I’m growing an awareness of how much I covet the morning hours of the day, the time immediately after either a) I’ve dropped the kids off at school, or b) I’ve successfully gotten them out the door for my partner to take them. That first hour of spaciousness in the day feels especially juicy, important, critical. I know it’s when I’m at my freshest, my energy tank at its fullest, that special time of day where I can crank out maximum productivity, creativity, or whatever is calling that day. It is a gift to gain clarity about my body and mind, how it works, its natural rhythm and tendencies. The first hour of space in the day is, usually, when my brain operates at maximum capacity. I’m beginning the practice of planning out my highest priority “thinking tasks” for this time each day, and I cherish the opportunity that I have to delight in this spaciousness.
One would think that with the freedom of time that comes with removing oneself from the workforce, there would be ample time to pursue several hobbies, tackle all those pesky around-the-house projects, even learn a new language, but as embarrassed as I am about admitting it… it doesn’t feel that way. I don’t feel free. I feel conflicted. Being on a quest of self rediscovery is not a simple, straightforward path. Over the last few months, I have been removing my old behaviors and thought patterns, and giving myself space, space enough to see what surfaces from within. The problem is not that I can’t think of what I want to do; the problem is I have an abundance of ideas. In theory, I have an extra six hours of “free time” without kids every day, but I’ve also essentially stopped buying restaurant food, which means more meal planning, more cooking, and more dishes, which all take time. Plus we have an international move to plan. And there is a decent-sized list of creative projects I’d like to tackle. There is not enough time to master all of these things overnight. Part of the challenge is there is no roadmap I am following; I am a voyager sailing the seas of my inner self with only my concentrated listening to guide me. When you have a job, your weekly structure is more or less dictated for you. While it can feel constricting to not be in absolute control of your time, it is also a challenge to navigate the nebulous abyss of free time. It’s easy to feel like I’m wasting time or that I’m not making the best use of a particular hour because I’m stumbling my way through learning how to use Plug-ins in Garageband, or staring at a blinking cursor in WordPress for ten minutes because I’m hitting a writer’s block. Self doubt creeps in. “Why are you even bothering to write now? Where is this going to get you anyway? Is this really the absolute best thing you could be doing right now to get closer to your vision? What even is your vision?” I’m getting the sense that it will be helpful if I create some sort of weekly structure to prioritize my actions and to align them with my values and vision. And probably figure out that whole vision thing…
As I attempt to learn how to be a creator, I find it particularly challenging to have little structure. No “right way” to go about it. How much structure is a creative person supposed to have? Do I make appointments with myself so that I stay on track with practicing all the things I want to practice? Or do I let it flow and just follow the energy of whatever excites me in that moment? Is there value in “pushing through” a writer’s block (or a songwriter’s block), or do you acknowledge you’ve hit a creative dead end for the time being, get up, and do something else? I think I’d like to have some conversations with my creative friends about this and read more about the creative process (as I go and add Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to my library queue).
In other news this week, I did create what some might call my first “song” with my new home studio setup. It’s barely a song, but it has sound, rhythm, and a tiny bit of shape, and you can listen to it on the internet, so I think that clears for my definition of song. You can listen to it here: https://soundcloud.com/kevin-carlow/carlows-first-midi-loop. It was a real treat playing it for my kids. As I loaded it up on our speaker in the family room on an early weekday morning, I watched with delight as my children and partner reacted with genuine, positive interest by shaking their hips and bobbing their heads. The kids wanted to hear it again in the car on the way to school. When the climax of the song hit, when all of the tracks in the early part of the song are layered together and converge (all three of them), my child, with a keen ear for instrumentation and harmony, exclaimed, “Wow Dad, you must’ve been playing some of those instruments with your feet!” How long can I get away with my kids believing I can play drums, bass, and keyboard at the same time before showing them how the sausage gets made?
If you’ve ever wished there were more than 24 hours in a day, this article is for you.
We can’t change how long one day is, but we are in control of how we use those 24 hours. By implementing small, manageable tweaks to our day, we can unlock hidden minutes and squeeze the most out of every day we have.
Well Mr. Buffet, I agree we cannot “buy time,” but if we focus on the daily improvements below, we can become more productive, creative, and achieve more each day, thereby giving us more time in a sense.
Activating your body will make your mind more productive. Go for a walk. Stretch. Do ten pushups. Roll out of bed and do a one-minute plank. Anything! Taking even one minute at the very beginning of your day to wake up your entire body will energize your mind and kick-start the day’s activity, thereby creating extra minutes you otherwise would have been snoozing, scrolling through your phone, or staring at the wall (until you finish cup of coffee #1).
