Contrarian Time Management Recommendations

What is Time Management? Generally people looking for help with time management are looking for two different things:

  • How can I get more done in the time that I have?
  • How can I feel less stressed out about a lack of time?

In the following sections I will give advice on both. Advice on time management is tricky; each person has a different background and different strengths and weaknesses. But, I think most of these recommendations should generalize.

Have weekly commitments involving other people

This is the main way that I get projects done. People sometimes ask me how I'm so productive and this is probably 80% of the answer: I have regular commitments to specific people. Most of these commitments involve some amount of work to be done in advance. I am told that some people don't feel this level of compulsion to never disappoint people, so this might not work for you, but it's like magic for me.

Also, if you commit three hours per week to another person (or people, in the case of, for example, a mastermind group or side hustle business) then you will accrue about 160 hours of work on your shared project over the course of a year. That's four work-weeks, or about a month worth of work. You can put together an extra month worth of dedicated work on a project every year out of the temporal equivalent of scrounging loose change from between your couch cushions!

I wouldn't recommend doing more than three of these weekly commitments at once, at least until you've built a system for yourself. Currently I have about five weekly commitments that range between 1-3 hours of time investment per week, but I've been gradually adding these one at a time over the course of ten years. To start with, target the time slot 8:30PM-10:30PM.

Examples of possible weekly commitments you could adopt:

  • An exercise class - Crossfit, martial arts, dance, etc.
  • Any other sort of recurrent class - painting, languages, music, cooking, acting.
  • A book club (though this might work better as a monthly obligation)
  • A podcast. If there's a topic you can't shut up about, then just do it in front of a microphone!
  • A weekly scheduled phone call with a friend. Keeping in touch with old friends suddenly becomes easy with this one weird trick.

Be smart and driven

Can you control being smart? Can you control being driven? A little bit, yeah. While you can't control your IQ, you can control your decisions. I know a lot of really high IQ people who make dumb decisions, or simply let inertia carry them to inevitable outcomes rather than making any decisions at all. You also can control your energy levels by eating healthy, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, getting a little bit of light cardio in as often as possible, and trying to move around a lot. Years ago I set out to increase my personal energy level and I unambiguously succeeded at this.

Regardless of your starting point, you can make yourself smarter, and more driven, and as a consequence you'll take better advantage of the time you have at your disposal.

Stop doing things you don't want to do

Don't finish TV shows you're not enjoying. Don't go to see films you don't expect to enjoy. Abandon video games that don’t make you feel good about your use of time when you’re done. Don't agree to hang out with people who make you feel bad. Weasel your way out of things you don’t want to do. If you hate working out, then stop "working out" and start doing some other thing that looks and feels totally different to remain fit. Stop practicing piano. Stop meditating. Stop doing things you hate!

(On the other hand, if you love doing those things, keep doing them! Your decision procedure should be that each opportunity either earns a deeply felt “hell yeah!” or a “no.”)

You will be amazed at how much time you suddenly have at your disposal when you stop doing things you don't want to do.

Caveat: if you are lonely/bored and this is a serious problem in your life, then say yes to absolutely everything, until boredom stops being a problem, then revert back to default-no.

Stop thinking that productivity requires you to be miserable

Another way of saying this is that pain is not the unit of effort. It goes beyond just not being so hard on yourself – you shouldn't be adversarially hectoring yourself at all, zero, never. Beating yourself up doesn't actually work. It's not motivating. It's a bad strategy, a losing strategy. If you find yourself verbally berating yourself for not getting things done the way you would like to, then you need to patiently craft better goals that your Elephant-Rider agree on and actually want to get done, and then, when you've done it right, just watch yourself go.

You will probably always feel like you're not getting enough done, and have 15 projects that you'll never finish. I certainly do. That's okay. I think everybody probably feels like that, even people who make me look like a slacker. It is not good to constantly feel like you are standing behind yourself with a whip, driving yourself to do things that you really don't want to do. It is, in fact, bad!

