Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

Big-Picture Time Management for the Hopelessly Ambitious

I know I’m not alone in this. I would like to excel in so many areas, it’s a struggle to keep it all straight in my head. I work on one goal, and I hear a tiny voice in the back of my mind that draws attention to another area that’s languishing. The result? I make slow, halting progress in many different areas that eventually adds up to … nothing to brag about, really.

What’s the solution? Well, I’ve been working on a system to better integrate my activities, and organize them in a way that helps me prioritize.

Step 1: Find the Common Thread

An important first step to organizing my time happens before I even list out my goals and activities. I start by looking at my list of core values, and I start to pull out some overarching themes.

For the past few months, I’ve been hand-writing the following each morning, and sometimes each night:

  • I value the epicurean pursuit of Happiness
  • I value Beauty, Knowledge and Creativity
  • I value Power, Warmth, and Presence
  • I value Health: training and care of body and mind
  • I value Mindfulness: detached awareness of thoughts and feelings
  • I value Visualization and Positive Self-talk
  • I value the Stoic virtues: courage, temperance, justice, wisdom
  • I value Deep Work
  • I value the Socratic Method
  • I value Mastery:
    • permaculture
    • design craft
    • 5 fluent languages
    • music
    • writing (song, story and scholarly)

In crafting this list over time, I’ve decided that the first three values conform to my foundational life philosophy and the spirit of how I try to present myself to the world. The next three values outline how I try to stay in peak mental and physical condition. The final four values have to do with my personal development goals, the spirit and method of my plan, and the specific areas of attack.

I always write “permaculture” first on my list of areas to master, because this word encapsulates the attitude I want to permeate all my endeavors: tread lightly, regenerate the planet, eliminate and re-purpose waste, seek design inspiration from nature, consume less and enjoy more …

This was an important discovery for me, because it created a new context through which I could understand every other area.

For instance, when I say “design craft,” I think about sewing projects using re-purposed clothing and scraps. I think about designing raised bed gardens and beds of microgreens. I think about embroidered jewelry that I can sell at craft fairs and farmer’s markets. I also think about making my own hygiene products from scratch, and sourdough bread, and so much more.

When learning a new language, it’s always a great idea to motivate yourself by learning the vocabulary and discourse associated with your big interests. Thus, I’m designing a personalized language learning plan that moves beyond the basics and helps me describe my interest in gardening, hiking, national parks and staying healthy. The next time I travel to a foreign country that speaks my target language, I can use social media to connect with people who share my interests and might be inspired to have a conversation about these subjects. Before I go, I can read and listen to podcasts about my favorite topics, in my target language.

As for music and writing, they are great creative outlets for exploring my ideas about Nature, and especially the consequences of becoming alienated from the natural environment. I can explore the emotional landscape of this alienation in a song. I can write stories about characters struggling with this, or living off the land, or fighting climate change, or any number of scenarios where the role of Nature is more than incidental. I’m also planning a scholarly take on the spirit of our communal relationship with nature, using quantitative analysis and the sociological imagination. Done right, a compelling study might have ramifications for the healthcare industry, the education sector, the commercial sector, city planning, you name it.

So, understanding that permaculture is my common thread, I can tackle any number of things and still feel like I’m making progress toward my Big Goal: participating in a culture and economy that regenerates the planet, maximizes health outcomes and encourages greater discernment and authenticity. This gives me peace of mind, and peace of mind helps me to focus on the task at hand.

Step 2: Identifying the Level of Creativity

creativity

In 2001, psychologist James Kaufman and Ron Beghetto proposed a new model for classifying different modes of creativity. Mini-c creativity describes those little actions we take every day that require an ounce of thought. Add mushrooms to the tomato sauce. Put your keys on the table beside the door so you remember where to find them. You probably make hundreds of tiny creative decisions each month. Everyone does.

Little-c creativity applies to your creative hobbies. What do you make for fun in your spare time? Perhaps you have some talent or even some drive when it comes to your painting, your writing, your pottery, your music. Hopefully it gives you a lot of pleasure, but it sure doesn’t help pay your bills.

Pro-C creativity does help pay the bills. You’re a journalist, a photographer, a freelance wordsmith, or perhaps you’re developing a creative pursuit to the level that would make you competitive in the market. Either way, you have just as much knowledge about your craft as any other professional I could pick at random, and your output is comparable or even competitive.

Finally, Big-C creativity describes a level that surpasses the mere professional. Here we are in the vaulted realm of “eminent” creativity. You’ve demonstrated the capacity for greatness, and you’re part of an elite community in history. Very few people reach this level.

So how does this model of creativity relate to time-management? It all has to do with determining your priorities. If you aspire to a Pro-C or even a Big-C level of achievement in one or (gasp!) more areas, then it’s clear that you should be spending the majority of your available time working on those areas. Which of your goals might pertain to a possible career path, in an ideal world? Are you visualizing a full-time or part-time income stream? Or does the idea of tying your creative passion to a form of employment give you the heebie-jeebies, and you’d rather focus on visualizing a creative output that might be comparable to a pro or a great, but that you horde all to yourself and your friends and family. That’s cool, too.

