How I make time for things, and actually do them
A question I often get asked is: How do you get so much done? Or, a variant of that: How do you find the time to do all the things you’re interested in?
The short answer is: I make the time.
There is a longer answer as well, and that’s what I wanted to unpack in this blog post.
There’s a feeling I think everyone can relate to: The feeling of being so overwhelmed with things you “need” to do, that you end up doing none of them. It makes me think of these floppy wooden toys I had as a kid (maybe I was a weirdo and no one else had these, but…), where they’re either upright or limp depending on how much pressure you apply to their base. I had a giraffe (I think), and the neck would flop down the side when I pushed in the base, and then jump straight up when I let it go!
Tying things together: We’re the toy, and the stress we feel is the pressure applied to our base.
If I have too many things to do at any given time, I’m likely just going to collapse and do none of them. This system helps with that: It forces me to focus on one thing now, and not fret about everything else, because it has a place in my schedule later. It’s there, and I don’t need to worry about it until then.
Before we go any further, though, I want to clarify something that I see many people get wrong about this approach: This is not a silver bullet for getting more done in a day. For this mindset to work, we need to state three truisms. These are going to underpin everything else in this blog post, and are important when it comes to making this approach work for you, and not make you work for the approach. They are:
1. Less, but better.
Yes, making time for things makes it more likely that you’ll actually get to doing them. However, it’s not about adding 20 things to your routine and thinking you’ll miraculously get them done. In fact, it’s actually a process of doing less. By looking at what matters to you and what’s actually important right now, you’re reducing the time you spend on things that don’t matter to you. You’re doing fewer things, so that you can do those things better. For more on this principle, I suggest checking out this wonderful resource [link].
2. No one gets it perfect.
Sometimes, I schedule something with all the right intentions, but still get overwhelmed and admittedly opt for the “curl-up on the bed and sulk” option. It irritates me, but I expect it to happen from time to time — and it’s OK when it does, because we’re only human. This post is not about never feeling stressed anymore, or always doing everything when you plan it. It’s about having a system, and making it work for you; it’s about having a system that, when it fails, you can actually point to something and diagnose what’s going on.
3. What you spend most of your time on is generally what matters to you the most.
Generally, the things we spend most of our time doing are what matters to us the most. Even if you say, “But I spend 8 hours a day in a job I hate!”, you’re still spending most of your time hating that job, and wishing you could do something else… And that something else is what matters to you. Related to the first truism: This system is about doing more of what matters, not just doing more for the sake of doing more. It’s spending time on things. You’re investing yourself into the things that matter, and that you find valuable.
With those covered, I want to start by looking at what “making time” isn’t …
What “making time” for things doesn’t mean
- Adding it to your weekly “to do” list
- Setting a new year’s resolution for that thing (I dislike resolutions a lot anyway)
- Blocking off a big chunk of time one evening / one day to work on something
And it’s not because these don’t work. Setting a goal or intention is often the first step, and can be really effective. Rather, it’s because they’re incomplete: The first two lack any real commitment, and the other one lacks the necessary structure.
What tends to happen in these examples is that you write the list or block off your entire Saturday for something, and either something else crops up, or you lose interest in the thing by the time it gets to it.
Instead, what making time for things really means is:
- Figuring out what things matter to you
- Figuring out how long you need spend on something for it to feel like it matters to you
- Scheduling things specifically: Time, day, and duration
Here is each one in a little more detail.
Figure out what matters to you
As I mentioned before, an easy way to start figuring out what matters to you is to look at what you spend most of your time on (or, at least, what you yearn to spend most of your time on).
If you say you want to cook more meals, but you always order in, question how important that really is to you. Chances are, you want to do it because you think other people think you should, and not because it matters to you. If you want to get a promotion, but you always put off going the extra mile at work, then maybe this role is just not what you want.
The point is:
What we spend our time on tells us more about what we really value than the things we say or think are important to us.
This can be a little frustrating sometimes. Say, for example, I spend a lot of time on Reddit or Twitter. That doesn’t mean my value is to waste time scrolling on social media. If I want to eat healthier, but always order takeout, it doesn’t mean I don’t care about looking after my gut. However, those things might point to something else: What activity am I avoiding when I spend an hour on Reddit? What about cooking meals makes me not want to do it, and what does that tell me about what I find important?
