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As regular readers of the blog probably realise, I work a job(s) that is pretty demanding on both my time and my braincells. I do enjoy my work very, very much and it does give the chance to
visit craft shops work all over the world. Probably because of this, one question I am commonly asked when people see my craft work is ‘how do you find the time?’ If I am honest, I find my pondering a variant of this question, ‘how do I find more time for crafting?’ way too often. Because I so often feel like I have no time for no anything, time-management, productivity and efficiency are concepts that are on my mind more frequently than I’d like to admit to. In this post, I’ll try and share some of what I’ve picked up over the years to still find time for sneaking in some sewing because, let’s face it, making stuff is fun, and making more stuff is more fun!
This post has ended up getting so long – apparently I have a huge amount to say on the topic – that I will split this into three parts (which will be out over the next weeks). Part I is about figuring out how you use your time now and what you want to do with it and Part II is about identifying how to make the best use of your time and Part III will be all about practical time management strategies. This will all be my very waffly opinions based on my own experiences, so I hope you find perhaps something you can identify with in there – if not, I’d love to hear your approaches!
I think when someone is writing unsolicited advice that isn’t based on decent peer reviewed studies, it is really helpful to understand a little about them and what shapes their viewpoint. Time management, like personal finance, is an inherently personal topic as it needs to be what fits with the life you have (not the life you wish you had!) and that is different for all of us.
In my experience, there are loosely two extremes of ‘productive’ people. Those who are obsessed with lists, calendars, planning and organisation and matching themed stationary, and at the other end, people who are very impulsive about how they work but have an immense capacity for focus and can seemingly work anytime or anywhere – you’re just never quite sure when that’s going to happen.
For me, I find ‘over-scheduling’ to be a complete waste of time and exercise in frustration. My life is generally quite chaotic, a regular schedule is one that lasts two or three weeks before it’s disrupted by travel or needing to work a weekend or whatever. My workflow is full of nasty surprises and spontaneous opportunities too and I’ve never found a good way of scheduling for unknown unknowns (I know the project managers would all say there should be slack in the schedule for this but they also don’t believe in assigning 150 % load to resources…) On balance, I am more towards the ‘chaos monkey’ side of productivity but I strongly believe there are lessons to be learnt from both tribes and no ‘true way’ to getting things done.
Why everything is always a WIP (for me)
My work can often be monstrously demanding but I have to admit, I really do enjoy what I do. It’s challenging, intellectually stimulating to the point it gives me brain ache, but it’s very varied. We do have a joke that the job is very flexible in ‘you can work any 60 hours a week you like’ but ultimately I do have a lot of ability to self-determine what I do. Sometimes it’s hard because it feels like a lot of the demands work at cross-purposes to each other but when it’s good, it’s very, very good.
On top of this, I have a side business in freelance writing. Again, this gives me a wonderful excuse to read interesting things and learn about cool, new stuff but also to panic about how I can spin another exciting 200 words out of some technical development that the designers don’t seem that enthused about themselves?
Does all of this mean I wake up every morning, spring out of bed at 5 am to skip to work, strewing flowers from my basket of joy and motivation every morning? Absolutely not. I wake up groggily, check my email for which there are normally a few that make me very grateful that thought crimes towards senders are not yet illegal. After which, I shuffle off to deal with meetings where I think the agenda items should all be replaced with ‘ego appeasement’ and all the typical workplace joys. However, all of these things are just parts of a whole that overall suits me well and I really enjoy.
It’s the same for the writing. Every single piece I write is another saga in the war on writer’s block. As I’ve become more experienced I definitely have the potential to write many more words in a much shorter time, sometimes it does feel like every assignment is an exercise in existential angst and torture. I’m still excited by every new opportunity that comes in though as it’ll be a chance to delve into something I’ve never though about before.
