Stop researching! — How I learned not to waste my time.
Two months ago my wife told me that I was going to become a father for the second time. The first experience was already incredible, intense and changed my life forever. And now a second child, wow! Yeah, sleepless nights, changing diapers — it’ll be nice. But wait, my wife and I usually were a good team rotating with the first kid and now there’s gonna be two? Especially after the responsibilities in my life became bigger, I felt like I needed a new way to organize my life.
One aspect that changed the most is the allocation of my time. Parents will know — We spend a major amount of time with our families and we want to. And yet, it’s not only parents who want to save time. We order our goods online to save time, we order an Uber to save time — you know what I’m talking about.
I believe time is the most important asset of our era.
We are procrastination monkeys
Do you know your procrastination monkey? Well, I’m best bros with mine. He forces me to do things like read random stories about historical wars on Wikipedia or watch slow motion videos of people throwing liquids in each other’s faces. In this video Tim Urban explains why.
I’m not sure if that’s a millennial thing but things like productivity and being efficient has been always very important to me. So why am I finding myself reading the entire literature on things like the postwar period in Europe since 1945. Yes, that’s interesting but I opened my computer to continue programming software or create a new marketing plan for Q2; damn.
The biggest problem, however, is that I don’t always have deadlines. I once heard that a project always take the time it has given. Even though I’ve been very critical about arbitrary deadlines, today, I’d say they work. The reason why I think it works is not because we are forced to trade time for quality or money, it’s more that time constraints make us procrastinate less start doing the work.
Because we know otherwise the panic monster will find us.
I needed to change how I was utilizing my time, so I did what I also do: I developed a framework: Introducing the time utilization framework.
The time utilization framework
I started investigating how I spent my time and a snowball effect happened. For some reason, I started googling how other people spend their time online. I moved from one article to another, had 36 tabs open and started to take a lot of notes. You know you have too many tabs open when you can’t see the fav icons anymore and your browser looks somewhat like this:
Afterwards I started to think about my allocation of time and analyzed my work using tools. I used RescueTime and I believe there are multiple other tools that do the job. The results where shockingly unexpected.
Most interestingly I spend 20% of my day researching, 10% creating something and 8% on entertainment like Facebook, Youtube etc. I like researching and I believe it’s the basis to deliver high quality work but it doesn’t create much value for anybody else but me. And then there is the fear of missing out some essential information during your research so you just keep going.
Next I took some time to go through old to-do lists and categorized the tasks that I’ve been spending time on. Last, I started to do something that I haven’t done for a long time: Disconnect and just think how I can improve.
Defining my goals
After analyzing my behavior I started thinking about what I actually want to achieve during my time. Questions like: In a given time, what activities will I get the most value out, helped me a lot. Generally, I want to spend time on things that matter most and use my time more efficiently.
To be more precise, I thought about the top four things that I want to spend time on.
Spend time with my family; Becoming a father changed a lot of my priorities in this regard. I don’t want to end up regretting spending not enough time with my family.
Spend more time creating things; I love to be productive and get things done. I’m addicted to checking things off my list. I often work on research tasks or reactive communication with people rather than creating so my goal is block more time for creation.
Generate more innovative ideas; I want to think more and give my thoughts more room to grow. It is amazing to realize how we ignore the power of free, undisturbed thinking. I believe it’s one of the most important sources for innovation.
Increase amount of productive sessions; My goal is to increase sessions where I get done the most while cutting down the overall time spent. I sincerely believe that it is possible. I’m having a lot discussions on this topic with my peers so I wanted to start an experiment on myself to see how it goes.
I want to think to generate innovative and valuable ideas and stimulate by brain activity.
There is barely any moment in my life when I’m bored or have nothing to do. Even if you’re commuting somewhere you’re either checking mails or listening to a podcast.
When was the last time you were thinking about something without a smartphone or any other distraction? I mean just letting your thoughts flow. For me, it was a long time ago, about when I was flying to Boston and my son slept on my legs. I couldn’t reach my phone or anything else to read and I didn’t want to wake him up. In fact, the whole plane was sleeping so I just thought about random things. I have to admit it was pretty hard initially, the first 10–15 minutes were very strange but then something interesting happened. My brain started to jump from one thought to another, I had all these ideas in my head of what I could do next. I wanted to write all these things down but couldn’t so I kept thinking. The longer I thought the crazier and more awesome the ideas became. In my case, it was a lot about where SaaS Software and Software development in general is going. A short while after my son woke up, I took out my smartphone and started typing everything I could remember.
