June Review

Pain in my shoulders has forced me to have a rest from ‘A Simple Life’
Little to report

To say that it has been a quiet month here on ‘A Simple Life’ is an understatement, as I haven’t written anything since my last monthly review. Unfortunately I have been having some problems with my shoulders caused by too much sitting at my desk and so after a day’s work I have been reluctant to then spend more time typing. I have found some videos on the Pilates website where I subscribe and have been adding them to my daily morning and evening routines. Fortunately that has been helping, but I think it’s going to take a lot more work to completely resolve the problem.

Like most people life has been fairly uneventful and I am still working at home. I must admit I have settled into the routine and I think that I am going to struggle when we get back to normal, which I think won’t be for a while yet. Obviously I miss the social side of life, especially a nice meal out, but I don’t miss all that driving for work. Whereas I used to listen to podcasts when driving for work, I now enjoy them on my daily walk. As a result my step count has increased. My daily target is 9000 steps and whilst there are some days when I don’t hit that, a lot of the time I do. Prior to lock down I was struggling to do 2000 steps some days.

We had a week off in June, which was meant to be a fortnight spent in France, but instead we stayed home and worked in the garden. I cancelled the second week of leave and plan to take it later on in the year. On one day we went fora walk, starting by going through a field with lots of orchids. It was a very hot day, but fortunately quite a bit of the walk passed through woodland. All that hot weather seems a long time ago now, as I sit here looking out at the rain on this mid-July day.

I’d love to be able to work just 6 hours a day
work

It has always been my wish to work part time, but the more I look at our finances the less likely I think it is to be possible, especially if I want to reintroduce some of the things that I have given up in order to try to pay off the mortgage and build up some savings. Recently I have been taking a different approach to work. When lock down started our work dried up for a couple of weeks and I was looking around for things to do. It was agreed that even if we didn’t work a full week we would still be able to claim full time hours on our flexi sheets. After that initial two-week slow patch the work has picked up again, but I have been working really hard on improving my productivity. You may remember I read Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, earlier in the year and I started to implement some of his strategies.

I have also discovered the beauty of ‘calendaring’. I no longer have a to do list. Every task has a spot on my calendar. There are daily repeated tasks such as ’emails and phone calls’. On the notes for that slot I list the calls and emails I need to make on that day. I can’t over-emphasize how liberating this feels. With a to do list you are never finished, as there’s always something left on your list. By calendaring everything at the end of the day you can see whether you have achieved everything that you planned to do. In fact, sometimes I finish my work day early, as I have achieved all of the tasks that I planned to do on that day.

What all of this means is that although the workload has increased I am still managing to work fewer hours every week that the 37 hours that I get paid for. It’s not that I am doing less than anyone else, it’s just that I am doing it more efficiently. I have started to wonder why we pay people for the hours that they put in rather than the amount of work that they achieve. I have been reading more books and listening to some podcasts on the topic of productivity and plan to continue to try to improve my skills.

My aim is to be able to achieve all of my work within 30 hours each week. If I can do this, by the time that life returns to normal, which may not be until well into 2021, I am hoping that I will be a pro at this. The question then is going to be whether I can persuade my employer, which is a public sector organisation, to continue paying me on a full time basis for only working part time. I would argue that if I can show that I am working just as hard, if not harder, than those people doing longer hours, why shouldn’t I be entitled to the same wage.

Close friendships is still a work in progress for me
personal development

The topic in my life coaching program last month was ‘Wanting from Abundance’. In essence, appreciating what you have now, but also wanting to change that, but without feeling unhappy about your current circumstances. One of the areas that I chose to look at was friendships. I think that I have probably written about this before, but I do struggle to find like-minded people. People who I can share my true feelings with. That’s probably why I enjoy reading and writing blogs as I can connect with people on the same wavelength.

The life coach said that I need to be honest with myself first and then open up to other people and they will respond and open up to me. It’s basically putting yourself out there and sharing your feelings and seeing the response in order to make connections with people. I must admit that this is an area that I am still working on. I think that at heart I am a ‘people pleaser’ and am worried about upsetting others. In my job as a social worker I am paid to be diplomatic and so it has become second nature to me. Maybe at home I need to relearn being true to myself, saying what I think and to heck with the consequences. People will like me or they won’t.

