Open Thinkering


How to ‘chapter’ your life to make it more productive.

I was again asked this week how I do it. How on earth do you fit in studying, a young family, blogging each day, and everything else you do? Of course, I pointed them towards #uppingyourgame: an educator’s guide to productivity, but it also got me thinking again about those things I do by habit, by intuition.

One of these is ‘chaptering’. In fact, I’m doing it right now. It can be done on a micro or a macro level and is a very simple concept. For example, I’ve just finished reading a chapter of a book I’m reviewing for an academic journal. Now I’m doing the first draft of this blog post. Then I’ll go back to the book.

Most people, I suppose, if given the same ‘to-do’ list that I wrote into my Moleskine notebook would chunk tasks. That is to say do all of the book-reading, then do all of the blogging, then all of the washing-up, and so on.

The difference between chunking and chaptering is that the former is time-agnostic, whereas the latter divides time into roughly equal sections. By this I mean that I’m likely to spend 15-20 minutes on each activity when chaptering, whereas the ‘chunker’ would spend as long as it takes to get the task done.

Inevitably, then, chaptering involves breaking down large tasks into smaller ones. Whilst I won’t set arbitrary time limits on activities, it does mean that I have a change of scenery and activity at least once every 30 minutes. I’ve found that associating certain geographic areas with certain activities works well. So, for example, whilst I’ll still be using my Macbook Pro, I may deal with my emails in my study whilst writing blog posts might be done on the dining room table.

I find this chaptering method not only keeps me focused, but means I can ‘parallel-task’. It works best when the activities are qualitatively different. Whilst I’m washing-up, for instance, I can still be thinking about the article I’ve just read.

On a macro level, chaptering can be applied not only to your working week (spending time on different projects and tasks on different days) but on different months (e.g. having a slightly different focus each month), and even on years and decades.

So I encourage you to have a go at chaptering. It works well for me. I’m confident it can work for you, too! 😀

2 thoughts on “How to ‘chapter’ your life to make it more productive.

  1. Chaptering fits in quite well with the GTD model, but many people make the mistake of spending too much time recording tasks to be completed. I tend not to follow GTD as I like to challenge my mind with the abilty to organise and sift tasks and information. It does allow me to be able to recall required information faster or make connections between people or infromation compared to being more analytical about it. It depends on the task and circumstances I suppose. If in doubt I find evernote as a tool for collating (and tagging) information is a good fail-over.

    Do you find the chaptering fits well into your style of managing your productivity due to a large chunk of your working day being chaptered via a timetable? Has this changed as you have more available time now you have more ‘leadership’ time?

    I am a persistent multi-tasker … I have 3 screens on my work desktop: one for information and official files(emails, rss feeds, council documents, etc), one for my general mac world (browser, reference materials, supplementary or earlier versions of documents) and my main screen as my work location. This might have my windows VM image (if I am doing a lot of Sharepoint based work) or whichever document I am working on. This partly feeds into your geographical location method of managing your concentration / focus … but in a tighter space. I also make use of tools like Bumptop to isolate working / allocated areas of my general mac desktop too.

    1. I suppose I conceive of ‘chaptering’ as being a fairly high-level
      philosophical approach or strategy to life. Having other people
      dictate your time (with, for example, a timetable) can be both a
      blessing and a curse.

      On the one hand, it gives you an immediate opportunity to practice
      chaptering in 50-minute or hour-long chunks. But on the other, it’s
      institution-focused rather than being personal and context-specific.

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