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Time Focus for Woodworkers: How to Allocate Your Energy

Analyzing this for yourself will be useful to you everyday. Don’t just graph it and put it away; post it where you’ll see it several times a day until what you do and when you do things becomes a habit.

I have time.  You have time.  24 hours a day.  We all do (if we’re alive).  We all have the same 24 hours available.  So why are some people happier and able to do more than others?  Largely it’s due to how they’re using their available time, and when during their mental and physical energy cycles they’re doing specific types of things.  Huh?

Ok, it’s pretty simple really, but it’s all in how you think about it.  Let me comb your mind in the right direction and you’ll make much better use of your day by matching what you do with what you’re better able to do at the moment.

Time of Day vs. What You Do

As you know, different times of the day you have various levels of mental clarity or physical energy.

One day in a Starbucks, yes about mid-morning, I mapped out a typical day.  Being an engineer I graphed the Time of Day vs. Energy Level.  Looking at that I realized that if I matched up the type of activities I did to the time of day, I could be better at everything I do.  If I choose to fight that reality, then the results will be less than ideal.

You can make a routine out of this information, but don’t be so rigid.  Your body and mind may operate on a daily cycle, but you also have a weekly ebb and flow of enthusiasm and ambition.  When you feel a surge of ambitiousness to redesign your workbench, drop what you’re doing and do it!  Those sudden inspirations are gifts that we too often dismiss and throw aside.

Based on my daily map, I try to do some mindless chores in the early morning hours like clean up, putting tools away, doing a mini-sharpening update, checking for square on a few tools, things like that.  But I limit that to about an hour.

Once I’m nicely awake, I start to get excited about design, thinking of new ideas, and generally want to be creative.  So I target mid-morning for writing, design, and future planning of projects and shop improvements.  For me, the mid-morning is my ideal thinking time.  I come up with awesome ideas (which I try to capture with a collapsible pen and notepad in my back pocket).

Shop time requires the second-most focused mental energy; the most demanding is designing, writing, and formulating ideas. So, I schedule shop time for the parts of the day that I have moderately high energy.

But a design session is best if it’s only a few hours at a time.  So I target the time just before lunch for shop time, because by being on my feet I feel less tired after designing stuff.

At lunch, I like to drink a vanilla latte, whose caffeine gives me a boost for writing.  Like this blog post for example!

After a few hours, I like to get up and do a physical activity, but still be productive.  So, weather permitting, I work towards fulfilling my garden design, or do some shop construction.

By the evening, sometimes I just stop and go out to have some fun.  During this time, just by being out of the shop and the house I get inspired by things I see.

I get sorta sleepy after dinner, but if motivated I can do physical work as long as the planning has been done already.  At night, I don’t usually feel like doing anything heavy-duty so if I go back into the shop I like to run through some tedious tasks.  Doing things that are complicated at late hours just invites mistakes.

By 9:00pm I’m only good for errands, not really creative design, writing, or heavy physical work.  So it’s either TV or minor chores like laundry.

My interest in things also ebbs and flows.  Sometimes I’m enthusiastic about doing some gardening or woodworking, other times I want to go to Vegas.  Life and the universe operate in cycles.  You can choose to swim against the current or go with the flow.  I like living with the wind in my sails, so I don’t force myself, but instead motivate myself.

WoodChip Tip: Time by itself isn’t as valuable as Time + Energy/ Attention & Focus.  If you have time at 11pm but are sleepy, what good is that?  You might as well go to sleep and shift that time to the morning when you’ll be able to give focused attention to your task.

Match Your Environment to Your Activity

I’ve found that just as important as what and when you do things is where you do it.  That doesn’t just refer to physical location.  It’s your surroundings.  Can’t concentrate on design if there’s a TV in the room (even if it’s off)?  It’s not your fault; don’t waste energy trying to fight it and just go somewhere like a library or Starbucks to do your design work.  This forces focus.

Putting a table and a chair in your backyard on a nice day works really well too.  I do a lot of writing in public places where I can people-watch but I can easily tune out the ambient noise.  As long as there’s a table and a chair it works for me.  As Chip Heath and Dan Heath say in the book Switch, shape your environment to match what you want to accomplish.

