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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.

      More by this author

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      Last Updated on March 31, 2020

      Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

      Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

      Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

      Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

      There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

      Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

      Why We Procrastinate After All?

      We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

      Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

      Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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      To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

      If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

      Is Procrastination Bad?

      Yes it is.

      Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

      Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

      Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

      It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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      The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

      Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

      For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

      A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

      Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

      Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

      How Bad Procrastination Can Be

      Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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      After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

      One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

      That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

      Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

      In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

      You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

      More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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      Procrastination, a Technical Failure

      Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

      It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

      It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

      Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

      Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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