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22 Jun

A man with a plan – A couple of things made me rethink the way I organize my time this week. In my last entry, I went on at length about productivity and time management. In response, a friend suggested that I post my writing schedule so that my readers (loyal and otherwise) could keep me accountable. A brilliant idea, of course, except for one minor flaw: I don’t have a writing schedule. The moment after I realized that, of course, I realized that that’s probably one of the major reasons I’m not making much progress on my writing.

“...the key to successfully working at home is being able to distinguish work from not-work.”

The second reality check came when I was putting together all the translation I’ve done so far on the Korean literary history book I’ve been working on. I’m technically at the halfway point, and my sponsors (i.e., the people with the money) wanted a mid-term progress report. My professor (the author of the book) handled the actual report part; all I had to do was clean up and organize the translation. The total length of the manuscript is supposed to be 900 pages, so ideally I would have 450 pages done by now. However, I was in the States when the contract period began, and I didn’t actually start translating until two months later. We also had a difficult time getting things off the ground, so I probably had three months of productive translation.

Nevertheless, I was hoping to get at least 300 pages done, leaving at most 600 pages for the second half of the year. Mind you, 300 pages was my bare minimum—the absolute worst case scenario. When I finished cleaning up the translation and combining all the separate files into one big file, I was rather dismayed to find that I only had 219 pages all told.

“Dismayed” is an understatement, actually. “Devastated” would probably be more accurate. My professor didn’t blink when I told him that I only had a little over 200 pages done. He assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem. In his words, “Koreans are very flexible in their work.” That’s really just a nice way of saying that deadlines mean very little in Korea, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on which side of the deadline you happen to be on at the moment. At times I have been immensely frustrated by this. Right now, though, it’s a good thing.

None of this, though, changes the fact that I set a goal and failed to reach it. And it’s not as if I even got close—I only barely managed to get two-thirds of the way there. However ephemeral the deadline may be in reality, I let myself down, and that is something that I have a difficult time accepting. As a result, I realized that I had a decision to make. I have six months left in the official contract period, and I am either going to complete the first draft of the translation in that time, or I am not. There is no in-between.

Of course, I made the decision to get it done, but a decision is meaningless without a plan. Roughly speaking, I have almost 700 pages to translate in six months. That’s 26 weeks. If I spend five days out of each week translating, that comes to a little over five pages each day. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is when compared to my pace over the past three months: I completed 219 pages in 13 weeks, making a little under 17 pages a week and a tad over 3 pages a day. In other words, I have to increase my pace by about 60%.

The task seems daunting when I look at it as a whole, but the truth is that five pages a day isn’t really all that much. I can generally bang out a page in under a half hour, barring any major snags. So why was I only able to do an average of a little over three pages a day, even only calculating five days of work a week? Well, my latest theory is that a decision may be meaningless without a plan, but a plan is just as meaningless without a schedule—and without the resolve to stick to that schedule.

Let’s look at a typical day of translating, pre-resolution. After getting back from the health club I might sit down at the computer at around 9:00 in the morning. I usually eat breakfast at the computer, and I really couldn’t tell you when exactly it ends—I just look down at one point and realize that my cereal/eggs/rice/whatever is gone. While I am eating breakfast, I generally check my e-mail and log onto ICQ. On some days I have little or no e-mail, but on other days I may have several messages in each of my accounts. Liminality e-mail in particular can take a long time to deal with, since I have made it my policy to reply to each and every comment I receive. I figure that anyone who takes the time to send a comment deserves some of my time in return.

With ICQ on, rarely would a day go by that I didn’t get at least one message from a friend. This would invariably lead to a conversation (and sometimes several conversations at once), and the time would just slip away. If I was feeling particularly motivated, I might end the conversation(s) sometime after 10:00, but on less motivated days they could last until noon. At noon, of course, or shortly thereafter, it’s time to eat lunch, which gives me another excuse to futz around on the Internet. Like breakfast, lunch is a very vague concept when you’re sitting in front of the computer.

So, let’s say that I finally realize that whatever I was eating for lunch is no longer in front of me and well on its way to being digested. It’s now probably about 1:00 in the afternoon, and I’ve finally decided that I need to get some work done. Even at one o’clock, though, I still have plenty of time left in the day to get five pages done. In fact, there were many days when I did just that. On some days I would even translate as many as eight or ten pages. It’s all well within the realm of possibility.

The problem, of course, is consistency. The days that I churned out eight or ten pages were generally a few days before I was supposed to meet my professor to discuss the translation (we meet every two weeks to go over what I’ve done during that time). On the days following these meetings, though, I got very little done. Even when I started working after lunch, I kept getting distracted by the biggest time-waster Al Gore has ever invented: the Internet.

It’s easy to blame the Internet. After all, it’s big, it’s sprawling, and it doesn’t bother to defend itself against all the accusations thrown at it. But the Internet doesn’t waste my time, I waste my time. The Internet doesn’t suddenly pop out of my monitor, grab me by the collar, and force me to watch a video of Star Wars nerds in full costume camped outside a theater waiting for tickets to Episode II.

I was certain that the Internet would be my biggest obstacle to increasing productivity. With all the time I wasted on the Internet, I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly overcome the temptation. For some people it’s television, for others it’s video games—for me, it’s the Internet.

I’ve read a number of articles about how to successfully work from home (ironically enough, I’ve read many of those articles on the Internet when I should have been working). These articles are filled with all sorts of tips and techniques, but in the final analysis the key to successfully working at home is being able to distinguish work from not-work. That may seem fairly obvious, but if you’ve never worked from home before, you most likely have no idea how hard it really is.

