How to Get Your Time Back

Hello, friends, and another Happy New Year to you! My last post was mostly written in 2015, so this one feels like a fresh start.

Current status: Holed up inside, taking shelter from the ice and snow that are falling outside. It sounds a bit like television static out there, as the millions of tiny bits of ice drop and pile on the frozen ground.

CB, January 22, 2016

Your life is changing. You are changing your life. You may not know it, or you may not think of life in that way, but it is true. Everything you are doing (or not doing) now is a choice you are making to change your life.

And that changes everything, doesn’t it?

Another way of putting it is this: Time is passing. You are spending it. You may not know it, or you may not think of time in that way, but it is true. Everything you are doing (or not doing) is a choice you are making to spend time. Time, a finite resource.

Suddenly, things feel terribly urgent, don’t they? That’s OK. Just let that feeling — that urgency — pass. Yes, time is finite. But time is also pliable. You can shrink it, or you can stretch it. You get to decide how you experience it. Sometimes, by way of mindful magic, you can even make it stand still. Illusions, yes, but existentially, what does that matter? What matters is your experience. And urgency is just a shorthand for what it feels like when time seems to speed up, and shrink, and close in on you. So, let that pass. You’re regretting untold profligate hours spent doing something that just didn’t seem as wasteful then as it does just now. But do yourself a favor. Don’t do the categorical bean-counting. The if-your-life-expectancy-is-80-years-then-you’ve-spent-3-of-them-on-the-toilet calculus that may look quite clever but is actually a bankrupt rendering of life that assumes, somehow, that no meaningful experience can be had in the “years” of it that you spend sleeping, eating, commuting, cleaning, or dressing and that these expenditures leave you only 40-something years to truly live. Nonsense. An outrageous absurdity, really. Life is all of those things. You may choose to rob them of their meaning but if you do, you deny the fountain of truth which flows from the mundane. Now is not the time to regret past expenditures. Now is the time to spend just a little bit more; to stop, clear your mind, and breath.

So do that. I’ll wait here.

. . .

It’s a wonder how doing nothing suddenly makes time feel as if it’s in great supply.

Naturally, with the turning over of the calendar has come many thoughts about time. It’s a new year, a new chance to live differently. I want to live differently. And, after much thought, I’ve settled on two ways I can express that. First, I want to use my time more wisely. I don’t want to be caught in the same waste-regret-cleanse-repeat cycles in 2016 that I have been in so many years before it. And second, I want to feel gratitude more. More than the sorts of feelings that — oh I don’t know — wasting time tends to produce. These things are connected, of course, by so many things, not least of which is that they aren’t exactly concrete. So how am I going to get them done? I’ve got some pretty practical ideas about that which I’ll share in a moment.

But first, I found some unexpected encouragement in the form of a brief essay by Paul Graham, titled, “Life is Short.”

On wasted time, Graham doesn’t mince words — something I’ve always appreciated about his writing, whether I agree with his conclusions or not:

“If you find yourself thinking that life is too short for something, you should try to eliminate it if you can. When I ask myself what I’ve found life is too short for, the word that pops into my head is ‘bullshit.’ I realize that answer is somewhat tautological. It’s almost the definition of bullshit that it’s the stuff that life is too short for. And yet bullshit does have a distinctive character.”

He goes on to parse the various forms of “bullshit,” noting that it is often either forced upon you — which presents opportunities to choose and prioritize, each according to one’s values — or it seduces its way into your life. Of seductive bullshit, Graham writes:

“Things that lure you into wasting your time on them have to be really good at tricking you…As I’ve written before, one byproduct of technical progress is that things we like tend to become more addictive. Which means we will increasingly have to make a conscious effort to avoid addictions—to stand outside ourselves and ask ‘is this how I want to be spending my time?’”