As regular blog readers will know, this means I’m quite often grumpy, tired and frustrated that my crafts seem permanently stuck in work-in-progress status. I eye up the blogs of retired expert quilters producing miles of intricate, gorgeous colourful textiles with immense jealousy and fail to recognise why I’m not quite achieving the same. Or those with craft rooms bigger than my entire apartment who spent weekends tidying and sorting to make them Pinterest-perfect. I somehow refuse to accept why I am not doing similar things – despite the quite clear and real barriers and impediment to doing so – let it never be said that I am not ambitious.
The 24 Hour a Day Problem – Where does the time go?!
Unfortunately, a day only has 24 hours. This is an irritating immutable fact that, even if we changed the definition of a day, we’d still feel the restrictions of. In that 24 hours, you probably need to do quite a few things to keep yourself alive, and perhaps other people, and other things that, perhaps while not essential to the most basic levels of survival, are key to a happy life.
In the bid to try and find more than 24 hours in a day, I suspect like many other chronic overachievers, I have spent a lot of time trawling the self-help/efficiency literature looking for pearls of wisdom. I have to say, most of it is slickly-package collection of trite and obvious statements, but occasionally there are a few diamonds in the rough.
As, despite my best efforts it is impossible to add more than 24 hours to a day, there is the concept of time-management which is all about making the most of those 24 hours a day. This normally involves some sort of planning of tasks, usually with a view to making the most ‘efficient’ use of the time available for them. The big unanswered question is how to best do that.
Two of the most interesting takes I’ve seen on the time management problem are by project manager extraordinaire M. R. Nelson in Taming the Work Week (probably one of the few books on the subject I wholeheartedly recommend) and in the utterly bonkers ‘Creating Time: Using Creativity to Reinvent the Clock and Reclaim Your Life’. The book starts under a façade of normality but quickly degenerates into abuse of poor Einstein’s theory of relativity and weird art journaling exercises to get you in touch with your thoughts and feelings about time and your life (with typesetting mistakes that made my inner physicist cry and the less I say about the ‘art’ the better).
While the two texts are at rather opposite ends of the sensibility scale, they both share one big theme – what is perception of time and how does that affect our productivity? We know we have only 24 hours a day, but why does it seem some weeks we can pull off going to work, organising the household finances and stitch a whole 10 cm2 area of a new design, and then sometimes with a few days of holiday we can’t even find the time to cook? The answer, both authors suggest, is just in our own perceptions.
Our brains are notorious tricksters in many ways. It’s well documented about how terrible we are at understanding and making decisions around risk, we can spend sleepless nights in futile worry about things we know are of little consequence and very often our feelings and perception about situations have little bearing on the reality and this bears out when it comes to organising tasks and our time-management as well.
Melanie Nelson often cites a study about self-reported working hours versus actual working hours. Funnily enough, when people start going in excess of 40 hours a week, the magnitude of the overestimation of the numbers of hours worked starts to become significantly greater than those working shorter hours. This is completely my own experience, I find if I am at work (note, I don’t say working) for around 50 hours a week, this is completely manageable, fine and I’m happy. As soon as I start to creep above that, it veers into feeling like all I do is sleep and work territory.
The reality though is we are perhaps looking at a loss of 5 or so hours of ‘leisure time’ between a 50 hour week and a 55 hour one, so why does this feel so different? Realistically, how much do you do with less than hour a day of time? Do you actually know what you could do with that amount of time? Is the enhanced output of five extra hours of work worth going from feeling relatively ‘balanced’ to overworked?
First of all, it is impossible to answer many of these questions without one of the favourite tools presented in ‘Taming the Work Week’, which is time-tracking. Before you leap into some ‘new you’ lifestyle of meditative knitting and mindful weaving, what Melanie Nelson suggests is you spend some time noting down everything you do every fifteen minutes. This means you can actually see where your time is going. Does moving those five hours of week from leisure to work time mean you no longer have any space in busy life for exercise for example? What do you cut back on when you start to feel ‘busy’?
Time tracking in this way serves two purposes – it gives you an idea of how long tasks take (again, something our brains are terrible at estimating) and you can also look at your ‘outputs’ and see whether that extra ‘work time’ was worth it. I have met some people who are excellent at ‘binge cycles’ for work – they will work extreme hard for a period, then go into hibernation and start again. I am more of a tortoise and while I think I have quite good stamina, I prefer to keep going at a more steady pace.
