Behind “I don’t have time” façade

“I don’t have time” is the most common obstacle to making any change in your life. Everybody is so busy these days, that “I don’t have time” sounds very understandable, valid and, well, unsurmountable. Even though every one of us is gifted with 16 hours of time every single day. And that’s after investing whole 8 hours in a good night’s sleep – one of the best investments of your time!

It’s like basic income, but with automatic investment. Every minute of your life you invest exactly one minute of your time, intentionally or not. The good news is that you can CHOOSE your investment options, and some of them are very, VERY profitable.

You actually have so much time that you constantly emit it, like sun emits light. And like sun, we usually emit it in all directions. And like with light, you can concentrate it at the point of your FOCUS.

It’s clear that “lack of time” is not a real block. It’s a façade. “I don’t have time for that” serves as a politically correct euphemism for “I don’t really care about that”. Somehow, the former is universally relatable, and the elicited empathy softens the blow of the latter. It’s okay to use “I don’t have time” in social interactions as long as it serves you, but being brutally honest with yourself, you would never use it as a real reason. Certainly not when you’re talking about living your dream life.

Now, how to figure out what is hiding behind the façade? Remember the power of “appointment”. When you have an appointment with somebody, you just show up at the agreed upon place on the agreed upon time. Even if you don’t, “I didn’t have time” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse. You must present some valid reason. Hence, If you want to figure out what’s hiding behind the façade, just make an appointment with yourself. Literally, reserve an one-hour slot every day to “Live my dream” or “Kill it”. Mark it on your calendar, as you would mark a massage spa visit (you like massage, don’t you? You don’t know? Well, make an appointment with a massage spa.) The first time you cannot make the appointment to enjoy yourself, you’ll know what really is blocking your flow.

I rarely miss this appointment, but I’m late sometimes. Because I’m in flow with my previous task. I find it a defensible excuse.

But for the sake of not having any excuses, I build in a half-an-hour buffer in between one hour tasks. Why one hour? Besides being good round number that is just 1/16th of your available daytime, one hour (or to be precise, 57 minutes 😉 followed by 17 minutes break was found to be optimal stress/recovery cycle. “Power of Full Engagement” recommends 90-120 minutes of focus followed by about 30 minutes of recovery. So, what seems to work the best for me is having about an hour and a half allocated for each task with the expectation that at least 15 minutes will be spent in some sort of relaxation (which might be just a different type of flow). These numbers are more of a guidelines to illustrate the principles of stress/recovery cycles and buffer. For more on buffer as an essential tool, see “Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown.

While buffers mitigate the risk of task over-flow (pun intended ;), there is another phenomenon that might delay your rendezvous with flow – procrastination. While some might consider procrastination a useful thing, and others try to make it a creative one, delay is a delay, and we don’t have time for that. (Literally, there is no time in our calendar that is scheduled for “delay”, is there?) I see procrastination as manifestation of my fear of the “struggle” – that hump you need to get over to meet the promised land of flow. Solution? Make the hump really small, like 15 minutes small. Commit to work on the task for only 15 minutes. After that time, you are free to move on to another one – unless you’re in the flow by that time, that is. Again, your interval for entering the flow might vary, but the principle of committing to only the bare minimum of time required for entering the flow is solid. In one sentence: you commit to focus on a task for about 15 minutes, having the option to work on it for up to 90 minutes. Rinse and repeat.

More likely than not, you’ll be in the flow when 15 minutes run out. Awesome. Now we need to stay there. This is easy, since flow has the only one enemy – distraction. This is the reason flow is so fragile these days – technological advances made attention our most valuable resource, but comparably advanced technologies are employed to extract as much of that value from us as possible. And that on top of internal flow rivals like doubts about ourselves, worries about the future (a.k.a. anxiety) and regrets about the past (a.k.a. depression).

We’ll take later about how to deal with distractions. But while we are on the topic of time – there is time of the day that is the least subject to distractions, both internal and external. It is morning. This is the time to tackle your most important task. Before events or demands of the day even had a chance at your attention. While people you care about are either asleep or busy with their own most important tasks. Mornings are traditionally considered the most productive time, and the reason is exactly that – flow is uninterruptible in the mornings. That not only hints us strongly about the best time for the most important stuff (hint: morning), but also gives a clue how to make any time of the day morning-like productive (clue: eliminate distractions).

If you really cannot find an hour in your schedule, make an hour in your schedule. Wake up 1 hour earlier. Just be sure not to withdraw from your investment account – get enough sleep. Go to bed earlier. Why not just do that in the evening than? You are likely to be tired in the evening, and that doesn’t help with flow. Some people, like Tim Ferriss, are more productive in the night, but generally, “If You Wouldn’t Wake Up Early to Do Something, You Probably Shouldn’t Stay Up Late For It Either.”

Note that “I don’t have time for that” becomes meaningful again – it simply means, there is no time allocated for that in my calendar. Symmetrically, reserving a spot in your calendar for something effectively creates “time for that”. While “I don’t really care about that” might sound impolite, “it’s not a priority for me” rather commands respect. Ability to say “No” in a graceful manner requires internalizing one’s values and purpose, and that is respectable.

