Productivity

How Do I Do It All?

Photo by Gustave Deghilage under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

My friends and I were chatting about what we were wanting to accomplish in our collective futures. I mentioned the projects I had in progress at the time, and one of the guys turned to me and asked, “How do you do it all?”

After laughing off a ridiculous question, I thought more about it. He was serious, and he wanted to know. Finally, I said, “I don’t know. I’ll write it down.”

So here we are. This is what I’ve been up to, and my silly little secrets for how I manage to do everything and still live a happy and relatively stress-free life.

I’m Not Doing It All

First, my caveat: I’m not doing it all.

Yes, I balance many different projects and facets of my life, and I move them all forward with a decent pace. But, by having a multitude of projects on my plate, I don’t accomplish as much as fast.

I’m constantly re-evaluating what I’m working on and where I am in life. What I share here is where I am today (or where I was when I wrote this article). Even as I write this article, I am in the process of moving some projects off my plate and bringing others on. It’s a moving target, and what I’m doing will change for me over time, and I hope to continue to write on the subject.

What I’m Doing (My Current Projects)

I can break down all of the things I do on a regular basis into a few categories. I would guess you have similar categories in your life. They are:

  • Job
  • Family
  • Housework
  • Side Projects
  • Hobbies
  • Socializing
  • Exercise
  • Relaxation

If you’re confused about Side Projects and Hobbies, I look at side projects as being business ventures outside of your regular nine-to-five job, while hobbies are things you do for fun. The projects within both may be similar, but the motivation for working on them is what makes them different.

Considering that most people work full time (Job), are an active part of a family (Family), enjoy watching TV (Relaxation) and hitting up the occasional happy hour (Socializing), let’s forget about those categories for a moment. I will talk much more about them later.

In the remaining categories, here is what I am working on at the moment:

Housework

Gardening & Yard Reconstruction: Slowly I am helping my wife turn the overgrown and ugly lot we purchased into something a little prettier and much more manageable.

Side Projects

Writing A Novel: This is perhaps my most exciting project. I am in the process of editing a novel I have written in pieces over the last three years.

Writing 2 Short Stories: I’ve capped my number of active writing projects to three. In addition to the novel, I am working on two short stories. One is being edited. I am actively writing the other.

Building/Maintaining An Open-Source CMS Project: I’ve never loved WordPress and I had an idea for a new way to look at content management systems. I developed my own product and have been managing it for the last six months with minor releases almost every month.

Health Care Web Application: I joined a small, local team to build a web-based application in the health care industry. The main build has been completed, though we are actively adding features. I am the lead developer on this project.

Maintaining This Blog: To keep this blog nice and fresh, I attempt to average at least one new article every week. If I have shorter tech articles to write, I usually try to sprinkle them in among the longer ones.

Hobbies

Playing Music: I’ve been playing the guitar for several years now. I recently started playing with a local musician and we get together about one evening every week to either practice or play a few songs at a local bar (or both).

Exercise

Getting In Shape?: This one comes and goes. My recurring exercise is that I walk to work occasionally (about a four-mile walk). I try to make this happen every week, but I have not been good about it lately (and we’ll talk about why).

Kickball: Although this could also be classified as socializing, I am part of a kickball team in a local sports league. We play once a week and then go out for drinks after each game (or before, or both).

It looks like a lot when I write it all down, and at times it certainly feels like that. But I’m moving all of these projects forward, and now it’s time to show you how I do it.

Out of My Control

Variables exist in everyone’s life. I call them variables because they aren’t (specifically) the same for any two people. Some of these variables save time, some of them take up more time.

I’m in a situation where I believe the variables that save me time outweigh the ones that take up my time, leaving me (in theory) with more free time than the average person.

That being said, there are practices you can put in place to try to change your variables, and we’ll get to those later.

Here are my variables:

Things That Save Me Time

No Kids: I’m in that stage in my life where friends and colleagues are growing their families by creating tiny humans. I see how much time it takes these people to raise these tiny things, and it is significant.

A Hard-Working Partner: My wife takes the vast majority of the recurring domestic tasks off my hands. In addition to working full time, she does nearly all of the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and a good portion of other housework and yard work.

Naturally Self-Motivated: Although it isn’t always the case, I am usually self-motivated. I have a natural drive to want to take on a lot and to get it done, and done well.

