Thursday, June 14, 2007

Time Keeps on Slippin, Slippin, Slippin...

A topic that's been highly relevant to me lately is that of time management. Or, for those of you who are averse to corporate-lingo, a.k.a., "What did I do all day?"

In the first two weeks after I left "the office," I enjoyed a very lax schedule. I slept in. I often didn't shower or change out of my pajamas. When I did, I spent lots of time outside.

While it may have appeared to be "slacking off," in fact, the time was well spent. The structureless environment aided in loosening my imagination from some of its binds (namely, the old biz) and allowed me to explore very valuable things: what I want, how fast I want to get there, how hard I want to work, and how confident I feel in being able to attain my goals.

I knew my imagination had done its job when my ideas and ambitions had gained enough loft to reveal to me a 10,000-foot view that was both exciting and stood up to the SMART test. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely). It was time for me to get "serious" and begin to "work."

I admit to having spent large portions of the ensuing three weeks in a terrified daze. Monday through Friday seemed to stretch out in front of me like giant, blank pages on which I was supposed to write my own schedule, my own to-do lists, my own goals and objectives. I found myself struck with a feeling rather akin to writer's block, gripped by the same kind of panic that results from the glare of the white computer screen and the persistent demand of the blinking cursor.

In those weeks, I struggled to gain traction and to master my own mind, my own time. My relationship to my phone, email, house, chores, refrigerator and coffee pot all changed. I had to reorganize my relationship to those around me: my family, my dog, my friends, my bill collectors. Where I used to do all the laundry on Saturdays, now I could do it Thursday morning while at my computer. Where I used to bring my checks, stamps and remittance forms to drop in the office mail, now I can pay my bills online instantly. Where my daughter had after-school care arrangements that she despised, now I could run out in the middle of the afternoon and pick her up from school. And the dog could come with us. I had time to meet my friends for lunch.

For the last three weeks since I've had paying clients, however, I've still had to renegotiate everything. Only now, the pendulum has swung the other direction: I'm working like a fiend. I'm at the computer at 7:00 a.m., sometimes 6:00 a.m. I'm putting off the trip to the grocery store and walking the dog until I'm so fried from working that I can't think anymore. I've forgotten to return my friends' phone calls. The business day has become 10-14 hours long.

To some extent, I understand this ebb and flow is natural and expected. I will be busier some weeks than others. At any given week, five businesses may want things from me all at once, or no one may need a thing from me at all. It's not necessarily up to me.

But on the other hand, I am also realizing the necessity of analyzing, tracking, and evaluating how I'm spending my time. Like my father says, "You're your own best tool." I am my service. If I burn myself out, I won't be any good to my clients ~ not to mention my family.

Many friends, acquaintances, and random people who just like giving out advice, say the same thing: establish a routine.

I've tried to do that, and have been experimenting with some routines. I've even searched online for examples of work-at-home routines or time-management tips for the self-employed. Those yielded plenty of general articles, resources for students to develop their study habits, comments by other bloggers, and even the most extensive collection of Gantt charts I've ever seen at Help-U-Plan. But at the end of the day, it still seems like a regular routine is something that should work in theory, though in practice it's just something to aim for.

Fundamentally, I wonder: Is a routine necessary to aid my productivity, or is it more to fill a need for structure? I'd love to know from others who are self-employed: Do you really have a routine that you stick to regularly? If so, was it a matter of getting there eventually, or did you set it up and stick to it right away?

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