One way to get real data is to keep track of everything you do in a day, and count how many hours you spend doing each thing — from eating and showering, to your day-job and your side hustle. Then, at the end of the week, go back and tally the hours. See where your time is being spent, and decide what about that thing is important to you, or what you’re not doing and why you’re avoiding that.
Start by focusing on what you’re already spending your time on, and eliminate as and when you realise which of those things actually don’t matter to you. You can then fill that time with other things that do.
Find out what my baseline is for each thing
Having done that, you should at least have a foundational idea of some of the things that matter to you. Here is a summary of some of mine:
- Exercising and keeping fit
- Creativity (sketching, writing, design)
- Building meaningful connections with people
- Being present (meditating, yoga, practicing mindfulness)
- Making time for “play”
- Learning about the world around me (reading, doing courses, learning new skills)
But that’s still just a long list of “WTF, how am I going to make time for all of that?”
The next step is about deciding how much time I need to spend on each thing so that I feel fulfilled. In other words, what is the MVP, the baseline, that I need for each thing to get value from it?
For example, meditating is really important to me, but I’m happy if I do 10 minutes a day. Building meaningful connections with friends, on the other hand, is not something I need to do every day, but I’d rather spend an hour on it than only 10 minutes. The same goes for the rest: I need X number of hours of reading to get value out of it, but only Y number of hours of exercise to get what I want from it.
Instead of thinking I need to spend equal parts of time on everything, I figure out how much time I need to spend on something for me to get value out of it. That way, instead of seven things that all need an hour of my time, I have three that need 5 minutes, three that need 10, and one that needs an hour.
You might not know how long you need to spend on something at first — in which case, you’ll need to try it out and see how it feels. Do it a few times, and adjust if you need to.
Schedule things specifically
I’m paraphrasing a Jerry Seinfeld quote, but I thought it fits here quite nicely:
Whatever you train or want to do, set yourself a time for it; don’t make it open-ended. You need to give your mind constraints when you’re trying to improve a skill or get something done. Imagine you asked your personal trainer how long the session will be, and he said “I don’t know, it’s open-ended.” If you want to practice writing, and you want to set a timer for an hour — cool. If you only want to do 30 minutes, that’s cool too.
The thing he highlights here is that it’s easier to feel motivated to do something when he knows how long he’s doing it for. Instead of just doing something for an indefinite amount of time, he’s giving himself a constraint and working within that constraint. And it’s based on how much he knows he needs to do, in order to feel like he’s getting value out of it.
Firstly, there are four ways to be specific: Time, day, duration, cadence.
- Time: When in your day does it make sense to do this? I meditate first thing in the morning, because it’s only 10 minutes and because it sets me up well for a more emotionally balanced day.
- Day: After a full day at work, I tend to not enjoy writing more in my free time, so I do that on weekends. It’s also most convenient for my friend to chat on Tuesdays, so we have a recurring call every week on a Tuesday.
- Duration: If I’m sketching, I set myself a limit for an hour and a half. Writing is two hours. Exercising is between 15 and 30 minutes. This is based on the baselines I decided for myself earlier.
- Cadence: And lastly, how regularly do you want to do this thing? Every week? Every three days? Every month? I really want to email my grandma more often to stay in touch with her, but I have a monthly reminder for that, and that’s more than enough to feel like I’m fulfilling that value.
Secondly, you actually have to schedule it into your calendar.
Being specific is useless if you don’t defend your time. If it’s not in your calendar, it’s not a priority.
Whatever calendar you use, this is the glue for the entire system. Tim Ferriss has this approach to making things tangible: If you want to do it, make it real. If you don’t schedule it in, you aren’t giving it the importance you said it has.
From start to finish, using this system not only makes time for the thing I’m doing now, but it also makes time for things I’m doing later. This means that I no longer feel stressed about forgetting to do something, or not getting to something, because everything has a time and a day and duration and a cadence. I’ve made time for the things that matter to me; so, there’s no reason to feel overwhelmed with decision fatigue about what to do next.
This is, as I said, an ongoing practice — but one which is really helping me fill my time with things that matter to me, and spend time on those things more often.
If you try the above, and find any value or have any feedback, please let me know! It’d be rad to hear from you 🙂
Originally published at http://dothedailywork.com on January 16, 2021.