A colleague, who lives fairly close, invited me round for a socially distanced coffee recently. It was an open-ended invitation – if you’re at a lose end pop round. In the past I would never have taken her up on this offer and on reflection I think that this may be the problem. Other people are reaching out to me and I am ignoring them. Whilst I haven’t yet been round for that coffee I am off from work at the end of July, so plan to take up her offer then. I suppose the truth is that often we like to blame our circumstances for our situation, as opposed to looking at our own behaviour as the creator of our results.

spending

Life under lock down involves no spending on petrol or social activities, but the amount spent on food has been astronomical. The budget is £140, which is just for my half of the groceries and cleaning items. In June I spent £224.62. It has made me realise how expensive shopping in the small local stores is. Fortunately Tesco’s now have some delivery slots and so my spending in July is likely to be much smaller. Toiletries came to £18.44. I splashed out on some Pilates equipment, as it doesn’t look as though classes will be starting back anytime soon. Fortunately I am enjoying the online program and it makes it easier if I have the right equipment. I also bought four books – ones about improving my focus at work and finding my passion in life . Therefore miscellaneous spending came to £86.15. On the savings front they total £33,000 plus £8,000 put aside for a new car. We paid £1122.11 towards the mortgage, which now stands at £65,492.51.

So there we are. I hope that you are well and using this time wisely. Hopefully coming to terms with the new normal rather than fighting against the reality of a situation which none of us can change. Hopefully my Pilates will help with my shoulder problems and I will get a few more posts up this month.

May Review

Our calendar looks very empty
life in lockdown

So my friends, how are you managing? Fed up of staying at home and looking forward to lockdown being relaxed or worried about having to go out and happy to make the most of your time at home? I think that I am in the latter camp.

The impact on life in the Simple household struck me on the morning of 1st June when I turned the calendar over. It was a stark reminder of everything that we should have been doing over the next few weeks, from our village cinema night and the annual barbecue to a fortnight’s holiday in France. We did miss a holiday in May, but that was only to Pembrokeshire.

cancelled holidays

Our holiday to France is something that we have been doing ever since I met Mr Simple, but my efforts to save some money have meant that last year we didn’t go and the year before we just had a week self-catering in Brittany. The usual format is a week staying in B&Bs and a week in a cottage, or a gite as the French call it. Several years ago we discovered a wonderful place to stay run by a lovely couple. He’s from the UK and she is American. A stay with them is like returning to old friends. They provide a meal most evenings, which you share with them and other guests. I love it. There’s usually a mix of nationalities sitting around the table. After not seeing them for a few years we booked several nights there during our first week away, but have sadly had to cancel. I just hope that they are still there when life gets back to normal and that we will have another chance to stay with them. France will always be there to visit, but it is the people that I am missing.

In the week that we were meant to be going to Pembrokeshire we spent our time in the garden every day except one, when we went walking. Mr Simple worked hard clearing an old flowerbed. As we live near the coast the ground is full of large rocks which it takes a pick axe to get out. I had the job of cutting back the plants before he then dug out the roots and the rocks. We were lucky that the weather was warm and dry, although I am grateful for the rain that we’ve had since, as the garden is desperate for it.

Every day starts like this
making the most of my time at home

I am one of the lucky ones who is still employed full time. Ordinarily I spend some of my days at home in front of the computer, but now that happens every day and all of my interaction with other people is via telephone and Skype instead of face to face. I must admit that I don’t miss the travelling, which many days used to take an hour each way, but do miss the human interaction. One of the advantages of working at home full time is that I have been able to consolidate my morning routine. Previously there was great variation in the time that I had to leave the house each morning, whereas now I just sit down at my computer at 9am every day. Since I get up at 6am that gives me three hours to fill.

Our days always start with a cup of tea in bed, although obviously I do have to get up to make it. Our arrangement is that I do this on weekdays and Mr Simple makes a cuppa at the weekend. Whilst I am enjoying that I spend ten minutes journaling and then twenty minutes either reading or taking notes from a book that I have read recently. At the moment it’s ‘Make Time’ by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. It’s a really accessible book with lots of great tips and fun drawings. By 7am I am either on the treadmill doing a gentle jog and watching YouTube or doing some Pilates for half an hour. The exercise is followed by ten minutes of what I call ‘quiet time’. I’m not sure it’s meditation, but a chance to quieten my mind and heart rate after exercising. Finally it’s breakfast time, before showering to get ready for the day. Depending on whether I have to wash my hair or not I may have time to put some laundry on or to spend ten or fifteen minutes cleaning. At 8.55am I make myself and Mr Simple a coffee and then I am ready to start my working day. Having a morning routine gives me something to look forward to when I go to bed at night apart from another day of work.