If you're miserable, that's a problem! That's not a necessary part of being a productive and organized person. The most successful and productive people are rarely miserable – in fact, quite the opposite.

Sleep More to Get More Done

Stop fighting biology, particularly the biology of sleep. Surrender now and surrender permanently. The more successful version of you is getting more sleep, not less. And if you are not a morning person then just accept that. The morning is not your battlefield. You will be awake for ~16 hours a day regardless. Your life will not be solved if you more efficiently use that first hour.

In fact, surrendering on Hour 1 of wakefulness might make it easier to make the best use of Hours 10-16 of wakefulness. Let go of your vision of what "productivity" and "well-managed schedule" looks like, try to enjoy your life, and marvel at how you "paradoxically" get more stuff done. Think more about how you're going to use your 112 weekly hours of wakefulness and focus less on the places where your body is actively fighting you.

Time Management is Not About Time Sitting in a Chair

It seems to be an implicit tenet of all productivity literature that productivity is a function of how much time you spend sitting in a chair with your word processor or code editor open. The pinnacle of productivity under this assumption is this video where a dude records himself working a 120 hour work-week. I think this mentality and attitude is apocalyptically bad for you in the long run. If you internalize it to any degree, and really come to believe that Time In Chair is the metric around which you need to organize your life, then you will come to mildly resent having to be mentally and physically present for events such as:

  • Hanging out with your bros
  • Reading a book to your toddler
  • Talking on the phone with your mom
  • Sitting and having coffee quietly while you ponder imponderables

Let it go far enough and you might as well be dead.

So, no. The goal of increasing productivity should not be confused with the goal of increasing the number of hours you spend manipulating symbols on a screen. On the contrary, I suggest that your goal should be to spend as little time doing that sort of grind as possible. Not to say that sometimes you don't need to just buckle down and work hard. But the grind should be in service to something important and worthwhile.

You don't need to "focus" - do lots of things at once!

People keep telling you to focus. Deep work. Pomodoro. "Humans can't multitask." This is ridiculous. People who think and behave this way accomplish very little. Think about the extremely effective people and accomplished people you know. High-level professors, entrepreneurs, people with very active and stimulating social lives. These people are always ultra-busy, scattered and distracted. They are fielding text messages while having a conversation with you while solving a math problem in their head while ordering coffee. Mental activity is a flywheel. The more you do, the more you can do, as long as you're having fun.

I became way more productive after I had kids. Many successful people report this to be the case. It is simple math. If you have to do more things, then you get more things done. If you haven't been forced to push yourself, you never know how far you can go.

I am writing this in between filling a thousand other things, over the course of several days. If I did not write this post in this manner then it would not get written; there is no world where I block off a comfortable chunk of time for "write self-indulgent blog post" and then serenely complete that task with utter focus in its allotted interval. I once wrote a full-length novel, over the course of a year, on my phone during my train commute. Again, there is no reality where I simply planned better and wrote this novel in a comfortable office setting with perfect attention. Also: I like it this way! This is more fun. More stimulating. You have to steal time where you can find it.

Focus is great if you can find it, but rarely do you really need it..

Do use a capture system and a calendar, though

A very high-leverage time management habit to get in is the following:

When you make an appointment or agree to meet at a time, immediately it in a calendar app. Obviously, check that the slot is not already occupied by another appointment before you do so. Ensure that this calendar app will send you notifications day-of and shortly before the event.

I use an app called Nozbe that lets me very quickly create a task with a date/time, which is integrated with my Google Calendar. I am very rarely late and never miss appointments.

Nozbe is an example of an implementation of the productivity system Getting Things Done which is popular and probably worth learning about if you're ambitious. In my personal opinion, the single best feature of Getting Things Done is capture, the step of the process where you consistently and habitually put any new idea, appointment, task, obligation, project, etc. etc. into one place that you can look at and sort out later. It can be hard to install a habit of capturing all your potential tasks, to-dos and appointments, but step zero is to have a convenient app designed to do just that, so start there.

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