“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”
— The Writing Life, Anne Dillard
People ask me two questions on a near daily basis. The first is how to find more time to read. The other is how we can maximize our productivity and better manage the limited time we have.
Before I give you some of my tips, I want to tell you where I’m coming from.
I don’t believe you can manage time. We all have the same 168 hours in the week. We can, however, choose how we allocate those hours to activities.
I am not a fan of multi-tasking. With few exceptions, it doesn’t work. You simply can’t talk on the phone, respond to emails, and read that report you have to brief on. You can, however, clean the bathroom and talk to your mom. More on that later.
I also believe that we generally spend a ton of time on things that add no value to our lives.
We read newspapers. We spend endless hours in commute to and from our homes to work and we — the proverbial we — watch too much TV.
At work, we focus on busy work — that is, the appearance of work over what actually makes a difference. I have my theories as to why this is but I’ll save those for another day. That meeting that you ‘have to go to’ is probably only important to someone’s ego. It’s likely not going to make a difference.
Busyness, like sleep deprivation, has become a cultural badge of honor. Oh I couldn’t possibly hang out with you for a few weeks, I’m just soo busy. Spare me please.
Well, I have a confession. I’m not that busy. I do a lot of things but I don’t feel busy.
How does this happen? I think a lot about how I spend my time and what I spend it on. That’s not to say I’m perfect. I’ve made mistakes. I have the wrong priorities sometimes. I neglect relationships sometimes.
It is something that I’m trying to be more conscious about though and I think you should too.
Here are eight of the things that I do that might or might not work for you.
- I leave mornings almost empty. Mornings are often my most thoughtful time, so meetings before 12 are rare. To the extent possible, I want this time uninterrupted and in large chunks.
- I try to work in 90-minute chunks. If I’m writing, reading, or thinking I try and remind myself to take a break after 90 minutes. When is the last time you had 90 minutes of uninterrupted time?
- I leave between two to four hours a day that are unplanned. In other words, schedule time that is unscheduled.
- I do a lot of email, phone calls, and household chores when I’m tired. Yes mom, I’m often cleaning the bathroom when I talk to you but I still love you.
- I sleep. I try, and try is the key word here, to set aside about eight hours a night for sleep. Of course that doesn’t always happen, especially with my travel schedule, but it’s something I’m striving for.
- I stop reading books after 50 pages if I’m not that interested. I either put it back on the shelf or donate the book. Life is too short.
- I avoid excessive consumption of alcohol and all drugs. These can easily fuck your life up, and maximizing your time and reflecting on how you can help people live a more meaningful life becomes moot if you fall into this spiral. It sounds simple but I’ve seen more than a few people, all of them incredibly intelligent, fall into a spiral.
- Add friction and limit the people who can get your attention. I don’t follow that many people on Twitter. I don’t make things easy. In fact my business card only has my name and twitter handle. If you want to find my email address, you can but you have to work for it. This is all part of adding friction. I also ask people to mail me documents longer than a page. If it’s not worth your time to look up my address and put something in the mail, it’s probably not worth my time to read it.
In short, I think we tend to distract ourselves with busyness without really moving. We’re on a treadmill.
As a solution we turn to others about what works for them. An example is what the most successful people do in the mornings. Employed properly, articles like these can become a source of ideas. Copied blindly, however, they become yet another failed project.
We need to stop the unquestioned adoption of what other people do and start to think for ourselves about what works for us.
We need to be more deliberate in how we spend our time and who we spend it with.
Instead of thinking about ways to optimize your time, start thinking about the ways you waste your time. I recommend keeping a time log for a few days so you get a good sense of how you actually spend your time. It will open your eyes.
Stop trying to do too much and, more importantly, stop wasting your time on things that you know don’t matter. Those pointless meetings? The two hours you spend in a car commuting to work? The next two hours surfing the web? If we spent as much time on the things that matter to us as the things that feed our ego, we’d all be better off.
Shane Parrish feeds your brain at Farnam Street, a site that helps readers master the best of what other people have already figured out. Join over 45,000 others and sign up for brain food, his free weekly digest of cross-disciplinary awesomeness.