The Value of Time-Blocking Your To-Do List

August 3, 2020

Creativity / Culture and Society

As far as modern productivity goes, the standard to-do list has become a primary tool that allows all of us to get several tasks accomplished. Its simplicity is as perfect as its functionality. Not only does it declutter our minds, but it also helps us to remember important tasks that can get lost during a hectic day. Once an item on this list is sufficiently addressed, it can be crossed off with a satisfying slash of a pen. It is practically a work of art in and of itself.

I do not wish to take any glory away from the marvelous to-do list, but I have found that the addition of time-blocking to any to-do list increases its effectiveness exponentially. As an independent filmmaker who makes short films every week, reads lots of books, actively plays three musical instruments, and cares for an entire household of plants, animals, and furnishings, I need the effectiveness that this provides. Time-blocking gives my creative life the space to flourish every day.

Take for example the simple act of meeting up with a friend for coffee. It would never be enough to simply say “Yes!! Let’s have coffee some day!”. A mutual agreement that the meeting is desired does not in any way fully guarantee that it will ever happen. Now, if you commit to a specific time and place for the coffee meet-up to occur, then the value of the commitment and the likelihood of it materializing virtually quadruples.

When you assign a specific time of day and timeframe for a task to be accomplished, you are time-blocking.

To give you a real world example, let’s compare a (highly fictionalized) simple to-do list with one that incorporates time blocking:

Saturday Morning To-Do List:

  • Call Bubba about “The Party”
  • Order pink leggings
  • Dig a hole 4’X6′ in the back yard
  • Buy formaldehyde at corner store
  • Look up Lemon tart recipe
  • Eat vinegar

On the one hand, it is beneficial that all of this written down. A person can simply choose any task at random and just do it. What this simple list does not do is prioritize the more valuable tasks, and it does not take into account how long each task will take. (Digging a hole of that size without a big machine will take a while.)

Here’s the same list with time-blocking added in:

Saturday Morning To-Do List

8:00am-10:00am—Dig 4’X6′ hole in the back yard

10:00am-10:30am—Look up Lemon tart recipe

10:30am-10:45am—Order pink leggings

11:00am-12:00noon—Go to the corner store to buy formaldehyde and call Bubba about “The Party” on the way there

12Noon—eat vinegar for lunch

Notice how the most difficult and time-consuming task of digging that hole takes top billing. Prioritization is a key element here. What I also like about time-blocking is that it formalizes the task into more of a commitment. It also gives you a sense of what you can realistically do given the amount of time you have.

In my experience, there is one caveat that I need to explain. Time-blocking can be difficult to implement if you’re not used to it and can take a lot of trial and error to tweak.

Here are some helpful tips that I have learned as I have worked toward implementing time-blocking in my workflow:

  • Instead of trying to time-block an entire day or workday, do it within smaller chunks of tine. For example, I generally divide my day into two time-blocked ranges. One chunk extends from around 8am to 12noon, and the second chunk extends from 12noon to 5pm. I do not plan out the second chunk until noon. I do this because events can happen during the day that can derail your well laid plans. Priorities can shift, and surprises happen. By delaying the planning of the afternoon, I allow for some flexibility and spontaneity.
  • I use a digital calendar for my time-blocking. I tried using a physical notebook at first, but it got a little too messy when I have had to shift tasks and timeframes around throughout the day. The digital calendar that I use lets me move items up and down along the day’s schedule as well as color code different groups of tasks such as “house chores” and “client work”.
  • Exercise the freedom to be as specific or generalized as you want. For example, you can allot small chunks of time to micro-tasks that would not take an entire half-hour. For example, from 5:10pm to 5:15pm, you can send that text file you’ve been meaning to get out to your co-worker, and then, from 5:15pm to 5:30pm write out your shopping list for your stop at the grocery store on the way home from work. Otherwise, you can just say “house cleaning’ from 9am to 11am and group all related tasks together under that heading without being so specific. I actually do both of these depending on the tasks at hand. If I have a lot of small but important tasks, time-blocking down to the minute has helped to keep my momentum going and to be more detailed and methodical in my approach; however, this is generally not necessary all of the time.
  • Give yourself plenty of buffers. Each big task I assign almost always has at least a half hour of extra time already built in. I might give an hour to a task that only needs a half hour. This gives me more time to finish the task with less pressure and allows space for interruptions. Time-blocking does not have to be rigid at all if that’s what you prefer.
  • Think about incorporating tasks that have more of a long-term significance in your life. If you have a huge project that will take months to finish, time-blocking small parts of your day to work on it will progressively get you closer to finishing.
  • Do not time-block every minute of your life. You can make your evenings and weekends completely schedule-free for example. Make time to decompress without a detailed schedule that incorporates doing nothing, chillaxing with a good book, or anything fun you like to do. Your mind and body will always need a break from being on your “A” game.
  • Think about time-blocking across an entire week or a month. This practice is not restricted to a daily schedule and can be adapted toward long-term goals and dreams.
  • Lastly, be gentle with yourself. I have had mornings that were completely derailed by an unexpected event or with meandering on Etsy trying to find a birthday gift for a friend. Don’t beat yourself up. Simply review your to-do list and re-do the schedule. It’s all good. You’ll still have the satisfaction of getting through your work in a systematic and organized fashion eventually.