Granted, not all time slots in your calendar created equal. We just saw one example of that – mornings. And you might notice that throughout the day there are times when you’re more readily take on one or another type of tasks. It might depend on whether it’s pre- or post-lunch time, pre- or post-exercise time, do you prefer to knock off newest tasks first, or do you let them to simmer in the back of your mind for some time.

Tracking your time is the best way to become aware of these patterns. There are tools for any taste – from the least intrusive tools like your internet browser history, to the most reflective like Toggl, to the simplest like pen and paper. No matter what is your tool of choice, the mere fact of tracking your activities would likely make you more selective about what you spend your time on. Also, once you declared in some form what you intend to do for the next hour or so, it is less likely that you would respond to a distraction. If there are some advantages of following a plan to the letter, this is one of them.

Besides, looking back at your day in some quantitative manner (e.g. knowing exactly how much time you spend on Facebook) will help you realize that you DO HAVE TIME, it’s just that it can be used more intentionally. No need to play robot and, say, promise to never login to Facebook again – that most likely lead to breaking the promise and hating yourself for that. Besides, going through what your friends were up to recently is likely to satisfy some of your emotional needs like reconnecting with people or places. But there is a point of diminishing return, or even negative return, when you end up feeling drained and guilty, rather than moved and inspired.

I found that categorizing activities into areas of my life that they are supposed to support or improve – health, wealth, family, relationships, career, calling etc. – have this healthy effect of asking yourself why you are doing whatever you are doing. It also helps you to see if any particular area of your life has been deprived of your attention recently. Tagging activities works even better, since an activity can have multiple tags, instead of just one single category. For example, having chat with friend over lunch would be tagged as contributing to both your health and your relationships, and your commute time can be repurposed for reading or listening audiobooks. Just be sure not to let multi-tagging degrade into multi-tasking, when you try to do many things at the same time and failing to focus on any of them. No focus – no flow – no joy. For example, listening to an audiobook at playground is likely to frustrate both you and your kids.

But even if you’re busy with a worthy task, chances are that it’s taking you way more time than it could have. You have probably heard of Pareto principle, also known as 80-20 rule. It states that in majority of cases, 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the causes. That means that you have likely spent 80% of the time on only 20% of what you have achieved. Ridiculous? Why would anybody do that? Two reasons – perfectionism and the need for closure.

Perfectionism is the mindset that if a task is not done perfectly – at 100% – then it has very little value. If this is really the case, then it is very likely that the task just have very little value, period. 100% is practically not achievable. It is just a wrong task. As Pareto principle suggests, 80% of value can be achieved at 20% completion – when the task is the right one. Excellence – as opposed to perfectionism – is exactly about doing the right task, rather than doing a task right. Think effectiveness versus efficiency, impact versus effort, value versus price. (As I write this during holiday season, another analogy comes to mind: presence versus presents. Spending with loved ones – being fully present and listening and caring – just 20% of time we might spend hunting gifts and bargains in overcrowded malls is what would really make difference in their lives.)

Okay, but how to find the right task? The truth is that usually you know exactly what needs to be done, and how good is good enough, but you keep polishing anyway. Why? Because, well, if it’s not good enough, it’s going to fail, right? Perfectionism is usually a manifestation of the fear of failure, and we’ll talk that at length later. For now, just keep in mind Facebook’s motto “Better done than perfect” and stop doing non-essential tweaking. And if you really not sure what is the best course of action, devote equal share of available time to testing each of the alternatives. Let them face the reality, and the one that had the greatest impact is the one worth pursuing further.

Need for closure is a different beast. The thing is that our psyches hate loose ends. We have innate desire to do away with any uncertainty we are facing. By itself, this drive might have some healthy effects – like tendency to finish task as soon as possible. But the most pedantic of us might start looking for ways to make sure we never have to deal with this problem again. Not just crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, but making an assumption about what else might go wrong , and go fixing that as well. And so on and on, causing the scope of the original task grow uncontrollably. A bit different mechanism than with the case of perfectionism, but with the same result – spending way more time then needed, on something of a questionable value.

Classical horror story is creating product nobody cares about. It was this epic waste of time that prompted Eric Reis to rethink product development, start Lean Startup movement and coin the term Minimal Viable Product, among others. The idea here is that the way to remove uncertainty about the reality is not to postulate the way it must be (which feels more like denying both uncertainty and reality), but to gradually discover the way it really is. Do the bare minimum that would allow you to move forward, be that choosing an option among many or coming up with just a single one.

Fear of failure (perfectionism) and fear of uncertainty (need for closure) might look alike and hard to distinguish. Fortunately, there is no need to that, as the antidote is the same in both cases – explore alternatives quick and dirty.

Lastly, if you do have to interrupt in the middle of the creative flow – it is not necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, if you switch to something that requires less intense concentration, the creative process would still run in the background (like in the “relaxation” phase mentioned earlier), likely leading to new insights and “Aha!”s. Also, leaving your work incomplete would drive you to come back to it sooner, and would help you get up to speed faster, avoiding the “blank page” effect.

So, go ahead and reserve a couple of hours in your calendar daily, and have fun playing, hacking and experimenting!