While ‘Taming the Work Week’ focuses confronting your feelings with the cold, hard facts, ‘Creating Time’ suggests looking not just at how you spend your time, but dredging through the emotional quagmire of your soul to try and find the emotional trigger for what is creating the perception of your lack of time (all with a bit of art journaling!) It may turn out that you have a lot more time than you think, but because of how it is structured, you might still feel rushed, and pressured and have the perception that you don’t have enough time. It’s an interesting exercise.
I have never successfully managed time tracking to the extent Melanie Nelson suggests but even doing just a little does start to force yourself to be honest with yourself. There are many, many things in life designed to be ‘time sucks’. I’m not really on social media, I would have thought I had a good concentration span… but I find myself down internet black holes and pointlessly reading the news probably as much as anyone. I think a small bit of this is essential, but it would be much more refreshing to devote that energy elsewhere. How much of your time are you ‘wasting’ on things you don’t really want to be? Is that out of habit, laziness, avoidance, or something else entirely?
It’s a hard and horrible exercise in a world that seems to consider it a virtue to spring out of bed at 4 am, hit the gym for an hour, have your coffee, start a new business and by 1 pm you should have earnt yourself the first half a million. Sadly, I don’t have any days like that – but I definitely do have days where I am far more ‘productive’ than others. My productivity is highly non-linear and not always that predictable. I suspect the same is true for most of us. We don’t all wake up at exactly the same time with the same routine every day.
The real question to answer with your time tracking though is: is your time going where you want it to be? Maybe you spend a lot of time on social media, but it’s because it’s how you keep in touch with your friends that brighten your day, maybe your commute sucks but you know it’s a temporary thing for a job that’s an excellent professional opportunity. There aren’t right or wrongs at all. I hate all the trite garbage that ‘successful’ people are all extreme morning people who only read intellectually stimulating literature who only get their phones out to make use of foreign language practice apps. Yeah, no.
There are three possible outcomes from working out where your time goes: 1) you’re spending on what you think is important and you’re content with that, 2) you’re spending it on things you consider unimportant and want to change it, or 3) you are in scenario 1) but you want there to be more than 24 hours in a day.
If your answer is 1) – you can probably stop reading now. If it’s 3) – I sympathise, understand and will say you are not alone and I completely understand – somehow we have to come to terms with this frustrating fact, and if it’s 2) then the next question is how do you change that.
What does ‘productivity’ mean to you?
In the context of this post I’m going to define productivity as ‘enjoyable time spent making things while not impacting on the rest of my life I consider essential’. The easiest way in my situation to make more stuff would be to give up all the other demands on my time which would work brilliantly until I was fired and needed to pay my bills. This is why the second clause of the definition is important.
Maybe you have a lot of demands on your time, maybe you don’t. I certainly choose to spend some of my non-essential time devoted to other things like my writing work because that’s what I think is more important to me. Some days that’s an obvious decision, some days, not so much but I do find recognising that the amount of time I choose to devote to my work is my own choice in my case actually very helpful. Why do I do it? Because I love a lot of the parts of both jobs and having an exciting career with the possibility of progression is really important for me.
Still, I love crafting. My near-obsession with learning new skills and trying new things is very much like I am with my professional career. I am fascinated by all things textile and I have so much admiration and awe for some of the brilliant creators out there that I just want to hone my skills and creativity to make things that are as amazing and some of what I see out there. I love the act of crafting, and while I’m never very impressed with what I’ve made, I really like having made something!
What do you want to do? Is it as simple as just finding more hours to spend crafting or are there any tricks you can use to maximise what you get out of the time you can spend so you can meet your own standard of productive? Do you have any goals or are you just happy to knit whatever you feel like at the moment? Productive might be churning out finished objects for you or just to really enjoy the making process more by just slowing down and appreciating how every tiny little stitch works to make beautiful art.
In Part II we’ll take a look at some tips and tricks to help find time or maximise your time so you can enjoy more of whatever it is you want to do.