Time management as an art project

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If this gives you hives you should probably stop reading now.
If this gives you hives you should probably stop reading now.

For the past few months I’ve been waking up in a cold sweat freaking out about things I forgot to take care of. A lot of it is little — like forgetting to schedule a hair appointment until after they’ve closed for the day. Some of it is bigger — like the Kickstarter I did a few years ago that fizzled out. And a few things are huge — like the fact that I completely bungled my corporate tax filings for the last three years.

With some nudging from my therapist and support from my husband, I finally managed to get on top of things. My to-do list has gone from “deal with three years of back taxes” to more mundane stuff like “clean up the dried paint in the bathroom.” I used a handful of different strategies to gain control, which I’ll detail in a sec, but the biggest key to staying motivated has been to turn it into something like an art project.

Step 1: I wrote down everything I was putting off

AKA I made a to-do list, but with some very specific guidelines.

First, everything on the list had to be something I’d been putting off for a while. None of my normal daily/weekly chores got put on there. Although I hate going to the grocery store, hunger will eventually lead me there, so I don’t need to put it on my list of terrible to-dos.

Second, if it was a big task (like “unfuck my accounting”) I wrote down only the first step in the process. Whatever was on the list had to be eminently doable (if sucky). So instead of unfuck my accounting I wrote call accountant. Luckily I had the name of a good accountant already. If I hadn’t, I would have written find an accountant.

And most importantly, I limited the list to what would fit on a post-it note. I’m not rattling off every task I could possibly hope to accomplish in the next month, just the stuff I really need to get around to.

Step 2: I dedicated an hour a day to working on my list

timerThis was my therapist’s idea and at first I balked. An hour? Where am I going to find an extra hour? And then I thought what do I even do in a day? Because I work from home, freelance, my work and my meta-work and my home life and my hobbies sometimes start to blend together. In order to find that extra hour I had to tease them apart and work more efficiently.

Once I committed myself to the hour I could no longer engage in productive procrastination to avoid my terrible tasks. I set a timer and sat down with my list. During the hour I only worked on things that appeared on that list. After a week the list was dwindling. Two weeks in, I’ve cleared out everything on the original list — some of which had been there for years.

Step 3: I started logging what I was doing with Chronodex

This is where the wacky circle thing comes in.


Chronodex was designed as a paper planner. The circle represents a clock, and each wedge is an hour. The different sizes of the wedges just make it easier to differentiate them. It’s meant for folks who primarily care about 9am to 9pm, as midnight to 9am are on the interior of the circle and 9pm to midnight are sort of ghosted around the exterior. If you shade in your various appointments and responsibilities you have a nice visualization of your day.

I have Google calendar for appointments, but I use Chronodex to record what I’ve done in a day. Rather than print out an entire six months of dated pages I printed a bunch of blank Chronodex cores on sticker paper and slap one in my Moleskine notebook each day. This allows me the flexibility to take up more/less space as needed on any given day. I use different colored pens to shade in what I did: billable work, meta-work, family time, exercise, sleep, terrible to-do time.

My first day's Chronodex. I have since given up on logging the weather despite loving to draw clouds.
My first day’s Chronodex. I have since given up on logging the weather despite loving to draw clouds.

If you look through the gallery of how people use Chronodex, everyone uses it a little differently. There’s no right or wrong way to shade in the wedges, that’s where the art project comes in.

Once I started accounting for my time, some really important things happened. I started to feel better about myself because I was acknowledging the things I accomplished in a day. I started thinking about my time in 15 minute blocks which has helped me focus a lot on the task at hand. I am better at stopping myself from jumping between work, home, and play because I’ve internalized that I’m “in a work block” or “in a family block.” When I take a break I take a full 15 or 30 minute break instead of just shoving food in my face while sitting at my keyboard. My reward for being productive is that I get to shade in that time on my Chronodex afterwards.

Step 4: I started having time for chores

Now that I’ve been dedicating all this time to my terrible to-dos, I don’t actually need the full daily hour to do them anymore. It’s tempting to use that time for goofing off, but instead I’ve started adding some routine chores into my schedule. This is the stuff I should be doing but often don’t and then either a) it gets gross or b) my husband takes care of it and pretends not to secretly resent what a slob I am.

This is not the first time I have tackled chores with an overly complicated art project. Behold:

Oh yeah, I remember you now
Oh yeah, I remember you now

That project served me very well. It fell by the wayside when we moved and I had a bigger house with WAY MORE THINGS that needed doing.

The biggest problem I have with a pre-printed list of chores though is that it becomes your tyrant instead of a tool. If you fall behind you have this paper trail of failure plus the question of “do I just skip those chores or is my entire day now going to be nothing but cleaning?”

For this iteration I printed out a bunch of common chores onto some return address labels. Apparently you all have a boner for labels, because this was one of my most liked items on Facebook this week.

