Make Time Your Ally (not a thing to manage)
Do you struggle with time management?
Are you big on planning how you spend your hours?
Do you dread being idle and love being busy?
This is Episode 33: Make Time Your Ally (not a thing to manage)
Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist, a productivity show on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your host and productivity coach.
To be idle means to do nothing. Social psychologists refer to idleness aversion as the fear of being idle. Rest doesn’t come naturally when you’re not at work.
Some studies show people prefer to keep busy just for the sake of engaging in activity, even if they are not tied to important goals. We even set goals and objectives so we can take action and avoid unproductive use of time.
That’s why accomplishments and achievements can seem so empty at times. Once we have what we were aiming for, we look for the next thing to aim at. There’s a sort of persistent dissatisfaction and frustration.
We find it hard to engage in real idleness, like just sitting and experiencing the sights and sounds of the ocean or a natural landscape. Rather, we make productive use of leisure by taking photos and videos that we can possess, share with friends, post on social media, and capture memories. Or we might stick in the earbuds to listen to music or a podcast, while we exercise, instead of just exercise.
You miss life if you try too hard to make most of your time. When you take a photo or shoot a video to preserve memory or to create an object for the future, you kind of lose touch with the present moment. You might become future oriented and goal focused. You might strive to get the perfect shot, instead of have the enriching experience now.
The desire to be productive can interfere with true leisure and the practice of being. When we’re not working, we might fill our rest time with creative pursuits and self-development to create a desired future. We go on meditation retreats to achieve enlightenment. We go for a run to train for a marathon.
Sometimes there is discomfort in doing an activity for its own sake, without any goals. The value of the activity then becomes in the ultimate aim or in its completion or to get a specific outcome. Planning for the future is essential, but the present is where real joy occurs.
Industrialization created a clock time mentality. Time is now standardized, visible in the ticking minutes, and outside our existence. Work became the main point and leisure is more about recovery from work.
The invention of the clock changed how we perceive time. Before that, time was just a part of how life unfolds, Oliver Burkeman writes in his book, 4000 weeks: Time and How to Use it.
Now, time is a resource to make money, and a thing to be traded, maximized and optimized. So, you end up with busyness, overwhelm, and pressure. And you feel guilty when there’s margin.
If you have billable hours, the activity that is not billable seems less valuable. What cannot be sold is wasted time.
When you treat time or yourself as a commodity, you create dissatisfaction. When you treat time like an instrument, the present moment loses its value.
You might think you need to get it all done before you get a sense of peace. But that time never arrives. It helps to be in the here and now. You are always in the moment whether you are aware of this or not. The thoughts and feelings you’re having are in the moment, whether you want them or not.
Productivity experts talk a lot about managing your time better to take control of your life. The problem with time management is that it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. It doesn’t question whether demands and requests are reasonable to begin with. Is 1500 billable hours really doable? Is a 50, 60, 70-hour work week sustainable? Does multitasking really work?
Yes, there is value in prioritizing the important and urgent, separating the urgent from the important, and distinguishing your big rocks from your pebbles. But tips, tools, tricks and apps to manage how you spend your time aren’t enough.
What happens when you have more urgent and important tasks and more big rocks than you can handle on any given day? What if your priorities and your organization’s priorities are out of synch? What do you do then?
This is where time management falls short. It doesn’t really answer the existential question of what really matters.
What do you maximize? What do you minimize? Where do you aim to excel? Where can you fall short?
Life is finite. You have human limitations. Even if you believe in eternal life, the afterlife or reincarnation, the you that is here right now has just one life.
In today’s average human lifespan, you get about 4000 weeks. That’s roughly equal to 365 days multiplied by 80 years. This is not a lot of time to do an infinite number of things.
In a 2011 article, Befriending Time, I wrote that because we have 24 hours in a day to meet an infinite number of goals, it’s easy to develop limiting beliefs about time.
There’s not enough time. There’s no time to do the things I really enjoy. Time is running away from me or time is passing me by. I need to hurry to get things done in the short time I have. I might as well not start something that I won’t have time to finish or do right.
Making plans and taking action to influence outcomes and the future are worthwhile efforts. But there are variables outside your control. And there are meaningful things you value the most that are not fully planned, or happen by chance or serendipity.
You do not really control or manage time. The more you try to do this, the more time controls or manages you. Time just is. The best you can do is make time your ally. When time is on your side, you can fully attend to, actively engage in and fully experience the task at hand. Befriend time so it becomes your ally.
While Steve Jobs told Apple employees to make a dent in the universe, Oliver Burkeman recommends you accept your cosmic insignificance. The work you do, the contributions you make, the relationships you build, are so trivial on a cosmic scale. Life is a sequence of present moments that ultimately end in death. You will not get to have everything in perfect order.
