I explained in Part I how a friend of mine asked “I have been thinking a lot about time management and adding some more structure to my life. Any ideas or resources you would suggest?” I answered by talking about desire, metrics, and strategy. In this follow up post I talk about practical ways to add structure and do more with the same time. I talk about artificial limits, shadow time, habits and systems, and I link to the books that have helped me along the way.
Create Artificial Limits
When I was attending BYU I went to a campus event at which Matt Mossman, then an SVP at Oracle, spoke to the students. I remember two things he said. First, he predicted the dot-com crash which would start in March, 2000. Second, he said he always left work at 5 pm. He spoke about how because he knew he had to leave work at 5 pm each day he used his time effectively while at work and didn’t engage in a lot of the water cooler chat like his colleagues.
As you might expect, I followed Matt’s advice to the letter and my unparalleled success is a testimony to the truth of his words. Ha! Actually, I completely disregarded his advice. Instead of coming home at 5 pm, I worked 90-hour weeks from 1999 to 2007. I often slept on my office floor. From 2003 to 2007 I didn’t pay myself a dime. During the same time I piled up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. I then made one change that changed everything. In two months of making this change, I started getting paid a decent salary as well as paying off $10,000 to $20,000 per month in debt. What was it that made the difference? I finally followed Matt’s advice. I made a rule to quit work at 6 pm (and later at 5 pm, which is the rule that holds until today) and not work weekends.
You might think my success was the result of all the hard work I had put in for those four years. That’s a logical conclusion, but in my case it’s simply not the case. If I hadn’t started working less I still wouldn’t be getting paid. When I had no limit to the hours I worked I made poor decisions about how to use my time. After all, I had all the time in the world to figure things out, right? Once I created an artificial limit for my time, I had to prioritize. I had to figure out what was worth my time and what wasn’t, because there wasn’t time to do it all like there was before. Making better decisions meant I could do more with 40 hours than I previously did with 90. It’s not just me. A study at Stanford University discovered that people who work 70 hours per week aren’t any more productive than those who work just 55 hour per week. Work less by creating boundaries for your time and watch your productivity soar.
But wait, don’t throw that deck away just yet! There’s a trick to getting around sacrifices–shadow time. It’s a simple enough concept, just figure out how to do two things at once. It’s hard for me to justify going skateboarding by myself, but I also need to get exercise and spend time with my kids. Can I do all three at once? Here are other ways I practice shadow time:
- Take my kids to business meetings (business meeting + time with kids + education of kids)
- Read a book with my wife (reading books + time with wife)
- Run/hike with kids (exercise + time with kids)
- Exercise while on business phone calls (exercise + work)
Respond to people on Twitter while my wife talks to me
Once you start thinking about all the different things you can combine the ideas will begin to flow. Thanks to my college professor Jeff Hill at BYU for this idea.
I’ve decided there are things I’m not going to do with my life, even though I want to. Actually, I don’t want to do them, but I feel guilty not doing them. One of them is mowing the lawn. I grew up mowing the lawn and taking care of the yard. I now feel that it’s a moral imperative that all children learn to take care of a yard. And yet when I think about my time, I’m distinctly disinclined to spend all day, every Saturday, working in a yard. I would much rather pay someone else to do that, and spend that time with my family. Sure, I could do the yard work with my family, and I know there are all sorts of valuable lessons to be learned through that, but I’d rather be doing other things with my family. We have limited time and I do not want to be a “yard family.” I would rather be a “running family” or “swimming family” or “skateboarding family” or “going to the beach family” or “museum family” or “reading family.”
This applies to other activities like washing cars, working on cars, and cleaning insides of cars. In fact, part of the great thing about moving to Hong Kong is that we neither have a yard nor a car.
How far can this be taken? Here in Hong Kong everyone has a maid, domestic worker, or as they call them here, a “helper.” Ok, not everyone, just 320,000 out of the 2.5 million households in Hong Kong. Once you exclude households with just one to two people, who of course are less likely to need a helper vs. a family of five, it sure seems like everyone else with a family has a helper, with rare exceptions. We were the exception for the first 18 months we lived in Hong Kong. That meant my wife spent most of her waking time going to the grocery store and cooking, since we’re into whole foods and fridges here aren’t large enough to store much. We had a part-time helper come and help with cleaning occasionally, but then we discovered she has multiple-sclerosis. Having a helper no longer seemed like a luxury, but a necessity. We hired one full time, and now my wife is able to spend more time with our children, whom we homeschool. Even if my wife were miraculously cured of MS, I’m not sure we’d go without a helper. Sure, there are valuable lessons to be learned from cooking and cleaning as a family, but there are also valuable lessons to be learned that can only be learned if a parent doesn’t have to spend a lot of time cooking and cleaning. I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole “having a maid thing” from a philosophical and moral perspective, but on a practical level I’m not sure how we can live without her. And I’m not sure I want to. I love that my wife is able to spend so much time with our kids without having to figure out every aspect of cooking, cleaning, and shopping.
