Want To Be More Productive? Fill Your Time To Create Urgency

We are fascinated by productivity. We love the idea of being usefully engaged at all times, of a rallying cry of “I’m getting things done!” As a society, we devote a lot of content to being more productive and successful time management. We research and read up on how to best make use of our time and optimize our energy and resources. I’ll throw my hat into the ring on this as well, and share with you my personal productivity habit, which has proven invaluable over the past several years and is actually quite straightforward:

If you’d like to get more done in the day, fill your time.

It seems counter intuitive; shouldn’t we be working to shed tasks/projects in order to have more time to focus on the dream project, the side hustle, or the new activity/hobby? More time, more freedom; sounds good right? But it’s not actually true. Left with more discretionary time available each day, I typically just delay, procrastinate, opine, whine, and generally resist getting started on what needs to be done to advance my goals. But when my days are full, of tasks and obligations, there is a sense of urgency, knowledge that there are other responsibilities looming on the near horizon which cannot be ignored. I acutely (and accidentally) experienced this phenomenon when I decided to go back to graduate school for two years while having a family and working a full-time plus job schedule. Two nights a week of graduate classes, with Saturdays set aside for hours of homework, plus church and family time each Sunday; time and attention management become for me a finely honed exercise. It was a daily challenge. And during that time, I actually made substantial progress on my long-term priorities.

To clarify, when I am referring to making progress on our priorities and goals, I am referring to activities that are not immediate, that are in fact discretionary to one’s time and daily requirements. Taking out the trash is immediate; learning about how to successfully invest in the stock market is not. One is an urgent requirement (as the garbage truck rumbles down the street), the other is a long-term investment for knowledge, but it is a discretionary activity.

Fill Your Time

Fill your time. Constraints are good for us, they cause us to focus. The key variable here is that both our obligations and our discretionary time, need to be filled with value-added things, even if they are small and mundane. Binge watching nine seasons of “The Office” should not be viewed as a helpful constraint, putting pressure on us to focus later; it’s simply procrastination. And life has basic maintenance requirements: eating, sleeping, brushing your teeth, talking with other humans, etc. These requirements will fill up much of our time each day. We need to make sure that the remaining unallocated time available to us is focused on our long-term goals, priorities, and dreams.

Personal example: one of my top priorities is writing. Currently, during the week, I typically get to write for only 60 minutes per workday. My time is otherwise full of what I would consider valuable responsibilities: family, a day job that pays the bills, keeping the home front maintained. I know that often I only have a very limited time between 5:00–6:00 AM each day to write. So I am going to maximize that hour and get something done, some forward progress each day. This effort compounds, both in output and skills. I have gotten much better at focusing attention, being intentional amidst distractions, and proactive on things that I would like to work on and complete. I credit much of this progress to my time being otherwise filled each day, forcing me to focus.

Constraints and Introspection

We think that without constraints, responsibilities, or obligations we would have such a wealth of surplus time to focus on what we are truly interested in. We would be unfettered, free, and blissfully able to get so much progress and work accomplished on our priorities and goals. But the reality is that Netflix, Facebook, and a host of other distractions are available to us 24/7 and we often default to easy entertainment if we do not feel the press of limited time for an activity. If there are no constraints, then there is always the option of “I’ll get to it tomorrow…”; there’s no urgency and because of that, often very little forward momentum. Our natural brain hates constraints and sees them as obligations (a.k.a: undesirable responsibilities to others) and a loss of personal freedom (a.k.a: a lack of personal control) One valuable tactic I have found is to both eliminate and reframe constraints.

Elimination is the simplest: in order to free up your time, get rid of activities that are unnecessarily filling up your time. Key point: unnecessary activities are non-value added ones, i.e. the 3rd time watching the ninth season of “The Office”. While playing baseball with your kids or having a cup of coffee with your neighbor may not get you any closer to your personal goals, the value of those activities should not be discounted. To define what is of non-value, one must understand, and be able to describe, the positive values of their priorities in detail. In light of the positive explanation of your priorities and goals, decide if you want to eliminate certain activities and plan accordingly.

Reframing is also helpful. Some constraints are biologically unavoidable (sleep) and others are socially vital (spending time with family or friends) You should not spend your valuable time trying to “hack your sleep”, striving to be able to sleep less and be more “productive” during the day by simply putting in more hours. (note: anyone who has time to “hack” their sleep and monkey around with attempting to trick their body into only needed 17 minutes of sleep during a night has too much time available to them; they have not yet filled their time with priorities and have not engaged in the introspective exercise we are describing.) For these unavoidable constraints, i.e. sleep, we need to reframe our thinking on them. Instead of seeing them as an impedance to our time, we should approach them as an investment: i.e. a full night’s rest better prepares us for successful work and activity tomorrow. This mental reframing of a constraint can be applied across the board; figure out how to make the constraint actually support and benefit your priorities.

Planning Our Time

We’ve written before about the degree of power that we gather to ourselves when we start scheduling our days, and how it can be used to increase focus and productivity. Hand-in-hand with this practice is the need for us to manage more than just our time, but also our attention. I think writing it all down, in some fashion, is critical. Otherwise, it merely rattles around our head. We should pre-plan our days, filling them in advance to make sure that we both attend to our immediate responsibilities and make progress on our longer term, discretionary priorities.

Not only does a full schedule propel us forward to work on our dreams and goals, it also encourages us to tackle the mundane items sooner and more thoroughly. When we start to get into the mental habit of just “taking care of things”, both large and small, it reinforces this attitude which can propel us to be proactive (instead of reactive) in the all the little things of life, as well as our BIG goals and dreams. It’s a great feedback loop that when we start changing our mental scripts from waiting for things to happen to taking action; it’s a continual and positive reinforcement throughout our day. If our mindset for a little task (i.e. cleaning up the yard) is: let’s just get it done, it will take 15 minutes, no time at all; that will inevitably trickle into our thinking and attitude when we approach tasks that are more involved and appear to us more daunting, such as drafting a new business plan or working towards squatting 450 lbs. When we start intentionally filling, and planning our time, we will stop merely dealing with whatever the day brings our way and start actively shaping how our days unfold.

Moving Forward:

Do you make more progress on your goals when you are busier (overall) in your life?

How do you decide which things in your life receive the best of your time and attention

Originally published at fjwriting.com on August 21, 2018.

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