This simple productivity tool has helped me navigate my free time in a way that feels equally productive, fun, and curiosity-driven, and channels flow and energy rather than discipline alone to get things done. I think it'll be useful for others that have unstructured time in their lives as well, whether due to a sabbatical, self-employment / flexible jobs, or the weekend! Below is a bit about how this method came about and how it's helped, as well as how to try it in your own routine! For inspiration, I created a digital worksheet version of what my notebook looks like so you can find a structure that works for you.
As a recovering type-A, I've long struggled with the balance between structure and flow, or control and surrender, and this struggle was completely magnified when I quit my job last fall and embarked on my creative sabbatical. With all this new unstructured time, I didn't feel great about how my time was being spent: I wanted to find a way to work on myself and my many goals and aspirations on my own clock, but different methods I tried either felt overly stifling or so free that I'd either get decision paralysis or go too deep and burn out. Sound familiar?
It was after a trip to Patagonia that I began playing with a technique that has allowed me to make a playbox of my time: a time management and productivity tool that allowed me to expand and harness my energy rather than relying on discipline alone to get things done. It's what I now call the Trail Mix Method. During that week-long trek in Patagonia, trail mix gave me energy far greater and longer-lasting than any of the energy bars or gels that I'd brought with me. Packed with healthy fats, fiber, antioxidants, long-lasting calories, and proteins, the trail mix had a perfect balance of everything in it: just the right amount of sweet to savory and raisins to M&Ms.
When I got back from my trip and opened up my laptop to get some work done, a question popped into my head: what might a trail mix bag may look like for the things I want to do with my free time each week?
I've been using a metaphoric trail mix bag to manage my energy and unstructured time and this productivity method has been completely transformational for me. It's changed how I understand and honor my own energy and flow rather than creating resistance, has removed decision paralysis in the context of abundant time and opportunity, and has helped me come through on daunting tasks that I've put aside for months. It's been an amazing tool for me in getting through even the toughest of treks, and I hope you might find some inspiration from it too!
Where in your life do you feel you have unstructured time? What have you enjoyed about it? What challenges have you found with how you spend it?
In a nutshell (ha), the Trail Mix Method is a technique that helps structure unstructured time in a flexible way that better understands and manages your energy, rather than relying on discipline alone. In the same way that literal trail mix (the kind you eat) is a balanced mix of different bite-sized goodies, your Trail Mix Method bag is a mixed pool of different activities, ideas, and goals, each in little bite-size amounts that balance one another. Just as you would create a bag of trail mix before a trek, you build your Trail Mix Bag once at the start of the week, and then reach into it during free moments throughout the week.
What constitutes unstructured time? It's essentially free time without time-sensitive or external commitments — only commitments to yourself and your goals or aspirations. As such, it doesn't matter what you pick out of your bag because anything you draw can be completed today, tomorrow, or end of the week. Structured time, on the other hand, is where you take care of things you have to get done, like urgent tasks, doctor's appointments, social obligations, project deadlines — for me, those tasks live in a calendar and to do app.
Mixed and balanced
Your bag (or notebook) contains tons of things you want to do, and the occasional dreaded things you know are good for you, like meditating. Variety means there isn't too much of any one activity, and you create balance by thinking about how the activities relate to one another and to your excitement, making sure you're feeding all your different energy sources. For example, in the same way that you wouldn't buy trail mix that's all raisins, you balance your Trail Mix Method bag with a mix of activities in different categories such as learning, health & wellness, and organization.
Your bag is made up of little bits of each activity, with each bit being just enough to give you a small burst of energy each time. Rather than being project-based, activities are energy-based and are broken into small time chunks. Not every activity has the same amount of time because not every task has the same amount of excitement behind it, and by weighting each activity with a duration, you're able to make every activity equally attractive. For example, rather than setting a goal of finishing a book, you might set it at 30 minutes. For activities that seem unreachable, you might set only 5 minutes - just enough of a nudge to get you started on an intimidating project when starting is the hardest part.
