My column for the June issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser
As I delete the latest task management app from my phone, my quest for the perfect automated to-do list resumes, in parallel with my perpetual search for the ideal handbag.
When I downloaded this cutely-named app, it seemed full of promise. I imagined my days streamlined and efficient, my desk and my conscience clear by wine o’clock every day. However, I quickly went off it when it began to take over the decision-making process. It refused point-blank to allow me to change my mind about priorities or even to move incomplete tasks to the next day.
I really need an action-list app with a mañana setting, although the ever-patient editor of this esteemed magazine may disagree.
The last straw was the app’s highhandedly adding events to my calendar that were of no relevance to me. Bank Holidays I could accept, and I don’t mind a reminder of the Queen’s birthday, but the Battle of the Boyne? Really? All that did was make me feel inadequate that I couldn’t think of an appropriate to-do action to add to my list. “Wear orange,” suggested one waggish friend when I protested the fact on Twitter.
Which brings me to a different approach to productivity management: the What Not to Do list, for logging time-wasting things to avoid. If you know of any app designers out there, tell them I think there’s a gap in the market for this. I don’t mean only for recording evergreen items such as “Don’t spend too much time on Twitter (except to “like” @LionsTetbury’s wisecracks, obviously)”. I formulate new ideas for mine every day.
This morning, for example, I’d have added: “Don’t match up the pile of odd socks that your husband has discarded on the bedroom rug while searching his wardrobe for a pair – he is not a toddler. He can sort his own socks.” Although to be fair a toddler would handle this task very well, if at the stage of enjoying shape-sorter toys and memory games of pairs.”
I must add to my action list: “Recruit affable toddler.”
So it’s back to the drawing board for me – or at least to pen and paper. A handwritten list by my keyboard will have to suffice. Sometimes old technology really is the best option, just as old wives’ tales so often prove to be founded in fact. Old-fashioned does not mean obsolete. My favourite sage old saying? “The best way to get something done is to do it.”
As in writing my column for the Tetbury Advertiser.
(You see what I did there?)
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With just a week to go before Christmas Eve, most households are likely to be going into overdrive just now, wrapping presents, writing cards and stocking up with groceries for the holiday season. Having lost most of December to illness, I’ve not written a single card yet, and as I type, my daughter, now 12 and old enough to be very useful, is wrapping all my presents for me.
I’d already started panicking about running out of time last month, when I wrote my column for the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which you can read below. But if you’d like an antidote to this dilemma, I’ve also added below my short story, “Christmas Time”, which is one of twelve in my festive collection, Stocking Fillers.
CHRISTMAS LISTS (from the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)
Don’t let anyone fool you that February is the shortest month. It’s actually November.
Being an old-fashioned type, I wait until after Guy Fawkes Night before I start thinking about Christmas. Then, without warning, I discover it’s nearly December, and I’ve still not done any Christmas shopping or written any Christmas cards.
In hope of catching up with myself, in mid-November I ask my daughter (12) what she’d like for Christmas. As she’s already planning her birthday party for next May, I’m surprised she hasn’t yet presented me with her usual A4 wish-list.
“I don’t really need anything.” Her candour is refreshing. She passes the baton to my husband, quizzing him on what he’d like.
“Socks,” he pronounces, with certainty.
“But you’ve got dozens of socks in your wardrobe,” I point out. “You just need to pair them up.”
“In that case, for Christmas, I’d like someone to pair up all my socks for me,” he concludes.
No-one asks me, so I ask myself what I’d like for Christmas. More time, I decide, I just need more time. Then when I flip the calendar over to look at the next month, I discover that my gift has already been delivered: December, unlike November, has a whole 31 days.
Well, that was a cheap round, Santa, but I think your work here is done.
Merry Christmas, everybody!
CHRISTMAS TIME (A short story from Stocking Fillers)
My annual Christmas present from my godmother, Auntie Fay, may be small in size because she has to post it all the way from Australia, but it’s always a tonic that helps me get through the whirlwind of preparing for a typical family Christmas.
No surprise, then, that I can’t resist opening her parcel the moment it arrives. This year, it landed on my doormat on 23 December. Seeing her beautiful copperplate handwriting on the label beneath the showy Australian stamps made my heart skip a beat with excitement. Settling down at the kitchen table, I peeled off the outer wrapper to reveal a small Christmas card bent protectively around a tiny square parcel. I ripped off the glittery paper, sending specks of silver fluttering up around me as if heralding a magic spell. To my surprise, inside lay nothing more remarkable than a slim alarm clock. Its circular clock face bore a stylised world map, reminding me of just how much distance lay between Auntie Fay and me. Around the edge of the clock face ran the slogan “Stop the world!” repeated several times.
