Reality Check: Structure for a Satisfying Life

The upside of dissatisfaction is that it can be a useful motivator to drive improvement. That’s grasping at straws to find a positive spin, isn’t it? Seriously though, if we had no dissatisfaction, why would we ever improve?
One area where I could improve is my use of time. There’s not enough time; yet I know I waste time. Sadly, as I’m the only person accountable for my use of time, I can’t even find someone else to blame.
Frequently, I get to speak with accomplished people. In one conversation, I learned that despite a busy life of work, mothering, and volunteering, this woman had never missed an important family event. How could she manage that?
Her answer: “It’s a matter of knowing your priorities and being organized.”
Now, I’m pretty clear on my priorities and I consider myself reasonably organized. However, this exchange clearly indicated to me that there’s opportunity to improve in both areas.
So I took a look back over the year to compare where I perceived effective use of my time versus what hadn’t worked so well.
Structured activities worked well. If I made a commitment, I followed through somehow. In addition, if it’s part of a routine, then I get it done, even when there’s no commitment to others.
Here’s a trivial example. Saturday morning, I water the houseplants whether they need it or not. It works well. The plants that like this routine live and thrive. Plants that demand a different level of care have either moved along to friends or into the great big earthly compost bin.
However, less structured actions have a tendency to use more time than they deserve. For example, I could spend every waking minute browsing news, social media, emails and never be done.
To organize and prioritize, I need to constrain those lower priority activities. How? With more structure.
My experiment is to structure my main activities. Everything can’t be rigidly scheduled of course, but I’ve created a framework for work, email, household activities, volunteer commitments, and so on.
The idea is to devote specific times to the scheduled activity and deliberately not interrupt those with, “Oh, I should just respond to these emails or make this phone call or…” Nope. If this is not the activity’s designated time, then it needs to wait.
I’ve already seen a benefit. When non-urgent activities pop into my head—a phone call to make, an email to send, a reference to look up, I make a note. In the appropriate time slot, I refer to my note. Things aren’t forgotten and I’m not constantly interrupting myself. It’s surprisingly freeing!
Another advantage concerns priorities. If work is a high priority; it deserves a scheduled time slot. If looking at sea otter videos and saying, “Awwww” is a priority, then I may as well be honest about it and put “look up the aquarium cam” in the schedule. It’s leisure fun time, separate from serious work time.
You might find this approach particularly helpful if you realize that you are not accomplishing what you want to accomplish. For example, say you are retired and feel unsatisfied because you seem to have no time to do the things you “saved” for retirement. Structuring activities might be an effective way to attack that dissatisfaction.
How to begin? Think, “What do I care about having time for?” Prioritize. Block out specific time slots for those activities. Your structure could be rigid or loose, whichever works for you.
This approach is one element of systems thinking, such as advocated by quality guru, Dr. W Edwards Deming. It’s usually applied to organizations. Why not apply it to our individual lives?
Do you structure your life? Or does non-structure work effectively for you?

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