2. Begin with your own agenda.
Don’t unlock your phone. Don’t touch your phone. Don’t even look at your phone. Start by focusing on the question, “What are the things I want to get done today?” Make a quick mental list or write them down. Then ask yourself, “Which of these three things can I do right now?” Do those three things! Feeling like you won’t have time to get three done? Do two, or even just one.
Completing at least one self-directed task at the beginning of the day has many benefits. You allow yourself to be proactive, doing what you want to do, not reacting to someone else’s email, article, or social post. It also gives you momentum; you’ve gotten one thing done, it feels great, so maybe you do one more. It takes an immense amount of energy to get a stopped train moving, but once it’s rolling down the track at a good clip, just try and stop it!
3. Make a list. Then, do the list.
It’s not enough to just write things down though. Develop a system for prioritizing your list. Then do the thing at the very top of the list. Barbara Corcoran, a businesswoman best known for her personality as a “Shark” on ABC’s Shark Tank, has a great method for lists:
Step 1 – Write down everything you want to get done. Big, small, everything.
Step 2 – Next to each item, give it a grade: A, B, or C.
A’s are the things that will move your business forward, things that must get done, and they absolutely must get done today.
B’s are things that will help you be more productive, help your business get ahead, but they aren’t the most pressing. And that leaves the C’s.
C’s are the things that are longer term projects, or if you stop and think about them, they would be nice to do, but won’t directly move your business forward or have meaningful impact.
Step 3 – Do the A’s. Ignore everything else until the A’s are done.
Pro Tip – If you have too many A’s and aren’t sure which one to start with, do the exercise again looking at just the A’s, then rank those as A-B-C to see which of your top priorities are at the tippy-top.
Pick the time that fits best into your day. But do it. Taking 20, 10, even 5 minutes to shut everything down, close your eyes, get into your breath, and achieve a soft focus of the mind will do wonders for your productivity. You might think, “That will be five minutes I’ll be wasting not being productive.” True, in a sense, but which of these is really more productive? An hour of distracted, scattered work, or 55 minutes of razor-focused deep work?
Try the Headspace app for a beginner’s (or skeptic’s) guide. Download it and try it right now. The Basic lessons are free. You can do as short as a 3-minute session with it. One of the best metaphors about meditation made in the Headspace app is equating the mind to the sky. Imagine stepping outside on a bright, sunny, cloudless day. Imagine taking a deep breath as you step outside. Feels good right? Like, I-can-conquer-the-world good. That clear blue sky is a healthy mind, free of distraction, stress, and worry. That’s how our minds are when we first wake up in the morning. As the day progresses, we check our email (stress), we get pinged with notifications (distraction), and we just mucked up that presentation we didn’t prepare well for and are now wondering what the consequences will be (worry). These are the clouds. Dark, rain-filled, ominous clouds. These clouds make it hard for our mind to do the things it really wants to do. Meditation allows the mind to discard the clouds and get back to the clear blue sky.
Want a guaranteed 100% irrefutable way to get more time back in your day? See that thing you’re about to do? Don’t do it!
Can the thing you’re doing right now be delegated? Can you find the courage to let go and let someone else take over? Is there a way to break up your project to portion out pieces of it to your others so you can focus on the bits you will be best at or enjoy the most? Use the people and resources around you. If you play to others’ strengths and frame it up in a positive way (“I could really use your help with this. You’re such a natural when it comes to _____.”), you may be surprised just how easy and rewarding it can be to get others involved.
Take note over the next week of things you do every day or several days per week. Is there a way to automate this action? Is there a piece of software, an app, or a paid service that would allow this activity to happen automatically? If so, it’s probably worth investing the resources (time, money) to make that happen. Maybe it’s something as simple as setting up an Outlook Rule. If you are constantly dragging emails into folders in Outlook, all the seconds of those actions adds up> Let’s say it takes 3 seconds to pick an email, find the folder it needs to go into, and drag it. You do this with 30 emails/day, that’s 90 seconds/day. 90 seconds/day x 5 days/week = 450 seconds/week. 450 seconds/week x 52 weeks = 22,500 seconds or 375 minutes or 6 hours and 15 minutes per year wasted dragging emails to folders. Imagine you work there for 10 years. Now you’ve wasted 62.5 hours or over 2 and a half days of your life dragging emails to folders. Would it be worth investing 15 minutes right now to set up Outlook Rules to give you 2.5 extra days in your life? What other daily or weekly actions are you taking that could be automated?
7. Plan your day 15 minutes at a time.
Plan out your entire day in 15-minute increments. You don’t have to do something different every 15 minutes, just look at your entire day and “schedule” what you are going to do in every 15-minute block. Carve out large blocks for deep work.
