I decided to raise this question putting at risk my meagre readership! Your decision to read this probably comes at the cost of some of your “free time”. When we are working, our employers structure our time so we don’t need to worry about managing it. This typically takes 30-70 hours a week depending on the type of work you do. Sleeping and daily ablutions probably take up another 70 hours a week. This gives you 28-68 hours of “free time” that you need to plan for.
On average humans are very poor at utilizing their time:
- If our time at work was used effectively, better productivity in a meritocracy would lead to better rewards. This means a focus on creating processes and practices that avoid day-to-day firefighting instead of living in the crisis. However, this doesn’t happen. So fear and panic about our jobs or deadlines become the main motivators to accomplish anything at work.
- The less said about how we use our free time the better. We might want to do X or learn Y or spend time with Z but we usually end up watching cat videos and scrolling through our social media timelines most of the time.
There are some who are completely fine with this or don’t see this as a problem. This post is not for them. This post is for those who want to do more or better but are unable to. Procrastination is the term normally used for this. A task is already defined either by the person or their employer or others. The task is ignored until the last moment. When the deadline is close, it is worked on and somehow completed but not with very good results. Tim Urban who writes at waitbutwhy.com is now a world famous procrastinator who wrote extensively about this specific issue.
Let us use the Eisenhower Matrix to understand this better. You divide everything you do into 4 quadrants based on urgency and importance:
- You have to do Quadrant 1 items. This is the work crisis or home crisis that cries for immediate attention. This some times needs high CPU usage but adrenaline will help you navigate this.
- Quadrant 2 is where all the great achievements lie. This needs sustained high CPU usage and there will be no adrenaline to push you. Even most bosses will not push you to do these types of tasks unless you are at a higher level of management.
- Quadrant 3 can be loosely labeled as “Somebody Else’s Problem” that you have made your own. You can delegate these to the right people and save your time but more often than not you don’t.
- Binge watching a bad soap opera is a good example of Quadrant 4. All the time we spend entertaining ourselves could also be counted here. It is very hard to spend zero time here because even a hard working brain needs some rest. But mostly we overstay in this quadrant.
Why is living in Quadrant 2 so hard? I had posted about a book; Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann; that talks about how the mind works. The mind is easily distracted even when making important or complex decisions. Basically it likes to keep CPU usage low. Staying in Quadrant 2 requires a couple of high CPU usage activities:
- Deciding what to do: planning, setting objectives or outcomes
- Doing it effectively: execution
In a workplace, “Deciding what to do” is a leadership responsibility. “Doing it effectively” is a joint responsibility of all employees including leaders. For your personal time, you are responsible for both. Being consistently good at this is hard. You can read Tim Urban’s perspective here. He says you can make it easier on yourself by setting challenging goals in fields that come more naturally to you and easily motivate you. You can also publicize some of these goals in your circles so that you now feel some invisible pressure to deliver. You can literally set a fire by quitting what you do today because panic is a big motivator.
But most of all, you succeed by having the mental discipline to stay in Quadrant 2. This means that first we must plan and set objectives and then for the bulk of the time focus on the moment and execute. We all know that if we actually are focused for the bulk of an 8-hour work day, we will achieve great things. But we don’t!
Are there tools that help you with “focusing”? Interestingly, there is one powerful tool which is over 2500 years old. The new age form of this is called Mindfulness. Buddhist tradition ascribes this to the Buddha and says that this is what helped him concentrate and focus on the problem he was analyzing (the nature of human suffering). Academics still debate whether Buddha’s core teaching was this mental method as a way to analyze complex problems or the canonical doctrine of The Four Noble Truths. We don’t know for sure because the Buddhist chronicles were written down only a few centuries after Buddha died. As an Indian I can feel proud that India was the origin for both physical training practices like yoga and mental training practices like mindfulness! The sad part is that both of these are considerably less popular in India compared to the West.
What is mindfulness? It means intentionally focusing on your present experiences without distractions. This is basically what we need to live in Quadrant 2! The good thing is just like you can build muscles by physical training, you can build your concentration skills by mental training. You can start with the traditional practice called anapanasati which literally means mindfulness of breathing and then escalates into more and more advanced steps to train your mind to focus.
Does it really work? There has been a lot of scientific research into mindfulness. Research has shown that it actually modifies the brain by shrinking primitive impulse centres like the amygdala and enhancing and better connecting the parts that control attention and concentration. It therefore makes us less of a slave to stress and even to pain. Knowledge industry leaders have already taken notice and Google has a Head of Mindfulness.
You can try this at home using a simple starter video like the one below:
I’ve not gone beyond 10 minutes and I always get distracted. But if you stick with it for at least 8 weeks, you will see results. Trainer-led sessions will obviously help to begin with. There are more advanced steps you can try as you become an expert.
Managing time effectively is critical to achieving stuff in life (if you are into such things). When we consider super-achievers like Einstein (when working as a patent clerk and publishing Nobel winning papers) or Elon Musk (disrupting 3 different industries by age 40) or that guy who became a VP at your office at 35; after accounting for genetics and pure luck what remains that probably explains their success is their relentless discipline in living in Quadrant 2.
P.S: Before I sign off, I need to get back to the title of my post! Is this a good use of your time? If you think not, I can still live with it because you will probably thank me later! Those of you who think otherwise, thank you for your time…