How much time do you need for some of the mundane tasks in your life? You probably have a good sense for how long it takes you to get yourself together for work in the morning, how long it takes to prep your easy Thursday dinner, and how long it takes you to brush your teeth and get into bed at night. What you probably don’t have a great sense of, however, is how long it will take you to complete something new in your routine. If you are looking to introduce something new into your routine you will probably misjudge just how much time you will need.
This is an idea that Cal Newport presents in his book Deep Work. Newport specifically writes about new habits for work and leisure that help us improve our focus and spend more time with important things that truly matter. He encourages us to create schedules not just for our workdays, but four our entire days, and warns us that it is going to be hard to plan our days when we first start. Newport writes,
“Almost definitely you’re going to underestimate at first how much time you require for most things. When people are new to this habit [scheduling their full day], they tend to use their schedule as an incarnation of wishful thinking – a best-case scenario for their day.”
I started this post reflecting on common activities that we do daily, and our sense of how long those activities really take us. The reality for even these simple things is that we don’t have a great sense of how long they actually take, especially if we are not focused while working through those tasks. Deliberately getting ready for bed is a lot quicker than distractedly getting ready for bed while simultaneously watching YouTube videos. If we likely get these daily things wrong, then we will surely have a poor estimate for just how long new habits, routines, and tasks will take us.
For work, scheduling just how long a spreadsheet or report will take us can be challenging, especially if we have varying demands and levels of interest from our supervisor. But the more we practice, the more we can focus and engage with deep work, the better we will eventually be at getting a sense for how long something will take. This will carry over into other areas of our life as well. We will eventually get a good sense for how long the new physical therapy routine will take us, how much time we need to set aside for exercising, or how long a board-game with our family will take. Along the way, we will develop muscles for flexibility in our time and scheduling, helping us make better predictions and adjustments as we schedule out our days.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport contrasts two types of approaches to the digital tools that we use and create. We have a lot of powerful social media and network messaging applications, and these tools and applications are often given to us, or seemingly forced onto us, without much choice on our end. If everyone we know is using Facebook, then we feel left out without it. If everyone in the office is using Slack for communications, then we feel that we must join in so that we don’t miss any important messages and updates. The tools we create put pressure on us to use them, even if we never wanted the tools to begin with.
Newport calls this standard approach to network tools the Any-Benefit Approach and he defines it this way, “You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.”
We don’t want to be left out of conversations at the water cooler, so we download social media apps to talk about what other people have said. We don’t want to miss a message about something in the office, so we join all the Slack channels at work. We might get an early insight into something our favorite sports team is doing, so we install the Twitter app. We don’t think critically about whether we get a lot of value from these network tools, we only ask if there is some potential benefit we might receive from the tool.
Newport describes the opposite strategy for determining what network tools we use as the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: “Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.”
With this frame, we don’t add twitter unless we think it is going to really make our lives better to know what our favorite sports stars are up to. We don’t install social media apps if we think we will waste time with them or if we think that we will become jealous looking at all the cool things others are doing. Rather than worrying about what we might miss out on if we don’t get the app, we worry about what we might miss out on if we lose time and attention to the app. We bring in new applications at work if they help us perform better, not if they help us stay up on office gossip or give us a few popular tidbits to chat about during our breaks. Switching to the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection matters if we want to do meaningful work and be present with our families in meaningful ways.
What do you do at the end of your work day? Do you just haphazardly save and close out of anything that you happen to be working on during the last 10 minutes of work? Do you glance back through your email one last time and shoot off a couple emails to make sure you got a response in before you left for the day? Do you even sign off for the day or do you just leave the office only to continue checking email and doing tidbits of work here and there for the rest of your evening?
One thing about work today is that it can creep into every moment of our lives. It is easy to continue checking your work email all weekend long, to continue to take calls from clients well into the evening, and to hop on for a few minutes here and there when you are off the clock to help take care of something. All of this can be extremely draining, and we can become overly consumed by our work. Living this way pushes our family out, adds a low level of stress to each moment of our day, limits our time for real leisure and disconnection from work, and as Cal Newport puts it in his book Deep Work, prevents our unconscious brain from working through those challenging issues when we are not thinking of them directly.
Newport’s solution? Shutdown rituals. For Newport, ending the day with a plan is incredibly important for having a life focused on meaningful things within and outside of work. Shutdown rituals are crucial for setting ourselves up to have a productive workday the following day. If you take some time to gather your thoughts, reflect on what you accomplished, how long it took, and what you wish you had been able to achieve, you will be able to better structure your work and your days. You can plan ahead for the next day to make sure you get the really important thing done and avoid getting stuck on the small unimportant details. Shutdown rituals allow you to evaluate what went well, and where improvements could be made. They also allow you to put your work down, knowing that you have a plan to address the crucial things tomorrow, when your brain is fresh.
Newport writes, “Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they’re necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness summarized previously.”
“The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness,”
Seneca wrote in a letter to his friend Lucilius almost 2,000 years ago. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic
is a collection of short passages written from Seneca to Lucilius
full of interesting reflections on life. His quick quote about carelessness seems to be as fitting as can be for our times today.
