I began a “sabbatical” from regular work-for-someone-else life about a month ago. I work from home. I have a startup. I want to accept just enough work to get by financially (but not more than that). I want to achieve that some kind of illusion of work-life balance. I want to exercise more. I have several passion projects that I’ve wanted to spend time on for a very very long time.

If you’ve ever had a period of time like this (or if you just work remotely), you know that finding some kind of structure to your hours, days, weeks, and projects can be daunting. If you’re not careful, you always feel guilty about what you’re doing. I spent two years working remotely for a European company, and found that tracking the hours I actually worked was helpful for bringing balance to the remote working life. But I hate bookkeeping and so I evolved a simple system of moving glass pebbles for each hour I worked during the week.

Now I’ve modified this system to include a breakdown of how I want to spend my hours, and specific goals I have. At the beginning of the week, I have a clean slate for hours/goals I want to accomplish (and it can vary from week to week):

fluid-work-full-slate

The full slate for last week included three exercise goals (hit daily step goal, meditation/yoga three times, strength training three times). Also in the work-life-balance category, I had a personal writing goal of 6 hours a week. You can see the bulk of my time for the week should be spent in working on the startup (roughly 3 hours a day) and accumulating some billable hours (roughly 4 hours a day).

As each day progresses, I simply move the right “pebbles” into the accomplishments for the day. This creates a nice feeling of accomplishment, and as I look back over the week, I can see the patterns to my days. Here are 4 days from last week.

fluid-work-4-days

When I’m not feeling very “work” productive, I simply focus on getting other goals I can accomplish until I feel more productive. On some days that means I can absolutely justify going for an hour-long walk outside in the sunshine, because I have a step goal to reach. Other days (like today) it means permission to spend an hour writing a blog post (personal writing). Sometimes, the pebbles validate my feeling of not being productive enough, and motivate me to do better. Other times, the pebbles show me that I’m spending too much time on a particular project and ignoring other places where I need to focus my attention.

I’ve tried using apps for doing something like this (HabitBull is a good one), but I find that an app is too easy to ignore. If I put the collection of pebbles for weekly hours and goals somewhere visible, it is a daily reminder of what I want to be doing with my time and helps me to meet those goals.

I think this same sort of strategy can be helpful for anyone who is trying to steal back their time to reach a goal, whether that be studying for a degree, trying to meet an exercise/diet goal, writing a book, or spending time with your family. We live in an age of distraction. You have to actively steal back your time from the Internet and digital distractions in your life to accomplish your goals.

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