Time management when you’re terrible at focusing

My name is Patrick. I’m a designer at DesignMap.

This is a blog post about productivity, and how to be productive. It is also about overcoming anxiety and a general lack of focus. These issues, which spurred a deep dive into personal productivity, started in childhood and followed me into adulthood. Through hard work and personal investigation I was able to break them down into smaller issues and find solutions to them. Today I have a framework for dealing with personal time and task management that you may find helpful.

First off, I’ve always struggled with focusing on the task at hand. I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was very young. It’s a disorder that gets joked about frequently, but it’s helpful to remember that it’s an actual illness that can have serious side effects like depression and substance abuse. And despite what people say, some of us don’t grow out of it.

http://www.chadd.org/Understanding-ADHD/For-Adults.aspx

For years I used ADHD as a catch-all to describe my frustrating inability to manage my tasks, manage projects, and maintain a decent work life balance. Besides late nights at the office and strained relationships, I had frequent, overwhelming anxiety. After some career and personal success I recognized this was a major blocker to where I ultimately wanted to be.

Through working through a few intense rounds of career coaching, working with managers, and therapy, I saw that my original impression of my ADHD and anxiety was simplistic. It broke down into several smaller issues.

Lack of Present Time Awareness

My brain stores a pretty small amount of information at any given time. So it is difficult for me to be aware of the amount of time I am spending on any given thing. And it is impossible for my brain to store a list of tasks and methodically cross them off.

Without a plan and regularly checking against it, I quickly lose track of what I need to accomplish and where I’m at along the path to completion. I sink excessive amounts of time into some tasks and get distracted by others. And before I know it, my day is a mess.

Lack of control and feeling overwhelmed

Big projects and complex tasks feel too large and I don’t know where to start. I panic. In a mad dash to quiet my internal anxiety I pick the easiest thing to do instead of the most strategically important.

Dependence on others for approval

Without useful planning and coping skills, and little in the way of a good internal barometer of success, I depend heavily on other people’s approval for validation and allow other people to set direction for me. This usually comes at the cost of personal health and is exemplified by an inability to set appropriate boundaries and barriers between work and personal life.

Solutions

I’m happy to say that I’ve largely tackled these issues. I’m not entirely rid of them, and now and again a good crisis can come along to throw off anyone’s equilibrium. The simplified description of my solution is to have an organized set of tasks, from high level items like career and project goals down to granular hour-by-hour time management, organized and maintained. I build these tools in such a way that I can share them with coworkers, clients and superiors to make sure that my ideas are realistic. It’s important to get a reality check now and then with those around me while still setting the direction myself.

High level plans (one week or more )

On a project by project basis I create a large list of dates and milestones that help situate my work in the larger context of a project and large chunks of time (weeks, months) or phases of design. Of everything I create, this is most frequently socialized.

Time inventory

A daily inventory of where my time goes. This started as a limited experiment. However, the act of regularly recording my time drastically increases my awareness of how long I spend on tasks. So now it is a daily habit.

The important parts of an inventory are

  • Time cataloged to the ¼ hour and tagged
  • Tags : Studio, design, break, admin, coaching
  • My Intention : How I want to feel at the end of the day, the big emotional goal.
  • Task list: What I think I’ll need to do today
  • End of day review : My day ranked from 1 to 5, and a reflection on whether I met my intention
  • What I could do better : a quick piece of advice for the version of me that shows up tomorrow morning

It is very important that I make the basics of my inventory the night before. I reserve the last 15 minutes of my day to look over the tasks ahead and my agenda for tomorrow. Getting to work in the morning and trying to remember all the events of the day before is futile. Having my tasks laid out as soon as I arrive to work makes it easy to get to work quickly.

A regularly updated non-design related task list

This can take many forms, be it Trello (which I use at work), Habitica (which I use at home), or a piece of paper. I use my to do list to track things other than the primary design work, such as filing expense reports, checking in with someone, cleaning my desk, etc. It also serves as my repository for career goals.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to matter if I check this all that much once I’ve written it. I tend to remember whatever I’ve written down. It also doesn’t seem to matter much whether or not I hand write it versus typing it.

Micro tacker (toggl)

www.toggl.com/app/

I use toggl to track small tasks (15 minutes — 1 hour). It’s good for days when I have a lot of tiny things to accomplish, particularly small design changes.

An inventory of design tasks and changes

Large software designs can be an exercise in complexity. So I record and track design changes in a spreadsheet along with feedback I’ve received from clients. I assign statuses and due dates to areas of the application that need design work and have used these with clients to get consensus on what needs to be done.

This is the primary way I track design issues, especially in larger designs. It’s useful for getting the net amount of changes and estimating work.

Wrapping up

You can think about managing tasks like a classic oil painting. A good painter starts by fleshing out large areas of the canvas (career and project goals), then layers in large details (project plans and milestones), and progressively builds up to tiny details like the pupils of eyes or the details in fabric (daily to-dos). The overall goal is to have workload built and managed in logical, interdependent layers.

Why does this work (for me)? Mapping out the larger goals and milestones of a project makes even large tasks feel attainable. Keeping tabs on my time increases present time awareness and prevents me from getting too far off track. Regularly checking off tasks and routinely seeing progress makes me feel accomplished, so I depend less on others for validation. Finally, having things broken down into simple, easy to accomplish steps means I don’t have to think about what to do next.

Feel free reach out if you’ve struggled and / or are struggling with time management and anxiety, or want to share your experience with ADHD. You can shoot me an email at patrick@designmap.com or find me on Twitter at cupandcone.