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Happier Time Management
5 Lessons AND What Effectiveness Really Means
I had a refreshing mini binge-read on time management from Oliver Burkeman.
He pointed out some obvious truths of time management that are often ignored in favor of complex tactics and intricate systems that – by and large – mostly just trick us into feeling more productive. Or – worse yet – make you more productive (as measured by totals outputs) but less effective (as measured by increasing your quality of life).
Here are 5 lessons learned (from Burkeman and firsthand experience) for happier time management.
3-4 Hour Rule
This one’s all Burkeman.
Well, not really. It’s Burkeman observing the patterns of pretty much every significant creative or intellectual who has ever lived.
This principle states that for any cognitively demanding work (think deep work like writing, designing, or strategizing) 3 or 4 hours per day is the max.
I found this startlingly in sync with my firsthand experience. My daily productivity flow typically goes as follows:
9 to 1 (ish) – savant capable of unleashing immense amounts of world-changing output
post lunch to 4 ish – (quoting Vonnegut) an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth
Of course there’s variation here. Many days I’m dumb as a stump the whole day through (more days than I’d like to admit). But pretty much every day, despite my motivation and inner-pleading, my thinking mind packs up shop mid-afternoon, throws its feet up on the desk and says – “see ya tomorrow, sucker”.
So I was relieved to find out that a slew of great thinkers exhibited a similar pattern. You can read more about them at the Burkeman link above. Here are the highlights:
Darwin worked two 90 minute and one 60 minute intervals as he casually crafted the theory of evolution.
Virginia Woolf managed to become one of the greatest writers of all time working 3.5 hours per day.
Henri Poincare managed to fumble his way into inventing several new schools of mathematics (qualitative theory of differential equations), shape the theory of geometry, and contribute to philosophy and physics in 4 hours per day
And good ol’ Thomas Jefferson in his half-assed four hour days somehow found time to pen the Declaration of Independence.
So if you’re a knowledge worker who stresses about being more effective (like me). Then this might be a relieving (and humbling) wake-up call. “Hey Jackson – quit stressing yourself!”
A half day’s work is a full day’s work.
Willpower is a product of your environment.
This was a great reminder about the consensus of cognitive psychology.
Willpower seems to be a limited resource that we burn up over the day. And we seem to be limited in our ability to increase our willpower storehouse.
What can we do?
The most effective answer is - don’t use it!
Imagine how much willpower you’ll have if you never need to use any!
This means creating a cognitive environment that makes focus and discipline easy. Think of how difficult it is to try and eat healthy while visiting family during the holidays (surrounded by loads of sweets and not a whole lot to do).
In this dieting metaphor, the status quo PoV is “be more disciplined”. Just say no (to junk food). But the intelligent PoV is – “stop buying junk food”. Or hide it in a far away place out of sight.
When thinking about productivity, there are many lessons here. Keep your phone the hell away from you if you want to get any serious work done. Time-block periods of uninterrupted deep work (e.g. do not disturb). Create an inviting space to do your thing that has everything you need right there. Create a short, consistent ritual that pulls you into “the zone” (e.g. short walk, pour coffee, sit down at desk, begin project every day at 9:00).
And most importantly – do stuff that you enjoy!
Do work that’s fun and/or engaging. Granted we’re all limited to various extents in how much we can do this. But if you’re spending your time on things you’re not interested in, then you’re going to burn through your willpower tank much more quickly and ultimately be less effective.
Do one thing.
Burkeman offers an incredibly elegant, nuanced, and sophisticated task-optimization-protocol…
Write down one thing.
Do the thing.
Cross it off.
This is probably not the productivity algorithm that’s going to power Google’s next gen artificial intelligence. But for foolish humans like us, the magic of this formula is — it works pretty well.
This lies in a simple fact - a fact that our modern urban industrial machine is doing its best make us deny - that multi-tasking is impossible.
Being a “good multi-tasker” means what you’re really good at is lying to yourself.
Even when we seem to be multitasking effectively, we’re really rapidly switching between the different objects of our focus. Again this doesn’t mean you can’t have multiple priorities or workstreams “on your radar” so to speak. It means that in any given moment – to actually do work on something requires focusing on that one thing.
This strategy helps you clarify what it is you’re focused on and break it into a manageable cognitive unit.
I’ll add on to Burkeman’s rule by recommending that you frame what you write down as a clear, tangible outcome (perhaps with a unit of time).
Instead of the mental experience of – “what the hell am I going to do right now” and fracturing your attention between sixty different things spanning from “you know maybe I can solve world hunger” to “do I still need to drop my car off at the mechanic”.
You can write down – “draft a fun essay based on Oliver Burkeman’s posts for the next hour or so”
How’s that for meta!
To have a good day is enough.
There’s a famous Zen koan (a sort of riddle like teaching) where Zen master Yunmen says “Every day is a good day.”
I find that – while I aspire to this zen master standard – I too often judge the quality of my day by the quantity and impressiveness of the things gotten done.
But here’s a reminder (mostly for me) that what really matters is having a good day.
To have a good day is a good day. To have a nice day, is enough.
Burkeman explains this feeling incredibly well when he writes about feeling like he starts each day with a “productivity debt” – a tension and sense of having to get a certain amount of things done in order to justify his existence. It’s as if enjoyment is some perverse end of the day performance bonus available only if you “crush it” on your list of self-imposed demands.
It’s swimming towards the surface of the water or clawing out of a hole. The trick is the sea level is always rising and your hole is always deepening.
That’s because the water and the hole are tricks of the mind. They’re tools of the mental taskmaster that I’ve previously described as “achievement anxiety”.
This is no way to live life. Your life is not some unit of currency to trade in exchange for getting things done. Your life is your life! (Note that the “you” here is directed primarily at me).
A couple ways to deal with this neurotic tendency many productive folks experience…
Keep a done list. At the end of the day you get to see all the things you managed to do when you could have sat by the pool and sipped pink fizzy drinks all day.
Remember what matters is really enjoying your life. Productivity is not effectiveness unless it improves your quality of life.
(Bonus) Quit watching the damn news.
This one comes more from me.
Now I don’t advocate burying your head in the sand or being ignorant. What I really mean is cleaning up your information diet. Quit getting sucked into the bottomless pit of attention-stealing and outrage-provoking propaganda masquerading as “news”.
Instead, thoughtfully engage with a select amount of necessary information and then convert that into some tangible action or change.
And YES stop watching mainstream news (Fox, CNN, etc) that shit is literal poison.
I don’t want to do Burkeman a disservice by misrepresenting his view. Burkeman advocates a similar (less aggressive) note of advice: consider “reducing your emotional investment in the world of the news, and reinvesting in your own”.
For happier time management, you might…
Clean up your information diet and create a discipline-friendly environment. Work for 3-4 hours per day on the important stuff. Do one thing at a time. And – most important – don’t care too much about time management.
To have a nice day, is enough.
Your happiness experimenter,
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