This is why it’s just so critical you pay attention to your shop design.  Your environment has a HUGE impact on your energy level, enthusiasm and motivation.  Restaurants, theme parks, and retail stores spend TONS of money on their ambience.  Why?  It works.  Really well.  Do the same for yourself.  Work in a cluttered, garage-looking shop?  Why?  Have your shop reflect your work.  And don’t just make it look like a plain ol’ workshop…art it up!  Emphasize aesthetics.

Find or create locations for yourself that you notice your best productivity and creativity; once you find those just repeat. No sense in struggling to find and invent new things when you can simply do more of what works.

Besides my woodshop design for workflow, comfort and aesthetics, I’m also clearing out a room in my house to use as an Art/ Design Studio.  There will be no TV or internet access in there.  Just my laptop to write, AutoCad to draw, and art supplies to paint and create furniture designs.  Match place to activity.

Time-Forward Concept

This is something I’ve thought about for awhile now.  This has to do with the mindset you have during your activity.  If I’m sneaking in 20 minutes before my next appointment to do a design session, I feel rushed.  Most of the time I don’t bother opening up my laptop; I may doodle a bit or organize my wallet knowing I probably won’t be able to finish a thought anyway.  Not a very productive design time.

If I know that I have several hours, I’m much more likely to relax and let my mind do its thing. This “time-forward” is a requirement I have to sit down for a nice creative session.  If I don’t have this, then I do something else; still productive, but something else.

I like to do the same thing with a shop session.  Three hours free of obligations to others.  Not always possible, but it’s a nice feeling.  If things take longer than planned or something goes wrong (on the rare occasion…), I know I can deal with it and not have to stop earlier than I want to.

Of course, to take advantage of niches in time, I keep my shop ready to go if I have a quick 30 minutes to run some boards or put on another coat of oil.  Yet another reason to design your shop so that you naturally tend to clean it up (a designated, convenient place for everything at each station).

WoodChip Tip: Take advantage of “niches in time”.  Solve minor shop problems every woodworking session by allocating 10-20 minutes dedicated to solving a stumbling block you just encountered.  My recent one was to mill a straighter miter gauge fence.

Speaking of not feeling rushed or obligated, if you schedule time to do things like a sharpening day, shop jig tune-up day, or empty-the-dust-collector-hour, you won’t feel so guilty about doing those things.  I often avoid doing necessary “maintenance” tasks because I think that with this precious, limited time I could be doing something more productive.  It’s just how you think about it—release yourself of your own obligations so you’re free to do things you know have to be done.

Motivation – Everything You Do, Even Logical Things, Are Emotionally Motivated

Ok, this concept is something I also learned from the book Switch.  Notice how you’re sluggish when someone asks you to mop the floor?  But if the same person says, “Hey, why don’t you go to the lumberyard and buy $500 worth of stuff?”  Sudden burst of energy?

Think about it.  All things you engage in have an underlying emotional motivation.  Even things you don’t do or avoid doing have an associated feeling or anticipation of a feeling.  We avoid stuff because we fear or dread feeling a certain way.  Sometimes we over-anticipate how bad or boring something is and that affects whether we take action.  One way around this is a concept I learned from Tim Ferriss (author of the 4 Hour Workweek) called fearsetting, where you mentally walk yourself through the worst-case scenario.  This way you prepare for it and often realize it’s not that bad.

Even something as purely logical and seemingly unemotional as doing a math problem is motivated by emotion.  If you actually like doing them, it’s because you get a feeling of satisfaction from doing it, or you want to impress someone with your genius.  Or you just dread it.

This blog serves as a heavy motivating force for me to not only design but to actually implement. By sharing publicly what I’m thinking and doing, I pay far more attention to quality. It’s the same feeling when you know your customer will run their hands over the furniture you deliver to them. Makes you take the extra few minutes to prep before the finish goes on.

