Nov 29th, 2020

🕓 It's About Time

Time is our most valuable resource. It's strictly limited, and we'll never know how much we've got left until it's too late.

Ideally, this means we should strive for making the most of that limited resource, spending our time with our families and friends and on activities with the highest leverage while living a healthy life.

Of course, we also need to do other things to sustain ourselves, whether it's working, attending classes in school, picking up a new skill that will help us later on, in short: we go through countless activities that take up a considerable amount of our time.

Some tasks are scoped in how much time they should take up, but they exceed that limit, other tasks aren't limited at all, eating up precious time.

And then we've got the tasks that start out harmless, but something catches our attention and we go down a rabbit hole and before we even know, the day has passed.

If we really care about our time, this should make us furious. We need to be strict and enforce limits, while also acknowledging that the things we do constantly change: If I work on a project with high leverage, that might be a great use of my time, but if I then start getting distracted by a bug or premature optimization that consumes way more time than it's worth, it makes me deeply unhappy because I won't ever get that time back.

Another interesting question is how to know which activities are really valuable, and which aren't. Sometimes that's easy to tell, but if you've got multiple things on the table that seem promising, it becomes harder. This is why it can be helpful not just to do one thing, but trying out multiple "bets" and seeing which one succeeds in the end. Doing multiple things (not at once, multitasking is less effective than you might think) requires you to carefully manage your available time so you get to each project.

And sometimes, it happens that we stumble over a bug that we just can't fix, a problem that's not ready to be solved, and we're disappointed because we didn't get our win of the day, but should that really ruin our day altogether? I don't think so.

So how can we make sure that we stay on track, focus on what is most valuable, and add the measures to make every day a great day? How can we get to a point where we know that we made the most of our day?

As it turns out, you can manage your time in many different ways. I've collected a couple of methods that help me structure my day with different activities, from studying to working, exercising, writing, and reading.

🗓 Block Time

When using a calendar for reminding you about specific events, you can also block time slots throughout the day for specific activities. While I don't always use my calendar for it, my day is roughly split in half for studying and working, while also strictly blocking evenings for reading and aligning everything so I get enough sleep and time to exercise. It's a tight and strict schedule but I enjoy it every day.

Finding the perfect balance might require you to play around with the system a bit, vary in how specific you want to design your slots (I mostly describe the area I want to focus on instead of specific actionables, but you can obviously do what works best for you)

Blocking time also allows you to check whether your activities are aligned with your vision and if you're doing what you actually want to do and what you should do.

🙅 Say No

While we've certainly improved in the past year when it comes to scheduling meetings that could have been an email, calendar invites have become my archnemesis. Every time I think about whether it's possible to replace a regular meeting with an asynchronous version, which doesn't force people to give up their time they could have spent being productive, I come to the same conclusion: Rarely do meetings enable productive work, usually, people will accept invites because it's less controversial than asking if it could be done differently.

If you ever accepted a meeting invite and got frustrated that you just sacrificed a part of your time, you should have rescheduled or just said no. Try to replace meetings with asynchronous workflows that don't force certain times, and allow everyone to participate, regardless of timezones, availability, and other factors.

If you want to get the most out of a remote team distributed across the globe, you're making it unnecessarily cumbersome if you force synchronous events on people.

And we're not just talking about other people stealing your time, often it's much simpler: Think of how many times you started browsing your social network of choice and ended up hours later wondering how this could have happened. Distractions are everywhere in today's life, and with every service trying to get your undivided attention, you need to consider if and how much of your time you want to spend doomscrolling.

⭐️ Sketching Out Your Daily Highlight

This is taken from Make Time, a book I strongly recommend to anyone who'd like to read more about focus and making the most of your time.

When you start your day, think of one action you want to make your daily highlight. This could be anything, from writing a blog post, to start a new book, whatever you want to prioritize this day.

Putting thought into this question will make you find the activity you think will have a valuable outcome: It could even be a task you don't enjoy doing, and you'll feel relieved once it's completed. And promoting it to your daily highlight will ensure you spend time on it because you assign it the importance it needs.

🚔 Adding Circuit Breakers

Sometimes it just happens that you sink into a task and spend hours on it. If you're productive and getting things done, that can feel great. If you're stuck, facing a problem, not feeling the vibe, or whatever else might hinder your productivity, it can be frustrating to force yourself to get something done. If it's not urgent, it will help to do something else and give your brain some time to think about an issue, often you'll solve it just by switching the activity.

And it's not just that, if you're getting fed up because something isn't working, you need to protect your time from being wasted and your day from being ruined, so when you notice that you're sinking into a state of being blocked, you need to use the emergency brakes and use the remaining time for activities that might bring joy or utilize your resources better.

Protecting your time and mood by switching activities when you're blocked or feeling that you might not be doing what's valuable or meaningful to you is what I call a circuit breaker. It can be applied in various situations and can truly change how you perceive the day.

If you simply continue working on a task where you're blocked or continue doing an activity that is frustrating you, you'll end up worse off than with what you started. Instead, stop what you're doing, and go out, exercise, or do whatever else might bring joy. And when you're done with that, you can either continue the task or do something more meaningful.

If you're trying to fix a bug you might try to justify that if you stop working before you fix it, you've completely wasted your time, since you already spent hours on it. Sounds familiar? That's because you're running straight into the sunk cost fallacy. Especially when you've already spent hours on something and it still doesn't work out, stop the task, do something else, and come back later if it makes sense.

🏰 Building Habits

While the concept of a circuit breaker is easy to understand, implementing those in your daily life might be challenging at first. And when you're in the flow, it can get difficult to stop your current task.

Exercising daily has become a routine I've strictly followed the past months, so when I've got a long day where I stick to studying and working and see the sun going down, knowing that I didn't exercise yet, I get really annoyed, which forces me to go out and exercise, making my day infinitely better.

I don't quite know how I got to that point, but this habit protects my time so I get to exercise. If you get to this point, you'll know when to pause and do what your body is demanding you to do, especially if you can just pick the task up again later on.

You could also start out by setting simple reminders that periodically force you to think about two questions: Am I happy with the current activity? Am I spending my time on the most valuable task I can do right now? This will force you to think about the value or leverage you get from an activity, and if you could/should be doing something else.

🕑 I don't have time

Whenever you respond to an invite with "Sorry, but I just don't have time today", it should make you think if that's true. In most cases, it's an easy way out, but if you want to join in on an event, you shouldn't hold yourself back. Do you really not have time? Is every planned task fixed to this date, can it not be rescheduled?

Whenever I plan events with friends, family, or simply think about when I should exercise, I assign it the highest priority, i.e. "I've got time". There's definitely enough time to work and study in the years to come, so that won't get in my way.

I think how you prioritize your tasks and manage your time is indicative of how you value your time and the people you can spend it with. I want to be in a constant state of "There's no place I'd rather be", so I'll make that work, no matter what.


TL;DR: Do different things, do what you're passionate about and what you enjoy, protect your time, it's finite.

Bruno Scheufler

Software Engineering, Management

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