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How I Did Four Things at Once Without Superpositioning

by Brian Dunning, Jul 01 2010

I’m a reasonably busy dude. In addition to working full time in my role as Family Breadwinner, I host and produce (as some of you may know) the Skeptoid podcast, with weekly episodes since 2006. I also have a plethora of side projects that I manage to work in somehow: writing this blog, obviously; my video podcast inFact with Brian Dunning; ongoing development on at least two television proposals with Ryan Johnson; miscellaneous projects like the weekly Skeptoid newsletter and the odd video like Here Be Dragons or Truth Hurts; and squeezing in Skeptics in the Pub or Skeptics in the Jeep as opportunity permits. I also play as much high-level volleyball as I can. But none of those activities get priority on my calendar; that honor goes to Being a Dad. All weekend long, and every morning at breakfast, and every evening from 5:00pm on, I’m a dad. Everything else that I do has to be worked around that.

I don’t have an army of clones like Mr. Atoss, and I do not believe Lisa could consider herself a podcast widow, given my top prioritization of family time. So you might fairly ask (and many of you often do): How the heck do I manage to do all of this??

In an earlier career, I was a software project manager. The only truly valuable thing I took away from that was the concept of time management. There are various formal models and software tools, but none of those work for me; I don’t have the patience or attention for formalized methodologies. I took the part that does work for me and I incorporated into a curriculum that I sometimes teach to small businesspeople looking to become software entrepreneurs in addition to their current business. This means working two jobs at once, something they rarely realize, and rarely take seriously. Generally, they consider their software business to be a sort of side project, and they treat it as a hobby, working on it at odd hours, whenever they happen to find a spot of spare time.

Many podcasters and bloggers treat their project as a hobby as well. The difference between a hobby and a profession is that one is taken seriously, while the other is not. One is an obligation, the other is done at your pleasure. If you work on your podcast or blog whenever you feel like it, whenever it pleases you to do so, whenever some spare time happens to rear its head, you are doing what I call Farting Around. That’s a hobby. I always knew that’s not what I wanted Skeptoid to be.

When I set out to plan my daily schedule, to delineate projects I take seriously from hobby projects, there were four basic items I wanted to accommodate:

  1. My full time job. I can’t control the hours I work, basically 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, so this the first thing on my calendar.
  2. Being a dad. I only get one shot at this, so I assign it all the time that the kids and are both home. That’s every day after 5pm, and every weekend.
  3. The Skeptoid podcast. After the above items, it’s obvious that not a lot of time slots are left. The time slots I found are in the early morning. My Skeptoid day starts at 5:30 in the morning, every day, and ends when the family gets together for breakfast.
  4. All of my other projects are hobbies. I work on them whenever I get a chance. There are always short days at work, days off, times when Lisa and the kids are gone, or the kids are out with friends. All my random stuff is done at these odd times.

An exception is the inFact with Brian Dunning video series. This was a purely speculative project, and it required a considerable allocation of resources to do properly. So I talked with my family and we agreed that I would devote a series of Sundays — otherwise family time — to the production, plus two weeknights of editing for each episode. This was acceptable to all of us because it’s a finite project; it’s one season of 13 episodes. If it ultimately proves to be a worthwhile investment and continues, it will replace one or more workdays during the week, and will not affect my other scheduled time. If such a deal can’t be worked, then it’s a deal I won’t make.

I am not moved by the complaints of anyone who tells me they don’t have time for some pet project, but who sets their alarm clock any later than I set mine. If you’re serious about your project, treat it seriously; if you’re not willing to hard code it into your daily schedule, call it what it is: a hobby.

But all of this is only half the issue. Finding the time is one thing, but managing the time once you have it is something else. This is where project management comes in. At a minimum, you must at least delineate the steps and milestones and set deadlines for each. You must be prepared to redline any items you’re not going to have time to complete. The basic steps in a Skeptoid episode are research, writing, editing, recording, audio editing, referencing, posting, and promoting. I know how much time each of the latter steps takes, so sometimes I have to reluctantly cut short the research and writing. I plan for this in advance, and always start with a general outline, and I know what research is going to take the longest. Sometimes I have to make big decisions earlier. For example, the JFK assassination episode is still a long ways off because I know that research has to include reading Vince Bugliosi’s massive book.

So that’s the long answer to the question of how I manage to do everything I do. It’s simply basic time management, and the discipline to stick to a planned schedule. Although, if I could superposition and do multiple things at once, that would be pretty cool.

