Balance,  Living Abroad,  Thriving

Six Strategies for Managing Unstructured Time

Dear Stephanie,

First and foremost, I want to say that one of the things I like so much about these thriving topics is that it’s an opportunity for me to take stock and to recognize that thriving is an ongoing process. I don’t necessarily “have it all together” simply because I’ve lived in Spain for years. Really being able to flourish under your circumstances requires constantly checking in with yourself and making adjustments as life changes.

Keeping an agenda has done wonders for my time-management!One area in which I’ve really been struggling over the last six months is with time management in terms of all my unstructured time, which is something you may come up against while living abroad, too. It’s often difficult to admit that this is problematic for me as the rest of the world tends to view my situation as ‘so lucky’—I, myself, even powered through the last year because of the promise of the flexibility and the ability to make my own schedule. Now that I’ve got it, however, I find myself wondering if it’s really the best system for me.

It all comes down to the fact that I don’t know that I’m someone who naturally thrives with unstructured time. And it’s so confusing because I used to complain about being stuck to a strict class schedule; yet now that I don’t have one I’m taking measures to build a more consistent schedule for myself. It feels so counter-intuitive at times, but it’s just one more reminder that I am a pile of contractions and always in the process of accepting who I am.

That being said, once I stopped fighting myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a few things that help me stay focused, balanced, and happy. Here are the most important strategies for me, which may also come in handy for you:


1.) Keep an agenda: All throughout school I kept a nice, neat agenda and very much benefited from it. Why did it take me until nearly five years after I graduated to realize that I could use that in my ‘real life,’ too!? Having a place where I write down the times of all of my classes, meetings, and other commitments as well as a to-do list has helped me immensely. Since I started this at the beginning of the year, I have been far better at recognizing how much time I ACTUALLY have (not assuming I can accomplish 10 things outside of my classes when, in reality, I need 7 hours to dedicate to teaching and grading).


Taking time to sit down to breakfast is so important for me.2.) Start the morning right: I’ve shared this before, but I struggle with staying up late but also doing better when I wake up early. Thus,—it’s still a work in progress—but I’m trying to keep the habit of waking up at least an hour before I start work so that I can do some sort of exercise and enjoy my breakfast (shout-out to Yoga with Adriene and her free 30-day journey called TRUE that helped me with this commitment). Making home-brewed coffee takes time and it’s so much better not to have to rush!


3.) Have tangible ways to compartmentalize: This strategy is probably most important to anyone who works from home like I do. Although it can be tempting to stay in PJs all day everyday, I’m aware that I do so much better when I change outfits before starting my workday (even if this involves putting on a different pair of sweatpants and sweater, it’s the physical process of changing over that helps your mind make the switch too). I also do any work-related activities while sitting at my living room table and only take my computer to the couch or bed if I’m using it for personal reasons.


Knowing when to call it a day actually helps me stay on-track.4.) Set limits: We all know ourselves and when we work best. Personally, I start to shut down around 9pm—which is perfect for living in Spain where it’s the right time to make some dinner! Thus, I do everything I can in order to be finished with work by this point. It can be helpful for me to commit to meeting up with friends for tapas at this time as then I HAVE to stick to the plan! If I’m staying in for the night, I tangibly switch gears (a la strategy #3) and turn off my overhead light so that the softer light of my lamp and/or heater already has me slowing down for the night. For you, setting limits may mean NOT trying to be productive until after 12pm. Just figure out what works best for you and try to flow with, instead of fight, that.


5.) Create your own structure: This is definitely the strategy I’ve been fighting most as it seems to go against EVERYTHING I thought I wanted. The whole point of switching to mainly online work was so that I could escape structure; now I need to build a new form of it!? Personally, the answer is yes. Now, I bundle all of my online classes before lunch and have committed myself to at least one private lesson three times a week in the evenings. I would love to be able to say that I just let everyday flow and that I work on each of my tasks as it feels right. However, that’s just not a reality for me and when I tried it that way I ended up never truly focusing on anything. I would spend every evening at home because I didn’t feel like I had accomplished anything and therefore that I didn’t ‘deserve’ to go out and be social, which brings me to the final AND MOST IMPORTANT strategy…


But most importantly, be sure to take care of yourself!!6.) Be kind to yourself: Now that I have a more consistent schedule and I’m checking things off my list all throughout the day, I am giving myself visual validation that I AM accomplishing things and I feel much better about my productivity. But my agenda is not only for work—I also write down my yoga practice, my coffee dates, and Skype plans. Giving the same value to the things that make you happy is important. I used to think of these things as rewards that I received when everything else was done, but that only created a negative mindset. Now I focus on balancing the two and ‘check myself’ when I realize that I’ve had a few days without a social engagement, ensuring that I reach out to someone and tend to my personal needs.


There are so many things I’ve done right and wrong over the years and I feel like I’m always teetering back and forth between healthy and harmful habits when it comes to time management. These six strategies have been consistent winners, however, so I recommend you introduce them into your routine if you’re struggling with a lack of routine as well!

Are there any other tips you have for managing your unstructured time? I’d love to hear about them!



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