When you work in an office, factory, school, etc.—in other words, anywhere but home—there are both spatial and temporal distinctions between work and not-work (these distinctions are broken down when people begin to take work home, and these people end up with many of the same difficulties telecommuters experience). At home, however, it is very difficult to establish a spatial distinction, since your environment is the same whether you are working or not working. I’ve read of some people who attempt to reinforce a spatial distinction by setting aside space for work and work alone—creating a home office, or using one computer for work and another for recreation.

Unfortunately, I do not have the luxury of an extra computer or extra room. Our place has two rooms: the bedroom and my study. It’s kind of amusing, in a way, because the organization of our living space closely mimics a traditional Korean house. My study is the sarangbang, the husband’s room, where the man of the house kept his books and writing implements, where he spent his time during the day, and where he entertained guests. The bedroom is the anbang, the wife’s room, where the wife kept her sewing and other implements, where she spent her time during the day, and where the family slept at night.

Anyway, my point is that I have only one room, the sarangbang, for both work and non-work, and only one computer, so it is impossible for me to make a spatial distinction. The only option left, of course, is a temporal distinction. Simply put, I need a clear distinction between work time and not-work time. So, starting yesterday, I set aside the hours from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM as work time, and everything after that (i.e., from 5:00 PM to when I go to bed, which is usually shortly after 11:00 PM) is not-work time.

That’s the basic idea, at any rate. I also established some rules to help me stick to this schedule. The first rule concerns meals. Considering my tendency to stretch meals out far too long (i.e., using them as an excuse to futz around), I have decided not to eat my meals in front of the computer. So far I’ve been watching TV while eating breakfast and lunch, but I may scrap that as well if I get too engrossed in a program. Fortunately, there’s very little to watch on television when I eat breakfast on lunch (except the UEFA Euro 2004 highlights shortly after noon, which are happily only about twenty minutes long), and so far meals have not lasted any longer than necessary.

The second rule is that I will not check most of my e-mail in the morning, and I will not log onto ICQ. I say most because I have three different e-mail accounts, one of which is used primarily for work. It doesn’t take me long to check that anyway, since there is normally very little in it, and I don’t have to reply immediately to many of the e-mails I get. As I mentioned above, though, it can sometimes take a while to deal with my Liminality e-mail, so that gets checked in the evening, along with my remaining account.

The final rule is simple: no Internet during breaks. This is really what used to kill me. I would get to a certain “landmark” in my work (let’s say I finished a chapter or section or something) and I would take a break. It’s important to take regular breaks, of course, but during those breaks I would often futz around on the Internet, and a ten minute break would stretch into a half hour or longer. When you only have a certain number of hours in the day, breaks like that can add up. Now, instead of futzing around on the Internet, I’ll step outside and enjoy nature, take a few pictures, or play with the dog.

The astute reader will have noticed that these three rules are designed to eliminate one thing: Internet futzing. That was my biggest stumbling block, and my biggest worry in implementing my new plan. I am pleased to report, though, that for the past two days, I have had no problem whatsoever sticking to my schedule. In fact, I haven’t really felt much temptation at all to futz during work hours. The reason for this, I think, is that five o’clock is no longer just another hour in a long and aimless day, it is a solid goal to look forward to. During those few moments where I have been tempted to futz, a simple reminder that I would be free at five o’clock was all it took to get me back on track.

I cannot tell you how liberating this is. If I had known it would be like this, I would have done this a long time ago. I’ve been working from home for years now, and I have only now figured this out. On the one hand I’m pretty psyched, but on the other hand I am amazed at my dullness.

A daily schedule, though, is not the only thing I need to worry about. If it were simply a matter of doing the same thing every day, it would be a lot easier. But the truth is that I do actually have to leave the house for other things, and when I leave I’m usually gone for at least half the day (it takes me about two hours to get into Seoul, making the round trip four hours, so you’d better believe I’m sticking around for at least half a day). Five days of solid, nine to five work a week is actually somewhat optimistic. There are weeks that I will of course get five days of work in, but there are many other weeks where that is an impossibility.

This week is one of those weeks. Tomorrow afternoon I have to go into Seoul, which means I will only be able to work until about two o’clock at the latest. On Friday, my wife and I are traveling to Gangneung to see the Dano Festival (which, not incidentally, is the subject of the month-long translation project I am working on now). We’ll be spending all of Friday there and leaving for home early on Saturday morning. I don’t know when we’re going to get in on Saturday, but I can’t imagine that I’ll get more than a few hours of work done. This means that I am basically losing a day this week, and I’ll have to compensate for that. Honestly, it’s going to be a little tough to reach my goal for this week, since I have a major project that needs to be finished before I leave for Seoul tomorrow, but if need be I’ll put in a little overtime. Reaching my goals is key.

So there you have it—the new and improved me. Granted, so far my plan only covers work, but that is really the most important thing right now. I haven’t yet come up with a writing schedule, but I plan to work on that soon. Anyway, with my new work schedule, I was able to work on this entry yesterday and today—and not feel guilty about doing it. I think that’s one of the greatest things about this schedule: I don’t have to feel guilty about taking time for myself anymore. Before I always had the shadow of work hanging over me. Now I can relax in the evenings. Hopefully this will not only lead to increased productivity work-wise, but writing- and Liminality-wise as well. Stay tuned.

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