Knowing this, you can manipulate your circumstances to get stuff done.  Simply create a situation where you’ll be emotionally rewarded for doing things.  One thing you can do is create accountability from others.  Publicly declare you’re going to do something, and you’ll be far more motivated to do it.  Want to build a bed?  Do it for someone you love and it’ll most likely get it done.  This blog holds me accountable; if I want to write a post  about insulating my roof it pushes me to get it done (or I won’t have pictures of it!).  This blog has accelerated my shop design from paper to reality.

WoodChip Tip: Create “rules” for yourself that keep you accountable and motivated.  I have a rule on this blog that NO photograph is a “stock photo”; they’re all mine, ones that I either physically took with a camera or I was physically present and a friend took the photo.  Every one.  Not wanting to break this tradition, this means if I want photos for an article, I have to do the project so I can photograph it.  Notice how your house gets clean if someone comes over?  Create motivating situation to get stuff done on purpose.

Time-Hacks You Can Use Right Away

There are a lot of things you can change that will give you free hours or even days of extra time.  One of my favorites (learned from Tim Ferriss again) is batching similar activities.  If you do any woodworking for a living, you know it takes just as much set-up time to make one thing as it takes to make 20 of the same thing.  If you batch similar activities, you take advantage of set-up time applying to everything at once.

I do laundry every two weeks on purpose, usually Sunday night.  I have enough socks and shirts to last that long.  Why?  Because I’m already in the “laundry mode” I find it easier to do it all at once.  This frees up the start and stop time during the week to do other high-return-on-investment activities.  Basically, routine maintenance things like laundry, dishwashing, shop cleanup, tool sharpening, etc. I try to batch in single sessions.

I notice that I’m very task-list motivated.  If I take a hotel notepad and list that week’s tasks with a little check-off box, I tend to get it all done just to see the green “X” get put in those boxes.  This really moves things along for me.

Make sure the task list has the high priority item first, even if it’s one you’d like to avoid.  Basically, the goal is to be efficient at doing effective tasks, not just efficiently doing busy-work.  Does the task have value by taking you closer towards meeting a goal?

Simply being able to find stuff is huge. I used to spend about half of my shop time looking for stuff I put down a few minutes beforehand because I put it down on a pile of clutter.

In your shop, you can do dozens of things that will incorporate this batching concept and save you tons of time.  As you know, tool set-up is very time consuming.  Anything you can do to reduce this is wasted time recovered.