I need to reiterate that this might be quite difficult to implement depending on your work style and environment. If you work in an office space that requires constant email exchanges and phone interruptions, this would be extremely tough to carry out. However, it is a worthwhile pursuit to try incorporating this into your day. For myself, it has VASTLY improved my workflow and helps me keep my time and priorities in perspective. Play around with different time chunks, or use time blocking to fine-tune a daily ritual that addresses short and long-term goals.

All of this might feel like extra work, but remember that this is all up to you. You can do this in any way that works for you.

Be creative, but most of all, give yourself the benefit of at least giving time-blocking a try. This is what I have done, and it has given me more control over everything and the life-affirming satisfaction of having a plan for getting my life together in a way that suits all of my needs and desires.

How I Cultivate Creativity Every Day

July 27, 2020

Creativity / Culture and Society

Creativity is a tricky concept. In my experience, it can be both omnipresent and elusive at different times. It is omnipresent in the form of play and free-form art like doodling and improvisational dance. It is elusive when it needs an inspiration and compulsion to drive it.

A composer hears a melody in her head.

A writer envisions a meaningful story.

A manager needs to solve a big problem in his team’s workflow.

Today, I am addressing that elusive form of creativity that results in a desired work of art or a clever solution to a difficult challenge.

How does one get into the necessary headspace to come up with new solutions and techniques?

As a songwriter, I think of an idea for a song and eventually end up with the actual song in a finished form with music and lyrics. This same process has happened with blog posts and the short films I have made. I have done this often enough that I have developed my own ways of cultivating my creativity. My methods may not work for everyone, but they have yielded satisfying gains in my life.

In no particular order, here are some of my keystone practices:

    Unless there is an actual deadline to meet, I am the kind of artist who lets ideas percolate and gain momentum along their own time. I have written songs that took a year to coalesce. For a documentary film I completed last year, I spent several months just letting the whole concept of it bounce around in my head. I have found that forcing art to happen in a way that applies too much pressure on getting a specific result is a recipe for a finished work that is noticeably contrived. When I allow an idea to germinate slowly across time, I get the chance to delve deep into the roots and nitty gritty of it. In this sense, the process, beyond even the actual piece of art itself, becomes more surefooted, and the learning grows much deeper.

    There can be important progress in times of stillness. In the mornings, I sometimes lie in bed awake before getting up. I may look like I am staring up at the ceiling like a zombie, but internally, I am working out a problem in my head or mapping out the workflow for a film project. At my desk in my studio, I quietly sip my warm morning coffee as I mull over a concept in my head. The best thing about mornings is the freshness with which I feel my brain approaches anything I throw at it. Sure, there may be an initial groggy fogginess, but beyond that, a rested mind forges a path toward clarity and focus. My mornings also tend to be quiet. The lack of noise pollution opens up expansive fields of contemplative space.