Lots spent on feeding our feathered friends this month
spending

Like many people May was a quiet time spending wise. My budgets for petrol, social activities and physio sessions were unspent. Our food budget was slightly overspent for the second month running due to deciding to shop locally, totalling £124.98 for me. My miscellaneous budget was through the roof as Mr Simple bought bird food, I treated myself to some books from Amazon and we had a trip out to the garden centre during our week off. Having just added it up I can’t believe that it came to over £200.

In terms of savings, my year of stoozing has come to an end and I have paid off my credit card in full, as next month Tesco will start charging me interest. I’ve made well over £100 in interest in my Marcus account, by doing not a lot. Although they have recently reduced their interest rate it is more than most savings accounts are offering. I have left £8,000 in there because as I’ve said before I am likely to need a new car shortly. This may though be further off than I previously thought as currently I am only using it for the fortnightly shopping trip.

We’ve splashed out on a potting shed
saving

The cottage in Pembrokeshire was going to cost £500 for the week and the gite in France was over £600. We have received full refunds for both of these. Some of that went towards my miscellaneous overspend. During the outing to the garden centre we bought a potting shed, something that we have been planning for a while. This will give us more room in the two greenhouses so that we can grow even more veg. I was lucky enough to receive £200 from my mum for my birthday in April, which meant that I only had to find £202 myself for the shed. The rest of the holiday money has gone into my ISA, along with my usual contributions. I ended up investing £700 in May and with the bounce back in the interest rate my savings now total over £33,000. That doesn’t include the money that I have put aside for a new car.

Our mortgage contribution, including an extra large overpayment came to £1340.11 taking the balance down to £66,474.61, but with the interest added it’s back up to £66,531.70. At the moment I’m battling with the age-old problem of using that unspent money each month to make extra payments towards the mortgage or invest in my ISA. Last month was a bit of both, but in June I’ll probably just shove it all into my index funds.

I hope that you managed to enjoy some of the wonderful sunshine that we had during May. As I sit here writing this at the beginning of June it’s very grey and windy outside. It feels as though we’ve gone straight from spring into autumn and whilst, as I said, the garden is in need of some rain, I’m looking forward to some more sunshine over the coming months.

Planning a ‘Work Optional’ Life

open book
It’s time to look at another book that I have been reading
introduction

After my posts on ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport, I thought that it was time to go back to a book about financial independence and early retirement. The book that I have chosen is ‘Work Optional’, by Tanja Hester. This is partly about how to financially achieve early retirement, but also a lot about shaping your life – a life that you love. There is much less focus on the author’s story than other books that I have read, which I found to be a refreshing change. Instead, it is a step-by-step guide on how to discover what makes you happy in life and work out how you can make that a reality. Tanja also gives two other options apart from total FI/RE, which are semi-retirement, where you work part-time, seasonally or in a lower stress job and a career break.

As regular readers will know, my goal is ‘partial early retirement‘ and so her suggestions fit nicely with my future life plan. Since reading the book, then re-reading it and taking some notes, I have been meaning to work through it to consider what Natalie Bacon would call my ‘future self‘. As a way of introducing you to Tanja Hester’s advice I thought that I would do this here, on ‘A Simple Life’. In that way I can share her ideas with you as well as have a think about how I can put them into practice in my life.

At the moment we all have more time at home and I think that this is a great opportunity to stop and reflect on our lives, something which I don’t think that we do often enough. We are usually on that hamster wheel, not really thinking about where we are going or even where we’d like to be going. We tread the same old path we’ve always followed and inevitably we’ll continue to get the same results, rather than mapping out a new path and starting intentionally on a road to a more fulfilling life.

house on a tropical beach
You may get bored of this after a while
define your work optional LIFE

I have heard many commentators and bloggers talk about finding a purpose in early retirement. Images of FI/RE often feature tropical beaches with the implication that you’ll be spending most of your time there when you retire. The idea of ‘escaping’ the drudgery of the 9-5 for a sandy beach may seem attractive at first, but eventually you’ll get bored and want something more fulfilling to do.

