Lockdown Productivity – developing a personal schedule

In the piece below, Michael J. Vowles, writes about his efforts to discover a personal work schedule to make himself more productive at home, whilst being on furlough from his job. The piece was first published as part of a post on Michael’s site, Tumbleweed Writes.

Back at the pub, I kept up a solid tempo with my dishwashing and conducted myself in a (mostly) professional manner because I didn’t want to get fired. I’d also developed personal friendships with both the head chef and the line manager, so I felt compelled not to disappoint them and make things awkward between us. It’s a lot easier to disappoint yourself than it is others, unless you’re a clinical psychopath. So when it came to writing a daily schedule, I had to figure out ways to motivate myself without those external motivators doing it for me.

In many ways it felt like I had to trick myself. For instance, I know that I’m a very visually-oriented person, so I needed to see my productivity represented in some kind of chart or graph. When I was at university, I stuck a piece of paper on the wall beside my bed, wrote the dates in the margin, and filled in how many words I’d written that day before going to sleep. I’m easily motivated by tallies, scores, and streaks. I know that I like neatness, and so seeing a streak of four-digit numbers drop to three digits upset me. It ruined the uniformity of the column and that was enough to motivate me to furiously keep writing until I hit that standard. The idea of leaving one of those rows blank was unthinkable to me. With this in mind, I designed my lockdown schedule along the same principles.

Checking items off a list is another technique that similarly taps into my compulsions, and one that a lot of people find useful. For me it’s about turning productivity into a sport or a game, because I find that getting into that competitive mindset is the best way to spur me into action. That said, lockdown has taught me a valuable lesson about long-term productivity schedules. Namely, that they have to evolve in order to remain effective. I’ve tried dozens of schedules down the years, but they were all abandoned before long when I ran out of steam. I’d curse myself for not sticking to them and become convinced that I was so innately lazy that I was incapable of achieving anything.

So when COVID-19 showed no signs of going away anytime soon and I began writing a fresh schedule, I was worried that within a week- or even a few days- I would give it up. I had every reason to think I might. As excited as I was with my new idea, I had to ask myself “What makes this time any different?”

In my last post I mentioned how, when it comes to long-term projects, the mission statement needs to be regularly revisited and renewed. Epiphanies and flashes of inspiration are important for getting the wheels rolling, but they only happen in isolated moments. You can’t expect to be at 100% all the time. My problem in the past was that I’d have these moments of inspiration but find myself unable to sustain any momentum once they passed. Either real life would get in the way or I’d get distracted, and once I’d failed to meet my targets just once, I became depressed and abandoned the whole project altogether.

But all those short-lived, failed experiments ultimately proved useful in developing a schedule that’s stood the test of time. I looked back at them and why they failed, and wrote my new schedule in anticipation of history repeating itself. I identified recurring issues- waking up late, constant mood fluctuations, vague targets, digital distractions, conflicting objectives- and developed failsafes.

The biggest threat to my productivity by far was my sleep schedule. How I wake up often has a big effect on the rest of my day. When I wake up early, I feel happy and excited, because it seems like I have so much time ahead of me to fill with productive activities. I’m also at my sharpest in the mornings. At some point between 3pm and 5pm I notice a distinct drop in my energy levels. It’s probably the caffeine wearing off, though I suspect it might be more than that. Even before I discovered coffee, the late afternoon was often a drowsy or lethargic period for me. I’ve tried setting alarms to wake up early before, but it never lasted. I’d feel so groggy in the morning that I’d just turn it off and go back to sleep, then wake up close to noon with a headache. There was also a chance that when I did wake up, I’d stay in bed for a while scrolling mindlessly on my phone.

With all this in mind, I settled on a new approach. Instead of focusing on when to wake up, I decided to focus on when to go to bed. I set an alarm in the evenings to let me know it was time to get off my computer, my phone, or my PS4. This turned out to be exactly what I’d always needed. A consistent bedtime, just like when I was a little kid. I set a morning alarm too, but found that once I started going to bed at a consistent time, I rarely needed it. It’s been a year since I started doing this and ever since I’ve been naturally waking up early, something that seemed impossible before I made this change.