I flipped the clock over to see whether it was made in Australia, but found no clue. There were just the usual knobs, time set and alarm set, and three buttons labelled off, stop and snooze. I adjusted it to English time, then twiddled the alarm set knob to match the time so that I could check out the sound of the alarm. It was a pleasantly low vibrating purr that I didn’t think would be audible beyond my side of the bed. Then I noticed a raised pillow-shaped symbol with an arrow pointing to it, suggesting that the clock should be tucked under the pillow for the gentlest, most comforting of awakenings. I liked the sound of that.
Feeling vaguely guilty that, like a badly brought-up child, I’d taken stock of the present before the card, I set the clock down on the kitchen table and opened the card. It showed an unlikely scene of a wombat and a kangaroo exchanging Christmas gifts. What would they buy each other? I wondered. Inside, opposite the printed greeting, the page was filled edge to edge with Auntie Fay’s handwriting, its neat script at odds with the rambling message. She always wrote exactly as she talked.
“Jessie my dear, I hope this little gift will help you get more rest and catch up with yourself. I couldn’t help noticing you looked a little tired in that last lovely photo you sent me of you and Jake and your dear boys, haven’t they grown? More like your father every day, that’s no bad thing, he’s a dear boy too, at least he was when we were small, though always bigger than me, of course. Don’t try to do too much at this busy time of year, will you? Get plenty of sleep and you’ll all enjoy Christmas so much more. Those buttons on the back are there for a reason, you know, so make sure you use them!”
I put Auntie Fay’s card on the kitchen dresser, where it could stand in proxy for her throughout the season’s celebrations. Then I went upstairs to slip her gift under my pillow before getting on with my chores.
By bedtime I was bleary eyed from a long day of channelling the twins’ excitement into constructive behaviour. We really didn’t need quite so many paper chains, but making them keeps six-year-olds occupied for ages. I flung myself wearily into bed, forgetting Auntie Fay’s new clock until I fluffed up the pillows for a soothing late-night read. I showed the clock to Jake, who was sitting up in bed playing Hearts on his tablet.
“That’s cute,” he remarked. “But surely you’re not planning to set an alarm for tomorrow, are you? We’re on holiday! A fortnight without work, hurrah!”
“Are you kidding? I’ve still got all the presents to wrap, mince pies to make, vegetables to peel, stuffing to mix, plus loads of cleaning to do so the house looks half decent for when our folks come round for Christmas dinner. The kids are messing the house up faster than I can tidy. In fact, even if I didn’t go to bed at all tonight, I’d still have trouble fitting everything in.
Jake set the tablet on his bedside table, leaned over to give me a quick kiss, then lay down facing away from me.
“Well, wake me up when you’ve finished, love. I’m on holiday. Night night.”
I set Auntie Fay’s alarm for 7am and slipped it under my pillow.
I woke up to its gentle purring what seemed like moments later. The light was still on, my reading book had fallen sideways in my hand, and there was just enough traffic roaring past the house to confirm that the rush hour was about to begin.
Hazy with insufficient sleep, I pulled the clock out from under my pillow, flipped it over and hit a button on the back to silence the purr. Jake slumbered on peacefully as I threw back the duvet and wrapped my dressing gown around me. The refreshing silence from across the landing told me that, by some miracle, the twins were also still asleep. I stuffed my feet into fluffy slippers and stumbled downstairs to brew a sustaining pot of tea. I needed to be fortified before I tackled my to-do list.
I decided first to take advantage of the continuing peace upstairs to wrap all the presents. Job done, I hid them in the ironing basket (the last place Jake or the boys would think to look) before taking a cup of tea up to Jake. He was still spark out, as were the boys, so I left the tea on his bedside table. As I went back downstairs, I slipped one hand into my dressing gown pocket in search of a tissue, only to discover that I’d absent-mindedly put Auntie Fay’s clock in there instead of putting it back under my pillow. Turning it over to check the time, I realised with a start that it still said seven o’clock. Had I inadvertently dislodged the battery? No, it was still ticking. So why had the hands not moved on?
But I couldn’t spare the time to investigate, so I tucked it back into my pocket and hauled the Dyson out of the broom cupboard. The noise of vacuuming would certainly wake the boys, but it had to be done. Yet as I tucked the Dyson back in the cupboard half an hour later, there was still no sound from upstairs. Suddenly filled with panic, I ran upstairs to check the boys were still breathing. They were, but they were asleep, so I tiptoed back downstairs to start cooking.
