That Time I Was Productive


The routines we fall into are often unintentional. They could be the result of easing up on our accountability to ourselves, to the people around us, or to the valuable time allotted to us in a day.

There was one time in my life when everything went great, and it was all because of the effort I put in, and the new perspectives I took on. It was my first semester back in college after a while, and I’m historically bad at school. Not the actual application-of-knowledge part, but the homework, essays, and discussion boards. It didn’t help that I was doing nothing but online classes.

Knowing that I was about to get myself in a bit too deep, I made a few decisions early in the semester which were important to my success.

I Made a Master List

One great thing about college over high school is that your entire semester is mapped out ahead of you. Sometimes teachers adjust these road maps they call syllabuses, but online classes typically stick to a pretty rigid schedule.

So, being a geeky numbers guy who knows how to use spreadsheets effectively, I compiled every assignment, organized them by class, then sorted them by due date.

This had two major effects. First, it created a singular space for me to look to see what was coming up. There would be no surprises due to forgetting to check a certain syllabus. Second, it allowed me to see how far apart I could spread out my assignments. If I had seven different things due on the same day, I would stagger them over the course of the days leading up to the due date. If I had multiple essays due, I would allow a day for each (or more, depending on the type of essay).

I Started Following a Daily To-Do List

The Master List would have done very little if I hadn’t created a daily to-do list. I know the idea is simple. Don’t you just write down everything you have to do in a day and then do it?

Well, yes. But for some of us, even having a list is not enough. I had to make myself follow it religiously.

I did this with a set of rules for myself. No Netflix before 8 PM on weekdays. The first hour after I got up was free for whatever while I had my coffee and settled into the day. I had to do everything on the list first before the fun stuff.

I was a little bit of a taskmaster to myself in this, I admit. But that was what I needed. And ultimately, I felt pretty great about the whole thing. And that’s mostly because of the next item:

I Flipped My Whole Routine

My routine used to be video games first, everything else second. Okay, it was more complicated than that, but the bottom line is that I thought I could play games and leave enough time for my work. Obviously, this was a mistake.

This is why one of my rules was “do everything on the list before the fun stuff.”

By starting on the important stuff, I allowed myself enough time to do the work adequately, rather than rushing it. Then, after everything was done, sometimes it would only be noon, and the rest of the day would be mine to do what I will with it. Sometimes I actually ended up with more time for the fun stuff.

Of course, sometimes I realized that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. This is why I had a weekday 8PM cut-off. At that point, anything I hadn’t done, unless it was due at midnight that day, would be pushed to the next day.

I Stopped Playing Video Games

This one lasted only about a month and a half. However, it gave me more time and energy for the important things in life, and it gave me a new perspective. Really, I just wanted to see how non-gamers saw the world, since so much of my life revolved around video games. Hell, I even have one novel set in a video game and one based largely on the themes of another.

This was a weird experience, by the way, since so many of my friends play video games. One of them invited me over to hang out during this period. Little did I know, he had a bunch of friends over to play a new game with him. I felt a little guilty, actually.

But all-in-all, those forty-five days taught me that I was in control of my actions. It was up to me, when faced with the urge to play, with that “Oh, I still want to do this in that video game” feeling, to say no. And I could say no, and I did. Sometimes out loud.

What Went Wrong

It’s hard to nail down what changed exactly. Winter break started, and I overestimated my willpower. I got all A’s the semester that I did all these things, even got a little “President’s List” certificate from the school.

The next semester I ended up with A’s and B’s and I think a C. I had eased up during the winter season and failed in getting back into the same mindset I’d adopted previously.

This is a commonplace thing for me. Any time I get a strong head of steam going in something—like a write-everyday streak—as soon as I let up a little bit (for real or imagined difficulties) I tend to get totally derailed and unable to find the tracks again.

So, this May, I will be trying to tap into the mindset that allowed me to be so productive and live a happier, healthier lifestyle.

I’ve already started by flipping my routine, which mostly involves not instantly heading to the computer as soon as I get home or wake up, because the Internet is a tool that we too often take for granted.


About David Shank

David T. Shank spends most of his time in worlds of robots, dragons, and robot dragons. He gets his cardio vicariously through video game characters while carbo-loading on Killian’s. His perfect vision lets him see everything but the fact that he’ll never defeat those walls he keeps punching. When he’s not doing the novel-writing thing, he can often be found in public reading his Kindle and being antisocial.

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