time management

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Social media and the deliberate life: is divorce in the cards?

Social media and the deliberate life: is divorce in the cards?

There are two ways to live your life: you can drive it, or be driven. Today, I’m not talking about driving your life in a grand, spiritual sense, but in a micro-sense.

You can never replace time. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can never get it back. You have a limited supply (though with no fuel gauge, you don’t know how much you have left. And in every waking second, you get to choose your actions in that moment.

Friday was a passion day! Someone was wrong on the internet, and it was my Higher Purpose to make sure they knew it. Six hundred words into commenting on their status update, it hit me: I waste an unbelievable amount of time on Facebook. I log in 3-5 times a day, sometimes for as much as 20 minutes at time. Let’s be very optimistic and assume that it’s only 5 times a day, 6 minutes each time. That’s 30 minutes a day, or using the 3/30 rule, three weeks a year. On Facebook. And that’s being very optimistic.

Technology is making us reactive, rather than deliberative

Now make no mistake: Facebook is engineered quite deliberately to be addictive. If someone were to engineer a physical substance to be that addictive, we would outlaw the substance and throw them in jail. As it is, Facebook being a Silicon Valley success story, we celebrate it instead. But Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, iPhones, notifications—these have trained us to react rather than deliberate. And then, rather than living our own lives, we just become random Dopamine-driven reaction machines.

Where is life getting sacrificed

Many years ago, I wrote a lot! My article ideas file has about 300 ideas waiting to be turned into articles. It hasn’t been touched since Facebook came along. My free writing time has vanished into status updates, cat picture comments, and pointless political arguments that aren’t going to convince anyone of anything.

The toxic 2016 election discussions finally got to me this evening. My friend Tim has changed my Facebook password for me, and I’m going without until after the election is over. But I’m not abandoning writing. The time that would have gone into the Book of Face is now going to go into writing articles longer than 140 characters.

I’m very curious to experience the result. It may well be that my ideas begin to become articles. Perhaps I’ll try rock climbing. Or pursuing inventing. Or take a class. Or binge-watch Black Mirror. Whatever the decision, it will be deliberate, not reactive.

It’s your turn

  1. Choose what to stop. Where are you spending your time out of habit or addiction, yet getting little joy from it? Does your time on social media give you enough joy to warrant the time? Are there hobbies that you’ve outgrown? Friends who have diverged? TV shows that just fill time?

    Eliminate one. Just for a few weeks.

  2. Start something better. Replace it with something that brings you joy, that moves your life forward. Maybe something old that would bring you joy to revisit. Or something new you’ve wanted to do but never gotten around to.

You do your experiment. I’ll do mine. And in a couple of weeks, let’s compare notes. We only have a limited amount of time on this planet, and it’s up to us to use it in ways that make our life somewhere we want to be.

Good luck!

Why I Like Paper

A reader wrote in:

I read your suggestion about the 3×5 pad and it sucks! That’s because I hate paper and pen note-taking. I want something that I can carry with me anywhere on my handheld and which will also prompt me, just like a personal assistant, not something which will load me with the extra work of transcribing to a master list! As if I am not burdened enough already! Look, I need something to help me gain lost time each day. Something to boost my productivity and tidily organise my intended activities in a manner that enables me to take action on them!

My reply:

The reason I like paper is that the transcribing *forces me* to confront whether or not a particular task is important enough to copy by hand. If it isn’t, that’s a sign that it probably isn’t important enough to keep on my list. The key to freeing up time, ultimately, is saying “No” to commitments and then vigorously protecting the time you’ve freed up.

If time is getting lost, you need to stop doing the things that you define as “losing” it. Smartphones are often big time losers. Yes, the phone is a fun toy, and yes it can do cool stuff, but measured *in terms of my getting my important work done* (as opposed to my unimportant, imagined work), it’s probably doesn’t make me that much more productive.

The problem is that it speeds up some things, but it slows down others. For example, I type about 1/3 the speed on my smartphone as I do on my desktop. I may find it convenient to respond to email on my smartphone, but it’s actually making me *less* productive. And even if I could answer email at the same rate, the moment I click on a link and spend 5 minutes web browsing or playing a game, any email productivity gains get lost as I waste time goofing off.

If you’re brave enough, try keeping a log for a couple of days. Note what you get done on your smartphone and what you get done at your desk, and how much time each takes. You may find your smartphone boosts your productivity. Or you may find it doesn’t. For looking up phone numbers and addresses, my smartphone is awesome. But does it really save time? I used to clip someone’s business card into my rolodex and I’d memorize it after 2-3 calls. Now I have to retype or scan-plus-double-check each card to get it into my address book (or pay someone to do it, which means earning the money to pay them). And then I *always* have to look them up, because I no longer memorize.

