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The hidden time management snag that affects us all

My top ten time management tips

Read on to find out about the hidden time management snag that affects us all, often without us realising it’s even there – it’s eye-opening when you realise this for this first time and I’m convinced that awareness is half the battle.

I’m writing a series of blog posts detailing my top ten time management tips and then applying them to the writing life, to celebrate the new edition of my book on goal setting and time management coming out. I’m away this week, so here I give you an extract from my short and friendly book Find Time to Write.

Without further ado, here’s the extract. It’s all about mental load.

What is Mental Load?

Mental load is a concept many so-called time management gurus forget to mention but it has a huge effect, especially when it comes to putting time aside for writing. Mental load refers to the stuff you’re carrying around in your head.

It’s a kind of mental baggage, made up of things you feel you are responsible for, or things other people have assumed you are responsible for, so they don’t have to carry the mental load themselves.

This can be repetitive, everyday stuff or related to particular events or people in your life, or to things you think you ‘should’ do. It can go a bit like this, although we might not even articulate it, even to ourselves, and it gets so familiar we often don’t notice what we’re carrying:

What are we having for dinner tonight? Doesn’t that recipe need garlic? We’re almost out of toilet paper. I must remember to get to the shop at some point. Have I got a present for Amy’s birthday? Have I picked up Mike’s suit from the dry cleaning? I’d better ask one of the other school mums about sharing school pick up next week. I should be working on my blog. We don’t have any bin bags left. Did I feed the cats today? Mustn’t forget about that meeting at school tomorrow evening. Maybe I should book a weekend break for our anniversary. What was the name of that film Mike wanted to see? I haven’t hung the washing out yet. Do we have enough rice? I should have called my mum. I should give up coffee. I need to clean the bathroom.

Let’s take stock

Firstly, mental load involves these four things, working together:

  1. The stuff you carry around in your head.
  2. Things or tasks or people that you or others feel you’re responsible for.
  3. Things or tasks or people that you care about.
  4. Because of 2 and 3, you can’t simply ‘put it down’ or forget about it.

It’s also important to note that:

  • Yours will be unique to you.
  • You might be so used to it that you don’t notice it’s there.
  • It’s a generalisation, but for cultural reasons, women, especially women with kids at home, can carry more mental load.
  • Mental load interferes with our ability to focus.
  • Mental load encourages task switching or context switching, which has been proven to lower performance.
  • When we think we’re good at multi-tasking, this might simply be because we feel we have no choice, because of our mental load.
  • At least some of your mental load will relate to ‘emotional labor’ or ‘emotional work’. (I’m spelling labor without a ‘u’ because it was American sociology professor Arlie Hochschild who first wrote about it.)

Emotional labor

The meaning of the terms ‘emotional labor’ or ‘emotional work’ has evolved over time since they were first used by sociologists in the 70s and 80s. In short, they refer to work done to keep others happy, that’s often invisible. In a family situation this may involve tasks we feel compelled to do because we care for another person. These tasks get added to our mental load.

There’s more to it than that, and you can read up on emotional labor on the Very Well Mind website here if you’re curious.

From a writing perspective, if we’re carrying around a lot of unarticulated emotional labor as part of our mental load, it makes it harder to write, because writing is often an emotional or intuitive journey. An awareness of emotional labor / work shows us that our mental load will feel more emotive than a simple task list.

So how do we deal with it?

For our purposes, the specifics don’t matter, it’s the fact that you’re carrying whatever it is around that matters! Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Become aware of your mental load. Simply noticing that it’s there can help you to think about how you’re using your time.
  2. Attempt to capture your mental load. Draw a mindmap or make a subdivided list using categories related to your everyday life. You probably won’t get everything down, but capturing a snapshot is still powerful. Do separate mindmaps or lists for work and home, if relevant.
  3. Automate (or semi-automate) everyday things. For instance, have a chalkboard for your shopping list. Create a weekly menu. Buy birthday cards in bulk. Set up a regular shopping delivery slot with items you use all the time.
  4. Involve your family in planning. You can use weekly planning meetings to share out tasks. (This should work with housemates too.) Once someone has taken responsibility for a task, you are no longer in charge of it. This is a tricky mindset shift, but it comes with practice.
  5. One way you can tell if someone else in your life is expecting you to carry the load for a shared responsibility is to stop doing it. Radical, but it definitely brings the issue to a head!

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

P.S. Want more? You can buy Find Time to Write by following the links from here.

P.S.S. Here’s the next post in the series: a brief look at how you can stop mental load from interfering with your writing practice.

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