Since I don’t have a 9-5 job, I’m faced every morning with a vast, intimidating landscape of possibilities for what to do with my day. It’s the way I’ve arranged my life — completely on purpose — but I’m not immune to fits of aimlessness, time-wasting, false starts, procrastinating by reading interesting blog posts or news articles, and so on. Best case scenario is getting up and completing the most important task of the day before breakfast. A just-as-likely scenario is puttering the entire morning away and not actually “getting down to work” until around 2pm.
Over the years I’ve tried a number of strategies to most effectively manage my time. I’ve tried rigid schedules; dedicating various blocks of the day to various activities. Those never stick. I invariably just do what I want to do when I want to do it. The efficient time management question is one I haven’t fully answered — a problem I haven’t solved. Once in awhile I’ll hit a good groove that might last for weeks or months, but that will be followed by a less focused (or even aimless) patch during which I make little or no progress towards my long-term goals. What’s the optimum strategy? What’s the best time-management algorithm for artists and freelancers who don’t have fixed schedules?
Are You a Multi-Classed Character?
I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons, and never really gave it up. Once in awhile I still paint miniatures, and I ran a short campaign a few years ago that was a blast (it was called Fickle Godlings and featured an evil druid named Megemus who wanted to destroy villages and farmlands in order to return them to their wild, forested state). I also love computer RPG’s (role-playing games) — some modern games of this genre manage to be both visually stunning and emotionally engaging (Elderscrolls Oblivion and Fable 2 are my personal favorites). Role-playing games in general keep getting more and more popular. Critics of D&D and RPG’s in general (both tabletop and MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft) accuse gamers of being everything from escapist to occultist, but the role-playing meme keeps growing.
The “character development” model that originated with D&D (choose a class or specialty area, improve your skills and “level up”) has now permeated into mainstream culture. You see the model in hundreds of games, and many famous movie characters seem more like role-playing game characters than anything else (Neo in The Matrix, for example, downloading the kung-fu skillset). Applying the RPG character development model to you own life, as a mental exercise, is fun and potentially useful. Seeing yourself as a character in a game-world can give you some helpful objectivity. What’s the overarching narrative of your character’s life? What skills is your character developing? What are your character’s desires, goals, and strategies?
Continuing this analogy, we can say that single-class characters — those people that choose a single skill area and dedicate themselves to it wholeheartedly and without distraction — in most cases advance most quickly. On the other hand, multi-class characters — those people with a myriad of interests who refuse to specialize in single area — advance more slowly, but ultimately end up with a more versatile skill set. Which are you? Fighter? Magic-user? Or Fighter/Magic-User?
I’m definitely in the latter camp. I’ve tried at various times in my life to focus on just one thing, but it never sticks. So I’ve accepted myself as a multi-class character.
Pitfalls & Benefits
As I declared in the first section, I’m still struggling with the question “What’s the best use of my time each day?” Do I have too many goals in too many areas? Am I a double-threat or a dilettante? Pitfalls of pursuing too many areas at once include:
- never putting in enough focused time in any one area to achieve mastery, not racking up the Gladwellian “10,000 hours” required to “level up”
- gaining only superficial knowledge and skills — dilettantism
- bouncing around from one activity to the next without clear goals
- feeling like you are following “inspiration” when you are in fact following moment to moment whims
On the other hand, if you can apply the right kind of discipline, there are possible benefits to to pursuing multiple skill-sets and/or careers simultaneously:
- by going with whatever activity is currently capturing your interest, you can spend more time in a state of flow
- you open up the possibility of rewards (income streams, kudos, career advancement) in multiple areas
- you create a sort of robust ecology in your life (ideas cross-fertilize, the whole system is resistant to crashes)
- you can fight with a sword and also project fireballs from your palms
So what is the “right kind of discipline?” While I don’t have a complete answer, I’ll share the strategies I’ve come up with so far.
Strategy #1 — Set Concrete Goals for Each Class
Perhaps your passions include violin, kung-fu, and vintage comic book collecting, and you also enjoy your day job as a nurse at a hospital. It’s worth considering what you ultimately hope to gain from each activity area. Maybe you decide that comic book collecting is just a hobby — you enjoy it but you’re not interested in turning it into a career buying and selling rare comic books. Playing violin, on the other hand, is something you want to take to the next level. So what does that level look like? Do you want a seat in a reputable orchestra? Do you want to perform regularly as part of a string quartet? What are your goals for you-as-violinist?
And what about your day job as a nurse? Is it just something you do to earn money, or are you interested in advancing in terms of skills, position/title, and pay? Maybe you decide you’re tired of the crazy hours at the hospital and you’d rather become a nurse practitioner and work in a private practice. With that goal in mind you enroll in a master’s in nursing program.
What about the kung-fu? You really enjoy it and don’t want to give it up. Also, your school doesn’t use a belt system so you can’t choose “become a black belt in kung fu” as your goal. Instead, you choose to specialize in the Five Ancestors style, with a special emphasis on the deadly Dim Mak pressure point strikes originally introduced by Hian Loo, the “Lady in the Green Dress.”
With your goals clearly in mind, you’re well on your way towards being a Nurse Practitioner/Concert Violinist/Five Ancestors Style Master. Congratulations!
Strategy #2 — Work Towards Long-Term, Most Important Goals First
It’s possible to get work done late at night. Possible, but unlikely — especially if you’ve had a long day and a glass of wine with dinner. The morning hours are likely to be more productive — for most people that’s when your head is most clear — when your mental energy is more focused. That’s a great time to get something important done. Kung-fu or violin practice maybe. For me — writing happens in the morning, or not at all.
