This post is meant to concisely explain my current theory of time organization, and explain how to do it.
I’m trying to maximize some arbitrarily chosen variable, in this case creative output during free time, under the typical constraints of modern life. One of these constraints is the tendency of ordinary responsibilities to expand and take up more time. I can spend some of my creative time thinking up ways to be more efficient in the use of my creative time, and to be more efficient in the conduct of yucky normal business like paying bills and staying healthy, hopefully producing more and better output in the long run.
Free time is like money in that it can be invested in the short term to get more of it later.
(Level 0: Dysfunction. Something is horribly wrong that organization won’t fix!)
Level 1: Little free time and dwindling.
Level 2: Less than break-even free time, but not dwindling. Vulnerable to environmental shocks.
Level 3: More than break-even free time, possible to invest. Still vulnerable to environmental shocks.
Level 4: Lots of free time due to long-term investment at level 3. Robust. (ex: good salary via studying, networking, financial responsibility, can work very few days if so inclined)
A nice thing about habits is that we complete them more efficiently with time and practice. As they become ingrained, the amount of willpower required also decreases (willpower per day is finite, but regenerates), and eventually becomes negative after it becomes more stressful to break the habit than to follow it. For example, I was recently relieved of a certain one-hour chore in the morning, and this change of habit has actually been more stressful than continuing to do the work. (Admittedly, most people are not so oversensitive to change.)
Habit chains! (And the importance of order thereof)
This is when one habit follows another, so that the transition between them is also a habit. A common habit chain is to wake up at a certain time, exercise, and then take a shower. Optimally, one follows another naturally, so that willpower is also conserved in the transition, but this is often neglected. Taking a shower immediately after exercising optimizes willpower because most people want to get rid of the sticky and sweaty feeling as quickly as possible. This is already a nearly “frictionless” transition, and over time the willpower cost becomes negative as the habit chain becomes ingrained.
Personally, I don’t like to exercise immediately after waking up, so to reduce the friction I’ve added a different habit between waking and exercising: a conscientious study period during which I eat chocolate. The hour immediately after I wake up is the only time my mind is very receptive to boring reading. The chocolate is a dopamine-producing reward for getting out of bed, and for doing something boring and responsible. After eating a certain amount of chocolate, I get physically restless, and this is a good time to exercise.
Merely by rearranging these tasks, I’ve drastically reduced the willpower required to transition between them.
How to! Do! It!
Because normal modern life, we take it as given that there is some “bare minimum” of activity we can do to get by in a typical day. To establish this baseline it helps to be excessively pessimistic, or to experience a major depressive episode. You may actually have to go to work (or convincingly call in sick) to avoid a a catastrophic change in your environment, but you don’t actually have to go to class (it’s merely responsible and reasonably desirable, which isn’t the same). You actually have to make it to a court date, but you don’t actually have to pay a ticket on time.
If you have trouble with this, try asking yourself what would happen if you just stayed in bed for a week. If you have trouble imagining hypothetical scenarios, try staying in bed for a week and see what happens. This is level 0.
You’ve established the bare minimum of stuff you have to do, reasonably. Write these things down in a list. Hopefully, it’s two or three items long. Ex: Work, sleep, eat something. The latter is probably redundant, because eventually your stomach will remind you to eat. All of the space that isn’t taken up by these items is free time, some of which you are apparently using to read da blergh, unless you are at work (good for you, that’s the spirit!).
It is rather simple to order the remaining two items. Probably, it depends on your work schedule and circadian rhythm, but I usually advocate going to sleep right after work so that your willpower is charged up for more productive free time.
Level 1 is no way to live, simply reacting to environmental stimuli. If you wait for your stomach to tell you when to eat, you will probably eat bad food and become unhealthy over time. That means adding in some tasks that will stave off the most egregious problems caused by the level 1 minimalism, in the correct order.
This is where most the self-improvement advice goes astray, because it tackles problems in the wrong order, according to what people feel most like they “should” be doing. The obvious example is exercise, versus diet and sleep. Most people follow the typical advice to start exercising first, thinking this will improve their sleep and motivate them to change their diets. Instead, they spend all their willpower in the first couple of weeks and then fizzle out, going to the gym very infrequently afterward. I don’t think people should be trying to exercise at all, other than walking, unless they’re already feeling healthy and energetic.
So at this point, make a list of the big problems. Stuff that’s really getting to you- it ought to be cathartic merely to write them down, or else they aren’t really big problems. Ex:
1. Sleep has been crap lately
2. No energy during the day
3. Wasting all free time watching My Little Pony (not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
4. Unmotivated and ineffective at work
These problems need to be solved in the correct order, or else we’ll be wasting a lot of time and effort. In my case, I’m probably unmotivated at work because it serves no purpose, because I waste my free time on MLP, because I don’t have the energy for anything else, because I’m sleeping poorly. So I solve #1 first and wait a couple of days to see if that solves #2.