Assuming I make 5-6 calls a day, am I really more productive with an electronic address book when you take all that into account? I suspect yes, but I probably save a few minutes a month, *not* hours.

In short, I like paper because it forces me to think. I like technology because it’s fun and sometimes convenient. But I never assume that paper is automatically bad, nor do I assume technology is good. Like any tool, test it out and be careful that adopting a new, faster tool in one area doesn’t slow you down in another.

Use An Editor!

If you want to produce extremely high-quality work, it may be wise to find someone to help. It’s hard to be objective about our own work. Almost by definition, we believe if we did it, it must be good. But yet, sometimes an objective eye can help us take our good work to the realm of greatness. The objective eyes I’m talking about belong to editors.

Editors ROCK! When I’m writing a Get-it-Done Guy episode, my natural sense of humor comes out. My natural sense of humor was developed doing comedy improvisation with college audiences. “Decorum” is not high on the list of words you would use to describe my first draft material.

Fortunately, there’s a very dedicated editor at Macmillan publishing who reads my drafts. She sends them back with paragraphs circled in red pen. In the margin, she writes notes like, “If you say that, the FBI will open a file on you, start wire-tapping your phones, and put you under 24-hour surveillance. Again.” While most people would enjoy free protection services, I find it cramps my style when I go out clubbing. So I rewrite the paragraphs she highlights, this time using Goldilocks and the Three Bears as the central metaphor of my piece. My editors approve, and another Get-it-Done Guy episode is born.

Editors come in many varieties. Some editors can make sure your humor is appropriate. They can make sure your text flows, that you don’t repeat yourself, and that your points build on one another. Copy-editors handle editing the details. They double-check your spelling, your grammar, and your punctuation. I was a copyeditor for the school newspaper when I was a student at Harvard Business School; I need to give my marketing staff a special therapy budget, so they can deal with me.

If you have to write reports, pamphlets, or anything where quality matters, get yourself an editor. It doesn’t have to be a professional, a colleague who writes well may be all that’s required. If you’re worried about letting your coworkers see your work before it’s polished, find a friend who has the write skill set, but works at another company. You can be an outside helper for each other, without worrying about work-in-progress-quality work getting out to the people in your company.

If you’ve never worked with an editor, give it a shot. You’ll discover that having an extra pair of eyes double-check your work can often produce something better than either of you could have written on your own.

Know the Lifetime Value of Your Customers

When that lone customer arrives at your restaurant on a busy night, it’s tempting to make him or her wait, in favor of the party of 12 that’s sure to rack up a huge bill. But it just might not be wise.

When you’re deciding how to structure your business, who to give service to, and when to go the extra mile for a customer, don’t just consider the transaction you’re in the middle of dealing with. Consider the total lifetime of interaction with your customer. The “lifetime value” of a customer is how much you expect that customer to spend over the course of their association with you. That lifetime value is what you want to take into account when deciding how far out of your way to go. I’ve recently had a few run-ins with companies that have taken a short view, much to their detriment.

I eat lunch 5 times a week at the same deli. They discontinued my favorite kind of hot pepper, leaving no condiments that I enjoyed. I asked them to please bring them back, and they refused. I offered to buy my own jar for them to use. They refused. And I stopped eating there. Five days a week, times 50 weeks a year, times $7 per lunch is $1,750 of income a year they were happy to forgo to avoid dealing with the hassle of keeping a jar of peppers around. My new deli is part of a franchise. They are only supposed to serve their approved condiments. I spoke to the owner and he happily kept a special jar of peppers just for me. In the 3 years I’ve been eating there, they’ve made $5,000 and my previous deli has gone out of business.

My friend passes through Reno every year on the way back from the Burning Man festival. He stayed in Harrah’s because they gave him a free upgrade if they had rooms available. He then spent the money he saved in the Harrah’s restaurant and spent even more in the casino. They stopped giving free upgrades, and he changed hotels. It would cost them nothing to give him the upgrade, and instead, they’ve lost year-after-year of restaurant and casino business. Let’s not even consider how much Harrah’s would make on all the referral business my friend would bring. Smooth move, Harrah’s.