15 Responses to “How I Did Four Things at Once Without Superpositioning”

  1. Gwilym Wogan says:

    Bingo. I usually lean more towards the ‘farting around’ approach to creation, but occasionally I’ll become super-productive and get heaps of stuff done for a few weeks or months. More often than not, it all culminates in the inevitable “you have too much free time” comment.

    Which is true to a certain extent, since I don’t have any dependents. Nine times out of ten, though, I’ll have no more (often less) ‘free’ time than the people who say such things.

    You just need to get good at working with what you have. That said, I spend a lot of time whining that there aren’t enough hours in the day, so I’d say I’m not quite there yet, but this article nicely sums up what I’ve fumblingly attempted to tell people in the past. I will be making good use of it. Thanks!

  2. Dax says:

    5:30? Too early, especially since there are only 24 hours in a day, of which I sleep 8 to 9 (I do a lot of running, so sleep is very important). So, how do you deal with sleep? Do you even get any sleep?

    • Alphaman says:

      What does what time you get up have to do with how long you sleep or the length of the day? By your rules, 8 hours of sleep can still be had if you get up at 5:30 AM, by hitting the hay at 9:30 PM.

      If you’re putting the kids to bed at 9PM, you can choose to work from 9 to 11 and get up at 7:30, or go to sleep at 9:30 and work from 5:30 to 7:30.

      No one said you HAD to stay up until midnight. Think outside the box you’re trapped in!

  3. Jeffery2010 says:

    First: let me say congratulations on being (actually working on it) a Dad. Every night about 5:30 my wife, 5 kids and I sit down to dinner together, with no TV. This is important.
    Second: Ah… ahem… actually it was Mr. Atoz – as in a Librarian named A to Z. I’m such a dweeb….

    • oldebabe says:

      I’m not a dad, never have been, nor can I ever be, but I’m a skeptic, all my days seem to be, perhaps like you, jammed with things I have to get done, want to get done, and haven’t yet done, and I have a Jeep… so, what’s `Skeptics in a Jeep’? or is it only for dads…???

  4. citizen wolf says:

    Some people need more sleep others. Kudos to you for getting done all that you do, but some people just can’t cope mentally if they don’t get their optimum amount. We’re not all wired up the same.

    Slightly off-topic, but on the point of sleep-cycles and how we’re not all wired the same, why the heck is it that the early-risers get to dictate to us night-owls that the working day has to start so god-damned early? Why doesn’t it start at 11am? Much more reasonable, I think.

    I say night-owls stage a revolution, and force the larks to stay in bed until we’re ready. :)

    • Dax says:

      I remember attending a seminar on circadian rhythms in which the researcher actually showed that our morning/afternoon based workday has negative health effects for us late-risers. Not only that, he speculated that it was very likely that, due to motivation and concentration being lower, the productivity of a large part of the population is also lower.

      We could probably adapt more to sleep patterns of people and actually extend our office hours by overlapping shifts. Sounds good to me… I’ll start work at noon!

  5. Petrucio says:

    Early risers do seem to think that everyone that wakes up past 10am is a lazy douche, and deserves whatever comes to them. Nevermind that most people that think that of me sleep more hours, and work a whole lot less hours than me. And that we all should just learn to adjust and stop complaining, after all, “it’s just conditioning, you could sleep earlier if you wanted to”.

    It sounds very much like the Cristians that can’t understand why we can’t just stop complaining and get along their bandwagon like everyone else.

    Damn you early risers!

  6. Steve M says:

    Thanks, Brian. I’ve been banging my head against my poor time-management practices for some time, instinctively knowing what I needed to do, but choosing not to do it. Your post (and practical advice) may help kick me in the butt and aid me in making some changes in the way I do things. It’s amazing the amount of time one can waste just farting around reading pointless blogs…


  7. feralboy12 says:

    Anybody who goes to bed before 2 a.m. is just too lazy to stay awake until a decent hour.

  8. Greatest post ever. I’ve been wondering how you and some of the others do manage to get so much active skepticism in, while also clearly managing real lives. Great practical info here.

    Now I can just manage to not snooze my alarm when it goes off early…

  9. Cary Snowden says:

    Great post, Brian! I too have a plethora of projects I am working on and often feel I have failed at some aspect by the end of the week. Two things I am missing are your critical points: Specific time dedicated to family, and getting up early. I am an early riser, but you have inspired me to chisel out an extra hour at the beginning of the day instead of stealing it from my kids at the end.

    Thank you for all you do; I appreciate it.


  10. Ted says:

    So how’s that all workin’ out from prison?