Quick-Learner: I’m told I learn quickly. This means I spend less time getting up to speed with a new task, and it also (usually) means I find quicker ways of completing tasks sooner. Compared to what? I don’t know. I just know I move fast, and speed is an indicator in how much you can fit in your schedule while still getting things done.

Things That Take Up My Time

Owning a House: My wife and I bought a house. I, in no way, regret any part of that decision. I love owning the house. But, regardless of financial benefit or burden, it means a lot of time spent on the house, on those things you don’t need to worry about when you rent, like fixing the toilet, building a patio, etc.

Pets: We have a dog and a cat. The cat is low maintenance. The dog is not. Dogs take a lot of time to care for (although I sure it’s not even comparable to one of those tiny humans), and they affect how long you can be away from the house. But it’s worth it!

How I Do It (The Magical and Non-scientific Formula)

With that background, how do I manage to get everything done?

Like I’ve mentioned, I certainly don’t have this figured out. I know I am currently getting things done, so I know what’s working for me. Only time will tell how well these practices work.

I have several strategies I’ve enacted that help me accomplish my goals, but don’t take away from my happiness.

Sleep Less

There are scientific studies out there that show some people do actually need more sleep than other people. I am not one of those people. I have gotten my regular sleeping habits down to about six-and-a-half hours every night. And I’m currently testing my ability to get it down to six.

Try it!

You need to give your body time to adjust. Try shaving 30 minutes or an hour off your regular sleeping habits. Or, if you don’t have a sleeping habit, make one. Give it time. If you repeatedly feel drained after a couple weeks, then it’s not for you. If you feel about the same (regardless of what the same is), then keep sleeping less.

I used to say wake up early. But now I say sleep less because you need to determine where you want that extra time. I get up around 5:30 am and I don’t have to be in the office until 9:00 am. Subtract a shower and commute and feeding the dog and I get about two hours of side project work in every morning.

Some people like working at night. If that’s you, I’d also say …

Turn Off The TV

Got a little energy left at the end of the day? Good. Accomplish something else. Turn off the TV, or just use the TV as background noise and get some more stuff done.

I love TV, I just don’t abuse it. With getting up around 5:30 am, if I’m home at night, I’m usually drained by about 8:30 pm. That’s typically when I settle into the couch. I’d bet I average 1-2 hours of TV a night. I still think it’s too much, but it’s significantly better than plopping down right when I get home from work.

And when I say work, I don’t mean answering work emails, because one of the most important things is that you …

Limit Your Full-Time Job To 40 Hours

Seriously, stop answering emails at night. Stop answering them before you shower. And don’t run that extra report or do that one more task.

If you didn’t get it done within your 40-hour time slot, then you can’t get it done. You either have too much on your plate, or you need a new job (or both).

People who work 40 hours or less seem happier (based on my personal observations) and have to be more efficient. I mean, seriously, how fast do you think you’re running that report on your fifteenth hour of the workday? Turn the computer off and do it when you’re fresh. You’re working your life away.

I have found myself defending this, because although I keep my paid job to 40 hours, I’ve been doing similar work for another 20 or more hours on the side. I used to think that meant I was okay, I wasn’t working too much. I don’t think that’s the case, and that’s why I’m currently working on transitioning my side development projects into my day job, and leaving the side project and hobby time for different types of projects, like writing and playing music.

Learn to Say “No”

People often say their job requires them to work 60 hours every week. I think that’s absurd, but I know how some bigger companies operate, and how they feed off of competition among employees.

To that I say it’s more important that you learn how to spend your 40 hours wisely than it is to spend 60 hours. Let the little things slide away and focus on what will demonstrate you are achieving positive results.

One great strategy is to learn how and when to say, “No.” No is really powerful if used in the write way. And I wrote an article on just that subject.

Use Inspiration As Fuel

Inspiration can be short-lived. It’s important you take the proper steps to ensure that what you choose to spend your time on is worthwhile. You want to be working on projects where the inspiration will either persist or be recycled. That’s why you don’t want to begin a project immediately after coming up with your next big idea. Most ideas that feel that way aren’t that way at all.

I wrote an article on this subject to explore capitalizing on inspiration.

One topic the article discusses is how you should be able to …

Let Projects Die

Of course, you want to finish what you’ve started. And I totally agree that you should. You’re not doing any good if you start something and then kill it halfway through. Some of your projects need to be successful, or you at least need to complete them.