To return to the original example, while it may make sense on any given night to forgo seating one person in favor of the party of 12, if that one person dines at your restaurant three times a week, in the course of a year, they’ll outspend the entire party of 12. As unintuitive as it may seem, treating the solo customer well may be a better business decision than handling the occasional bachelorette party. And believe me—the cleanup’s a lot easier, too.

When you make decisions about your customers, do you consider their requests as separate events, or do you consider the lifetime value of each customer before deciding how much to commit to their happiness?

How do you deal with fundamental overload?

When you’ve made real commitments that add up to 100%+ of the time/mental energy you have available, how do you deal with it? I’m in that situation at the moment and find myself debating whether to concentrate on one thing, get it done (while other things fall by the wayside and/or miss deadlines, causing a backlog to pile up), or continue making small progress on many fronts, but not finishing anything.

Or perhaps there are other ways? What are your thoughts?

Give Yourself Some Slack Time

One of the most important things that I’ve learned is that you can only be up to 100% efficient –  you can’t get 25 hours of work done in a day.  How do you know when you’re at the point of diminishing returns?

We all want to believe we can add one more thing to our plate without it being a problem. But there’s only so much time in a day, and that tiny one-more-thing can be what tips the balance. Have you seen the last scene in the Meaning of Life by Monty Python? A huge man is eating a gigantic meal. At the end, he’s offered a tiny, wafer-thin mint. He eats it and explodes.

The two indicators I look at are my stress level and my slack space. If I have so much on my plate that I’m constantly thinking about the next thing and always rushing to get stuff done, that’s an indicator that my time is pretty much full. I’m at that point a lot at the moment, actually.

You can also consider whether you have enough slack time in your schedule. You need slack to handle unexpected work and personal things that crop up. If a single slipped schedule or car breakdown throws your whole life into chaos, you probably have too much on your plate and need to drop something.

Becoming more productive at what you currently do can, of course, free up some time. But even that isn’t a panacea. It takes time and effort to find alternate ways of doing your work, and then more time and effort to implement those. At some point, it takes more time and effort to improve your performance than the time and effort you actually save from improving. When you’ve reached that point, you’re doing as well as you can. If you’re still overloaded, it’s time to remove things from your plate so you once again have room to breathe, relax, and cope.

What are some rules and beliefs of organizational life?

Hi! For my book, I would like to gather a set of beliefs that govern how people operate in organizations. I’m especially looking for beliefs that really drive people’s behavior, decision-making, etc. Contradictions and alternate viewpoints welcome and encouraged. For example:

  • Never help out a colleague too much, because they’re just competition for the top spot.
  • Always help your colleagues, because when we work together, we accomplish more than when we work alone.
  • Our competitors will never be able to produce a product as good as ours.
  • Management is stupid and doesn’t know what they’re doing.

I will be using these in my book. By submitting them here, you give me permission to do so. I would like to list everyone who contributes in the acknowledgements section. If you wish to be acknowledged, just sign your comment with your desired name (first name, full name, etc.).


How do you set your agenda for the day?

As you know from listening to my podcast, I keep my TO DO list on paper. It keeps me honest about keeping it a reasonable length, and ruthless pruning items that I’m never going to do.

But even so, my list has far more items on it than I can do in any given day. So each day, I only accomplish part of what’s on the list. Usually, my intention is set by looking over the list and choosing 3-5 “must do” things. My actual accomplishments, however, end up being a complicated mix of those “must do” things (sometimes none of them, sigh) and dealing with stuff that pops up during the day.

For example, the other day, I was planning on recording a CD product in a marathon 8-hour recording session. This was my first such session and I simply didn’t know that my voice and energy levels are only good for around 2-3 hours. So now, the recording is spilling into additional days, displacing other stuff I’d planned to do.

How do you decide what to do each day? Does your method work for you?

Operating at Your Peak; Sleep and Good Food are Underrated

Sleep and good food are underrated

One of my clients was feeling under the weather last week. Motivation was down, stress was up. Instead of an attitude of optimism and cheerfulness, the world was melancholy gloom. Overall, a bad scene, and not one to set a good tone within the business–a CEO’s mood can infect the entire company. The problem? He wasn’t getting enough sleep, was working through his normal exercise time, and was making up the energy deficit with coffee during the day.

This is an all-too-common spiral. Too much work means too little sleep. Too little sleep means a drag on energy, less productivity, less creativity, and a sudden fondness for Starbucks. All that caffeine-induced energy makes it easy to work on into the night… and the whole thing starts over.