    Every day, I go on a solitary walk for one hour or for 3 miles, whichever suits my schedule best. This is not one of those frenzied power walks that looks far too ridiculous. My walks are often slow, meandering forays along the remote country road that leads to and from my house in the woods. While my legs move, my mind wanders even further to see shapes and forms that cannot be seen inside a room of four walls. I take in the glorious trees that surround me and the blue skies above. I listen to the sound of birds communicating. I pay attention to my breathing. I have made tremendous breakthroughs in my creative work on walks like this.

    I make a concerted effort to read more books than news articles and blogs. They are a vital source of inspiration for me. The long-form nature of any book allows a reader to delve deep into a topic or narrative. This forces my brain to make connections and to conceptualize ideas along a substantially lengthy thread of complex abstractions. Reading a book is exercise for the brain. This activity summons internal visualizations, questions, and emotions. Each book is also a window into its author’s brain. Each page conveys a separate set of sensibilities and inclinations. A book offers a dazzling panoramic view of someone else’s perspective of the world. This is sustenance for a creative mind.

    TV and many forms of digital visual entertainment do not offer as much depth as reading a book. It’s called entertainment for a reason. Certainly, the escape from reality and the visual feast that it gives can be enjoyable and fun, but it leaves little room for contemplation across time. In a half-hour sitcom, a conflict in a plot gets resolved. In a two-hour major motion picture, everything gets neatly wrapped up before the end credits role. The engagement is too passive because everything has been given to the audience quickly. There is far less to grapple with. Of course, there are incredibly powerful and wonderful films and tv shows out in the world, but they are not as common as one would hope. (I tend to favor foreign films that follow structures and pacing that diverge from the immediacy and flashiness of American-style filmmaking.) More often than not, digital entertainment is addictive and adds up to precious time lost over something sparkly and inconsequential.

    Because we make mistakes and bad decisions, it becomes difficult to trust our intuition. However, I have learned that it is through our mistakes that we can fine tune our sensibilities and inner compass. We have to be willing to make a lot of mistakes and to give ourselves the space and time to question them, struggle with their consequences, and decide how to deal with similar situations in the future. Like anything in life, the more we try, the better we get, even if the gains are microscopically incremental. A gain is still a gain regardless of its size. I have learned through NUMEROUS mistakes to trust myself even more. Learning breeds instinctual acuity. The more I learn, the more I know—this makes most decisions much easier to make. I make every effort to trust myself and my abilities. Any mistakes along the way will only benefit me in the long term.

You are welcome to try any of these techniques. None of them are based on exact science but have been culled out of my own creative pursuits. I live a life in which I write for this blog, make short films that I release every week, and play music every day. I actively replenish my creative energy in any way that I can. I do all of the above with consistency and a whole lot of patience.

PS. If you have not seen this week’s film release, here it is. I unbox and review my brand new aNueNue tenor ukulele. Check it out:

How I Have Stopped Using Amazon’s Kindle for my Digital Reading

July 20, 2020

Culture and Society / Reading Books

I read a lot of books, and I love the convenience of being able to take a book anywhere with me when I use digital formats. For the record, I still like actual books made of paper and comprised of tactile pages I can turn; however, the advantages that come with digital reading make my life as a daily reader much more streamlined, easy, and focused.

Up until recently, I have used Amazon’s ubiquitous Kindle ecosystem on its desktop and cell phone apps and largely on its e-readers. I love being able to switch easily between all three spaces without losing my place in a book. The simple and lightweight form factor of both their e-reader and my cell phone make it convenient to take them wherever I go in any kind of weather.

Fast forward to today when I have now eliminated my use of the Amazon Kindle platform. Relating to my last post (which you can read HERE), I am slowly moving away from using Amazon for anything. They are a multinational corporation and monopoly that rakes in HUGE profits for its billionaire CEO and its many coffers. At this point in my life, I want to support smaller businesses and exercise my right to direct my spending power away from these major conglomerates (such as Walmart, Target, etc.). Small businesses matter, and a diversified marketplace cultivates a wider variety of job opportunities, more ideas, and innovation.

My move away from Kindle does not mean I have stopped reading digitally. It is, in fact, one of the best decisions I have made that has enhanced my reading life.

