Structured vs. Freeform Work [en]

Thanks to the endless “how we work” discussions my friend Steph and I have, I’ve understood that more than simply hanging out online less, one of the things I’ve done since I started trying to be more productive and focused with my work (through Paymo and the Pomodoro Technique) is turn everything I do for work into “must do” tasks.

I’m somebody who has impulses to do things — I’ve mentioned it in passing about blogging, but it’s valid for other things. I suddenly feel it’s important to prepare this or that document, or get back to such-and-such, or clean my desk. And — this is the important bit — I think I enjoy doing things more when they are born of an impulse or an urge rather than because they are on the list of things I must do today.

I’ve learned (with my failed experiment at having readers vote on what they wanted me to write about) that I can turn something I really want to do into something I really don’t want to do by simply putting it on a to-do list or planning a time to do it. It sucks, and in an ideal world I would function differently, but that’s obviously how it works for me. I can kill my enthusiasm by turning something into a task.

So, what to do?

I’d like to make it quite clear I don’t blame Paymo or the Pomodoro Technique. If anything, what has happened to me shows how useful these two tools are at focusing on stuff that must get done.

The problem is that I have reduced my work to “stuff that must get done”. I need to find a balance. Balance! I keep saying that. My big quest of the year seems to be balance.

Paymo is really useful for me to know where my time goes, but its negative side-effect is that it prevents me from freely drifting from one thing to another, and just following my impulse of the moment. What I’ve done for the moment is created another “client” in my list (“various”) which only has one project (“freeform”).

This allows me to put myself in “freeform work mode”, set the timer so I still have an idea of how many work hours I put in each week/day/month, but not have to worry about what I’m doing. I’m going to lose track to some extent of how much time I spend doing certain things, but at this stage I think it’s more important that I find more pleasure in work again.

The Pomodoro Technique is great for knocking down tasks, or making sure I do “maintenance work” on long-term projects where nothing is urgent right now, so I don’t fall behind. It’s great for fighting procrastination. It’s great of doing what really has to be done. But it’s too structured for me to spend my whole work time using it.

So what I’m going to try doing is work freeform in the morning — do what I feel like doing, without obsessing about productivity — and do tomatoes in the afternoon to make sure the important stuff does get done.

I’ll try to remember to report back after a few days.

Do you have any experiences or thoughts to share on working in a structured vs. freeform way? Do you need both, or favour one style? I’m interested in hearing from you about this.

5 thoughts on “Structured vs. Freeform Work [en]

  1. Hi Steph, you have got to a point I personally have been, so I hope my observations may bring you some new insights rather than techniques.
    First up, a little background, I graduated in electronics back in 98 worked with sw dev, consulting, sales and marketing of IT solutions until I jumped out to build my own life producing documentaries, consulting start up companys, travelling or just hanging out by the beach where I live in Florianopolis -Brazil.
    Good, all put together, this makes a BIG change. For what matters to you, I found myself targeting my life into the wrong direction: OUT, and shortly skilled to FEEL what I needed, with DEEP grounded miths about productivity and creativity.
    It is a pretty bad place to be once you realize it, and yet to best place to be to promote the changes something inside you wants to bring up to you. Wellcome your life unbalanceness, your vulnerabilities and find YOUR way.

  2. Since I wrote this article I’ve been experimenting more freeform working. And you know what? It almost feels like work is something I do “on the side” when I’m hanging out online. It doesn’t mean I’m not doing much work or it’s not important, but it’s as if my main activity in the office was “being online” and there are islands of work in it.

  3. Gosh, I think I just understood something. See, one of the things that keeps people like me in “not starting” mode with things they have to do is that the thing to do seems like a big horrible nasty hairy monster. Too much to deal with. So, thinking “I’m going to sit down and deal with this [task] for the next two hours” just makes us want to run off screaming (or cower in a corner of the room).

    We know that — that’s why we use stuff like that 15-minute dash and the Pomodoro Technique, and why figuring out next actions in GTD turns our life around. We need to chop things up in little slices.

    What I’ve just understood is that doing work “on the side” (figure of speech or the mind) whilst hanging out online at the office allows me to do precisely that.

    I’m reading an article, checking facebook and twitter and google+. Suddenly, I think “ah, I need to go and proofread and approve articles for the blog I’m reading”. I don’t want to stop what I’m doing, but I’ll open a tab and quickly load the blog admin page in it. I just throw it there, and go back to what I was doing. In a minute, I’ll check if it’s loaded, and go and look at the articles ready to publish. I’ll go back to what I was doing. After a bit, I’ll open the articles I need to proof in different tabs, and probably start proofing one. Then wander off. Then come back.

    What I’m describing is chopping up the task at hand in tiny tiny pieces. “Multitasking” allows me to do that. And in times when I have trouble doing things, it almost tricks me into feeling like I’m not working. But I’m actually getting quite a bit of stuff done.

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