I've gotten a lot of emails lately, which has been fantastic. My email volume keeps going up.
There's one question I've gotten a few times, in a few different forms. "How do you do so much [thing]?" Reading is a common one, since I read a lot of books. Or balancing projects with working, traveling, tourism, connecting with people.
First off, I don't think I'm so good at getting stuff done. I see there's a lot more I could do. There's probably a lot better role models than me - if you can find someone who works a stimulating high powered job, competes athletically, parents, and does some philanthropy or art, that person is way ahead of me and you ought to look them up and ask them for their thoughts next time you see them.
I used to be insanely busy like that, with 3-5 things that should be a full time effort on the go at the same time. That's probably part of the secret to it right there - if you overload yourself without getting to breaking point, you'll be amazed at what you can do.
There's ripple effects when you're extremely busy. You stop screwing off and wasting time, because you can't. And other people start respecting your time more, too. If your entire calendar is open, people are flaky and whimsical and ambiguous with plans. But when you say, "My only time free for the next three weeks is this Saturday, at 8AM" - guess what? People come meet you at 8AM Saturday. Now, it'd be absurd to ask someone to commute into the city to meet you at 8AM on Saturday if you weren't busy, but if you are busy, you do it because you have to. And people respect your time.
For the first time in a while, I'm getting the busy aura around me again. I love it. Meetings get definitive times, start quickly, cover lots of ground, and end appropriately. Calls and appointments are kept like clockwork. I'm in faster motion, so aside from my top two projects, I don't notice if someone's not getting back to me fast, because there's other things going on. I can't sweat it.
So, I think that's a way to get there from here. Want to get more done? Take on a bunch of unbreakable commitments and get really busy. What's that expression? If you want to get something done, then give it to a busy person? Yeah, it's true.
The downside, of course, is that you -
(1) do have limits,
(2) probably don't know where they are,
(3) eventually your limits will catch up to you and you'll burn out.
Okay, if you're young and bright eyed and wildly idealistic, maybe you don't think so. A very close friend of mine and I used to laugh at people who burned out. We both ran ourselves hard, and thought burnout was for other people.
Whoops. Both of us had down years - him in '08, me in '09. So that's a very real downside of the "commit to too much stuff and then do it all" hack. It'll probably catch up with you.
But it's one way to get more stuff done. Commit to way too much, and pieces will largely fall into place.
You could call that the "top down way of getting more done" - commit to much at the top, and you'll probably figure the details out, because you have to. You'll naturally optimize for speed, cut dead time, work faster, move faster, suffer fools less, be more firm and definitive as to whether you make an additional commitment or not, and so on.
I think there's another way to get more done, which would be more "bottom up" - Whereas the top down way would be to throw yourself into the fray and force yourself to adapt, the bottom up way would be to gradually transition your time from poorly spent on things you don't want to be doing, to well-spent on things you do.
Here, let me show you my new time tracking -
--> Subtotal Excellent:
--> Subtotal Good:
--> Subtotal Okay:
--> Subtotal Bad:
This took me a while to figure out. That's the result of lots of refining, testing, building this out, but it's working exceptionally well for me to see where my time is going. I try to shift my time upwards through the specturm as much as I can.
Some clarification would be in order. "A-tasks" are new, expansive, large projects, with large potential payoffs.
Maintenance is doing anything I can do somewhat routinely - things like stretching, answering email, and continuing with something once it's become automatic. So, to give you an example - starting blogging was an A-task, but now blogging each day is maintenance. Don't get me wrong - maintenance is really good. If I did five hours of maintenance in a day, that's probably already a productive day right there.
Okay, why is "Social" in good, whereas "Family" and "Relaxing" are just okay?
Well, I put something in the highest category it could be classified. I'm using the words a ittle differently than their normal meanings. When I put down "Social," I mean highly engaged time with other people. "Family" would be purely passive time, which is still okay.
So, to give an example - I don't have kids yet, but once I do - planning and big lessons/teaching the kids would be excellent, A-task stuff. Reading together, and being actively engaged together by having a good family dinner would be good time. Just being in the same room with nothing happening, watching a movie or something - I'd rate that okay.
Okay isn't bad. It's okay! You can and should do lots of okay things. But I'd rather be actively engaged with my family, which would go into a higher category. But I still rate explicit relaxing and passive time with family as okay. I can always move things around in categories if I think it's important later.
Anyways, the beauty of having something like this is I periodically write down what I'm doing through the day, usually when I change tasks. Then, at the end of the day, I sort things out, and I can see exactly where my life and time are being spent.
When I first started tracking, it was hard to figure out how a day went. It only came together once I grouped categories into excellent/good/okay/bad.
I made some staggering realizations. First, if you commute at all, you spend a lot of time in transit. That sucks and it's eating your time and killing your life. It's possible you spend more time in transit/commuting/deadtime than you do socializing with your friends or with your family.
Isn't that a horrible thought? More time passively staring off into space than actively engaged with your friends or family.
Like I said, though, I put something into the highest category it can go. So I change transit time (which is very bad) by bringing a book and reading (good) or by walking instead of taking the train, in order to exercise (excellent).
I've been doing a lot of that, actually. I wrote a while back that "A Lot of Victory is Just Walking Around," and I think using my feet instead of the train goes a long ways. A 15 minute taxi ride is transit time, which sucks and is bad. That's life energy that isn't coming back. But it could be an excellent 60 minute walk.