This is what I have done:

  • I researched alternative e-readers and discovered a Canadian company called Rakuten that manufactures its own line of Kobo e-readers that has all of what Kindle offers and even more at reasonable prices.
  • I’ve found alternate apps such as Overdrive and Libby that grant me access to the digital resources of several libraries in different areas.
  • I’ve utilized the resources of the library at the college where I recently graduated from last December. My status as an alumnus grants me certain perks.
  • I have hunted down little free libraries that can be found virtually anywhere in the US. These are literally tiny wooden libraries in mostly residential neighborhoods in which people can take and leave books. ( There are two that I know of within an hour of where I live. (There are several in Nashville over an hour away from me.)

Instead of relying on the one Kindle ecosystem for all of my reading pleasures, I now have access to a treasure trove of different resources.

As far as my new Kobo e-reader goes, here are some details:

  • From a selection of great options, I chose the Kobo Libra H20.
  • Through a full charge, I can read for several hours.
  • I can store thousands of books with its native 8 GB of storage.
  • It offers12 different fonts and over 50 font styles.
  • There are exclusive font weight and sharpness settings.
  • The 14 file formats it supports include EPUB, EPUB3, PDF, MOBI, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, TIFF, TXT, HTML, RTF, CBZ, CBR.
  • It has Wifi connectivity to access the Kobo Bookstore and the internet.
  • With built in access to Overdrive, I can place holds and borrow books from my library of choice for free. (Kindle does not offer this.)
  • Language options are English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Brazilian, Portuguese, Japanese, Turkish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, and Chinese.
  • Screen specs: 7.0″ 300 PPI E Ink Carta display, 1680 × 1264 resolution
  • It is waterproof up to 60 mins in 2 metres of water.
  • There is a front light that has adjustable color temperatures. (I read a lot in bed at night. I love this feature!)
  • Unlike Kindle, there is no advertising whatsoever (and no extra price to remove advertising, for that matter).

My Kobo Libra H20 e-reader is easily the best e-reader I’ve ever used so far. It is also well designed with a rubberized and textured backing that makes holding it at different orientations much easier.

Initially, I was hesitant to leave Kindle because of my long history with it and its ease of use, but now, I’m so glad that I did. I have a much better digital reading experience with my Kobo and access to so many more free books!

Change can be a very good thing.

PS: If you haven’t seen it already, here is my newest weekly film release called “The Package”. It is a 5-part saga in just over 4 minutes. Enjoy . . .

How I Am Minimizing my Google and Amazon Usage

July 13, 2020

Culture and Society

As a law-abiding human being, I do not ask much out of the companies I do business with. I simply want good service and a quality product out of the deal in exchange for my money and continued patronage. With certain multi-national corporations however, I am getting far more than I ever wanted—and ominously so.

The ubiquitous Google empire, with its search engine, email, navigation, Android technology, productivity tools, and YouTube, certainly has numerous services it offers to anyone with access to the internet, but what we surrender is our privacy and personal information. It uses its services to enable algorithmic technology to process and predict our buying patterns and sensibilities. As if that was not bad enough, they probably know far more about us than we would reasonably allow if we actually had a say in the matter. (Google contends that we do. I do not believe them.)

Over the last three years, I have been phasing out my usage of Google. For my purposes as a filmmaker and musician, I cannot eradicate Google completely, but I have made progress.

Here’s a list of what I’ve done:

  • I do not use Gmail and have opted instead to use a company called Proton Mail that encrypts my emails and protects my data.
  • I do not use Google Chrome as my web browser. I use a browser called Brave that blocks all ads and internet trackers to maintain privacy .
  • I do not use Google Search and use an engine called DuckDuckGo that does not track or record your search history.
  • I do not use Google Docs, Sheets, Photos, or any of its document services. I generally stick to Microsoft products or a simple text program to meet most of my writing needs.

Now, with that said, Google still has its grubby tentacles firmly entrenched in my life. My cell phone uses Android software along with Google’s ridiculously convenient navigation system. I publish my weekly short films on Google’s YouTube platform because it’s free and is an effective way to get my film work out into the world.