How does this apply to time management? It goes back to strategy. Are you spending time doing the things you really want to do? We often think about sacrificing things we like doing, but could you free up time by sacrificing things you merely think you should be doing?
Habits & Systems
In the movie Memento…which I only recommend watching edited through a service like VidAngel, the protagonist suffers from a condition where he is unable to create new long term memories. He can remember everything from his life up until the point of when he suffered his brain damaging injury, and he can remember the last few seconds or minutes at any given time, until he gets distracted by something. Then his new memories are gone forever. Because he can’t create any new memories he has created a system based on the habits he knows he has. He uses a system of notes and photos as stand-ins for the memories he can’t create. If something is critically important he tattoos that message on his chest so that whenever he sees himself in a mirror with his shirt off he’ll read it and can remember what he’s supposed to be doing. He has the habit of showering each day and then finishing up in front of the bathroom mirror, so this is an effective way for him to take care of important business.
Sometimes I don’t feel all that better off than the guy in Memento. I’m not great at remembering all the things I need to do, so I’ve created systems that work with the habits I have in place. One of my habits is to check Google Calendar several times a day. It’s on the home screen of my phone, and I always keep a tab open in my browser with the calendar on it, right next to my email tab, and I know I will check it regularly. That’s where my to-do items go. With Google adding Reminders to Calendar this is getting even more convenient (only on app for now, desktop coming soon).
I also use Google Calendar religiously for everything else I plan, and I’m trying to get better at planning out each week. For example, I always write a blog post and book review here on the blog on Mondays. When it’s Monday in Hong Kong it’s still Sunday almost everywhere else, so I know I’ll be relatively free from interruptions.
A few years ago a woman told my wife in front of me, “Men love checklists.” I hadn’t thought about it before, but I do love checklists. Now, whenever my wife is giving me a list of things to do I ask “Can you make me a checklist? Men love checklists.” When I read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande it was music to my ears. We’re all more productive if we have checklists, and if we make checklists part of our habits and systems, we have what I believe are the ultimate tools for structure and productivity.
This comes from Dave Allen’s classic Getting Things Done. When you get an email, ask yourself if you can respond in 2 minutes or less. If yes, answer right now. If no, mark it for follow up for later. Otherwise you end up answering emails days late and thinking “Why didn’t I answer this sooner? It only would have taken me a few seconds.”
Batch Process Email
Tony Hsieh of Zappos has a practice he calls “yesterbox.” He only answers emails from yesterday or before. I don’t do this, per se, but since I live in Hong Kong and the majority of my email still comes from the U.S. it sort of happens by default. And I can attest that yes, it does make me a lot more productive. For one, people who need me tend to learn to take care of things on their own (not always a positive thing, but often it is). Seconds, I can rip through all my email at once. I have an email processing party every morning that takes anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes (following Dave’s 2-minute rule) and then I start responding to urgent emails requiring more input, then the not-so-urgent emails.
Just Say “No”
I once tried to get a quote from Tim Ferriss for an article I was working on. It would have taken him all of 2 minutes to respond. But he wouldn’t. He has an assistant who guards his time zealously, and as near as I can tell she reads him a list of opportunities like mine each day and he says “yea” or “nay” to each one and that’s that. Not all of us can hire an assistant to help us out with this kind of time management, but we can learn how to get better at saying “no.”
I don’t like turning people down, but I find it easier if I’m polite about it. Rather than saying “Sorry, don’t have time for this right now,” I say “Wow, this sounds like a great opportunity, I wish I could be involved, but I’m afraid I can’t be at this time.” To protect myself from being hasty with my answers, whenever someone asks for some of my time I often start my response by saying “That sounds great, but let me check my calendar and get back to you.” Then I can consider the opportunity with a clear mind rather than being put on the spot.
Enough with my tips, let’s get to what the experts have to say. Here are some of my favorite books and resources, in addition to those mentioned already, that have helped me get more done with my time, and add structure to my life.
- Shave 10 Hours Off Your Workweek: 4 Proven Strategies to Create More Margin for the Things That Matter Most by Michael Hyatt
- Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson and a bunch of other guys
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- Goals! by Brian Tracy
- The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
- Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland
- Smartcuts by Shane Snow
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
In addition to these books, consider these websites:
What tips, books, and websites would you add? What are your favorite productivity hacks? Tell us in the comments below.Liked it? Share it!