So much in life works this way, doesn’t it? Something ostensibly harmless — if not outright good — can go the other way simply because it’s fallen out of balance. There’s that old anecdote about the boiling frog; if a frog is dropped in boiling water, it will immediately hop out, but if it’s dropped in cool water and then slowly heated, it will remain there, content to be cooked. However dubious the science on that scenario, the metaphor is useful. Modern life is one big frog boil. We’ve cooked the frog on connectivity and information access. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, TV, texting, you name it. All, bloated, cooked frogs. Almost all media begins as a useful and enriching efficiency gain only to bottom out as the latest patsy for that-which-rots-your-brain. Of course we know it’s not that simple. But that’s where the frog-cooking metaphor kicks in. Any of it can be good, in good measure. But once we overdose, forensic judgment is not very useful. We tend toward drastic cold-turkey measures, hence the digital farewell that has established itself as almost a new literary form. We’ve all read someone’s Facebook Farewell, or their final tweet, or their Instabye! The thing is, telling the world you’ve had it isn’t a solution, it’s a symptom. It’s a cry for help. And, of course, it’s rarely final. The people with the loudest goodbyes are almost always sure to return. And thus begins a cycle, wherein, contrary to the metaphor, we can’t take the heat, so hop out of the pot, only to find ourselves in another one. What to do?

Graham’s answer is simple, but elusive. We want to go solution shopping; the internet has taught us to do that, hasn’t it? Maybe there’s an app for that, or a listicle out there that will tell me the five steps to freedom, we think. But freedom isn’t something to be acquired. It must be chosen. It is already ours. Yet we deny ourselves daily, in so many ways, not by making poor choices, but by not making any choices at all. So Graham asks, “Is this how I want to be spending my time?” No one can answer that for you, but you.

Here is how I’m answering it. None of this is meant to be prescriptive. But I’ve often found it helpful to hear how other people solve the problems I face, even if I don’t end up doing the same things they do. I hope that’s true for you.


###(1) Notebook First

From high school through the first five or six years after college, I always had a sketchbook going. It was the first place my thoughts and ideas went. But that began to taper off sometime around 2010 or so, and though I’ve had sporadic returns to that practice, it hasn’t returned to the habit it once was. One of the goals of my sabbatical was to get back into it. So, a few weeks before it was to begin, and after much thought about the ideal size and paper, I bought a new sketchbook. And while I didn’t use it on every day of my thirty days away, I was in there most of them. I was slowly retraining myself to use pen and paper to think — to capture, to process, to organize, to imagine. Sometimes I’m writing in it; sometimes I’m drawing in it. But the main goal is that I’m in there first, before I open the text editor. Something about this has slowed me down, in a good way. Perhaps it’s learning how to write by hand again. The pen certainly does lead to a different kind of writing than the keyboard. Perhaps it’s the unique type of mobility of the little notebook. It doesn’t need to be plugged in anywhere. It requires a different posture to use. It engages my entire body differently. And, probably most importantly, it comes with no distractions. No multitasking, no internet connection. It’s a technology of focus. Now, two months after returning from my sabbatical, I think I’m back in the habit. It’s not something I have to force myself to do anymore. I look forward to being in my notebook. And I am in there, first, before anything else. Most of the thoughts and ideas that are here in this post were written with a pen in my notebook first.


###(2) Journal of Days

I can’t remember where, exactly, I learned this idea. But I know it was from a blog post that my wife shared with me. The concept is pretty simple: you write a short journal entry at the end of each day. I’ve tried this before and while I’ve had stretches of consistency, I’ve had longer ones of silence. The goal here isn’t to just to write. I do a lot of writing. The goal is to commit to a structure for reflection that captures it for the future. There are many ways to do this; many formats and prompts and times of day are recommended. What’s working for me right now is to keep it as simple as possible. No specific format, no specific prompt, but just a commitment to reflect each day upon what happened, what was accomplished, who was a part of it, and, probably most importantly, the many things for which I am grateful. Some of my entries are pretty dry; play-by-plays, really, and repetitive at that. But I can already see patterns emerging that are interesting and profound. A journal entry is a way to slow down and reflect on the recent past — the day that is nearly over — and in reading over them, I can see how fatigue or specific events can greatly alter the way I recount a day. But a journal entry is also an investment in the future. Every entry is a gift to your future self, like a message in a bottle that you toss into time. In reading back on mine, the patterns tend to rhythmically reaffirm the many blessings in my life. Every “walked the dog” or “cleaned the house” or “cooked dinner” or “busy day at work today” reminds me how grateful I am to have a dog, to have a home, to have food to eat, to have a job, to have people in my life whom I love and love me. (Tip: make sure you’re “bottle” is as secure and reliable as possible. Maybe that means you use a bound journal. Maybe that means a computer. Up to you. I’ve been keeping my journal of days separate from my paper notebook; it’s a collection of .txt files in my DropBox account.)