That experience was so intense, I scheduled a slot for 30 minutes thinking per week. What was even more shocking is that I had an extremely hard time sitting still and thinking without being online or checking my phone.
Thinking is an essential task that I recommend everyone does. Thinking is something that truly creates value and results in innovative ideas.
I constantly want to learn new things, and gather information to use them within the context of the project I’m working on.
This activity consists of either research online, studying a certain topic, reading a book or article, watching a tutorial, guide or whatever. Whatever you do, the goal is to learn or experience something new. I ranted a lot on researching and that it would take up 20% of my time and yet it will still remain an important and essential part of my daily work.
Whenever I have to learn something new like a programming language, a marketing strategy, the solution to a program in general I start researching on Google, Youtube, Quora, Medium, or even Github for technical problems.
I want to sustain information symmetry with my peers, increase the signal in conversations while reducing noise.
This category highly depends on your job. There are jobs that exist only because of communication and that is perfectly fine and should be planned accordingly. In my case, I’d like to cut communication to a minimum both on the internal and external level. Over-communication can be beneficial, however, I figured that information becomes diluted when there is too much noise, so I’d rather communicate when needed with greater direction.
Typical activities today are meetings, emails, calls, video conferences and using messengers such as slack.
I could write a whole blog post on how I’d expect communication to function here when it comes to the different channels and whether they’re synchronous or asynchronous.
I want to always prepare to increase the quality of my work and validate certain assumptions before executing them.
This category combines multiple concerns as it can include multiple sub-activities of the other categories. It could be that you prepare by creating something or regenerating something etc. I don’t want to get to scientific about the consistency of the categorization and so I will just label the common categories rather than coming up with mutually exclusive labels. Typical example are:
- Installing a software or setting up an environment to me is preparing
- Practicing a speech is preparing
- Defining the structure for a meeting is preparing
The last one is a big one. I’ve seen people beginning to think just after the meeting started. That’s bad, and here is why:
In a meeting, you’re sitting with multiple people. If you don’t prepare you’re automatically stealing their time. Time is the most important asset, remember? Its ok to gather your thoughts and think about a certain problem but that should be framed as a Workshop and still be somewhat pre-prepared. Google design sprints, silent brainstormings help me to prepare workshops.
I want to create products, services, business and knowledge that is sustainable.
Alright friends let’s get to the meat of it. Enough with the bullshit. Lets get our hands dirty.
Often times venture capitalists want to invest in companies that are scaled through marketing rather than sales. Why is that? When you do smart marketing you create assets, whether that’s content or reusable campaigns. Most of that can be repackaged, automated and thus scaled. It’s hard to scale a sales call and meetings. I believe creation allows to scale, thats why.
We live in an interesting era where you can outsource the creation of certain things by just preparing and communicating. Here is an example:
- You have an app idea (thinking)
- You write a specification (preparation + creation)
- You search an agency (researching)
- You write them and have a few meetings (communication)
Despite the fact I would like to spend a lot of time creating I’ll also start to think about outsourcing so other can create for me. The results might event be better when you’re working with experts in your field.
I want to be healthy and energetic to be enable to perform the activities I spend my time on.
We’re not robots (Although I am close :D), so we need to regenerate. The most obvious activity is to sleep. A lot things happen while we sleep and I’m not even close of having enough knowledge to give you sufficient advice. Just make sure you’re having the right amount of good quality sleep. For me that means no electronics in the bedroom and no heavy food before going to bed. Find out what works for you.
Meditation is another great recreational activity. We train our bodies and not so much our brains. The good news is that its changing.
I want to improve my physical health and be more durable during any activity that I pursue.
We have muscles and they need to contract to do certain tasks. The better trained you are the easier certain tasks in life become. Seriously, many people underestimate the impact of a strong physical health.
I want to enjoy my life and look back without having any regrets.
I left the best for the last. Socializing, relaxing and leisure. Spending time with the people we love during any activity.
Jeff Bezos talks about the regret minimization matrix in this famous video.
When I project myself in 60 years and look back, this is probably the category I would have loved to spend a significant amount of time in. What I’m doing, however, is different. I’m spending time on everything else and only do the things that matter in the time that is left after work. Well I think we have to reverse-engineer that. Even though it was strange in the beginning to have calendar entry that says quality time with my family, or early dinner or something similar, it works and that’s the most important lesson to me. I recently learned about the concept of managing happiness by David Henzel, it really freakin works.