Someday, I’ll find a cell phone that is not manufactured by Google or Apple that is just as good as those behemoths. One day, I will not need to publish my films on Youtube to get people to watch them. Until those days come, I’m stuck in my dance with the devil for now.

If anyone out there has thoughtful suggestions about what I can do to remedy this, I am completely open to possibilities.

More recently, given the insane amounts of profit Amazon has raked in during the current Coronavirus pandemic along with its mistreatment of its warehouse employees, this worldwide monopoly is my next target. I mean no offense to close friends of mine who work for Amazon, but I’ve started to extricate myself and my purchasing power from this corporate giant.

For starters, I have stopped using Kindle technology to read ebooks. I recently purchased a different e-reader called the Kobo Libra H2O to satisfy my modern reading needs. It’s made by a Canadian company named Rakuten and does everything that Kindle does (and more).

The other more tricky way that I am eliminating Amazon from my life is not ordering from them and ending my Amazon Prime subscription. I’ve started to patronize other online companies (like Sweetwater and B and H Photo and Video) to order the film and music supplies that I need. When my prime subscription runs out in less than a year, I will not renew. I have plenty to watch on Netflix already, in addition to SO MANY BOOKS to read!!

Maybe all of this is a fool’s errand, and these huge companies, one way or another, are virtually inescapable. But is it too much to want some degree of control and balance in my life regarding my privacy and freedom of choice?

I do not think so.

These massive monopolies wanting to have a hand in so much of what I do is all feeling a little too dystopian and “big brother-ish” to me, and this cannot be good.

I’m not stopping with Google and Amazon either. I’ve got my sights set on Apple and Facebook on the eventual horizon.

What are you doing to safeguard your personal information and freedom of choice? I am doing all that I can at the moment and plan on doing a lot more.

How I Read Books Every Day

July 6, 2020

Reading Books

As of this moment, I have read over 7,300 pages across 23 books since January 1, 2020. This is clearly an anomaly because I typically read only 12 to 15 books every year. (It’s been less than that while I was in college leading up to my graduation last December.)

Two primary factors have lead to this.

  1. I set a goal to read at least 40 books at the beginning of the year.
  2. The global Coronavirus pandemic effectively canceled all of my plans for 2020.

The lofty goal of 40 books was questionable, at best, and I’ve pursued it only because of the large backlog of terrific books I’ve yet to get my hands on. Covid-19 and sheltering at home have enabled me to develop very clear and simple reading habits that have made all of the difference. I only have 17 books left to reach my goal, and at my current rate, I may exceed that quantity by the end of this crazy year.

Before I outline how I have been able to read so much, I have a couple of disclaimers to get out of the way. First of all, I am not a speed reader by any means. I read at a moderate and steady pace, and I’ve learned how to read with my eyes—as opposed to reading with an “inner voice” that enunciates every word. I keep a moderate pace only because I find that comprehension and attention to detail gets compromised if I try to rush through a book. Secondly, I make sure that I actually want to finish the book. If it has a well-written and enchanting story with characters that I actually care about, then this definitely makes finishing it fun and easy.

So, here are the steps I take to enhance my daily reading excursions:

  • I read a minimum of 35 pages or read for at least one full hour EVERY DAY.
  • I have my next book ready to tackle as soon as I am finished with my current book.
  • I make time either in the morning when I wake up or before bed at night to read.
  • If a book feels tedious or boring by at least a quarter or a third of the way into the story, I dump it and move on to the next one.
  • I make sure I have sufficient light whenever and wherever I read to minimize fatigue in my eyes. My Kobo e-reader has a front glow light that I can adjust for comfort.
  • I borrow MANY e-books through my local library’s online Overdrive portal. I can borrow and download a book or I can place holds on several books in mere seconds without ever leaving my house. This saves me a lot of time.

That’s basically it in a nutshell. Because I enjoy reading so much, it’s not difficult to incorporate it into my daily life. Lastly, I cannot stress this enough. It is vital and paramount that you read a book with excellent content. This makes all the difference in the world. You’ll fly through an outstanding book and story in no time at all.

Find a terrific book and start reading now!! Whether you only read a handful or hundreds of books within a year, you’re bound to find a story that will enthrall and inspire you.

Happy Summer Reading to you!!