The next step of this experiment is refinement. Take note of any moments when you deviate from your schedule. Why did you deviate? Was the deviation a necessity or a distraction? If it was a distraction, do better next time to tune them out and say “no.” If it was a necessity, make the adjustment in the calendar for tomorrow or next week to make room for that thing.
After a period of refining your calendar this way, you will have designed a schedule with minimal wasted time that you can repeat every week.
8. Only schedule time in your calendar if, at the end of that time, you will have produced or created something.
If you say, “I’m going to make sales calls with these next 30 minutes,” do that. Shut off your email, talk to no one else, and dial. But, that activity is just half the battle. Your time will much better spent if you go into that 30 minutes with an intention or a production goal, such as, “I’m going to schedule two appointments in these 30 minutes” or “I’m going to call the 10 pending deals I have with the goal of getting one of them closed on the phone, win or lose.”
You may be thinking, “I have corporate meetings I have to attend, I don’t get to choose how I spend every minute of my day.” Fair, but you can still enter that meeting with an intention to produce or create something, or encourage your team to think of the time spent together that way. What are the desired outcomes of your meeting? Define them and make sure you walk away with those outcomes accomplished (or know why you didn’t). If you’re having a hard time coming up with desired outcomes of the meeting, you don’t need to meet.
Adopting a production mindset or a creativity mindset with each 15-minute chunk of your day gives your mind a framework to be as productive as possible with each passing minute.
9. Change your habits with your phone.
Your phone is likely your biggest minute-stealer of your day. Any time you react to your phone, you’re being taken away from the moment, from whatever you were just doing. It seem innocent. It may seem urgent; “My friend and I are planning a dinner tonight and she just texted me asking if 7pm will work, so I’m being a better friend by texting her back right away so she can better plan her evening.” Truth is, if she’s a real friend, she won’t mind hearing back from you in 5, 10, 15 minutes… however long it takes you to finish what you were just working on. Even a glance at your freshly lit-up screen will slow down your ability to complete the task at-hand. Notifications are the biggest culprit. Notifications have been widely studied and repeatedly found to be detrimental to accomplishing tasks, especially ones that are cognitively demanding. This study, The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Phone Notification, from Florida State University found that “cellular notifications, even when one does not view or respond to messages or answer calls, can significantly damage performance on an attention-demanding task.” The study explains how, even though notifications are short, especially when not responded to, they prompt “task-irrelevant thoughts” or “mind wandering,” which slows down performance and causes more errors. OK, so how do you prevent your phone from stealing your minutes?
Embrace Digital Minimalism.
Use the Do Not Disturb or Airplane Mode feature. About to sit down and get some real work done? Take 5 seconds to switch into Do Not Disturb settings on your phone, which will mute ALL notifications, calls, texts, and anything that could distract you. Bonus challenge: you’ll probably be feeling great having finished your task quickly without any distractions, so see how long you can keep your phone in that mode once you’ve successfully finished your task.
Turn off Notifications on your phone, at least on your Lock Screen.
Move any apps that receive Notifications off your Home Screen. Ever unlock your phone with a specific purpose in mind, but as soon as you get to your Home Screen you’re drawn to open an app with 5 Notifications and then completely forget why you picked up your phone in the first place? Stop that. By moving any notification-driven apps off the Home Screen, you will be more intentional with your minutes staring at your pocket-sized screen.
We can’t change how long it takes Earth to rotate on its axis, but we do have control over our own time and how we spend it.
Ideas are the easy part, execution is the challenge. Try implementing just one of these productivity hacks into your life each day for a week. Let me know how it goes for you.
What other ways do you unlock more time in your day? I’ve love to hear from in the comments!
Have you ever sat around a dinner table and had a conversation that goes something like this?
“Hey, what’s that actress’ name? That really famous one?”
“Aren’t all actresses famous?”
“Ugh, OK, smartypants. She was in that movie with Ben Stiller.”
“What movie, Zoolander?”
“Starsky & Hutch?”
“The Royal Tenenbaums?”
“Argh, no! The one with Robert de Niro.”
“Oh, uhhh… Meet the Fockers?”
“Yeah, what is the name of that actress that plays the mom?”
“I’m not sure how I know this, but Blythe Danner?”
“No, no… the famous one that plays what’s-his-name, from Rainman, she plays his wife?”
“Tom Cruise wasn’t in Meet The Fockers.”
“Not Tom Cruise, the Rainman guy!”
“Oh right, that guy. From Outbreak. Ummm… errr… Dustin Hoffman?”
“Yeah, Dustin Hoffman! His wife. What’s her name?”
