Feel Less Busy and Get More Done

Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam

“Time is finite, so we must make smart choices about it. But time is also abundant: there is enough for anything that truly matters.”

I think this might become my new slogan. I want to stop saying I don’t have the time for the things I want to do. To that end, I have started tracking what I do every day. It should help me see where my time is actually going. Vanderkam did just that and found some interesting things.

“Of course, if I was working forty hours a week, not fifty, that left open the question of where the other ten hours were going. I knew from studying other people’s time logs that the culprits in this time seepage are varied: inefficient transitions, puttering around the house while waiting for things to stop or start, diving into online rabbit holes.”

The first day I started tracking my time, I managed to accomplish quite a bit. I think the fact of writing down what I did every half hour forced me to pack the most I could into my day. The second day, things flowed rather smoothly and I didn’t record what I did every half hour. There were one and two hour blocks that I still recorded. I plan to keep up this habit and see what trends I can notice.

“People claim they don’t have time to track time, which is patently false. What they mean is that they don’t want to track time, usually because they feel that being cognizant of all their time would make them feel anxious or overly preoccupied with their minutes. Their lives would be tethered to lines on a spreadsheet. They know, as I know, that the best moments of life are when we are not watching the time, such as when we are reading a good book and not even noticing until midnight has come and gone. They, like I, love to feel off the clock.”

One way to help with this feeling is to plan ahead.

“Even if you don’t think about every minute, pondering the big things you’d like to see happen in the forthcoming week is smart. After all, a week is the cycle of life as we live it. Monday and Sunday look different, but both occur just as often. One isn’t more typical than the other. I find the best time to do this weekly planning session is on Friday afternoons. If you work a Monday through Friday schedule, most likely you are not doing much of consequence by Friday after lunch. It’s hard to start anything new as you slide toward the weekend, but you can think about what your future self should be doing. This can turn what would be wasted time into the most productive afternoon of the week.”

I do this with my teaching. I don’t leave school Friday until I have the next weekly completely planned out. I work towards this goal all week by making good use of my time.  I rarely have to stay more than an hour after school has let out that last day of the week. It gives me great piece of mind to know I can go home and be completely free of work concerns for the whole weekend.

The author suggests that we leave blank spaces in our calendars. Teachers can’t do that, but many other professions will allow for some non-scheduled time.

“Anything that is put on a calendar for a certain time, and involves other people, will automatically rise up the hierarchy of importance over space, whether it deserves to or not.”

So skip the meetings.

“… seeing that a culture of managing through formal meetings has an opportunity cost. When everyone’s in meetings all day, people wait to make decisions until they get to the appointed time on the calendar. That might be a long time from now, because everyone else has scheduled their formal meetings too. Heath would rather empower the smart people who work with him to make their own decisions based on clear objectives (which, incidentally, is what The One Minute Manager also suggests), and be available should anyone need to run something by him. Because (Jeff) Heath isn’t in meetings all day, the people who report to him know they can always call or stop by. He’s fine with such drop-in chats because he’s taken the time while on planes to do the work that requires hours of uninterrupted focus.

. . . the dirty secret of meetings is that by their nature they consume more time than the matters often justify. They are always scheduled for thirty or sixty minutes, no matter how much needs to get done. They extract transaction costs; if someone has a 10:00 A.M. meeting, she’s likely to stop doing any deeper work by about 9:45 A.M. After meetings, people cycle through their transition rituals: an email check, then a glance at favorite apps before going into anything deeper. This means that an hour-long meeting can easily consume the mental space of ninety minutes. If there’s another meeting scheduled an hour later, less than thirty minutes will be available between them.”

Unplug for a moment and focus.

“The reason modern types feel so busy, and yet have such trouble getting things done, is that we let ourselves become dependent on constant stimuli. We like being plugged in. It’s easy entertainment, and we can avoid the need to entertain ourselves.

Writes philosopher Robert Grudin in Time and the Art of Living, ‘We pamper the present like a spoiled child.’ We indulge its whim to scroll through Facebook posts from people we never liked in high school anyway. Then this time is nothing. It disappears as if it doesn’t exist.

Conscious fun takes effort. This seeming paradox—Why should fun be work?—stops us in our tracks. So we overindulge in effortless fun (scrolling through Instagram posts about dinner parties), and underindulge in effortful fun (throwing a dinner party ourselves). But “although minutes spent in boredom or anxiety pass slowly,” writes Grudin, ‘they nonetheless add up to years which are void of memory.’”

Invest in your happiness.

“Time is elastic. It stretches to accommodate what we choose to put into it. Investing in your happiness might mean going for a walk on a beautiful spring morning, even if it means you start work a little later. Generally, the work gets done because it has to get done, but in one world you’ve started your day with a bit of bliss, while in the normal version of life you haven’t.”

Manage expectations

“We all have the same amount of time, so feeling like we have all the time in the world is really about managing expectations. Some suffering—the kind we must learn to be good at—is inevitable. But other suffering is self-imposed. In particular, we suffer when expectations exceed reality. This suffering is a major cause of wasted time. Mental anguish and rumination eat up hours. They also keep us from enjoying the time we have.”

This was a great read.

My List of 2021 Reads – my annual reading (b)log