But as many of you know, waking up early is one thing, and actually getting your ass out of bed is another. Without those external motivators I mentioned earlier (the prospect of getting fired) it’s so easy to just make a burrito of yourself in the sheets and watch YouTube videos. To counter this, I began recording the time I started working each day. If I simply recorded the time I woke up, I realized, then my weekly charts would be deceiving. It would have allowed space for my laziness to creep in. That side of me will always push up against the system or try to figure out a way to be lazy within it, which is why I have to stay one step ahead of my laziness and review my progress frequently.

If I woke up early but stayed in bed for an hour before starting my work, then I’m not being productive. By recording the time I actually sat down and started writing, reading, or researching, I made it into a competitive game with myself. Now whenever I felt a little groggy, I forced myself out of bed to beat yesterday’s time, or to at least be consistent with it. It’s the same principle as the daily word count method. By seeing my progress represented in numbers, I felt highly motivated to keep it going. I also record the time I turn my electronics off in the evening, which similarly motivates me to keep the numbers consistent and avoid staying up late.

As you can tell, the key to a lot of this for me is having a visual representation of my productivity. But the form that’s taken has changed a few times since I started. So far I’ve kept to my lockdown schedule for over a year, which is far and away the longest schedule I’ve ever stuck to. Before Corona, the longest I’d managed to stick to a schedule I’d written for myself was one month (for NaNoWriMo). But the key to the longevity of my lockdown schedule is that I’ve tweaked it along the way. The commitment to waking up early was there from the beginning, but I kept refining it whenever I felt like I was slacking. Time changes how we respond to things. Repetition reveals shortcomings. Over the past year my schedule has gotten less vague and more specific. It’s strict whilst still being flexible enough to survive a bad day, or an unavoidable real-life event.

When I first started, it looked like the classic check-list approach. I would write my targets before bed so that I knew exactly what I ought to be doing when I woke up. At first this was really helpful. But after a while, I got a sense that I wasn’t being as productive as I thought I was being. The checklist didn’t indicate how much time I spent working each day. The nature of the items on the list varied- some of the tasks involving very little effort and others taking hours. Some were simple and others were complex. In short, the list was too vague and didn’t record my productivity with the depth I needed in order to measure my progress day-to-day and week-to-week.

So I changed it again. The list became a table, each row representing a day of the week. That way I could compare the time I started work every morning and turned my PC off every night, as well as how long I spent working in total. I divided my working time into concentrated 30-minute sessions. Each session would be represented by a tally mark in the table, and I’d be motivated easily by trying to get the highest tally possible each day, with the other rows serving as a reference for my daily averages.

So far this has worked really well for me. Naturally I still have days where I’m not feeling 100%, but on average I’m working longer and harder. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I kinda feel that a healthy schedule is like Hegelian dialectics: what works for a while will eventually reveal its drawbacks, so you rearrange the existing method to accommodate the critique and together they form a new thesis, which in time will also be reformed. It’s the long-term productivity cycle.

Whaddeya think? In case you can’t tell, I am fairly pleased with how things have gone since I started. It’s not perfect of course. I still feel weak or lethargic at times. That’s life. But I’m more resistant than I was before. Those close to me know that nothing depresses me more than the suggestion that I’m incapable of change. In the context of my personal history, it’s a real breakthrough. I’ve never stuck to anything for so long. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m a beast or anything like that. I’m nowhere near Mamba Mentality. But, by my own standards, I have improved. Naturally this particular schedule will change once I move to London and start my Masters in September, but it’s my hope that I’ll be able to use the same principles to motivate me there.

by Michael J. Vowles, Tumbleweed Writes, 7 July 2021.

Cholla cactus landscape, Joshua Tree National Park, California (Creative Commons)