“I think her name was Rozalin Focker.”
“Ugh, no, are you kidding me? The actress’ name.”
“BARBRA STREISAND, that’s it. Hey, how old do you think Barbra Streisand is?”
“How should I know? Let’s Google it.”
“Why didn’t we just Google it in the first place?”
As of April 1, 2015, 64% of all adults in the United States own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center, and that includes all adults below the poverty line. With nearly everyone walking around with the world’s information in his or her pocket, our society is evolving (or should I say “devolving?”) into a need-it-now, multi-tasking, instant-gratification-based culture.
This new culture we’ve created can make for pretty sad dinner outings, as depicted above. It’s also dangerous.
Texting While Walking is Hazardous to Your Health
We all know texting while driving is bad. It’s against the law. But do you consider texting while walking a problem? Our increasing “need” to multi-task, to cram more and more activity into each day only to be accomplished by partially focusing on multiple activities at a time, is causing some problems.
National Geographic published a fun, interesting study on texting while walking in late 2014. They positioned “Joe,” a man in a gorilla costume, on a busy sidewalk to see how many people noticed him. The results – you have to watch to see!
Sure, a man in a gorilla costume is harmless. How is it even relevant to everyday life? What if Joe had been a thief? Or an ax murderer? Would you want to walk passed someone with a knife pointed at you just because you were letting one of The Best Vines of 2015 loop for the 14th time in a row?
If you think that was bad (and if you are a sucker for funny blooper compilations like I am), watch this.
Multi-tasking is Slowing You Down and Might Just Get You Banged Up
Now the business professional is reading this and saying to his- or herself, “That’s great and all, but I have S@#% to do!” If so, you should read this recent study published by Business Insider, because it turns out you’re actually making yourself less productive than you think you are. Step size shrinks, walking pace slows… our brains are not wired to manage multiple tasks at the same time. If you really want to do yourself, and those around you, a productive favor – focus on one thing at a time. You’ll get to your destination faster, and when you do sit down to respond to an email or check your calendar, you can do it faster and with less risk.
Still don’t believe this is an actual problem? This epidemic is influencing big business, too. Consider Major League Baseball. The league has been sued countless times on all types of counts over the years: collective bargaining, blackouts, gender discrimination. Recently, though, MLB and its many stadiums across North America have recently seen an uptick in lawsuits regarding stadium safety. One particular lawsuit just filed last month is an effort to extend the netting from behind home plate to stretch all the way down the first and third base lines, protecting fans from foul balls and splintered bats.
In ESPN’s coverage of the story, one of the main complaints in the suit is the danger fans are put in by distractions caused by mascots, video boards, and wireless internet access. Hold it right there, Gail Payne. I’m not even a big fan of baseball, but you just got me fired up.
Do I acknowledge that since Major League Baseball first began in 1869, the game has changed and rules should be updated accordingly? Yes. Do I believe that bats made of maple wood are more prone to shatter than those of ash, and this is contributing to more splintered bats? Maybe. (I’m not an arborist, how should I know?) Do I agree that Major League Baseball is at fault for people watching T.C. Bear romp around Target Field instead of paying attention to the game?
OK, maybe he is a little bit distracting.
But isn’t it just the slightest bit curious, just the teeniest smidgen coincidental, this claim of baseball fans being too distracted at games comes at a time of all-time high smartphone ownership? I have no empirical evidence to back up this claim, but of the “1,750 preventable injuries per year caused by foul balls and broken bats,” I’d be willing to bet that in 2014, at least half of those were smartphone related injuries.
WAKE UP PEOPLE! You paid good money to go to that game. You are probably there with people you love, enjoy, or at the very least, can moderately tolerate. WHY do you need to be scrolling through your News Feed right now? Is creating your brand new hashtag #baseballfriends4everwithmybestie and broadcasting it your social network really that important?
Part of the appeal of baseball, part of why it holds the esteemed nickname of “America’s pastime,” is the experience a fan gets at the stadium. The perfectly manicured grass, the puff of dust that plumes out of the pitcher’s rosin bag – being in the stadium makes you feel closer to the game. A part of the game, even. Dozens of children eagerly wait in their seats, baseball gloves on, waiting, hoping at their chance for one, just one foul ball to veer their way. Putting up a giant net across the entire stadium would be a major eye sore and ruin this part of the experience for the younger generation; which, by the way, happens to be the most important generation for MLB to entice for long term success.
If we all just slowed down a bit, took our noses out of the glass screens we carry around, and instead looked up at those around us and engaged with each other – not only would the world be a better place, but we’d all have much better chances of avoiding street lamps, unintentional fountain swims, and baseballs in the face.