###(3) Selective Social Media Hiatus

This isn’t going to be the part where I blame social media for everything. In fact, I’m not going to blame social media for anything. I’m generally a fan. I’ve enjoyed using them — especially Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat — and have learned things, made connections and new friends that I never would have without them. The problem isn’t the media; it’s how I’ve been using them. I do believe that social media platforms are intentionally designed to encourage users to spend more and more of their time there. And no, that’s not great. It’s the result of a larger, macroeconomic problem that I’ve ranted about plenty here. But, ultimately, I’m not being forced to participate in that. I’m choosing to. If I’ve wasted my time using social media, it’s because I’ve chosen to do that by not being more intentional about how I use it. That stopped about a month ago, with the help of a few simple rules. First, Twitter. My favorite social network. I’ve used Tweetdeck for years and had several lists in addition to a few searches arranged in columns, and it was my habit to keep it open in a tab all day. I don’t know exactly how often I’d click over to that tab, but I do know that, most of the time, I’d just find myself there, mindlessly scrolling through tweets. Typically, I’d end up there in between tasks, but getting caught there would just extend the efficiency hit that I was already taking by rapidly switching between tasks. It’s the fog of no focus. So, no more of that. I do not keep Tweetdeck open all day anymore. I actually put it on my calendar to open twice a week. When I do, I use it to schedule posts of interesting links that I want to share, and I spend a few minutes looking at my lists. Then I close it. I know that many people abhor scheduled posts. But I’m not trying to avoid conversational exchanges — If someone @’s me or replies, then I’ll get that email alert and I’ll reply — I’m trying to avoid falling into mindless stretches of time scanning Twitter. Same thing with Instagram. In both cases, the apps have also come off of my phone. And for Instagram, that basically means not using it. I’m fine with that for now. I’ll probably get back to it at some point, but for now, it’s more important to me that I get my time back under my control than that I don’t miss whatever’s going on there. I do still keep Snapchat on my phone, but I haven’t found myself wasting much time there since once I look at something, it goes away. Ephemerality is kind of it’s whole point. But with my phone being free of most social media, I’m using it less at times where I shouldn’t have been anyway — in between places, in lines, etc. — and am focusing more on being where I am and doing what I’m doing.


###(4) Turning Off the Taps

This one is simple. I overdosed on information. A few weeks ago, I was receiving about twenty-five email newsletters, many of which were arriving daily, and many of which were basically just paragraphs of links to other things I could read. I don’t know what I was thinking when I subscribed to Today in Tabs. I added that one to the mix just a couple of months ago and I was already feeling buried then. So I dug myself out. I unsubscribed to about eighteen newsletters. So far so good. I mean, you can’t read everything. So, look, I realize that as I write that, some of you may need to do the same thing, which might mean saying goodbye to Don’t Think About the Future. That’s OK. Your life is more important than my need to be read.


