Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Time Management Tuesday: The Unit System

Okay, this is a thought-provoking idea for managing actual writing time.

In her article, A Writer's Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity, Ellen Sussman describes using the "unit system" to manage her actual work time. She divides her time into units of an hour. She works for 45 minutes of that hour, and then spends 15minutes doing something that's not work related. The benefits, she says, are:

1. During the 45 minutes that she's working, it's easier to stay on task when she knows she'll have a break in another X minutes

2. During those 15 minutes that she's not working, her "unconscious thought" can often continue working on a writing problem. (She's talking about breakout experiences.)

Sussman's unit system is based on research done by Dorothy Duff Brown on using time while writing graduate theses. The end of 2/5 Practical strategies for pain-free academic writing and the beginning of 3/5 Practical strategies for pain-free academic writing (videos of a college-level class on academic writing--the sound is bad) cover the unit system. Evidently there is research--somewhere--that indicates that people develop a feeling of productivity for 45 minutes but that it decreases afterward. Theoretically, then, if you can keep reproducing that first 45 minutes over and over again through your workday, you can maintain a higher level of productivity then if you keep your butt on the chair and struggle for a full eight hours at a clip.

The lecturer in the videos suggests determining how many units you want to do in a particular work day. That sounds useful because if your time is being eaten away by family responsibilites or a day job, you may feel that trying to work for an hour or two here or there just isn't worth it. But, hey, if you can plan and knock off one or two units of work, that feels like an achievement.

The lecturer says that having a preplanned stopping point is also supposed to make for more efficient working, that people work harder when they know when they're going to stop, particularly as they get closer to their deadline. (Anyone else read The Feminine Mystique, in which Betty Friedan said that housework expands to fill the time available? It may be true for everything--if I have unlimited time to write a chapter, it could take me much longer to do so then if I have only four work units.)

While all this makes a great deal of sense, I wonder if it also contradicts what little I know about writing in flow. Not that I write in flow that frequently. However, if I could do a unit or two over the weekends (a time when I almost never work), maybe flow would come more easily on Monday or Tuesday.

Since I came back to work last month, I've been revising/editing and researching markets. I haven't been doing the hardcore writing that is far more difficult for me. So I haven't had an opportunity to try the unit system under the most serious work conditions. I did use the "work until 1 and you can take a break" argument once, though, and it worked. I'm definitely going to be trying the unit system in as organized a manner as I can muster. In fact, as soon as I finish this post, I'll be taking a break to put some wet clothes in the dryer because between the Internet research on Dorothy Duff Brown and writing this thing, I've worked well over 45 minutes.

Has anyone else tried the unit system? Any luck with it? Does anyone else want to try it and report back?


Becky Levine said...

Shoot. A friend told me about this system, only it was called something else--and, of course, I can't remember WHAT. I think you actually broke the time into 25/5 minute sections, something like that. I tried it for a few days, and it worked well--in that I didn't get burnt out and I did stay focused. I didn't follow-through with it for long, though, which either says something about me or the system. I'm guessing it was me, not liking something else (the timer, the theory!) to have that much control over me. :)

gail said...

I remember trying to use a timer and forcing myself to work until it went off. I only did it a few times. I either forgot about it or lost the timer. With this 45 minute thing, I'm planning to wing it and just use the clock on my computer.