If there is one thing you all love it is colorful labels.
If there is one thing you all love it is colorful labels.

I cut them into sets of eight or so and keep a sheet of them alongside my to-do list in my notebook (which I use as a bookmark). When I do a chore, I put that sticker on the page. The colors mean nothing; I just like colorful things. This is basically a more boring version of what you might use for a seven-year-old. The stickers behave sort of like a repeating to-do list. I limit these chores to things I can do in 15 minutes or less.

Step 5: Profit

Actually I think the only people profiting here are the label companies. But I sleep better at night now that I no longer have a list of years-old to-do items hanging over my head.

My biggest takeaway from this is that I do better with accountability than expectation. Which is to say, when I plan my chores or tasks for the week out in advance I never seem to live up to the standard I’m setting. But if I hold myself accountable to what I’ve accomplished each day — regardless of what it is — I can get a lot done.

I love the flexibility stickers offer me. I can skip a day or do something different tomorrow and it’s not this weird scar in my notebook. On weekends I don’t usually need to be such a taskmaster, so unless I’ve got a lot going on I don’t bother.

And most importantly, this works because I am highly motivated by charts and graphs. Seriously. I cleaned my office bathroom yesterday expressly so I could get a sticker. I focus on work instead of checking Facebook just so I can shade that 15 minute wedge in blue. If the idea of sitting down with a pack of multicolored pens doesn’t fill you with excited anticipation, this won’t help you at all.

Speaking of pens, these are my very favorite. They don’t bleed through the pages and make a nice smooth line.

Frequently Asked Questions

Doesn’t this take kind of a while?

Yes. I spend about 15 minutes a day updating my stupid Chronodex. But I consider it time well spent because I’m actually getting things done the rest of the day instead of checking Facebook 500 times.

What about free/leisure time?

I experimented with shading in those things too after the fact and it was just too much for my taste. I like the visual effect the space has when I don’t have a scheduled task.

Where can I learn more about Chronodex?

This lady wrote up a good blog post on it.

Can I have the files you used to make the stickers?


  • Chronodex core sheet – full sheet sticker: PSD  PDF
  • Chore stickers – Avery 8167: PSD PDF

Comments on Time management as an art project

  1. Oh God, this is perfect. I’ve been thinking of my planner/calendar/notebook as a art project for years. It’s so satisfying to see all these little graphs and doodles from day to day. Some great new tips, thank you!

    I feel like we could be productivity bffs!

  2. I am firmly in camp stickers-as-a-reward. I used to use them in university at the end of each semester as a way to mark off each completed project, show, term paper, or exam. Now I use them for exercise and simple chores. If I don’t feel like doing yoga or putting my laundry away…the promise of a Lisa Frank sticker on my calendar makes a huge difference!

    • I’m so glad to hear that I’m not the only (outward) adult that has an addiction to stickers and will do an awful lot to earn them and put on my calendar(s)…

  3. I can’t even address one particular part of this article because I relate to every single word of it. I love hearing about other people’s “time management art projects.”

    I used to feel like for all the time I spend on these hacks, I could just get stuff done instead, but I’m over it. For however long they work (which is usually a few weeks) I have fun with them and get things done and I feel good about it. One day I might find the perfect system but in the meantime I’ll keep making charts, building binders and giving myself gold stars. In fact, I think today I need to get out and buy myself some Avery labels.

  4. I’m curious about the difference between “expectation” and “accountability”. I confess I don’t fully understand what you mean by “hold myself accountable to what I’ve done”. LOVE the art project aspect of this!

    • For me it’s the difference between “I’m going to do these 4 things today. [day goes by] Fuck I didn’t do them, I am the worst” and “Here’s what I did today, I got a lot done.” If I get halfway through the day and I haven’t written anything down I’m like “oh I should focus and accomplish some stuff” instead of “oh god I haven’t started any of these things.”

      It’s two sides of the same coin, but as someone who can be very self-critical I have to work on not sending myself into a shame spiral of moping and despair when I let stuff get ahead of me.

      • “shame spiral of moping and despair”
        THIS X 1000!

        I have a very bad habit of:
        1) Taking on too much.
        2) Getting mad at myself and/or the universe when I can’t complete everything.
        3) “Rebelling” by slacking off and then feeling guilty about that so I…take on too much.
        Lather, rinse and repeat.

      • Or I get into the mindset where I’m like “damn I didn’t clean the bathroom today, guess I’ll let it keep getting dirty for six more months as punishment” because my brain is annoying.

  5. As a meta perspective here: Kellbot is the Offbeat Empire’s lead developer. Her coding skills have always been awesome, but I will say from the perspective of her manager that her time/project management skills got amazing after she started using chronodex. Like, would the relaunching of all six Empire sites have been as smooth with out chronodex? I do not know.

    Also: those pens just gave me a boner. Soooo getting myself some.

