There was a question on last week's time management post about how I tracked my time. This is what I did: I made a spreadsheet with half-hour increments down one side, 12 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and days of the week across the top. I kept the file open on my computer, and throughout the day, as I switched from one task to another, I filled in how I spent that time, trying to stick to broad categories. It got harder in the evenings and on weekends, when I don't usually use my computer. I'd try to hold in my head how I spent those hours and pop into the spreadsheet and fill it out as best I could at bedtime on weeknights and a few times throughout the day on weekends.
After one week, I really didn't think I'd want to carry on with the tracking. It felt way too neurotic, and I also felt like someone was looking over my shoulder, making sure I didn't waste any time. But I also saw the value of knowing how much time I spend writing, and how quickly I write. It was also helpful to know how much time I spend editing, so that I'd be better able to estimate how much to charge if anyone were ever to offer to pay for my services. It's also good to know how much time I put into my volunteer activities, so that in the future, I'll know where to draw the line. So for now I'm carrying on with the tracking, but only during "workday" hours and anytime I do work outside 8-5.
I don't always sit down and work on either writing, editing, or volunteering during working hours. Sometimes I go hiking. Sometimes I have appointments or errands to family things to deal with. But, when I do spend the day on my laptop, I try to follow a rule I put into place earlier this summer: do my own work first. For a long time, I'd clean out emails and approve essays and write things for other people and try to make sure everything I had to get done got done before I started working on my own, personal writing. The trouble with this technique is all that stuff is never, ever done. New emails pop into the inbox every second. There's always a backup of deferred tasks. I could very easily give all of myself to others, my family, my nonprofit organizations, my rare paying clients, and never get anything done that I want to get done.
I've read in several places about being clear about what's important versus what's urgent. There are always urgent things that want to command our attention—other people's needs and priorities—and it's very easy to continually triage so that the urgent tasks always slip ahead in line in front of the important things. The trouble is, there will always be more urgent things to take up your time and space and attention, and if you let them, they will completely crowd out the important work of writing that memoir or starting that novel.
So now I try to give myself an hour and half to two hours every morning to work on my own stuff, and even if it doesn't look much like work, as I page through old journals in search of material, and a full inbox is calling out for my attention, I stick to it. And do you know what? All those urgent matters are still there when I'm done, and they get taken care of in a reasonable amount of time.