I certainly know from my own observations of my parents, who are traditionally retired, that my mother seems the happier individual of the two. She has joined many clubs and made new friends since she retired, as opposed to my father who spends much of his day watching television.

For Tanja the idea is that before focusing on the financial side, you need to work out the lifestyle part. Only then do you focus on the finances and calculate how much your ideal life is going to cost you. Once you’ve done that you will have a vision in your mind about what you’re working towards, as opposed to saving and earning just to escape your current situation.

areas to focus on

So how do you do this? Tanja suggests six different areas that you need to consider.

Four people laughing
Remember the times which made you smile
Day to day life

Think about when you are happiest. For me this is when I am outside, especially if the weather is good. It doesn’t matter if that’s in the garden, a walk along the beach or a hike in the mountains. I enjoy feeling the sun on my face and spotting the wildlife.

This area also asks you to consider your hobbies. It’s likely that you currently spend some of your free time doing things that your enjoy, but may get frustrated that work gets in the way. When your life isn’t so focused on earning money you could decide to make time for your hobbies or even take up some new ones. What would they be?

Big picture dreams

For me my dream has always been to live in France. It’s a country that I love and where I have spent many happy holidays over the years. I have been asking myself why I like France. The climate certainly plays a significant part. Being able to spend more time outside and have guaranteed sunshine is definitely a major plus point for me. That is something that cannot be guaranteed in the UK. I have been thinking of more modest ways of indulging my passion for France rather than upping sticks and leaving for the continent. So far my preference is for extended holidays in France.

Mr Simple always points out that by buying a house you limit yourself to just one area of what is a large and diverse country. For me I have always liked the idea of not having to pack to go away. Having a place where I can just turn up and everything I need is there – a whole wardrobe of clothes that I just wear in France. There’s no unpacking, no working out how to turn the cooker on or where the nearest boulangerie is because you know all that already. I can though see what he means. An alternative would be to rent a house for a month or six weeks, which if you don’t work is possible. If I am in a semi-retirement phase only two to three weeks would be doable. That would give me plenty of time to start to feel at home and get to know an area.

Whilst thinking about travel I also realised that in the winter the weather can affect my mood. We live near an airport and many retired people who live in our village take advantage of that by going away during the cold months to the Canary Islands or Cyprus. I’ve realised that I want to be one of them – to have time away, say in November and February every year in order to feel the sun on my face.

golden retriever dog
We love dogs and would have more time post-retirement to look after one
Legacy and Purpose

This is about your contribution to society. What do you want to be remembered for? Mr Simple and I have become boarders for ‘Guide Dogs for the Blind’, which means that dogs who are in training live with us for a few weeks or months. This works well if you have a job, as the dogs are taken out in the daytime to train. On a few occasions we have been asked to look after dogs who are having a break from training and this has not always been possible due to our work pattern. If we both worked less we may not have to say no in the future. There is also an option to have a puppy, which you do for a year, but I’m not sure how that would fit in with my plans for more travel. And I am sure that I would really struggle to say goodbye to the dog after he or she was part of our family for a whole year.

Self-Worth

Many of us define ourselves by our professions and once we retire this is no longer an option. Isn’t it always one of the first questions people always ask when you meet them, ‘What do you do?’, but which we know they mean, ‘What job do you do?’ I was listening to an episode of ‘The Life Coach School’ podcast about visualising your future self when the world is so uncertain due to Covid19. Brooke Castillo suggests focusing on your personal qualities such as creativity. Whatever the world throws at you these personality traits will remain. So what will make you feel good about yourself when work is no longer your main focus?

Tanja recommends thinking about what you feel best at in your work. Are there parts of your job that you could continue doing, saying in a voluntary capacity? Think transferrable skills. Think as well about what makes you feel good about yourself outside of work. My profession is social work, which involves interacting with people from all walks of life and trying to help them sort out their problems. If I didn’t work any more I am sure that I could do some volunteer work which embodies these basic principles.

