Splitting time

6 September 2015
6 Sep 2015
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

I thought deep and hard for the longest time about how best to craft today’s introduction without invoking my love affair with productivity, but at the end of that deep, dark mental sinkhole I found nothing. So we’re going to talk about productivity.

By this point, if you’ve been following the blog for any reasonable amount of time you know my love of work efficiency. I’ve got a lot I want to do, and not enough time. Solution? prioritize and organize those items in the to-do list until I do have enough time. This is better known as time management.

Productivity lovers have the unusual superpower of being able to split and stretch the very space-time to seemingly have more time than they get.

Unsurprisingly, that usually works out well. I get to do most of the things I want to get done each day, and I don’t have to scramble to finish everything with a reasonable dose of prioritization and organization. But in the traditional approach to time management, there’s an obligatory small-text that follows, that, depending on the way you look at it, could be a caveat.

But before I dive straight in, let’s take a time machine back to your early days. No matter what kind of a kid you were, what kind of toys you played with, we’ve all suffered the experience of trying to pack in bricks or pieces inside a square container. More often than not, toy makers give us a box that only fits all the pieces inside when they’re neatly arranged straight out of the assembly line*. So when we break down our magical LEGO castle we built and try to shovel the pile back into the box, there’s a good chance it’ll be full and overflowing before we’re halfway through the pile.

At this point, we have some options: shake the box, roll it around, take out the top half and try again, or desperately try to flatten things out inside the box. But alas, those are empty hopes and wasted efforts.

It’s at this breaking point that we begrudgingly admit our sloppy ways, take out all of the pieces from the box, and begin neatly stacking them back in.** And – would you look at that beauty – everything fits inside this time with room left over. _Un_believable.

Now take that time machine and come back to reailty. You see, when we start talking about “time management”, the conventional approach is to “fill” time in the most efficient way possible. So we shovel everything that we need to get done into this box of time called a work day and we get several options. We shake it around to see if different orders work, rearrange some of them, take some out, try to flatten some parts out by speeding them up, and ultimately, you’re still left with an overflowing box, and often an extra box to catch those overflows – those fall into your “tomorrow” boxes.

But there’s hope for us yet!

A little flashback from our friend the Ghost of the Childhoods Past showed us a pretty effective approach to filling the box better – take out everything, start over. And don’t just throw everything in there and hope for the best; look at each piece, see if it belongs in the box, and figure out the best place for it.

Take out everything, start over.

That… sounds daunting. What exactly does that mean?

A good starting place would be to empty your box. Start with a blank slate of having nothing on your schedule. Then look at each task you want to fit into the day. Before you throw it into your list, think about how much you really need that to be on your daily agenda. How much additional value – however you measure it, in satisfaction, in income, in relationships – does doing that extra thing bring to your day? Does that task really contribute to your day’s value? If not, throw it out. It’s taking up time that other valuable things could use.

Then once you’ve got a condensed, smaller list of things that are essential to your day, start figuring out where they fit the best. Don’t dump everything into a list and hope for the best. And good luck; it’ll probably requrie some patience, and some guts to leave out what you’ve got to leave out.

The problem with the traditional notion of productivity is that it views time management as a puzzle of filling time, like time is this basket or shopping cart you’ve got to fill with everything on your grocery list, and time management is the work of figuring out how best to fit everything in your basket. But we could do better.

In our day-to-day lives, we never really find ourselves saying “I’m filling time”. If I asked you, “Hey, how’re you filling tomorrow’s 24 hours?”, or “Hey, was today productive? How well did you fill up your day?”, I’d be shunned for being an obsessive freak. Day to day, we have a much less mechanical expression – I spend my time on a task. I ask, “How’re you spending your evening?”, or “How did you spend your day?” And there’s a reason that expression feels much more organic and natural.

There’s something else we spend every day – our money.

Time isn’t a box to be filled no more than your budget is. And when we spend our savings our first instinct isn’t to pull together a list of everything we’ve ever wanted to buy and start packing them into our budget – we admit we’re not Donald Trump, prioritize like a sane human being, and ultimately decide on a set list of things we’d like to have.

I think the way we spend time could be improved dramatically with just that small of a mindset shift – rather than trying to fit everything we want to get done into the time we have. So here’s an exercise for you: visualize 24 dollar bills in your hand – that’s your 24 hours, and that’s all you get until tomorrow. And now, you’re going to spend those 24 dollars today on the things that you value the most.

How’re you spending those 24 hours?

* Efficiency.

** Alternatively, you could just call over someone else to clean it up for you.

Not quite

Usain Bolt's creativity

I share new posts on my newsletter. If you liked this one, you should consider joining the list.

Have a comment or response? You can email me.