###(5) The Kindle

Ridding my phone of most social media, and cutting down on newsletters has helped a lot, but my phone still presents some issues at night. I resisted the e-reader for a long time because I just didn’t want yet another device. But that meant that if I was going to read an e-book, I was going to do that on my phone. Which also meant that if I was going to read in bed, I was going to be able to check my email, or text, or look at photos, or surf the web. All of that under the blue light of insomnia. I wish I could say that I could just have the discipline to not be distracted by all the functions of my phone, or to put it in airplane mode, or whatever, but that hasn’t worked. It’s better that the bedroom be a place I use the phone as little as possible. So, on the repeated urging of a friend who has grappled with the same issues, I bought a Kindle. Yes, it’s another device. But, it lives on my nightstand and I only use it when I’m not using my phone, so in a way it’s a wash. When I go up to bed, I plug in my phone and set it face down. If I want to read, I reach for my Kindle. So far, so good. And really, more than that. I really like the Kindle. At some point I’ll probably write a long thing just about the beauty of the e-ink screen, but for now, I’ll just say that I’m mostly phone-free at night and sleeping better.


###(6) BuyLog

This one has been an interesting experiment. It’s less about time as it is about gratitude. But it’s also been a practical move. I’m pretty motivated to keep my possessions to a minimum, so when I buy something, I want it to be the one that will last as long as possible. For instance, I wear the same boots every day, aside from the sneakers I wear to the gym and to run. So those boots have got to hold up (and be comfortable and look good). But no matter how much research you do, any purchase is a bit of a risk. So, what I’ve been doing for the last few months is adding a yearly recurring event to my calendar every time I purchase something that I hope to last (not food, drinks, travel, etc.). I even back-filled as many of them as I could remember by searching my email for purchase receipts. For example, last Wednesday, my calendar popped up an alert that said, “You bought your Blundstone boots today in 2014.” Next Friday, I’ll get one that says, “You bought your grey club sofa today in 2013.” In both cases, these remind me of choices I made that have really paid off. I pull on those boots every day and they still feel great and look as good as new. I expect them to last a long time, and every year, on their “buyversary,” I’ll be reminded of how grateful I am to have them. In other cases, I’ll be reminded of a decision that didn’t turn out as well, which will help me to not repeat the mistake. My Fitbit didn’t even make it to its first buyversary. So when the alert pops up next month, it will be a reminder to stay away from things like that. On that note, I’m trying to avoid buying any digital devices of **any kind this year, so I’ve got another recurring event scheduled that pops up on the first Monday of every month and says, “This is your monthly reminder not to buy any digital devices this year :)”


###(7) Focus Days

So far, most of these have been little adjustments meant to steer me toward better uses of my time and more gratitude throughout my life. They’ve helped me to have more focus at home and at work. But I still needed to make another adjustment at work. The thing about working on a team is that your time isn’t entirely yours. Other people need it, and if you don’t protect it, they’re eventually going to have more control over your time than you do. I receive far more invitations to meetings than I send out myself, for instance. And while much of what I do requires attending those meetings and engaging with others, there are things I need to do which require focus and uninterrupted time. Traction has taught me to better categorize, organize, and schedule my time. And, it’s introduced to me the concept of “focus days.” For me, a focus day is one day a week where I’m not in meetings and can focus on longer-term projects and planning. I’ve chosen Friday for my focus day, and if you could see my work calendar, you’d see a big block that goes from 8AM to 5PM that just says “Focus.” And for my colleagues, that means I’m busy. Another affirmation of this concept has come by way of a book I’m almost finished reading called Deep Work, by Cal Newport. In it, he talks about how essential focus is to doing good work, and how our working culture is more and more built around a model of success that requires multitasking — shallow, unfocused, distracted work. He also shares many stories from professionals who have revamped their working lives around a “deep work” model of success, and describes the specific, practical ways they’ve done it. I’m learning a ton from reading it, and would recommend it highly.

In the spirit of focus and my gratitude for your time and attention, I’m going to forgo my usual “On Screen,” “Heavy Rotation,” and “Recent Tabs” sections. I’m considering rethinking the format of that stuff, and would love your feedback on that. Is it too much? Or would you miss it if it wasn’t there? Thanks, as always, for reading!

Written by Christopher Butler on January 22, 2016,   In Essays

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