December 16, 2021
Imagine this: you’re headed for the supermarket to buy groceries. You plan to spend $25 on a bunch of tomatoes, fresh juice, a bottle of wine, and half a loaf of bread. Somehow nothing goes according to plan. You end up spending $150 (!) on bananas, diapers, champagne, and, indeed, half a loaf of bread. Oh, and giving away money to a bunch of random people who came up to you and asked for it also didn’t help...This shopping trip should sound like a bizarre scenario, a story that doesn't entirely make sense. You don't diverge from your grocery list in such dramatic fashion, nor do you hand over money to strangers. Now change "money" for "time," and "groceries" for "tasks." Suddenly, the story is not far-fetched at all: when it comes to how we spend our time throughout the day, this is exactly what most of us do. We have no idea where our time goes, spend it on activities we had never planned for, and give it away to anyone who interrupts us. Timing your activities can solve this.
"People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy." - Seneca in On the Shortness of Life
Consider what a typical day looks like for you. Perhaps you have a list of things you want to get done, but still you start your day by checking email and social media. There you find an urgent request from a colleague, so you start with that. After working on this request for a while, you take a break and head over to your inbox, Instagram, Facebook, and a news website. Now you check the clock and it's already time for lunch! The afternoon unfolds in much the same way. At the end of the day, you scratch your head and wonder: what did I get done today? Where did the time go?
When you're doing physical labor, like standing in a shop the whole day or working on the land, you're usually all too aware of time. The work is hard, and you watch the clock in agony to reach the end of your shift. It's clear what needs to be done, and if you're unlucky, your boss watches you all the way through. In a modern office the experience is different. Your work happens on a computer and requires little physical effort. Even more unusual—when you think about it, compared to how things used to be not that long ago—is that you have a high level of autonomy. Most of us can decide when to take a break, or to do something personal on our devices during official working hours. Often you're even quite free in choosing when to work on what. Losing track of time in such an unconstrained environment is easy. Whether it's hanging around in your inbox for too long, or getting sucked into Facebook, in such moments hours can pass like the days on a week of vacation. Solving this issue is quite simple, but it takes some discipline: use a timer.
I'll admit, it's not a particularly sexy solution. Time your work sounds like the most boring thing ever. Only lawyers, accountants, and other folks who need to be “billable” do so. But, but, but... when you time your activities on your own account, you’ll have several advantages over people who don’t do so:
I’m not suggesting you turn into a robot that works by the second, or some maniac who goes through life with a stopwatch timing everything he does, including toilet visits and dinners with friends. I’m not even advocating to keep a time log of everything. The point is to dedicate fixed blocks of time to one specific activity. This way you spend exactly the right amount of time on the right things; not too much, and not too little.
To illustrate how this works, I’ll give you a glimpse of what my daily ritual before lunch looks like:
When I start one of these timed sessions, I focus exclusively on the task I set out to work on (e.g., "writing"). When a session finishes, I take short, restorative breaks (away from the screen). Again, the point is not to keep a time log of everything, but to create these dedicated "boxes" of time for specific activities (which is why officially this concept is called timeboxing).
Do I sometimes get interrupted? Of course. Do I sometimes get distracted? Of course. Do I sometimes deviate from my ritual? Of course. But by following this approach 90% of the time I get the important, non-urgent tasks done (like writing) and don’t get lost in my inbox for hours. I also have regular breaks that improve my creativity and overall well-being.
The above reflects my routine, which I've refined over time. Maybe you prefer to avoid your email until after lunch? Perhaps you like scheduling your day the evening before (here’s why I don’t)? Or you're the type who works in 90-minute stretches? Whatever works for you is ok. The point is not to follow my above ritual to the letter. What’s important—if that’s not obvious by now 😀—is to start timing your activities so you can create and refine a similar daily routine for yourself, one that ensures you spend enough time on the right stuff and not too much on the wrong side of the virtual tracks. Note that my schedule is not fixed to specific times (e.g., 25 mins of writing at 9 am); I like some flexibility as to when I start my day. But you can feel free to connect your routine to set hours of the clock if that works better for you.
The daily routine of Benjamin Franklin.
Now for the easy part: what tool to use to time your activities? Here are some suggestions:
This list is by no means exhaustive, especially when it comes to apps. But the brilliance of this approach is that you don’t necessarily need fancy tools—those only provide incremental advantages. You’ll gain the most from the most basic (and easy!) part: to plan these boxes of time for your activities and start working to the rhythm of your timer.
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