  6. My current productivity tool is a spreadsheet. I assigned various tasks a point value, and if I do something I input how many points I earned and Google Sheets totals it up for me. Some of the things on my score sheet are suuuuuper basic (e.g., showering and getting dressed are worth 1 point each) because I’m unemployed and I’ve been struggling with my mental health and some days it’s a victory to do ANYTHING more than sitting in my chair on my laptop. This has been working fairly well for me because I’ve always been motivated by getting a good score/grade, although maybe it would be healthier not to put a particular value on each task. If I decide I need to change it maybe I’ll try stickers. I’ve only had one 1-point day since I started doing this nearly a month ago, though!

  7. “Apparently you all have a boner for labels”
    Oh we do.

    I have mixed feelings about this. (The Chronodex — not boners. I have firm feelings for boners. 😉 )
    I’m looking for a new time management thing but I don’t think I can keep up with the coloring. The lady whose blog you reference mentions just starting with 1 thing you track. That sounds more doable for me but … surely a Chronodex is overkill for that?

    What I really want is SOFTWARE to do this for me! And keep my journal. And unload my dishwasher.

  8. I love this!

    I thought I *finally* had a great time management system worked out. Instead of overcomplicated art projects, it involves overcomplicated use of Google calendar integrated with a to-do app, a project management app, a calendaring site to allow appointment scheduling, and another calendar app that simply takes my Google calendar and makes it look prettier. That sounds horrible, but actually, the way things integrate is easy and manageable (especially because I have a rather large screen phone).

    But now you’ve made me want to switch it all up again !

    But my desk is my backpack and I can’t add anything more to it, I’m on the move all the time, and time management only works for me when everything magically appears as reminders on my phone.

    So here’s my question: is there anything out there that will render my calendar and tasks in this pretty chronodex format digitally?

      • I’ll confess that I had this secret fantasy that you would respond “oh, I can TOTALLY write that”.

        Even hotter than pens AND task labels.

        If you do I will be your first customer!

        • Signs I am maybe not quite right: I have a week off work and I thought to myself “omg I could totally write that digital chronodex thing.”

          Do you know WHY I have off for a week? Because I am going to MOTHERFUCKING DISNEY WORLD.

          “Food, fun, warm weather and relaxation with my family is cool, but gee whiz I sure hope I have time to code!”

          • As much as I want the digital Chronodex, I hope you are having a great week PLAYING at Disney World!

  9. For those who are looking for an online tool, I’d heartily recommend Trello (www.trello.com). It’s free and you can organise yourself into “boards” (projects) with “cards” (tasks) in to-do lists that can have labels and, yes, stickers!

    I have a board for myself with my lingering chores and a “this week” list. At the start of the week I’ll pick just one or two chores to aim to do that week.

    I also have a shared board with my partner where we manage our shared chores in the same way.

    We also used it to plan a big overseas trip last year; it was great! We used a spreadsheet as well, but it was much better for all the little jobs.

    Each time we think “oh, I should really do/organise/fix that”, we put in on a Trello board, so it doesn’t rattle around in our brains. So good!

  10. You just saved me from my pre-work melt down overwhelmed, I want to drop out of school and not work because life is to hard hate spiral I’ve been having today! Gah! Love it! After work gonna buy me some sticker sheets and Avery labels and colored pencils to do this. I really really really love the idea of “look what I did” instead of “Look how much didn’t get crossed off the list today :(“. I do so much better with positive motivation than negative but have never been able to figure out how to swing that with “tasks that need done” type things.

  11. I have wanted a way to keep track of my billable hours at work. I used to use a color-coded spreadsheet that I would fill in with highlighters. The Chronodex is a little clunky for me, but I did some quick poking around Pinterest and found the Spiraldex. I might try implementing it in my planner. I think I need more colors of pens, though!

  12. Do you do the Chronodex on weekends as well? I’m struggling with “I’m an academic and really probably should be doing work on the weekends,” and “If I keep tabs on the weekends, it’ll just illustrate how little I get done on the weekends and I’ll go into an icky shame spiral.” How do you cope/deal/thwart those impulses, if you do keep your chronodex every single day?

  13. Your diagram is so complicated to me. I am naturally organised but still – to-do lists are a must. I usually write down things that bother me a lot – and those things are lots. Writing what has to be done when, even if I don’t do it, it still gets some tension of me and allows me to at least have some rest and sleep until I wake up in cold sweat realising I must go now. When I have something to do I just cannot stand still until it’s not done, it sometimes is a problem when it comes to relationships and not many people understand my urgency for doing everything that must be done at an exact time (not a minute later). I just know – 30 minutes for this at 4:30, 50 minutes for that at 5. I know this side of mine will keep reaping me rewards but I cannot tell how this has happened with me – I just manage my time and do it well. Just another line of bragging – I am also quite good at managing money, maybe it’s because I value money and time high enough to not be wasting them.

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