To me, time and money are resources I have that I can use to build a meaningful and happy life. I am very fortunate to be in the position where that is possible. Far too many people never get the luxury of thinking about this. They must instead trade as much of their time for money as possible, so that they can buy the things they need to survive. In that situation, it is obvious what to aim for: enough money to survive.
For those of us with more than enough money to survive, the question of what to aim for is a little more difficult. It seems that sometimes we focus too much on the intermediate steps—the things that give us the ability to get the things that really matter to us. In other words, I think we focus too much on saving time and accumulating money, and not enough on why we want that extra time and money.
Sometimes I tell people that the point of improving productivity isn’t to get more work done. That is an overstatement, but it gets their attention.
The point of focusing on my productivity is to make better use of time. Sometimes, that might mean getting more work done, but often it means getting the same amount of work done in less time, thereby freeing up more time for the other things that matter in my life.
In other words, I use productivity to “buy” me time to do all of the things that matter to me. Those things include professional and personal goals.
It is easy to get caught in the trap of focusing on being more productive just for the sake of being more productive. I’ve fallen into it from time to time. I’ll catch myself getting so obsessive about not wasting any time that I feel stressed out and worried, even though I am not behind on any actual tasks.
Now that I know I have this tendency, I watch for it. I track all of my work hours, and have done for years. But I only track all of my time (including non-work hours) occasionally, when I’m troubleshooting a time use problem or just think I need a time use “check up.” Author Laura Vanderkam recently tracked all of her time for an entire year, and she learned interesting things. I am tempted to try it, too, but only if I can remember to not compete with myself for optimal time use. Wasting time is necessary, sometimes, too.
I have to track the hours I charge to clients, but I could choose not to track the other work hours. I find it useful to see how I’m spending all of my work time, though. I watch for overwork as much as I watch for slacking off. I’ve been guilty of both of those things at different times, and neither is sustainable. If I overwork for too long, I start accumulating the risks I discussed in my last post about working long hours. If I slack off for too long, I run the risk of damaging my career, and eventually ending up with not enough money.
In general, I tend more towards overwork than slacking off, and over the years, I have learned some of my “danger zones”—things that tend to tip me towards unsustainable overwork. One of my biggest danger zones is the week or two right after a crunch time. I described my recent crunch time in my last newsletter. I am just finishing that crunch time now. As I mentioned in the newsletter, I find I need to consciously stop working long hours and unwind, or I can slip into a habit of working more hours than needed, which I cannot actually sustain, so eventually translates to inefficient time use. Essentially, I start unconsciously “stealing” time back, but doing it in a suboptimal way so that I end up feeling stressed and exhausted for no good reason, and still don’t feel like I have time for the non-work things that matter most to me.
Luckily, I’ve learned that I tend to do this, and now I guard against it. Last Friday afternoon, I looked at my to do list and my kanban board and judged that I was back on track. I’d done what I needed to get done that week, and didn’t really need to work much over the weekend. I had to post a couple of things that were mostly set up to go and sign up for an upcoming networking event. So I wrote an “only do this” work list for the weekend. I was allowed to do those things, but nothing more.
When my husband and I sat down to plan our weekend over beers after the kids were in bed that night, we planned in some family fun, but I also wrote “hammock time” on the weekend plan. I wouldn’t normally write unstructured relaxation time on the plan, but I find that specific reminder is useful when I’m winding down from a crunch time.
On Sunday evening, I spent 5-10 minutes thinking ahead to the week. I checked my project plans and calendar to see what milestones were coming up in the next month, and sketched out a plan for the week. I can lose sight of the medium term strategy when I’m in the short term weeds of a crunch time, which can lead to bad time use decisions and a perpetual cycle of crunch times. So again, I consciously stepped back from that, and made sure I made better decisions.
There’s nothing magic to this, but it is easy to forget to do it, particular if you’re caught up in aiming for the wrong things. The most important productivity tip I know is to be clear on what your goals are and how the way you use your time supports those goals. Then watch for your bad habits that tend to pull you out of alignment. Every once and awhile, you have to take a step back and check your aim.