When you don’t have one all-consuming passion, but rather several that burn brightly, you’ll need to prioritize carefully. If possible, consider what the top task or goal for the day is the night before. Then get up and complete that task immediately — before breakfast — maybe even before coffee. The sense of accomplishment will stick with you throughout the day and you may experience a cascade of productivity as a result.
Long-term goals often get pushed aside to meet short-term goals or immediate obligations. The consequences of not meeting our short-term goals and obligations are often quite clear (like getting fired if you don’t go to work, and not being able to pay your rent). Consequences for not working towards our long-term goals can be just as devastating, but they can sneak up on us. As in, Oops, my life went by and I didn’t really do what I wanted to do.
Strategy #3 — Say No Thank You to Time-Consuming Distractions
As a multi-class character, you’re probably a person who likes to say “yes.” You enjoy taking things on, trying out new things, and collaborating.
To some extent, you’ll need to fight this impulse. If you try to do everything that interests you, you’ll flail about and never have enough time to dig in and go deep into any one area. Cal Newport describes Steve Martin’s approach to success as “diligence” — a specific application of discipline via which you resist the urge to start additional projects and work on other things (besides your main goal). Newport, paraphrasing (or maybe quoting?) Martin, uses the phrase “ruthlessly whittle down your ambitions to a needle-thin point.” While we’ve already established that that’s not going to happen (we’ve accepted we’re poly-ambitious types), we can still apply Martin’s advice. We can still say “no thank you” to time-consuming projects that don’t directly further our goals. As often as not, the originator of these project ideas will be us — our own minds will find things to do to distract us from our essential work. Sometimes these ideas represent real inspiration — they can energize us and open new doors, but more often they’re just “fun” distractions that will grow into time-sucking monsters if we let them in the door.
For example …
A few years ago I got the bright idea to start an investment group. I invited some of my smartest friends, pitched them on my idea, and the Bling Trade Collective was soon born. We got together about once a month to discuss investment strategies, drink wine, and eat cheese. It was fun, and would have been a good idea if I had taken a more informal approach. But no — I wanted to do it right. We actually pooled our money, came up with a detailed partnership agreement, and started an investment club business. As the instigator I ended up doing the tax forms most years (both federal and state).
This project took way more time than I expected it too. It didn’t end in disaster — we actually made a little money despite the 2008 crash (“dozens of dollars” as we like to say) and we’re all still friends. The meetings themselves were fun. We never agreed on an investment strategy, but that didn’t matter. What I regret is actually making the group a business; this approach required large amounts of paperwork and more formal procedures for determining who was in the group, how we would decide and execute investment transactions, etc. I still need to file our final set of tax forms next year. The whole project is a perfect example of a giant distraction I invented myself that didn’t further any of my main life goals.
Starting the Dungeons & Dragons campaign was a similar experience — it was fun to return to my childhood passion and create a fantasy world from scratch (including an entire pantheon of gods and detailed descriptions of various ecologies and economies in the game world). But after a few months I realized, with horror, that running the campaign could easily take up 100% of my time. One of our players moved to Costa Rica and we decided to put the campaign on the shelf. Maybe D&D is something I’ll take up again if I ever retire (since I don’t play golf).
Back to you — our hypothetical kung-fu/violinist/nurse … perhaps your kung-fu master has asked you to teach the kung-fu youth class. You’ll be paid and your own membership fees will be waived. Plus, you love working with kids. But after careful consideration you decide to politely decline. Teaching the youth class doesn’t help you get any closer to any of your goals — it would just distract you. You’d rather use the time developing your strike techniques and working on your “monkey style” footwork.
Strategy #4 — Take “Creative Sabbaticals”
If you can arrange it, organize large blocks of time (at least two weeks) to dedicate to working on a single goal or project. Let people know you’re not available for other work during this “chunk” and then dig in. Use more self-discipline during this period of time than you normally would; force yourself to focus for longer periods of time and resist all distractions. You may find that you can accomplish an enormous amount in just a few short weeks.
I’ve used this strategy to get large blocks of writing or music composition completed. My other work (managing the label, database work for clients) tends to pile up during these sabbaticals. So I might work less on creative works in the weeks that follow, while I catch up. Still, it’s worth it to be able to focus 100% — to completely immerse my mind in creative work and problem solving — during that time.
You, as a violinist, have long wanted to master the notoriously difficult solo in Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1. You’ve quit your job at the hospital and now have some free time because your start your master’s in nursing program. You decide to dedicate two weeks to learning this piece, practicing at least four hours each day.
Strategy #5 — Find Ways to Waste Less Time
There are a number of strategies for “stealing back your time” that have been detailed by various writers. Here are links to a few:
- Tim Ferriss recommends the “Low Information Diet“
- Martin Berkhan recommends narrowing your eating window to 8 hours a day (which saves lots of time on meal prep and clean up)
- Zen Habits offers a long list of time-saving tips — everything from getting your kids to clean up after themselves to avoiding chatterboxes
Delegating, outsourcing, doing less, simplifying, having less stuff, being better organized, disconnecting from the internet — these subjects are receiving a lot of attention these days. All these techniques come down to asking yourself a couple simple questions:
- Does this thing I’m doing actually need to be done?
- If so, do I need to be the one doing it?
This kind of questioning and behavioral analysis is fundamentally different than stealing time from yourself — from areas like sleep, or fun times, or time with your family and friends. Your body, subconscious mind, family, and friends will forgive you for ignoring them for brief periods once in awhile, but if you regularly steal from these areas to make up for time you waste on the internet, farting around, faux-working, preparing and eating 5-6 meals a day, etc., then you need to re-evaluate.
That’s it! I hope all you multi-class characters out there found this post to be helpful.