Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

My adventures in time-blocking (as a freelance writer)

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I don’t know about you but I’ve felt fatigued and disconsolate as the boredom of lockdown, the repetitiveness of things, has dragged down my usually shiny, enduring sense of creative vigour. I just haven’t felt able or motivated to do things. Sleep has sometimes been deeply comforting, yet also fractious.

Wanting to get back on the game, to be once more motivated, I thought I’d try a productivity technique. It’s known as time blocking. I first heard of it, years ago, from the Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You author, and professional Email hater, Cal Newport. He is a computer science professor and a proponent of this practice.

Time blocking involves making the time to draw up a fairly well sketched out plan or schedule for the following day. And, instead of making a simple list of things you need to do, you set aside parts of the day for certain tasks — that is, you block out time especially for the important tasks that most achieve your long-term goals. This is supposed to help you commit to the focused, concentrated, uninterrupted blocks of time to make progress on these goals — rather than having those sundry, seemingly urgent, but ultimately arbitrary tasks take up all your energy. A diagram will probably explain things better.

An excerpt from the blocked out schedule I made for Monday 1st March.

On a Sunday, I drew up this flow chart (above), describing what I’d do the next day, with my time carefully allocated. You might notice that there are long breaks but with time-blocking the underlying principle is that you spend the work-blocks focused on what Cal Newport describes as deep work (writing a chapter of a novel, for example, or making real progress on a graphic design commission, say).

It felt comforting knowing that I wouldn’t need to expend unnecessary energy having to think “now what do I need to do?” once certain tasks were completed. I only needed to follow the plan, like a happy automaton. After all, there can be freedom and contentment in following instructions, as anyone who’s played with Lego will know.

Let us cast aside the ridiculous notion that creativity is best kindled in an unstructured burst of spontaneous genius. It just doesn’t work like that, for most people. But discipline, putting the work in, and following certain procedures, rituals, programmes, can be enormously fertile and productive. Freeing.

A sample of Ulysses, a poem by Lord Tennyson

So Monday started. And, of course, my lovingly crafted schedule was immediately blown apart by a chance connection with some copywriting work coming from China. The connection was simply too rich a possibility to cast aside, so of course I followed up on it. But no matter, I simply adjusted myself. And for the rest of the day, it did feel liberating to just follow the plan. To look down at the plan and know, quickly, certainly, what I needed to be doing next. I was not able to get to all my tasks – something which I did not beat myself over – and I added annotations to each time-block, noting what I did instead, what I had still to do, and what I achieved outside of the confines of the schedule.

Tuesday, and I just carried on with the unfinished tasks from the previous day and I neglected to make a flow chart, to time block. I worried.

Wednesday – I had a phone call with a news assistant based in Shanghai. Then, later on, I had an existential crisis. Again, I failed to make a time-blocked plan. I wondered about the need to constantly work – to be productive. I looked at all the advertisements crowding my social media, the webpages I visit, and re-embraced my deep suspicion of capitalism.

Do I really want those things? Should I work myself to the ground in order to afford these items which are so adamant about me wanting to desire to possess them? But what about my ambitions, my goals? HMMMMM.

Thank you capitalism for helping make these Bluetooth earphones, which give me joy.

Thursday was better. I cannot put my finger on exactly what it was, but it may have to do with the fact I was on a rather celebratory Zoom call, with heartfelt emotion connecting me with a host of humans, and it was a beloved feeling, far from the madding crowd of capitalistic greed. I also went for a jog, listening to Daft Punk (rip), feeling Alive and Discovered.

Friday, I did some work early on, then I cooked Moroccan lamb for my family, with apricots and cumin and the warming colours of North Africa displacing the gloom of British weather.

So, yeah, that was my rather unsuccessful experiment with time blocking. If you want more of my advice, I can send you a postcard.

Amid winter, I found there was, within me, a summer.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 6, 2021 at 6:24 pm

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