Over the past few months I have developed an interest in life coaching. This has some overlap with social work, although the families that I meet through my job tend to be in quite dire situations. Those seeking life coaching usually have more middle-class backgrounds. The common factor is one of problem-solving i.e. helping people improve the quality of their lives. Without necessarily meaning to do so I have begun to use some of the principles that I have learnt from life coaching when working with families. I also find myself quoting Natalie Bacon when talking to friends or Mr Simple. How it all translates into occupying myself during semi-retirement I’m not yet sure, but it’s an area that I plan to continue to develop.

a man and a woman
Who are the important people in your life?
Central Relationships

Do you have a significant other who will be sharing your ‘Work Optional’ life with you? For me that is Mr Simple, and although I talk about working part-time and planning how that will look, he is not interested in doing this with me. He believes that action is the key, whereas I like to spend more time thinking about things before I get on to the doing part.

As well as your partner, think about other people in your life who you would like to spend more time with. Once work is not such a big part of your life you should be able to make more space for them. If they live far away maybe finally you’ll have the time to go and stay with them. I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but friendships is an area where I struggle to find like-minded individuals. I know people, but the honest truth is that many of them are acquaintances rather than friends. If any of you have suggestions about how I can work on this area I would love to hear them.

Finally within this area there is your community. I live in a lovely village and have daily contact with my neighbours. Even during this period of lockdown due to the coronavirus there are frequent Whataspp messages exchanged between our group of neighbours and everyone is supportive of each other. We don’t plan to move from here and so this will continue and maybe even become a greater part of my life when I have more time to get involved in the activities that they arrange.

Life Logistics

Think about where you want to wake up every day. For me I am happy for it to be in our current home despite wishing the sun shone here a little bit more. Our current goal is to finish renovating the house so that we can spend more time enjoying it. Do you plan to stay where you are or are you planning to travel the world once you are retired?

path through a rape field
I love being outside when the sun is shining
Conclusion

So where are we? What is my semi-retirement life going to look like? After considering each of the six areas Tanja suggests that you consider the themes that emerge across the different categories of your life. For me I think that this is the outdoors, sunshine and animals.

So now hopefully you have an idea of what is important to you and the outline of a life vision that you can work towards. You may even want to write this out or create a vision board which you can stick up or have as your screensaver. Somewhere that you will look at it every day.

Next time we’ll look at creating your money mission statement, but that’s it for now. Until next time, take care, Sam.

April Review

Butterfiles on lavender
We’ve had lots of peaceful days in the garden in April – the weather has been amazing

I’m sitting here wondering if I have enough to tell you about, as life has become fairly quiet in the Simple household. To a certain extent it’s always been peaceful and calm, but the days have occasionally been dotted with some social activities. Now the evenings and weekends are blank canvases which I can fill with whatever I want – well obviously as long as it’s mostly within the limits of our four walls and garden.

scissors on green background
We all now have to learn to be our family’s hairdresser
spending

It has on the whole it has been a frugal month. I spent the princely sum of £2.20 on cleaning products and £27.98 on toiletries, which included two packs of hair dye. I am so glad that I started to colour my hair myself before the hairdressing salons had to close. The next task is learning to cut it or at least Mr Simple learning to do so. l am going to use Mrs Frugalswoods’ guidance on this as I have long straight hair like her, which hopefully shouldn’t be too difficult to cut.

My usual monthly Tesco delivery didn’t happen as securing a slot seems to involve getting up in the middle of the night to book and I’m therefore shopping at a small local super market. I have realised how cheap some of Tesco’s prices are and have gone without rather than pay over the odds. My food budget is £100 per month and yet in April I spent £170.00. Fortunately my miscellaneous budget of £40 wasn’t spent and along with the £50 I have for social activities, which again remained unspent, they more than covered this.

The food budget included a local veg box delivery. I used to subscribe to Riverford and then Able and Cole, but gave them up as an indulgence when we started on our frugal journey. At the beginning of the lockdown l searched online, but everyone was oversubscribed. A local service said that they could put me on their waiting list and then in April they had a space and have started delivering every week. Whilst most of what they deliver isn’t currently their own produce, as we are in ‘the hunger gap’, as the weeks go on it should all be from their fields which are with a couple of miles away. For the moment I am happy to pay for someone to deliver instead of making an extra trip to the supermarket.

The annual house insurance payment was due in April, but like all once a year bills l save towards it every month and so the money was there when I needed it.

blue petrol pump
Zero spent on fuel this month
saving

My petrol spending has been zero. I’ve also saved on my monthly physio appointment as they are currently on hold. The money I’ve saved went towards the mortgage. That took the overpayment for the month up to £650.00 and our balance now stands at £67, 774.76. It’s great to see it going down at such a pace.

