Tasks versus Time

My friend is having a bit of a rough go right now. She’s been an ESL teacher for five years, working with small groups of students in all grades. But in January, she had to take over another teacher’s class full time. So she’s in a new classroom that wasn’t hers with students that weren’t hers after being out of the classroom for five years (read: she had gotten rid of most of her classroom supplies) in the middle of the year. Any teachers out there can cringe because that situation sucks.

My friend is doing her damnedest to get everything set up and running smoothly without having the usual summer period to set up. It is killing her. She is working 16+ hour days all seven days in the week. She’s barely sleeping, barely eating, because she just doesn’t have the time.

But of course she does, right? Her husband and my husband both shake their heads and remind her that she is choosing to work these stupid hours, that she needs to prioritize what she is doing, that she needs to set stop times and then just stop. The work will be there the next day and no one will have died. They admonish her to set boundaries. Simple as that.

They are right. And my friend knows it, but she still can’t stop. I get it. I’m the exact same way (and I get told the exact same things when I start a project). Setting start and stop times is not intuitive for some people like my friend and me. And the reason is that we are task-oriented people rather than time-oriented people.

This is an important distinction that I didn’t really understand until a few years ago: Task vs Time.

Time-oriented people are able to work within a specific frame of time (say 9am-5pm) and then stop. Time-oriented people intuitively get that work is a gas and will fill every single space you have in your life if you don’t set boundaries. They set those boundaries. And–get this–they are able to put their work out of their minds while they aren’t working . . . EVEN IF IT ISN’T FINISHED YET. Time-oriented people give themselves the much needed breaks from their tasks, knowing that they will be able to return to their tasks refreshed and better able to do it. Because they work in a set time, time-oriented people prioritize their tasks, allowing them to get the important ones done first and let the ones of lesser importance go unfinished until the next scheduled work time.

Task-oriented people see things in accomplished tasks. Whether it takes 20 minutes or 20 years, task-oriented people tend to work non-stop until the task is finished. They can’t stop and take a break no matter how needed it is because they will not be actually on a break. The unfinished task will nibble at their minds constantly, eroding any non-work time, until the task-oriented person just gives in and finishes the task. We can’t turn our minds off. If the task is unfinished, we will mentally gnaw and worry at the task even if physically we are “off.” Task-oriented people can’t intuitively set work boundaries because leaving a task unfinished JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. Task-oriented people are the people who take work home. Task-oriented people are the people who work non-stop until they finally snap and run away from it all whether that looks like quitting the job, an actual health breakdown, or a killer long-term vacation (task-oriented people work the shit out of work; but they also vacation the shit out of vacation).

Being task-oriented can lead to a horrible, workaholic life if you don’t know how to help yourself. Because we can’t set time boundaries, task-oriented people have to set task boundaries. This is hard to do if you work any type of job with ongoing goals. It is also hard to do if you don’t recognize that you are task-oriented. Balance is necessary.

I looked at my 2013 year last month and realized that I am a slave to tasks. I decided to see if I could set up some ways to help me stay sane and be productive in 2014. What I resolved to do (imperfectly but I’m trying) are the following three strategies:

1. Break big tasks into small tasks and then set only a few small tasks per day.
This strategy lets me work at long-term goals without killing myself to get it all done now. It lets me feel like I am finishing tasks (the little ones) rather than letting a task (the big one) go unfinished. It paces me.

2. Practice taking a full day off each week until it doesn’t feel lazy and weird.
This will take time and consistent planning. I set all my little tasks Monday through Friday with the goal of having the entire weekend off. I finish any of those little ones I inevitably didn’t finish during the work week on Saturday. And then I have all day Sunday with no unfinished tasks over my head and my mind can take a break. It took a few months (like eight–I started this one in 2013) before I didn’t feel like I needed to revisit the big task on Sundays and get a few extra things done, but because I practice this break consistently, it has begun to feel less weird and I actually look forward to my Sundays off and to my Monday morning where I set the new small tasks for the week.

3. If I legitimately can’t stop obsessing about a task, I can stop whatever I am doing no matter what it is and finish the task.
Sometimes it is in the middle of dinner. Sometimes I am about to go to bed. Sometimes I have to cancel something I was looking forward to. But because I try to practice the above strategies regularly, I don’t have to do this often and when I do, I know it is important–I really won’t be able to enjoy my free time with this task unfinished. Then when the task is done, I can return to whatever I was doing before with a clear and restful mind. This strategy also takes the understanding of those time-oriented people who surround you. They have to be gracious if you have to suddenly leave something to work yet able to call you out if you are using this strategy as a way to be a workaholic.

I don’t do any of this perfectly, but the constant practice has really helped my sanity and joy in living. It also saves me from the frustration of having to listen to time-oriented people telling my how easy it is to just stop. I don’t miss the days when I would work from 4am-6am, get my son up and ready for school, return to work from 9am-4pm, get my son back from school, feed him, bathe him, homework him, put him to bed, and then go back to work from 9pm until midnight. That’s a shitty life. One I don’t ever want to return to.

I love you, my friend. I hope that you will find your rest from your tasks soon.

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