Build and let go
Your bag represents a balance between controlling and structuring your container, and then letting go and trusting the bag you've built: whatever you need will show up in every handful. Remember that you made the bag, and you were thinking about what you wanted to do — coming from a place of empowerment, clarity, inspiration. So trust yourself!
What systems help you manage time-sensitive tasks or external commitments? How might the Trail Mix Method complement those systems for your unstructured time?
This is where the little bit of upfront structure and discipline comes in to help you surrender throughout the week. I schedule an hour chunk every Sunday night that I call "Trail Mix Sunday" where I create my bag for the week. Ideally, you would schedule this for whenever you feel your week starts so that you can plan for the week. I don't usually need the full hour, but I use any extra time to knock off a few items from my Trail Mix bag. For your first Trail Mix Sunday, you'll need the full time to set up your system and create your first bag.
If it's your first week, skip to step 3; if it's your weekly ritual, start on step 1.
Throughout the week, when you find yourself in unstructured time, reach into your bag and complete the activity you draw, crossing it off when it's completed (positive feedback loop!). This may need a bit of discipline at first, but it's all about trusting that you've built the bag with only things you feel you can do.
I keep mine in a little notebook in my pocket at all times, complementing the tools I use to manage my structured time, for which I used my calendar and to-do app. I usually complete 2-3 activities in a sitting, but how much or how little you do is up to you as you discover your balance between productive time and plain old down-time. Since it builds on your energy rather than expending (which is unavoidable when you use discipline to get things done), you'll find you have more discipline available for the things you have to do in my structured time.
Finally, you should not feel guilty about not finishing the bag at the end of the week, as we need down time in our weeks too! Having time to do nothing or be bored allows your mind to reset and reflect, and is just as important to your growth journey :)
Your challenge: Schedule an hour this Sunday to Trail Mix your week. This worksheet can help you create your first bag, and try Trail Mixing for four weeks. Reach out if you need help, and write back to let me know how it felt!
Tip on going for longer
If you find yourself done with the time you set for a task but still with energy to go on or deep in flow: feel out your energy levels! There's a balance between going deep and burning out and your enthusiasm may pull you for longer than an hour, but doing so can begin to drain you. You can always add another chunk of that activity to your bag for later and move on to your next activity! Flow is beautiful and hyper-productive, but it is not fleeting :)
Tip on handling resistance
On the flip-side, if the activity you draw raises some resistance, ask yourself: why? Is the task too daunting? Trying lowering the time allocation — you can do ANYTHING for just 5 minutes. Is the task still too daunting? Maybe your energy just isn’t there right now. Be true to the energetic state that you’re in. For example, if you’re in a creative mindset, maybe you’re better off doing one of your learning or creating tasks; similarly if you’re feeling very focused, you could pick one of your organizational or physical tasks. You can put the task back in the bag for a later time when the energy is there, and pick out another — just observe what tasks you’re repeatedly avoiding and ask yourself why.
Tip on graduating your Trail Mix Bag from unstructured to structured
One of my happiest outcomes of Trail Mix Method is that certain activities became so easy to accomplish that they'd end up graduating from my unstructured time into my scheduled routine. For example, it was so easy for me to complete income-building activities that I ended up adding one hour at the beginning of every day where I only focused on income-generating activities, thus creating more space in my bag for other goals. I think that's part of the beauty of this method: it's helping me build habits and accountability!
I'd love to hear from you: How has the Trail Mix Method fit into your own energy and time management? What has worked well for you, and what has been difficult? Shoot me a note below! I'm happy to help you build an effective Trail Mix bag and answer questions such as what is flow and how to use this system to honor flow, how to minimize resistence and burnout, and how to use this as a complement to systems you use for your structured time.
Huge shout out to my coach Danna for helping me discover this method and to my friend Danika for helping me communicate it!