With the interest rate on my index funds with Vanguard having plummeted in March, it’s recovered quite amazingly in April and the balance stands at £18,405.16. My total savings are £31,474.43, which doesn’t include money put by for a new car. I’m just paying in my regular amounts to my ISA and plugging away at the mortgage instead.

Mr Simple and I have spent a lot of time in the garden and it’s looking good. April has been such a hot month and we could have done with more rain. Our water rates are down to £28.50 per month, after being at £40.00 for a while due to having a new lawn laid a couple of years ago. Currently, the water butts are nearly empty. If we don’t have a lot of rain we’ll end up having to use the hosepipe to water the garden. l know some of you may be cursing me if I get my wish, but I would love a week of steady rain. Otherwise our bill may be on the rise again.

Woman in pink doing pilates
One day I might be able to do this – but not for now!
keeping fit and well

Due the lockdown my Pilates classes, like much of life, have become virtual. Since our teacher changed at the beginning of the year I have not been entirely happy with the pace and format of the class, but have tried to stick with it as I do love the exercises and feel the benefit of them. Having participated in a few virtual classes with her I decided to explore other online possibilities. I was so glad that l did as it led me to Jessica Valant Pilates and I have become obsessed. You can check out her free YouTube videos here, but after doing a couple of those I took the plunge and signed up for her ‘Unlimited’ programme. It costs just £107 for the year and you have access to all her videos, most of which are much longer than those on her YouTube channel.

Every month there is a suggested programme which includes two new videos. I was also able to attend a live class the other night which was free to Unlimited members. I love her teaching style which is very clear and she doesn’t go too fast. If you haven’t done Pilates before there is a ‘Jumpstart’ monthly programme to get you started. My previous classes have been £8 per lesson, which works out at about £400 if you did it every week of the year. With this new regime I can do Pilates every day of the year for a quarter of the price. What’s not to like?

In ‘Grow You‘, Natalie Bacon’s fantastic coaching programme, the topic was simplifying and organising your life and mind, which covered decluttering one’s environment and thoughts. I cleared out one of the pantry cupboards, threw a few things out and re-organised the rest. I also sorted out some of my study, where I now spend all of my work time. I have linked to Natalie’s podcasts on several occasions and the content that she produces is like nothing else I have come across. It is all about working on your mind and your thoughts to help you achieve your goals. If you haven’t listened to one of her podcasts I would really recommend that you give them a go.

a bee on a dandelion
Lots of weeds in the shady part of the garden
plans for May

It was my birthday in April and Mum sent me £200 which I am going to use to buy plants for the garden. Since we moved to this house five years ago we have not done any work on the right hand hide of the garden. That is the shady side and so more challenging horticulturally. l have made a list of plants that should be happy to grow there. At the moment it is a bit of on overgrown mess, but in May that will all change. We have a week off and originally we were meant to be going to Pembrokeshire, but instead we will have an unexpected staycation. Our plan is to work on the right hand side of the garden. Once it has been cleared I can spend my birthday money on some new plants. I will let you know how we get on in next month’s review.

For now, I hope that you had a peaceful April and are keeping yourself safe and well. Until next time, best wishes, Sam.

Draining the Shallows

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I’ve been making my way through Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’. So far I’ve given you a general overview and introduced you to his first two rules – ‘Work Deeply‘ and ‘Embrace Boredom‘. There are four rules in total, the third of which is ‘Quit Social Media’. This title pretty much speaks for itself – limit the amount of time that you spend on your smartphone. I’m therefore just going to skip to the final rule which is ‘Drain the Shallows’.

In this chapter Cal says that if you eliminate shallow work and replace this recovered time with more of the deep alternative, not only will your business continue to function, it can become more successful. Basically if you’ve been wasting alot of time scrolling through Instagram, when you stop doing that don’t then use that extra time to watch TV. Instead do something useful to move you towards your goals. So what are his ideas for achieving this?

Plan your schedule for every day ahead of time
schedule every minute of your day

I know what you’re thinking, that’s so boring, but I honestly believe that it is life-changing. Cal believes that we spend much of our life on autopilot, not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. I see this so often. People’s days lack any structure. Then all of a sudden that report is due tomorrow and they’re up all night writing it. Their life goes through peaks and troughs. They lurch from one crisis to the next, instead of being on an even keel. That may sound boring, but I can tell you, it’s a lot less stressful.

