I get asked a lot about how I manage my time. And I think that's hilarious. Because time isn't something I've figured out how to manage. It's more like I've worked out ways to not only keep my head above the water, but also to ride the waves. 

I'm a time surfer. Cool.

The reality of my schedule is that I try very hard to keep daily routines in check, and once I've accomplished some of the essentials, from then on I'm just drifting with the tide.

I've tried using calendars to keep everything straight and keep the trains running, and that does help. I know when appointments are, I know when to sit down for a chat with someone or when to make a call to interview someone for one of my shows. I'm good with externally imposed deadlines, even if they sometimes drive me to drink.

I've tried using that same sort of deadline-oriented organization to tame the sheer volume of work I've brought on myself. But it's funny—I've discovered that when it comes to the tasks and deadlines I set for myself, I'm not quite as able to keep it all balanced.

If there's an outside influence—if I have to accommodate someone else's schedule—calendars are wonderful tools. If I have to simply cram all the tasks I've set for myself for the day into that narrow space, however, calendars are just a nuisance. They become a reminder of how much I'm not doing. They stress me out.

My friend Nick Thacker gave me a framework that I find a lot less restrictive. Instead of scheduling everything as microtasks throughout the day, he suggests creating blocks of time throughout the week that are meant for types of tasks. For example, Monday afternoons from 1 PM to 5 PM might be meeting days, where you circle up with a team or schedule client calls. Friday mornings might be podcast days, where you do nothing but record and produce a show. Maybe there are blocks of times for interviews, and blocks of time for exercising, and blocks of time that are for writing. 

The important thing to remember in creating these blocks is that you also want to create blocks for more fun activities, for the stress relievers of your life. "Play video games" could be a block. "Go to the movies." Maybe "play soccer" or "go rock climbing." Whatever makes you feel more human than task-completing robot. 

And, of course, "Family time." That has to be a block, too. Maybe the biggest block. What good is all this other stuff if it keeps you from family, the pointiest of points to existence? 

I may not be doing this time-block process justice, actually. I haven't done this to any great extent, I just admire Nick for having implemented it in his life. 

I use a similar approach, though. Maybe I'm not quite as organized about it. I have blocks of time each day to write journal entries, and then this blog, and then the books. And I have blocks of time during the week for recording and producing podcasts. I've blocked off time for circling up with people I admire, friends who help me think through what I'm building, who offer advice and insight and reality checks. So there's that. 

All of these blocks have to be fairly flexible, because other outside world stuff tends to intrude and nudge me out. I end up having to use writing time for something else every now and then, and that throws that block out of whack. And if I'm not careful, that cascades into a day of me grousing that my routine was screwed up, and I end up eating a bag of chips and watching TV instead of maybe doing something productive and less artery clogging. 

So instead of dedicated blocks of time, I tend to manage my workload by daily goals. I set daily word targets for my books, and as long as I hit those somewhere in the day I'm good. I set a goal to write a journal entry and a blog post every day, and as long as I get those done, I'm good. I set a goal to record three episodes of my podcast during the week, and as long as I hit that goal I'm good.

It's fluid. It's flexible. But somehow it works. I get everything done. 

Maybe it's the combination of that fluidity with having some set blocks of time. I know that if I don't get something done during its assigned block, it still has to get done. The goal becomes the target for the block, instead of the target being the time itself. 

Of course, on the weeks when I don't get everything done, I get stressed. But I've been learning how to cope with that. 

On a given day I might actually put it on my schedule to do something specific. "Write autoresponders" might be something I schedule for 2 PM today, for example. It's not something I set up a week in advance or anything, it's just the result of me looking at my list of Reminders, then looking at my calendar, seeing I had a block of time at 2 PM, and then filling it with something I knew I could do in that time.

Which brings me to an important piece of time management I left out: Reminders. Or a to-do list. Or a bucket list. Whatever you want to call it, it's good to have a checklist of tasks you can refer to and clear as each item is done. I use the Reminders app from Apple, but you could also use Evernote or One Note or Asana or any other task management tool. 

I create my to-dos, and then on days when I have chunks of free time in my schedule I put one or two of those tasks on the calendar at a specific time. I try hard not to overwhelm myself by scheduling too many, or scheduling tasks that can't be done in the one or two hour space I have. But doing this has helped me knock long-standing "I'll get to it" tasks from my list.

It all sounds so chaotic, doesn't it? 

Maybe it is. But it's working. I'm getting much better about keeping on task and getting a lot of things done. And I'm refining the process as I go. I'm getting better about putting all the niggling little worry-stuff on the Reminder list, and worrying about it after I get the priority stuff done each day. Sometimes, when I'm really on task, I get my priorities knocked out early, and then I can take a look at that list and see where something could fit. And those are really good days.

So let's sum up:

Kevin's time management process is—

  • Create a task list (Reminders, to-dos, etc.)
  • Create blocks of time when things would usually get done
  • Set goals for repetitive tasks (daily writing goals, daily exercise goals, etc.)
  • Try really hard to hit each goal during its regularly scheduled block of time
  • If you fail, remember that that point is the goal—get it done and you're good, regardless of when it gets done
  • When you have gaps, or if you finish a goal early, look at your Reminders and plug something in

Time isn't something we can manage all that well, I think. I can't, anyway. I'm not going to be able to dictate whether or not distractions happen, or whether or not a daily routine gets derailed. But with a more flexible approach I can use time the way ships use currents. I can't change the direction of an ocean current or the tack of wind, but I can leverage the systems and resources of my craft to get me from point A to point B anyway. It'll take course correction, from time to time. It'll take improvising every now and then. It will take finding safe harbor here and there. But time can be navigated.

That's how I handle my schedule. Sort of. It's evolving. But how do you handle yours? Maybe we can share tips, and get better at this together.


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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