You also need to be okay with ceasing work on a project. Even if that inspiration is still lingering, sometimes you find scenarios in which the project just doesn’t make sense any more.

One way to make this happen effectively is to …

Constantly Evaluate

Reflection time is good. You need that time. And occasionally you should spend that time thinking if what you are doing is worthwhile or not.

Think about the side project you just started. Does it still make sense? Are you sure there’s nothing out there that will do what you’re trying to do?

Or, consider all the boards and committees on which you serve. Are they all in alignment with your personal goals and values?

Are you doing too much? What can you take off your plate? What isn’t as valuable to you and to the world?

Asking (and answering) questions like these can provide insight into what you may need to get rid of.

I’ve always had the attitude that when I need to solve a problem, I start looking for a solution that already exists. One such example is writing. I hate WYSIWYG editors, especially bulky ones like Microsoft Word, Pages, and LibreOffice. But just using Sublime and saving articles in folders wasn’t enough. And where did I put my ideas? Everything was spread around.

I couldn’t get happy with any one product. Nothing fit my needs exactly. So I started building one.

During one of my evaluation sessions I finally said to myself that there’s likely something out there that does what I need well enough that I just need to think about my problem differently and let someone (or something) solve it for me. And that’s why I’m writing this article using Ulysses.

A Centralized Goal

Another practice that has helped me is to always have a centralized goal, and to make almost everything you do support that goal. It can be simple. It can be I want to be happy as often as possible.

So, make what you do most of the time things that make you happy.

Instead maybe you want to be rich. Again, make sure what you’re spending time on is supporting that overarching goal.

I have found this also makes it easier to say “no” and to let projects fall away, mostly because it begins to objectify value.

Create A Schedule

Organizing your projects into schedules will help you work on more projects at once, while also ensuring multiple projects are progressing together.

I get up about three hours before I have to be at work, which leaves me about two hours for side projects most mornings. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I work on the writing project with the highest priority. And I work on the highest priority development project the other weekdays. I leave my evenings to be up for whatever is happening, whether it’s socializing, yard work, or music. And the weekends I am at home, I tend to try to stick to my highest priorities at the time.

Again, reevaluating your schedule is imperative if you want to continue to complete projects and not just tread water.

Social Strategically

There’s always something to do. You don’t always have to be there. The most difficult thing to overcome is people’s inherent ability to make you feel guilty. Once you start to learn how to do that, it’s a little easier.

You don’t have to be at every happy hour. It’s expensive and exhausting, and it seriously inhibits your (at least my) ability to get anything done once you arrive home.

Again, learning how to say “no” effectively will help.

Ask For Favors

I have found that people are willing to help you if they are passionate about the task you are asking, and if they don’t hate you.

Just ask. The worst thing that can happen (usually) is they say “no.” And by that logic, you need to be able to return favors. Not in a tit for tat sort of way. Keeping score is bad. But just in a way that feels right.

I have a coworker who occasionally makes runs to Starbucks. She grabs me a coffee. And every so often I grab her a beer at happy hour. One of us probably spends more that the other, but it doesn’t matter. We’re both happy and we both get something out of it.

My father is a lawyer. If I have a quick legal question I write him an email. When he has a question about the feasibility of a development project, he sends me an email. We’re both spending time answering each other’s questions, but they are on subjects we love to talk and write about.

I keep saying it. You need to be ready to return favors, but you also need to know when to say you can’t do something.

Oh, and by the way, everyone has time to help. If someone’s answer is, “I don’t have time,” it means they either don’t want to help you or it’s not as interesting to them as their other top priorities. Don’t be offended, but if you keep getting turned down for a favor, perhaps you need to rethink the favor. Or maybe you’re going to have to pay for the task. Or just do it yourself.

Change Your Variables

You can’t change all of your variables, but you can usually change some.

If your house is draining your life blood, perhaps you should think about going back to renting.

If you aren’t naturally self-motivated, then do some research and figure out how you can capitalize on your other traits to get things done.

Some things are out of your control, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change how you work with them.


The way I organize my life will continue to evolve, and I’m expecting to gain further insight over the coming years. As such, I’ll write more on the subject. But this life strategy is working well for me now, and I hope it continues that way.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article.

If you have any tricks up your sleeve that you’d like to share, drop me a line.

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The Polymath Lab will be closing its doors in 2017. Many articles here will be moved to Sean's Medium account, which is the space in which he is currently writing.