door, suitcase in hand, I’m always pleasantly surprised to be reminded how much I love my house. Absence certainly does make the heart grow fonder – especially if the scene that welcomes my return is tidy.

This time, my task is a tall order. Every room in the house is topsy-turvy and a major effort is needed to restore an air of calm. Where on earth should I begin?

And then I remember a tactic of my old friend Gary’s. Gary was part of my social circle decades ago, when home was my first rented flat. Gary was a bit of a gem. He was cheery and intelligent, without being an intellectual. When my then boyfriend, studying for a history degree, dropped into a pub conversation that he had to choose a topic for his thesis, Gary suggested brightly “How about the history of dogs?”

Gary was determined and methodical. Unable to speak a word of French, he passed his French O Level purely by skilful planning. He knew that a large percentage of the marks were allotted for the essay question which was likely to be on a limited range of topics. He reckoned that if he learnt by heart an essay on a day at the beach, “Sur La Plage”, he’d be in with a chance of passing. So he did – and he passed. On holiday in France a couple of years later, he was still unable to do so much as order a drink in a cafe. But put him  sur la plage and he was happy.

Woolworths Reading
Woolworths Reading (Photo: Wikipedia)

Gary took a similarly determined attitude to his future. Leaving school at 16, he needed to choose a career. The biggest shop on the local high street was Woolworths,  so he applied to become a trainee Woolworths manager. He did well at his job, ultimately managing the branch in the Strand in London, planning carefully at every step. One of his tasks was to deposit the store’s daily takings at the nearby bank. Rather than worry about security, he simply put the cash in a Woolworths carrier bag every day, confident that no mugger would ever think it worth stealing something that came from Woolworths.

He brought a new order to every aspect of his  job. One Christmas, he discovered that his staff were comparing the cards he had given each of them to try to decide who he liked best. He then put a list on the staffroom noticeboard allocating points to each Christmas card image. This allowed staff to calculate scientifically how much he liked them. If their card showed a Santa – 5 points, Christmas tree – 4 points, snow scene – 3 points, and so on. I am not entirely convinced he was joking.

SVG Version of Image:Pac_Man.png
Pac-Man (Photo: Wikipedia)

Gary’s personal habits were also meticulously organised. He enjoyed his food but in a very orderly way. Confronted by a plate of food, he would start carefully at one side, taking little forkfuls  across the plate, gradually clearing it in a straight line from one side to another. It was like watching a military campaign, the invading force gradually capture enemy territory, pushing the line ever further back. Gary’s only concession to the taste of his food was to choose as his starting point the side opposite his favourite item of food. With a roast dinner, that would be the meat. His progress was fascinating. It was like watching  Pac-Man have lunch.

I’ve always taken Gary’s approach to gardening. I’m a fair-weather gardener and I don’t bother much between November and March. Then when the first Spring-like day comes along, I venture into the small lean-to that we grandly call our conservatory and revive all the plants out there. Next, I step outside the lean-to, which opens on to my herb garden.  I thoroughly weed the herb garden before advancing to the pond immediately beyond it. Once the pond is in order, I progress a couple of steps to the first vegetable bed – and so on, until everything in the garden is to my liking. It’s a long, slow job, but the benefit is that you always see the best first and the untidiest bit is always furthest from view. It’s the opposite of painting yourself into a corner.

Racon signal ("K") on radar screen S...
Racon signal ("K") on radar screen Source: http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/marcomms/geninfo/racon.htm (Photo: Wikipedia)

And this holiday it occurs to me that Gary’s strategy would work equally well with tidying. I start off upstairs, standing on the landing and sweeping my mind’s eye around the first floor, like the radar detector you see on old films of U-boats. First stop is my daughter’s bedroom (a complete muddle since she’s spent the last week “camping” on the floor for a change of scene), then my bedroom, then the bathroom, then my study. Downstairs, the living room will be followed by the kitchen, then the larder, then (saving the worst till last), my husband’s study.

Suddenly, an insurmountable task is made manageable. With the help of my trusty iPod, full of BBC Radio 4 podcats, I feel further empowered. I can do this thing!

Let the holiday commence! Happy Easter, everyone!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to read How To Get Things Done.