Unfortunately, chemically induced energy isn’t enough. Our bodies and our minds need time to recharge. Sleep rests your body, and it also gives your mind time to explore and file everything that’s happened during the day. The eighth hour of REM sleep, in fact, is where much of the most intense dreaming and creativity happens. Chemicals can keep your body awake, but your mind won’t produce your best work unless you’ve had time to recharge.

It’s all too easy to let the occasional late night slide into a habit of not taking care of yourself. Breaking the downward spiral can be mentally difficult, but it’s quite simple in practice: leave the office by 6:30 pm every night, even if stuff doesn’t get done (the world won’t end). Get a full night’s sleep. Throw away your coffee maker. And start the day with a glass of water or juice. By the next week, you’ll start feeling a lot better.

One reader asks:

I totally agree with it in theory, but I don’t see it being feasible for my startup any time in the near future. I was just wondering if you had insight into how other companies follow this?

I actually do believe companies would survive. The "savings" from pushing people hard are usually short-term. You may need all-nighters in an emergency, but over time, too little sleep impairs thinking ability. In a knowledge-intensive business, poor thinking can be deadly.

Though startups often get away with a year or two of very intense work, you’re risking burnout if it goes much longer. And burnout’s unpredictable and hard to manage. You can easily ask a healthy workforce for occasional bursts of intense work. But when someone flips into burnout, they literally can’t get started again. They stop caring, and often check out completely. At best, burnout is unmanageable, and it worst, it can be a complete disaster.

A young workforce can take longer to burn out, but it still happens. Twenty-year olds can be hard on their bodies without feeling the effects as severely as we older folks. Several of my MBA classmates have been going full-tilt for a decade, and at least one had his first heart attack from stress and overwork (so said his doctor). These are folks in their mid-30s. That’s pretty young, career-wise.

One way to promote health is lowering the workload. It means saying "No" to work that would hurting people’s health. It means building systems to save work, separating out the "must do" from the "we’d really like to do," and setting realistic client expectations if you’re a service business.

But even if you don’t lower the workload, sacrificing quality of life for short-term progress may be a fantasy. The basic math suggests that damaged immune systems still don’t get the desired results. If someone loses three days to sickness that could have been avoided, that is equivalent to them having worked one hour less per day for an entire month (assuming ten-hour day, five-day workweeks)! It may be better to cut the extra hour off in the first place, and keep people in good health.

Scenario 1 Scenario 2
10 hour days 8.8 hour days
3 days sick no days off
risk of spreading sickness n/a
low quality of life high quality of life

The scenarios are equally productive, but scenario 2 is probably a lot more fun for the individual and the company.

Most startups are run as pressure cookers. I suspect it’s a misguided romantic notion that confuses movement with progress. A company I worked with closely took pride in their overwork, though any experienced project manager could instantly see the overwork came from poor scheduling, poor resource allocation, and a lack of attention to infrastructure that would have sped up later projects. The haste to get early contracts out the door sacrificed the opportunity to build systems for later productivity and later quality of life.

Because people think startups require sacrifice, they ask themselves, "How can we keep running the company the way we currently do, but avoid burnout?" The answer: you can’t. At best, you start giving out sabbaticals, which in one fell swoop lose the gains of several years’ worth of overtime. That’s the wrong question, and the wrong question will always lead to the wrong answer. The question to be asking is, "How can we run the company in a healthful way?" The answer will depend on your company, your people, and your culture.

It’s possible. My formerly caffeine-addicted CEO runs two companies staffed by people in their late-30s to fifties, and they don’t need 100 hour weeks. But it takes care, planning, and constant attention to workload, infrastructure, and the like.

So in short, I’m sure that there are limited times–especially in startups–when deadlines and circumstances demand Herculean effort. But part of building a sustainable business is learning how to channel part of that effort into systems and structures that reduce the need for such effort in the future. And even in startups, the gains from super-effort crunches are only gains in the short term. Most of them are more than made up for by decreased productivity, decreased creativity [which necessitates later rework], and time lost to sickness and required vacation.

This month, take steps to restore your life to an upward spiral:

  • Commit to getting enough sleep every night for the next two weeks. Find out how that changes your outlook.
  • Each day, substitute a glass of water or juice when you would normally drink coffee or soda. Learn to distinguish between caffeine energy and energy from health.
  • Help your long-term balance by scheduling four weeks of vacation next year. Do it now. Yes, I know that "there’s no convenient time" or "emergencies happen." There’s never a convenient time, and there will always be emergencies. Schedule your vacations and stick to them, realizing that the world around you will do its best to keep you from taking them.