Finding More Time: How to get things done

Could any commodity be more precious than time? Is there anything any of us want more—or more of—that at the same time seems to be more beyond our control to increase? Who among us wouldn’t strike the most Faustian of bargains for an extra year of life? Or an extra decade?

We certainly can all adapt habits that have been shown to increase the likelihood of our living longer: moderate our alcohol intake, avoid smoking, exercise, and so on. But such measures won’t give us what we really want: an increase in the amount of time we have each day. Then again, even that isn’t what we really want. What we really want is enough time to do what we must so that we don’t feel stressed as we go about doing it, and then to have enough time left over to do what we want.

Which means that finding more time isn’t really about time at all. It’s about prioritization, energy, and efficiency. Twenty-four hours is actually an extraordinary amount of time to have each day, even when you subtract a necessary eight hours for sleep, leaving sixteen hours of wakefulness. World-shaking books have been written while children were being raised over a series of sixteen-hour days. Space shuttles have been built and launched over a series of sixteen-hour days. Sixteen hours a day is more than enough time to live a satisfying life. The question really is: how can we learn to use those sixteen hours a day in such a way that we don’t feel constantly harassed by the tick of the clock?

First, we must keep those sixteen hours for the most part limited to sixteen hours. It’s tempting to cut into our sleep time to increase our awake time so we can accomplish more. And as an occasional practice, this strategy can work. As a habit, however, it’s one doomed to fail (as I wrote about in a previous post, The Critical Importance Of Sleep). Sleep isn’t just a strange state of unconsciousness into which we fall at the end of the day. It’s a crucial biological process that helps us function at our maximal intellectual and emotional capacity and efficiency. Reduce it over the long haul at your peril. If the goal is to feel as if you have enough time to accomplish all that you must and the number of hours that exist in a day can’t be changed, we can only change the way we use those hours—and that requires energy. Defend yours to the death.

We can also increase our efficiency (meaning, how much we accomplish per unit of time). This we can do principally by eliminating non-productive activity, which means eliminating distractions. Yesterday (when I was growing up) this meant primarily television. Today it means television and Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and…

How do we find it within ourselves to resist these temptations? By avoiding them altogether. How do we avoid them? By increasing the activation energy necessary to access them. We have to make it so inconvenient to read our email that we find ourselves forced to schedule a time to batch read them all at once (software exists that throws up all kinds of barriers to our email and the various programs to which we’re all addicted on the Internet).

In order to construct an efficient day with few interruptions, however, you also have to prioritize. You have to decide some things are so important to do that you will forgo others (or, at the very least, significantly cut down on time spent on them). On the other hand, if you cut down or eliminate something your find yourself missing terribly, then perhaps that was something you really wanted to make more time for. Sometimes, in fact, you don’t actually know what your priorities are until you try them out. A cliche it may be, but we often don’t know how important a thing is to us until we lose it.

Because in order to feel like we’re using our time well—which is what finding more time is really about—we have to spend it doing those things which feel most meaningful to us. (Which usually aren’t the things that are easiest. It’s generally true that meaningful activity costs energy. Watching television, for example, is easy, and though that fact by itself isn’t what makes it feel mostly meaningless, we’d be hard pressed to disconnect the two.) So if you’re looking for a simple rule with which in one fell swoop to find more time, eliminate or minimize activity you find meaningless (being careful not to entirely eliminate meaningless activity you also find pleasurable—we all need some of that; on the other hand, too much of that is often the main problem we face when we’re trying to find more time).

Finally, like overeating without realizing it, we often waste time in small increments that in isolation seem insignificant, but that when added up fully explain why we feel like we need more time. Much like the act of keeping a food diary itself has been associated with eating less, keeping a time diary can help us stop wasting time and provide us a sense that we’re got more of it than perhaps we even need.

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