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On Time-Management and Paying Yourself First

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I drafted this post a few weeks back, before everyone was trapped at home trying to work out how their new life patterns work. I can’t work out if it is more or less relevant now than then, so am sharing it anyway. You will figure out to what extent you find it useful and in what ways, in the context of your life - as you always do indeed.

‘Paying yourself first’ is one of those ideas for managing your money that has done me well over the years. The principle is to allocate your regular savings/investments up front, and squirrel that money away before you go on to do the rest of your day-to-day spending. If you wait until you’ve done everything else to save the surplus, you’ll often find that surplus has mysteriously evaporated.

Of course, like many bits of middle-class thrift (like bulk cooking and freezing meals), it only works if you have a surplus to being with. If you are living at a subsistence level, you just don’t have the cash flow to make these kinds of long-term decisions. Jack Monroe is very good on the lived experience of being poor and patronised by the better-off, and I have also heard good things about Scarcity as a systematic challenge to assumptions the comfortably-off make about those in straitened circumstances. (I couldn't track down the article of Jack's I remembered critiquing middle-class thrift, so have linked to her classic on the experience of poverty instead.)

I have been thinking about this recently in the context of time-management. It’s a perennial challenge, when a lot of what you do is bound by deadlines (you have to get the rehearsal planned before you deliver it; the date for presenting a paper is fixed months in advance), how to fit in those things that matter to you, but are not constrained by time in the same way. This of course is what the Urgent/Important matrix was designed to deal with: it asserts the right of the important to its fair share of attention so you don’t get nibbled to death by ducks.

Paying yourself first is a good way, I find, of thinking of this principle. I do my best writing first thing in the morning, and thus I aim to dedicate the time between about 8 am and 9.15 to writing projects at least 3 times a week to make sure I keep in touch with them. If I allow myself to get sucked into the endless pile of planning and admin before I’ve done this, then Parkinson’s Law takes over and the morning goes by with what looks like efficiency, but produces nothing beyond logistical control.

In a similar vein, mid-late afternoon is often a time when my brain engages well with musical tasks. This is usually also the time when my inbox fills up with replies to all those emails I wrote between 9.30 and 11 am, and if I deal with them as they arrive, then arrangements don’t get arranged. So again, whilst my schedule can’t keep that slot open for arranging every day, that’s the task that gets first dibs when my time is flexible.

I’m feeling the latter particularly at the moment, as my arranging for the duration of my 8-parter project is entirely for myself. Usually I have a queue of commissions to keep me on task and mandate the allocation of creative space in my routine, but for the first half of this year, I need to have the discipline to treat my own plans as seriously as I treat the needs of a client.

As with money-management, this principle when applied to time has a definite relationship with privilege. If you have to work three jobs to keep food on the table, you’re not going to be able to schedule creative work for when it best suits your biorhythm. Indeed, I’ve got form for critiques of concepts like ‘creativity’ and ‘talent’ as markers of economic power masquerading as inherent personal qualities.

But the thing that really brought this into focus for me was an article published last summer about the way those books celebrating the working habits of creative people (which often feature routine, moderation of on-task time, naps and long walks) so often take for granted the means that allow that kind of lifestyle, and how access to those means is often gendered. We all know that women wield less economic power than men because we are, on average, significantly underpaid compared with our male peers, but part of this inequality is rooted in the way we are also overworked at home. (See also this article that contends that it’s not that women are inherently better at multitasking, it’s just our to-do lists are longer and more varied and we have to juggle to survive.)

I say ‘we’ out of solidarity with my sex here, rather than complaining about being currently underpaid compared to my male peers (though I have experienced that in the past). We’ve already established that I do actually have the privileged opportunity to engage in deep creative work, and to be in control of my own time to do so. But I managed this by, amongst other things, opting not to have children, and not only should you not have to choose between having a family and doing your work, it’s not a useful solution to the problem at a societal level because quite clearly if everyone did it we’d quite soon run out of the people we’re doing the work for.

Anyway, for practical purposes, if you have time to be thinking about the kinds of things I blog about, you have enough space in your life to find these thoughts useful. If there are things you want to achieve amidst a other demands in a busy life, schedule them first and the other stuff will learn to fit around it. Then, enjoy the pleasures and frustrations of doing your thing, and remember to feel grateful for the life circumstances that allow it.

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