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Time Striping: A Different Approach to Time Management

Time Striping: A Different Approach to Time Management

Time Striping

    As a university instructor, I often have weeks-long stretches of unscheduled time in between sessions, which I need to use to catch up on all the projects I’ve let slide during the hectic second half of the semester. As a freelance writer, I always have a stack of little projects as well as ongoing commitments (like my thrice-weekly posts here at Lifehack) that need to get done.

    The Trouble with MIT’s and Contexts

    While I like the idea of “Most Important Tasks” (MITs) — where you write down the three or four things you absolutely must get done each day, and work on those first, leaving everything else for whatever time is left over at the end — the fact is that a lot of my commitments can’t be handled that way. I’ve got more than three ongoing commitments, each of which needs at least a little attention every day.

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    I also find that contexts in the GTD sense don’t really work for me — yes, all of these tasks might be alike in that they happen at my computer, but they require different mindsets. I try to batch things like phone calls and emails, when I can, but for the rest of my work, that doesn’t really work. To finish a writing task, for example, I might need to sit and read a little, write notes and thoughts by hand on paper for a while, and then sit at the computer and work — before heading back to the sofa for some more reading.

    Time Striping: Like Time Blocking, But Stripier

    What works for me is a variation on time blocking that I’m calling “time striping”. In time blocking, you schedule uninterrupted “blocks” of time for different projects across your schedule. Since a) many of my projects are ongoing, and b) some projects emerge rather suddenly, I need a little more flexibility than that.

    So what I’ve done is created a loose schedule where each hour is dedicated to a generic project, i.e. “Project #1”, “Project #2”, etc. As I finish a project, I slot a new project into its timeslot; if Project #5 only takes an hour, then tomorrow it will be something different. It’s conceivable that a particular time block will be used for 5 different projects over the course of the week.

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    Each slot, then, creates a “stripe” of time from Monday to Friday. In some cases, where I know I need more than 1 hour for a project, I’ll block off two hours or more and flow the rest of my projects around it. For instance, every other Thursday morning I record Lifehack Live, and I need two hours to prepare, record, and write up my notes. So that’s a block, instead of a stripe.

    The Time Striping Form (with variations)

    If you’re wondering what this all looks like, I’ve thrown together a generic version of the form that I use, which you can download. The first is a PDF you can print out using Adobe Reader or any other PDF reader; the second is an RTF file that you should be able to open and edit with almost any word processor (although in my tests, the formatting differs greatly from app to app; I got good results from Word 2007 and WordPad, and terrible results from OpenOffice.org 2). Here are the files:

    At the top is space to put any fixed commitments for the week. The bottom table is your key, with space to define up to 10 projects; as you finish a project, cross it off and fill in the next box with the new project for that space. The middle is an hour-by-hour schedule for the week, with one-hour slots from 9-6. (You can change the working hours or start the calendar on Monday by editing the RTF.) Generally, you’ll put “Project #1” in at 9-10am and draw a line all the way across (or fill it in on each day); if you need two hours, just repeat “Project #1” in the 10-11am slot.

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    Here’s how my schedule looks (click for a larger view):

    time-striping-screenshot

      Since I’m a slow waker, I’ve set aside the first three hours to check my email, look at feeds, check my site stats, have breakfast, and get dressed for the day. At 9, my workday starts — Project #1 is Lifehack, so I’ll work on posts, brainstorm ideas, do site maintenance, and whatever else I need to do. At 10, I move onto my next project, which at the moment is editing an e-book I’m going to release this summer. When I finish that, I’ll replace Project #2 with something else. Project #3 is preparing an online course I’m teaching this summer. And so on.

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      You’ll note that around Thursday it breaks up; I need two hours for Lifehack Live, so I take that time from Project #2; on Friday, I’ve scheduled time to do laundry and other housework, and my weekly review. At the start of the week, then, I was careful to assign slots that wouldn’t get 5 hours to smaller projects.

      Notice, too, that I’ve added three email times per day. Let to my own devices, I’d check email constantly throughout the day; this is my way of reminding myself to stick to the task at hand and check email right before I break for lunch and at the very end of my working day before I go to make dinner.

      The benefit of all this is that I can see at a glance how much time I’ve set aside for each project over the course of the week. If something new comes up, I can easily replace a project slot (or more, if necessary) with it and re-allot time as necessary. I’ve only got 8 projects on there; the last two are for family projects and would go in the weekend or evening time slots; at the moment, I don’t have any.

      Maybe This Will Work for You?

      Time striping won’t seem all that new to people who are already practicing time blocking — the only difference is that I try to keep the same projects at the same time every day, and the flexibility of having slots dedicated to generic projects instead of particular ones. That’s what works for me, and I think it might work well for some of you out there who are having a hard time getting a grip on your schedule. 

      Let me know if this is helpful, or if you have your own slightly off-beat way of working through your various projects.

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      Last Updated on March 13, 2019

      How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

      How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

      Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

      You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. I personally see a rut as a productivity vacuum. It might very well be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. While I’m normally productive, I get into occasional ruts (especially when I’ve been working back-to-back without rest). During those times, I can spend an entire day in front of the computer and get nothing done. It can be quite frustrating.

      Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, a student or other work, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

      1. Work on the small tasks.

      When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks which have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

      Whenever I finish doing that, I generate a positive momentum which I bring forward to my work.

      2. Take a break from your work desk.

      Get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, go out and get a snack.

      Your mind is too bogged down and needs some airing. Sometimes I get new ideas right after I walk away from my computer.

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      3. Upgrade yourself

      Take the down time to upgrade yourself. Go to a seminar. Read up on new materials (#7). Pick up a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

      The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college. How’s that for inspiration?

      4. Talk to a friend.

      Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while.

      Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

      5. Forget about trying to be perfect.

      If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies.

      Just start small. Do what you can, at your own pace. Let yourself make mistakes.

      Soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come. And then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

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      6. Paint a vision to work towards.

      If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

      Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the end vision in mind?

      Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action.

      7. Read a book (or blog).

      The things we read are like food to our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great materials.

      Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. Stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs, such as Lifehack.org, DumbLittleMan, Seth Godin’s Blog, Tim Ferris’ Blog, Zen Habits or The Personal Excellence Blog.

      Check out the best selling books; those are generally packed with great wisdom.

      8. Have a quick nap.

      If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep.

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      9. Remember why you are doing this.

      Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

      What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall why you are doing this. Then reconnect with your muse.

      10. Find some competition.

      Nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

      Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, networking conventions.. you get the drill.

      11. Go exercise.

      Since you are not making headway at work, might as well spend the time shaping yourself up.

      Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, whichever exercise you prefer.

      As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

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      Here’re 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It).

      12. Take a good break.

      Ruts are usually signs that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

      Beyond the quick tips above, arrange for a 1-day or 2-days of break from your work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax and do your favorite activities. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

      Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest. My best ideas and inspiration always hit me whenever I’m away from my work.

      Take a look at this to learn the importance of rest: The Importance of Scheduling Downtime

      More Resources About Getting out of a Rut

      Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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