I’m not in the position to tell you what leisure is to you personally and I’m sure you know. What did you love to do as a kid? When was the last time you smiled deep from your heart? Answer the questions and you’ll find out.
There are many other activities that would very well deserve their own category. This is no holistic view on all topics that exist. As you’ve probably noticed I left out many activities such as transportation & traveling, purchasing, caring, eating & drinking, household activities and others. This post reflects my status quo which doesn’t include a lot of travel, purchasing or other activities not listed here. I count caring as leisure as that’s what it is to me when I can care for the people I love. I don’t know what I don’t know and I’m sure there a dozen categories that I didn’t even think of Please take it with a grain of salt.
Build your own schedule
Remember the schedules you had when you were at school, where every subject was planned to the minute. That’s exactly how I wanted to apply the allocation of the different categories to my daily life.
Here is a plan, that I hoped will work for me:
Knowing what I’m spending my time on allowed me to think about how I actually want to spend it. It made me change things in my schedule such as:
- Introduce time blocks for thinking.
- Spend more quality time with my family.
- Spend more time on meetings than 1h per day.
- Allocate more time actually creating something.
- Start to eliminate things and outsource non-critical tasks.
- Increased exercise and leisure time.
Last, let’s take look at a typical day in my calendar.
Sounds like I figured it all out, right? Except, my calendar doesn’t look like this. However, I’m scheduling tasks for the day so it becomes visible when I plan to actually work on that particular area. In reality there are more gaps and also plans don’t always play out. Ideally, I’d like to have 1–2 core tasks that I can plan my day around.
Does every day and week look like this? I wish, there is a lot of variance especially in the beginning when I implemented this system. I prepared my first week for 2 hours on a Sunday evening and almost nothing went as planned. My goal is to learn over time which might include adjusting the plan.
I’m getting more done, you can too
One month in and I’m gonna be honest with you. I still wasn’t able to implement this method a 100% but I’m close. I regularly take time to think without distraction and started to exercise more often.
When I want to do an online-course I look at my time allocated for learning and make time for it. The awareness of what I actually want to spend my time doing, totally changed.
I’m much more focused when I start a task because I know my time is limited. I cut off meetings whenever they can easily be replaced with an email or a quick call and overall, I’m more balanced and don’t have the feeling that I could have get more done.
Now that I found a semi scientific way to break down my time what did I win? What’s even the whole point of this?
Time is limited and I want to make the most out of it. This framework helped me to prioritize spending more time on the important tasks and less on unimportant ones.
The next step is to take action, clear your calendar and say no to meeting. Or allocate those two hours to reading or thinking. If you plan accordingly you’ll most likely do it. Saying no and adding constraints is really the only way to be more efficient I believe.
Remember, time is limited — Here is your life:
I first saw this on“The Tail End” which is another great post by Tim Urban, so mine is just a shameless copy.
It shows the total time for a 90-year life where each box indicates a week.
Time is the single most important asset of our era. Everything that saves time will be used and everything that costs time is annoying.
Decide where you want to spend your time and more importantly where not to spend it.
Stat eliminating and outsourcing and automate everything that you can, except you enjoy it. I wrote about automization in another post. Automization helps to reduce switchings tasks. Every time you switch to another major task there are significant switching costs to re-calibrate focusing on another discipline. This is also knows as context shifting and very common in early-stage Startups.
Another takeaway is that the only way to get more one is to eliminate unimportant tasks and focus on important tasks only. Urgent tasks can be outsourced easily. Yes I’m talking about the Eisenhower matrix.
The core value that you’ll create is using your brain during thinking. Outsource everything else that others can do better than yourself. The two books that helped me shape that mindset the most were the The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris and Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
Often times we go for instant gratification but you should think long term and allocate your time to the things that are strategic.
How do you manage your time? I’d love to hear what you think.
When I’m not writing, I’m working as a Solutions Architect during the day and on indie.academy at night.
I recently came across Building Your Life In The C Quadrant. I think it’s a great compliment to the idea of this post, visualising and prioritising tasks based on their categories.
Also, I don’t track my time using any third-party tools anymore. I got paranoid with all the shenanigans that could be done using my data.