We live in a time where great possibilities are open to most of us. On a given weekend we can volunteer our time for a meaningful cause, go snowboarding, go to the beach, visit family, or work on an art project, or try to finally get the garage cleaned. Often, however, we might find ourselves in a position where our time slips past us, and our weekends are lost to Netflix and squandered on meaningless activities. I often look forward to the promises of the weekend on Friday with excitement, but end up looking around my place on Sunday night reflecting on everything I planned to do but never managed to get to. We don’t need to pack every minute of our free time with interesting, fun, and engaging activities, but what I feel on some Sunday nights, is the pain of a loss due to carelessness.
Much more seriously, our world faces very extreme consequences from global warming as we continue to put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We face dangerous consequences from the bioaccumulation of plastics in fish and wildlife species that eat our garbage. Millions of people in the deserts of the United States rely on water sources that are becoming depleted, yet water waste from leaks and unwise water usage persist. Our world faces various ecological crises that result more or less from our own carelessness. Just as I feel terrible some Sunday nights about the way I wasted my time during the weekend, we will look back at where we are today and feel extreme regret for the carelessness with which we wasted resources and allowed our planet to degrade.
Solving my problem on Sunday nights is not impossible. It just requires that I be more considerate about my time. It requires that I think about what I am doing and why I am doing it to ask myself if there are other things I should be doing and if I am going to look back and be glad that I spent my time engaging with any given activity. With some planning going into the weekend, I can be successful in engaging with the world in a meaningful way on my days away from the office. The same is true for our climate crisis. If we ask ourselves what we are doing and how our actions contribute to the overall sustainability of our planet, we can start to make small changes to live better on our planet. We won’t individually make much of a difference, but collectively we will start to make changes and we can all contribute to a consciousness about the importance of using our resources wisely. That mindset will eventually translate into smart decisions globally to help us mitigate our impact on the way things are going and prevent us from a disgraceful loss of a habitable planet due to our own carelessness.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger wrote a message to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, and in her book she hits on many topics including goal setting, putting others first, and time management. The following quote really dives into the idea of time management, “Forget balance, Think choices. You must order your priorities, and only do what you can do well.” I really align with this quote because I have recently begun thinking of time and time management in new ways. I grew up imagining the idea of balance and being able to do an equal amount of things that I enjoyed, found important, or helped me sustain myself. Recently however, I have come to see that balance is just a myth and that there are better ways to think about time management.
The first new way of looking at time management for me was imaging a tilt rather than a balance. In this way, we are always not quite balanced, but we are tilting one way or another. We lean towards things we are putting more time into as opposed to staying balanced with all of our time and activities nicely weighed out on a scale. When I first read this quote that was the idea I had in mind, but that idea is still a balance. What is worse is that the idea of tilting is just an unstable balance. We may be tilting one way or another, but then we are trying to add extra weight on a system that is already unstable. In my opinion it would be better to strive for a good balance rather than a good tilt.
The most recent idea of time management that I have been exposed to, and now that I return to this quote I see it as an idea that Dr. Schlesinger would agree with, came to me from Beyond the To Do List Podcast
. Sheranosher compared time management to packing a suitcase, and she did so by having everyone imagine a trip to Alaska. The best way to pack a suitcase she explains, is to lay out all of the things you want to take, and then to pack the most important things first. When you do this, you see everything that you have and make sure that you don’t leave behind anything crucial. First you tackle the most important items that you will need (your jacket, a pair of snow boots, gloves) and then you see where those extra items will fit (swim trunks & flip flops). If your most important items have taken up all of your space, then you simply leave out the swim trunks and move on. Her comparison to time management is brilliant. If you examine everything you need and want to do, then you have an easier time identifying what is important and what is not. You can take the items that you know you need to get done in your day, and pack those in your mental suitcase first, then you will see where (if at all) the extra things can fit.
Dr. Schlessinger in her quote was telling us to handle time the same way as Sheranosher, just without having to plan a trip to Alaska. She encourages us to examine our choices and be honest about which choices are priorities, and which choices are superfluous. In addition, she says to focus on those choices that we can execute fully and completely. If we can not do a choice well, then it does not make sense for it to be a priority. If we want to take that electric blanket, but do not know how to fold it into our suitcase in an efficient way, it may take up too much space and force out our more important gloves.
In a letter written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, Joe Dallesandro writes, “When you’re young, you’re given a plate and you’re given all sorts of things to choose from, and whoever your guardian is should be trying to give you a balanced meal.”
As I have left college and entered the world of the 40 hour work week, I have begun to have major doubts about the idea of balance. A popular idea that I have come across in podcasts from the world of business, productivity, and entrepreneurs, is that there is no such thing as a work-life balance, but rather choices of what we want to focus on. We all have the same amount of time in a day, and how we spend that time will determine what our focus is, how well we meet goals, and what we do to achieve the things we want to achieve.
I think that the quote from Dallesandro is very interesting because it suggests that there can be a balance in interests, activities, hobbies, and meaningful work or family time, specifically when you are young and not in the world of a 40 hour workweek. I can definitely understand Dallesandro in this quote when I look back at my own life, but I also see a major conflict. Parents who are working 40 hours a week and who have no ability to maintain a magical balance, have to be the ones who shape and provide a balance for their children. Left to their own, children will zero in on a single focus and loose sight of balance, and in today’s world that may mean video games, Facebook, and other unproductive activities. I am not a parent and hopefully not anywhere close to being one, but I am very encouraged by the metaphor of providing a child with a balanced meal to help them grow in many directions as they move through school, possibly into college, and off to their own independent lives.