This post is for anyone out there who is constantly brain-wrestling, trying to find ways to get the most productivity out of “good mental health days” and minimize the damage of “bad mental health days.” No system works for everyone, but I’ve finally found one that seems to be working pretty well for me, so I’d like to share it in case it helps anyone else who (like me) has failed at pretty much any other attempt at time management.
Being a tactile person, I’ve always liked day planners, journals, notebooks, etc. more than digital forms of organization (though Google Calendar & its reminders have saved my butt on countless occasions). The problem with digital means (for my particular cognitive architecture) is that remembering to check them is an entirely mental process. There isn’t a physical object that viscerally feels wrong if it’s missing or in the wrong place. (People who habitually carry purses know what I’m talking about here; no matter how distracted you are, leaving the house without them feels wrong on a gut level.) A journal or day planner becomes something I’m used to having sitting at my right hand when I’m at the computer or next to my bed at night. Its physical presence, the space it takes up, reminds me to use it in the way that the mere existence of a digital calendar or to-do list doesn’t.
So I thought a bullet journal would be just the thing! Flexible, and the system allows me not to waste pages if I should happen to drop off the map for a week or twelve. But I quickly discovered that the standard way of doing bullet journals doesn’t solve my primary problem. My primary problem isn’t managing oodles of weekly and monthly deadlines or long term goals; I’ve long since pared down my life to realistically match my capabilities. My problem was with those pesky dailies.
My survival and mental health revolves around a staggering number of minuscule regular tasks that I cannot seem to mentally “automate.” And there is almost no system out there that lends itself very well to daily, endlessly repetitive to-do lists. This lack makes sense, as most people aren’t in a situation where they have to check off “brush teeth” or “shower” every day. They just do it. I used Habitica for a while; it’s an absolutely wonderful and motivating app, but a) not physical and b) it shares the problem of every daily to do list out there for me. As I come to realize more and more things I have forgotten to do daily without help, the list becomes a long mind-numbing column of text that’s difficult to properly prioritize and which leaves me feeling guilty on the days that not all of it gets checked off. Because some days I just can’t.
I looked up countless bullet journal hacks and finally found my salvation: Post-It flags. Which I was using for novel edits anyway! So I had them lying around.
Each of these flags has a permanent “home” on a two-page spread in my journal. They stay put there when not in use. Each day I turn to the next available blank page in my journal, write the date down, and then, instead of an interminable to-do list under it, I write:
That’s it. The Daily (orange) flags are those things that MUST get done every day, even if I have a migraine, even if I’m a sobbing mess for whatever reason. These are the things that give me the capacity to do other things. The things that, if skipped for even one day, could make my mental or physical health worse. (For example, if I don’t wash my face at least once a day, I basically start to grow scales, which doesn’t do much for my mood.) I try to make sure there are fewer than ten orange flags, and that they’re very basic things, because these are every day things, come hell or high water. If the number starts to approach ten, I reevaluate. Will missing one day be a big deal? If I can get by doing whatever the thing is 4-5 times a week instead of 7, I’ll downgrade it to a gold flag.
Gold flags are the things I benefit from doing daily, but it’s not a big deal if I skip a day (or even a week, in extreme conditions). These are things I can always “catch up” later if need be, or postpone, but that do incur a cost if I neglect them for too long. Language study, for example, or piano practice, or other things that need continual attention in order to advance. This category also includes responsibilities such as dealing with SFWA mail–ideally done daily but unlikely to destroy worlds if left for a day or three (when you work with deceased authors’ estates, there is rarely anything so urgent it can’t wait for a couple of days, which is why I felt confident taking the position in the first place).
Then there are the yellow flags, which are things I can get away with doing once or twice a week or less, but that I should check in with every so often. Reviewing the political situation and needed action, for example, or reaching out to a friend in a focused way, or taking a survey of our finances.
Here’s how the system works on a day to day basis:
Whenever I’m focused enough to Do a Thing, I flip to the flags’ “home page” and pick an orange one to do. When it’s done, I move it to today’s page. When I run out of orange ones that can be done at that time of day, the next time I feel up to Doing a Thing I grab a gold one, do it, move it over. As the day moves on, I gradually empty the flag “home” page, prioritizing by flag color what I choose to tackle next, and start cluttering up today’s. I don’t get to go to bed if there are any orange flags left on the home page, but anything else is done as spoons materialize. Then at night I move the flags back to their “home” spots, check the “Daily” box if I got all the orange ones, and then write down how many gold and yellow ones got accomplished. (The numbers matter because eventually I’m going to incorporate a reward system; I just haven’t gotten the spoons to do it yet.)
The reason this has saved my sanity is a) the flexibility it affords me to do more or fewer tasks on a given day without catastrophically dropping any balls, and b) the fact that, aside from the one-time effort of designing the flags, it can be done with almost no thought whatsoever. If I start to feel unfocused or indecisive I just open the book, note the darkest-colored flags left on the home page, do one of those basically at random. Because I designed the system when I was clear about my priorities, I don’t have to be clear about them when I use it.
As long as I use this system, my life seems to progress forward in a somewhat orderly fashion. I’ve fine-tuned some things such as putting approximately “morning” tasks on the left hand page and “evening” tasks on the right hand page of the “flag home,” but for the most part I don’t over-complicate it. I just try to move as many flags as I can stand to do each day, and the rest takes care of itself.
Best of all, on a bad day I just get to move all the flags back home before bed, same as a good day. No empty checkboxes glaring at me in perpetuity. The next day is a new start, a new chance to clean out that home page even more thoroughly. The numbers remain as a record, if I want to go back and look at my rising and falling productivity levels, but I’m not wasting pages and pages of paper on daily lists of things that may or may not be realistic to expect myself to do.
It’s possible this will make no sense to anyone, but I thought I’d share just in case it sparks an “aha” moment for anyone whose brain works similarly to mine. Post-It flags can be incorporated into a physical to-do system in any number of ways, so it might be worth experimenting even if the exact thing I’m doing doesn’t apply to you.