In my own thinking, I’ve decided that I’d like to produce ridiculously good writing. I  want to create amazing stories that explore my key themes in an empathic, emotional way, and I also want to explore those same themes in a rigorous, academic way. So there they are: my main priorities.

Step 3: Identify Activity Styles

With my priorities in mind, I can now go about structuring my ideal, productive day. For my key areas, I want to especially stress the Deep Work approach described by Cal Newport. This approach requires significant chunks of time spent totally free of distractions, tackling especially challenging tasks.

Now, a couple years back I took a free Coursera course called Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. One of the mental tools this course recommends is called the pomodoro method. Pomodoro is Italian for “tomato,” and the name derives from a popular tomato-shaped egg timer.

I have one of these timers, only it’s a chicken. I call it my “clickin’ chicken.”

chicken

In the pomodoro method, you assign a set amount of time in which you devote your full, undivided attention, set the timer and commit to your work until you hear the bell. The egg timer method ensures that your set time will be 60 minutes or less, which should prevent mental fatigue. This is an especially great method for people who struggle with attention-deficit symptoms.

My pomodoro sessions help clearly delineate the time I set aside each day for deep writing work and my related studies. In the periods between sessions, I fit in some other goals that don’t require the same amount of taxing mental effort: my daily meditation or a run to prepare for the half- and full-marathons I have coming up this year, even a design craft project where I’m more or less following instructions to create something, rather than designing something from scratch.

Thus, I’ve already started to categorize my activities in terms of my priorities and the cognitive effort they require. Not all little-c projects will be cognitively undemanding, however. When I have an idea for something like, designing a spiral-shaped herb bed to fit a designated space in the yard, I write it down and wait until I have the peace of mind to put down my chief priorities or an (equally important) period of rest and rejuvenation to pick up a more elaborate little-c project.

Did you get that part about rest and rejuvenation? Don’t forget that part, it’s essential. Different people have different thresholds of cognitive effort they can withstand for the long haul. Eventually the marginal returns from working longer and harder will not be worth the strain of the effort. So always get enough sleep and be mindful of what your body and mental health require.

Finally, besides Big-C and Pro-C pomodoro sessions, and little-c break activities, I classify some projects and experiences as “intensives.” These are tasks or trips or anything that requires or would benefit from your full attention over an extended period of time, but sometimes does not require the laser-sharp attention of a pomodoro session. Building an herb spiral might be a good intensive project. Learning a new language? If you can’t travel, create an artificially immersive environment for a week with target language radio, movies, online browsing and music. Going on a day trip to visit the Stax Museum in Memphis (highly recommended), that’s a great intensive. A week-long hike in the Smokies? Stay present and relish the experience.

Because, at the end of the day, we’re not trying to maximize productivity for the sake of maximizing productivity. The aim is to craft the best kind of life — to live your life to the fullest. Back to the very first value on my list: epicurean happiness. Be a badass, sure, but be a well-rounded badass and you’re really living your best life.

Step 4: Plan Your Day and Stay Mindful

Lastly, using this system as a guideline, figure out what you’d like to accomplish and whether that’s an appropriate activity for a pomodoro session, a break, or an intensive. You’d be smart to take Gary Keller’s advice and focus on the ONE thing that will produce the most results or the biggest impact. Drive at your task relentlessly until it’s done, over the course of many sessions and days most likely. Try not to let other activities steal your cognitive energy during this time, as your mind will keep working on a problem or project even while you take a break, and you don’t want this “cognitive residue” to disrupt a new task, or vice versa.

All the while, stay mindful of what your body tells you. Know when you need a break — a restorative break, not a session of binge-watching TV shows or YouTube videos. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been working for 15 minutes or 15 hours. Is your brain telling you that you need a nap? Take one. Are you craving some sunlight? Go for a walk.

While you’re hammering away, though, don’t worry about the time passing as you become oh-so-specialized in the task at hand. Go back to Step 1 and remind yourself, everything is connected. There are endless paths, endless activities to take you to your ultimate goal: this life shaped exquisitely by your values. Your purpose now is to go deeper than you’ve ever allowed yourself to go; go deep into new and unknown territory by committing to follow a relatively small task (understand this book, complete the first draft, solve this specific problem) to its completion, and stay present.

That’s the attitude I took to writing this blog post, and now it’s done. I’ll be the first to admit, though, committing to following through on a cognitively demanding task is something I’m not great at, but perhaps I’m getting better. Being explicit about my methods and plan of action goes a long way toward helping me improve.

I hope it helps you, too.

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2 comments on “Big-Picture Time Management for the Hopelessly Ambitious

  1. Madeline Johnson
    January 27, 2019

    Samantha, I struggle with the same scattered issues – and your post has helped me a lot. Great book recommendations too. Thank you.

    • Samantha Sprole
      January 27, 2019

      It’s always a comfort to know you’re not alone in your struggles. Thanks for the encouragement, and best of luck on your journey.

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