In the process of walking like that, I pay attention to neighborhoods. How people are dressed, the cars people drive, the speed people walk at, how many kids there are, how many and what kind of businesses, how well businesses seem to be doing. This way, hopefully I spot trends and become more aware of my surroundings. If I see a lot of kids in one area where people seem middle class, but no family-friendly restaurants, then maybe that's a business opportunity to watch out for. I'm not at the point in my life where I'm going to be investing large sums of cash, but I figure it's the sort of thing that you need to learn and pay attention to for a couple years before being able to do it intelligently, so I'm training myself now.
Likewise, I'll go into an interesting church, temple, or mosque, and see the architecture, art, and how people worship. I met a really wonderful older man yesterday who was volunteering at the National Mosque in Malaysia, and we had a long talk about the history of the region and the religion. This was preciously good time, which came because I was walking through the area instead of taking the train.
I also like to walk around shipping yards, docks, areas with lots of construction, things like that. I like to see what kinds of trucks and trains and ships there are, the pace at which people work. When I walk through an area with wholesalers, I look at the labels on the doors of the shops to see what the businesses are selling. It's one thing to read about the kinds of industry in a country or city in an abstract way, but it's something else entirely to observe and pay attention.
Of course, this might not all be relevant to you - I'm training myself to be a very thorough and expansive strategist, so I need to learn and understand lots of things, both theoretically and in a more gritty real world way. But the point is, by analyzing your time from the bottom up, your can systematically replace bad time with okay time, or good time.
If I eat a meal while staring off into space, I classify that as "dead time" - bad. But I could alternatively read while getting my meal (good), eat with someone else (good), draw up plans and specs in a notebook (excellent), or explicitly relax and enjoy the food (okay).
There's lots of bottom-up strategies for reclaiming your time. I'd recommend "How to Live on 24 Hours Per Day," an excellent short book that Ryan Waggoner clued me into. I'd also recommend Ryan Waggoner's blog, who writes a lot about this sort of thing. I'd recommend the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, which is excellent and filled with lots of bottom-up strategies. Paul Graham has a few excellent bottom-up essays. "The Top Idea In Your Mind" and "Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule" are both very relevant.
I think a great place to start reclaiming time would be to start paying attention to where it's currently spent. I'm a firm believer that "What Gets Measured, Gets Managed." So, a good place to start getting more time is to see where it's currently going. If you do this, I'd just write down what you're doing periodically throughout the day. Here's my day a few days ago -
8:50AM: Morning routine, showering, shaving, etc. (40 minutes maintenance)
9:35AM: Arrived at KLCC. (45 minutes transit time)
10:20AM: Worked to set up Wordpress plugins, but no dice. Updated the site widgits a little bit. (45 minutes A-task. Nice)
12:10PM: All maintenance! Wow, great. (110 minutes maintenance)
2:50PM: Interesting. Did a few things. (30 minutes relaxing - eating, 20 minutes semi-productive, 110 surfing)
4:40PM: Mostly maintenance, some surfing. (80 minutes maintenance, 30 surfing)
5:55PM: Surfing 75 minutes, almost by accident... what a bad habit.
7:15PM: Eating/transit/tea. (50 minutes transit, 20 minutes relaxing)
9:15PM: Was on Skype with Chase. (90 minutes social, 15 minutes semi-productive, 15 minutes surfing)
10:30PM: Had been surfing, killing time. (75 minutes surfing)
10:50PM: Good call with Jim. (20 minutes A-task)
11:50PM: More surfing. Sleeping now. (60 minutes surfing)
--> Subtotal Excellent: 65
--> Subtotal Good: 320
--> Subtotal Okay: 85
Surfing/wasting time: 365
Transit/dead time: 95
--> Subtotal Bad: 460
Some quick observations -
Even the stuff in my "Bad" category isn't so bad. "Surfing" is probably reading Hacker News, blogs, or Wikipedia. It's not bad per se, so long as the higher categories are getting filled up. Also, I'll mark time that I'm spending on a particularly important topic as semi-productive, or if I'm commenting or getting into intelligent discussion on HN or Quora.
Even transit time isn't so bad - since it's not marked as reading, that means I was probably listening to audio while in transit. That's okay, that's not so bad, but it's not where I'd like my life energy to go.
Final observation - by my definition of A-task, most people don't do very many A-tasks. Things that could have a really big, positive, expansive impact on your life. Most people don't think/plan too much either, unfortunately. The vast majority of work people do is maintenance - and that's not bad, maintenance is fantastic. If I did 8 hours of solid maintenance in a day, that would be a fantastically productive day. Maintenance is very important. But it's not in the same class that highly expansive A-tasks are.
I'd strongly recommend you start tracking your time a little bit, if you don't already. I like the new categories I've got - it lets me see really quickly how well my time is being spent, and then I realize I've got to cut down on transit (I spent 95 minutes in transit? Didn't feel like that long...). Also, you'll probably be shocked by how much you aimlessly surf the internet. This isn't terrible, this is a heck of a lot higher quality time than many other things. But you'll probably be surprised at how much time you spend online. At least, I was surprised.
I actually am still a believer in the throw-yourself-into-the-fray strategy, provided you're willing to pay the costs. But if not, start reclaiming your time slowly from the bottom up. Move time gradually from categories you don't want it to be in, to categories you do want it to be in. Every 10 minutes you shift from something less meaningful to you to something more meaningful is a win.
Best regards, and please share your own observations, strategies, recommendations, and links in the comments.