Cal recommends dividing the hours in your work day into blocks, assigning activities to each block. The minimum length of a block should be 30 minutes. The block tasks should be generic and you then make a separate list of the full set of small tasks that you plan to accomplish in that block. The life coach Natalie Bacon would say that you shouldn’t write “work on article”, but should say, “write 1000 words of article”. In other words, quantify the task that you want to have achieved at the end of that block.

How can you guarantee that you’ll allow enough time to achieve a task? You probably won’t at first, but you will get better as you go along. You will also have tasks that crop up unexpectedly. It’s rare than someone has a job which is entirely predictable. So, even though you’re going to write yourself a schedule, it needs to be flexible and you may have rewrite it as you go along.

I have recently moved to having only an electronic calendar and it makes this so easy. There’s no more messy paper diary with lots of crossing out. All my tasks and appointments are given slots on my calendar and as the week goes on they get moved around. Sometimes I put off a task until the following week. Other times, if something is cancelled, instead of wasting the space that’s been created I can easily see what I planned to do tomorrow and bring something forward.

Divide your day into activity blocks
Cal’s tips for scheduling
  • Over time you will get better at predicting how many blocks tasks require
  • Use overflow blocks – allocate the expected time a task will take, then follow this with a block that has a split purpose
  • Be liberal with your use of task blocks – lots of things come up in the day. Having regularly occurring blocks of time to address these surprises keeps things running smoothly. I have two 30 minute blocks a day where I deal with emails and make calls. Sometimes these get extended and other days they are shortened. I also use this time to create new blocks in my calendar for tasks that arise.
Work out what is ‘deep work’ and the rest is ‘shallow’
quantify the depth of every activity

Once you have a schedule you can determine how much time you’re actually spending in shallow activities. To determine whether a task is deep or shallow ask yourself:

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent graduate with no specialised training in my field to do this task?

Once you know where your activities fall on the deep-to-shallow scale, try to make more time for deep work and reduce the amount of shallow activities that you do.

Try to get guidance from your boss about deep work
Ask Your Boss for a shallow work Budget

Ask yourself or your boss:

What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?

Settle on a specific answer and try to stick to this. Obeying this budget will likely require changes to your behaviour e.g. saying no to some projects, having more mornings where you turn off all communication e.g. emails and your phone. You may decide it’s not as important as you once thought to respond quickly and in detail to every email that crosses your inbox. If your amount of shallow work increases over the limit you’ve set, your boss should agree to you saying no to things.

Cal comments that it’s incredibly wasteful to pay highly trained professionals to do things such as send email messages. When I read this I wanted to copy it to my management team as I spend a lot of time doing administrative tasks, as do many people in the public sector. I always feel that it is such a waste of me as a resource. Someone on the minimum wage, with half a day’s training, could do some of the tasks that I have to regularly complete. I feel that I could be a much more effective employee if these tasks were reallocated.

Your desk should be clear by 5.30pm
Finish Your work by Five Thirty

Cal calls this ‘fixed-schedule productivity’ – fixing a firm goal of not working past a certain time. I think nowadays many people are very poor at this. I think that it’s a result of a couple of factors. Firstly, many people do have too much work, but there are those who do seem to manage their time better than others. I think there’s also something ego-boosting about feeling that you have to be available all of the time. It’s like saying that your work couldn’t run without you, when in fact that’s probably not the case. I am definitely a fan of turning your work phone off at 5pm and on a Friday it stays off until Monday morning.

Email and instant messages makes us too available – you need to learn to manage it
Become Hard to Reach

Finally Cal gives a few tips for dealing with emails:

  1. Make people who send you email do more work e.g. sender filter laying out expectations e.g. I don’t always reply.
  2. Do more work when you send or reply to emails. Give full replies with specifics e.g. meet up times and locations to reduce the amount of emails back and fore. Each email will take more time, but save you time in the long run.
  3. Don’t respond

So there we are. If you’re like me and still in work, but doing all of it from home, you may have some more time to reflect on how you’re managing your work day. How about putting some of these suggestions into practice? You may find that if you put them in place now, once life gets back to normal you’ll be more productive than you were before.