Batching Activities in the Shop
  • Stop Blocks
    • I put stop blocks on my Table Saw miter gauge fence, Router Table Fence, and Miter Saw fence.  This way I can make repeat cuts without measuring.  Sounds obvious, but do you know where your stop blocks are?  Do you have dedicated stop blocks at each station where they could be used? 
  • Two of Some Machines
    • Do you build projects that would benefit from having two Table Saws?  Two Router Tables?  If you have the room, why not just do this? 
    • If you don’t have a whole lot of room to throw in an extra Router Table, perhaps you can redesign it to be a Dual Router Table.  While you’re making one cut, the other bit is lowered.  Then, when you switch to the other router, set your router’s stop to that bit height and lower it until needed again.
  • Make an Extra Part in Case You Goof
    • When I’m scared that I’ll goof up a part in the next operation, I’ll often run an “extra” while the machine is set up.  I don’t know how many times this has paid off for me.  If chip-out would be a fatal mistake, and I’ve just spent hours milling perfectly dimensioned blanks only to have one of them ruined while making tenons, I’m always glad I have an extra.
  • Order of Operations
    • In the last post I walked through my Order of Operations that I use to turn my shop design into reality.  You should do this for your projects too.  I can almost always spot opportunities for batching processes, identify which parts I should make an extra available, and minimize waste just by writing a quick list.
  • Measuring-How to Avoid It
    • I like to measure as infrequently as possible.  I’m not really good at it, the measurements assume I’m paying attention, and they’re only as good as the instrument I’m using.  The errors tend to compound as the project progresses.
    • Instead, I measure against the actual piece that something has to fit with, or I flip things end over end for automatic symmetry.  Whenever you see a tip in a magazine that eliminates measuring, write it down and make it a habit.
Production-Style Efficiency
  • Assembly Process Optimization
    • During your writing of the Order of Operations for a project, think about the assembly process.  Consider doing your sanding and maybe some pre-finishing first.  It’s really hard to get into inside corners with a sanding block, and finish tends to darken and pool in corners.  Do a dry-fit, maybe label with chalk or use a masking tape tab with a number or letter, disassemble, then do your sanding and pre-finishing.
  • Study Industrial Woodshops
    • I go to the AWFS show just for this exact reason.  You may not be able to afford giant robot CNC machinery, but there’s a lot to learn from manufacturing processes.  I get tons of ideas, discover machines I didn’t know existed, and figure out how to incorporate what they do into my shop (in an affordable way, of course!).  The Grizzly triple-sided shaper is something I discovered at this show, and that’s influencing my future Router Table Design. 
  • Templates-Continuous Dividends
    • I know, watching old episodes of Woodworks, David Marks makes tons of MDF templates before even cutting the first stick of Walnut.  A lot of people say “get on with it already!”   But he knows something; he wouldn’t spend the time to make all these templates for nothing.   There must be a high payoff.
    • Going on the Sam Maloof tour, and peaking into his shop (yep, I was peeping), I was struck by how many templates he had hanging on the wall.  Hundreds of them, all labeled.  Milling parts just to get it over with is kind of a wasted opportunity.  If there is any chance of you making that part again, make a template first.  Get used to using your flush-trim bit at your router table.  What if one of your designs becomes über-popular?  By having templates ready to go, you can duplicate your stuff.  What if you ruin a part on accident?  It’ll be really easy to go back and make another one.
  • Just Buy More Clamps
    • Holy crap, these can get expensive.  But you know what?  I don’t miss the 48 bucks I spent on the parallel jaw clamps I recently bought. Bessey has a habit of multiplying in my shop.  During a glue-up, when you run out of clamps, how much would you pay then?
    • Those little Bessey mini-bar clamps are used on almost every single project I do.  They’re like 7 bucks each.  So I pick up two or three every so often.  Now I have a whole bucketful.
    • Stretch the capabilities of your clamps by using cauls.  These are simply stiff, flat boards or aluminum bars that you clamp to a workpiece so you only have to use a few clamps.  They apply pressure evenly, and can be used to align the pieces flush.  I don’t have nearly enough of these.  If you make them out of wood, use clear packing tape on the part that touches the project so they don’t get glued in place!
    • I plan on making more cauls out of aluminum, and even making glue-up jigs out of aluminum that I know are straight and true.  This will make certain routine glue-ups much easier to handle, and will result in using less clamps.

I don’t think I’ve ever regretted the money I spent on a clamp, yet when I’m in the store sometimes I figure I can make do with what I have. But during the glue-up I’d pay several times that.

Things You Can Apply To Your Shop Construction

I have limited time and energy.  Really because I want to do so much in a short span of time.  I can either be constantly frustrated or figure out how to maximize the use of that limited time.  One other way is to focus first on things of high priority, on things that have a high ROI (Return on Investment).  On a daily basis, say to yourself “If I only did these two things, will I be satisfied with my day?”  If you can’t say yes, this activity is a prime candidate for elimination.  (Thanks, Tim Ferriss!).

Ruthlessly eliminate the unnecessary obligations until the high impact ones are done.  I constantly apply the 80/20 rule:  20 percent of your actions give you 80 percent of the results.  So that tells me I can eliminate 80% of what I do and have a lot more time for high-payback activities.  Don’t forget that you need balance too—schedule some goof-around time.

Something else I like to do is compress an activity, usually a physical labor-related activity.  By giving yourself a timeline, you tend to get it done in that timeframe.  Give yourself too much time, and you’ll magically take all that time.

Finally, get to know yourself.  How long is your ideal design session?  Mine is about 90 minutes.  So I don’t try to force myself to stay for 3 hours.  If I do, it becomes punishing, and I’ll dread it next time.  Remember emotional motivation—don’t be the cause of your dread.

What time-hacks do you use?  What do find is your most useful method of motivation?

For more guidance in assembling your Woodshop Design, click on the Starting? Go Here! category and read those first.

Connect with me on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter for more ninja tips to Optimize Your Woodshop!


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