Embrace your human limitations. You can only choose one path, even though you can course correct or switch paths later. Each time you choose, you close off other options and possible alternatives, at least for now.
Having fewer options is not a bad thing. Keeping your options can keep you busy or stuck. Having too many options creates decision fatigue and sparks fear of missing out. So, burn the bridges, the alternative path. Commit firmly and move forward with your choice.
Missing out is inevitable in life. The point is to live deliberately instead of by default. You should definitely settle, says Burkeman. When it comes to parenting, marriage, career, profession, for example, you’re usually making a trade off and giving up something else.
Get comfortable with the discomfort of choosing one thing over another.
Principle number 1 in my book, The Incrementalist, is to choose your priorities. Define and prioritize your most important projects. Focus on what matters most and let other things slide. Be willing to incur small losses so you don’t rearrange your day to meet minor obligations or to avoid minor tradeoffs.
Burkeman writes, “The more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time.”
Pay yourself first when it comes to time. It’s often hard to say no and even harder to say no to things you do want. These are the middling priorities that distract you from the top priorities.
You need to master the art of creative neglect and limit your works in progress. Select an upper limit and select a small number of key projects to focus on at one time. Have a big three and do them intentionally before you focus on incoming demands and requests. If you must rearrange the priority, do this deliberately. And if you must add, be sure to subtract.
It’s also important to break down projects into manageable tasks or chunks, which is Principle 2 in The Incrementalist approach.
Decide what you’re willing to fail at and where you will place your focus, invest your time, and use your energy. There are seasons of life such that efforts in one domain means you will neglect the other. You can always reprioritize in another season.
You just won’t have time for it all, even for the most important things. The more you try to squeeze everything in, the more anxious, stressed and dissatisfied you become. When you work within your limits, and when your expectations and goals are grounded in reality, the calmer, less stressed, and more satisfied you will be.
Weekly planning, time blocking and time tracking are ground level techniques for doing things that matter. They make up the how. But we also need to step back, zoom out and look at the big picture. Take an existential perspective. The what is just as if not more important than the how.
We create bucket lists and try to cram things into our day, when what we really need to do is make essential choices and necessary tradeoffs. When we succeed in being productive and efficient, we move the goal post and we want do more and be more.
We work harder and drive ourselves harder, which never give us enough time. The faster you reply to emails, the faster you get them. The demands increase to offset the benefits. This is the efficiency trap or the busyness trap.
It’s usually better to move at a slower and more sustainable pace than at a faster and unsustainable speed. Fast can work for sprints. But it’s often ineffective for the long haul.
As I write in my book, The Incrementalist, being highly responsive has major trade offs, such as losing focus and traction on your own work. Set appropriate boundaries that allow reasonable access to you without compromising your priorities. And consider the opportunity costs and what you will need to neglect each time you say yes to a project.
Burkeman writes that there is an infinite number of superior imaginary alternatives and limiting rules of reality. Your choice will necessarily be finite in attributes and qualities.
What will you do with this 1 minute, this 1 hour, this one day on earth? Be realistic. There is an infinite number of demands, obligations and requests from others. There are pressures you place on yourself. You will do only a few of the things you want to do in your lifetime. This is guaranteed. So choose well.
Only you can really decide what’s best for you. You can ask for feedback and advice, but ultimately you are responsible for the decisions and perhaps sacrifices you will make. And it will often require awkward and uncomfortable ongoing conversations, perhaps with your spouse, your boss, your clients, your colleagues, or your team members.
Your very existence is a sequence of moments of time. From this angle, you and time are one. You can experience deep time, a heightened awareness, a sense of timelessness, when you forget about the clock and dip into reality itself. Deep time can occur in meditation, prayer, creative play, a mindful nature walk, or in a flow state on a work project.
The clock and calendar are guides, not dictators. Let go of the illusion of control. You don’t have to clear the decks nor should you. This will only cause you to attend to small urgent things at the expense of bigger and more important things. You don’t have to process all of your emails and phone calls before you start or finish the big project.
The sources of input, obligations and demands are limitless. The capacity to produce output and meet obligations and demands are limited. Choose what to delay and what to neglect. Decide what requires attention and traction. Rest in the discomfort and disappointment that comes with not being on top of everything. More time management is not the real solution.
The Incrementalist approach is really about embracing and working with your human limitations. You can find the book at leanpub.com/incrementalist. The link is in the show notes.
If you liked this episode, please feel free to share it with others. And if you enjoy the show, subscribe so you get new episodes as soon as they drop. And give it a five-star rating and review to encourage others to check it out. Thank you for being with me and join me again next time on The Incrementalist.
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