Not used to such peace in the mornings, I clicked on the radio for company. I was just in time to hear the BBC’s pips marking the hour, immediately followed by the announcement of the seven o’clock news headlines. Spooked, I quickly pressed the off switch. Surely I’d done at least three hours’ work since Auntie Fay’s alarm woke me up at seven? For a moment I wondered whether it had reverted to Australian time, but that made no sense because the time difference between our countries is more like twelve hours than three.
I distracted myself by setting to work on the mountain of vegetables that I planned to prepare and leave in the fridge, ready to cook on Christmas Day. That job done, I started on the mince pies.
By the time the third batch was cooling on the wire rack I was feeling peckish, so I made another pot of tea and some toast. I thought I’d take Jake a fresh cup. When I nipped upstairs to get his mug, predictably still untouched, I was astonished to find that the tea in it was still as hot as when I’d poured it hours before. It was as if time had stood still.
I sat down on the bed with a thump, not caring whether I disturbed Jake now, and drew Auntie Fay’s alarm clock out of my dressing gown pocket. I didn’t need to look at it to know that it would still say 7am. I turned it over to double-check which button I’d hit to turn off the alarm. One was still depressed. It was the stop button. And then it hit me: with my Stop the World clock, I’d stopped the world.
I had a sudden panic. Was the action reversible? Quickly I hit the stop button again, and as it sprang back up the second hand started to move. At the very same moment Jake awoke.
“Is that my tea? Thanks, love. Happy Christmas Eve!”
All at once, from the twins’ bedroom came sounds of excitable boys on the cusp of their seventh Christmas. Having already completed my chores for the day, I realised to my delight that I could now relax and enjoy the day with them.
By the evening, I was in a mellow mood and unusually calm while bathing the twins and putting them to bed. Then Jake and I enjoyed a relaxing evening watching television with a jug of mulled wine. While Jake was out of the room on a quest for Pringles, I raised a silent toast of gratitude to Auntie Fay for her thoughtful, magical gift of time.
My gratitude to her did not end there. I’d told the boys they were not allowed to wake us on Christmas morning until six o’clock. I had the foresight to set Auntie Fay’s alarm clock for one minute before six. The moment I felt its gentle purr, I slipped my hand beneath my pillow and felt for the stop button. Then I turned over, snuggled down under the duvet and leaned in to the warmth of Jake’s back. Plenty of time yet for a nice lie-in. Christmas Day wouldn’t begin until I was good and ready. Smiling, I closed my eyes.
If you enjoyed this story, it’s not too late to order Stocking Fillers, the book of twelve stories from which it’s taken, in ebook or paperback form. The paperback’s available from various local bookshops, and both ebook and paperback are available to order online from Amazon and all the usual suspects. Just search under ISBN 978-0993087929 for the paperback, or for the title and author name for the ebook.
This morning, for example, I’ve been staring at a list of topics and events I need to write up while they’re still fresh in my mind, including recent writers’ festivals that I’ve attended and some social occasions. I know that another day will go by before I manage to make a start on them thanks to some pressing deadlines for some paid freelance work. Continue reading “What To Do When There Aren’t Enough Hours in the Day”→
(This post about taking time out to relax was originally published in the November 2014 Hawkesbury Parish News)
“Unstructured time” is the new buzz phrase that suddenly seems to be everywhere. Psychologists are now recommending that to be healthier and happier, we should cut ourselves some slack and spend less time in organised activities. Resting and relaxing allows our minds, spirits and energy levels to be restored and renewed – but in our busy age, there’s a myth that if you’re not busy, you’re wasting your time.
I’m certainly guilty of falling for that myth. And with a constantly packed schedule myself, I’m conscious that my daughter (11) is heading in the same direction, with at least one extra-curricular activity every day. We love all our hobbies and don’t want to give them up, but sometimes we feel under siege from them.
This is why I’m happy to let my daughter free-range, so to speak, whenever there’s the opportunity to just relax and play, and it would do me good to follow suit. Adults have just as much to gain from being idle.The restorative power of pottering about should not be underestimated. Whenever I have an enforced period of inactivity due to illness, I always notice afterwards that I’m filled with energy and ideas.
My biggest challenge is simply to make myself do nothing. My obsession with filling my diary drives my husband to despair. Whenever a gap appears, I rush to schedule an outing or appointment.
So following the latest news report that we’d all be healthier and happier for some unstructured down-time, I’m determined to be busy doing nothing now and again. I hope it’s not cheating if I schedule that in my diary.
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
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.
If you liked this post, you’ll find my daughter’s attitude to action-lists entertaining, in this post from the archives: