SKILLS FOR LIFE
How to multiply your time
2 simple strategies
Imagine, for a minute, that you have just come into some wealth. A relative surprised you with $8,760. You can spend the money however you like. What would you do with it?
Maybe you spend a bit extra on dinner tonight. Splurge on a weekend trip or a shopping spree.
Now, imagine there’s a caveat: A fixed amount of that money disappears at the end of each day, unless you use it. In some ways, it’s the best kind of money because you are forced to spend it. Might as well go out for dinner. Donate the rest to a good cause. Just make sure it’s gone before midnight.
A final caveat: suppose that you have no other income until next year, so your only source of cash is this expiring inheritance.
I assume your spending goes from breezy to intentional. Anything you don’t spend on daily essentials like food and housing you would carefully allocate to things that are important to you. You wouldn’t let your only source of an important, scarce resource to go to waste.
Except we do. Often. Maybe multiple times a day. Your inheritance is time, and you have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 8,760 expiring hours a year to use it. Every minute spent at the gym, on fake news, on Instagram, on stress, on sleep, on dating — they are all ways to spend an expiring resource that never comes back. How are you spending it? How intentional are you with it?
The magician’s landscape
It’s not that we don’t know how valuable our time is. Just picture the reaction of someone getting an unexpected day off work. What’s the going rate on the feeling of pure joyous freedom?
The problem is that the value of one possible use of our time is tough to quantify against every other distraction that’s also vying for our attention on a smartphone alone. Time allocation decisions are easily manipulated by UX (such as Netflix episode auto-play, unplanned mobile notifications) or by our own minds reshaping units of time (I really only need 6 hours of sleep…. I’ll finish that report in 20 minutes instead of 30…Just 5 minutes on Instagram..).
The previous inheritance thought experiment is rousing because finances are black and white. It only takes a glance to know if I have saved as much as I wanted to. But goals around effective use of time are squishy. They range from vague habits like ‘spend more time with family’ (How much time is more?) to specific ones like ‘Spend an hour at the gym 5X per week’ (What’s the penalty for skipping a day?).
The good news is that the connection between time and money is getting closer. Ask a freelancer. When you’re constantly reminded of the hourly rate you could be billing, a suggestion to watch ‘one more episode’ quickly appears alongside the potential to earn $60/hour. And the freelance economy is on the rise, with some estimates showing that the US freelance economy could hit 50% of the labor force by 2027. If everyone starts valuing time against a hard number, will we all become more intentional with it?
Imagine squandering fewer minutes on Instagram and Facebook and looking back on a year filled with quality memories and personal accomplishments. No more ‘wow it’s already July.’ Just ‘wow, I can’t believe all I’ve accomplished this year already.’ When time becomes instantly weighable against its true value, it becomes intentional. And intention breeds value.
Except that measurement creates a different set of problems. According to The Economist, the constant reminder of the true value of time gets depressing. Relaxation itself becomes difficult when you’re constantly wondering what *else* could I be doing?
Maybe you become more ‘efficient’ with your hours, hitting more goals in fewer days. But if those days are spent unhappily weighing each hour against the dollar, well then, is that time really valuable? An hour spent feeling stressed and impatient has to be worth less than an hour spent feeling blissfully happy and relaxed.
So time might be traded for money. The economy depends on that. But time isn’t money. It’s more complex. Time is a function of both quantity and quality:
Value of time = (quality)*(quantity)
Quality = Am I happy? Productive? Intentional?
Quantity = Length (hours/minutes)
Becoming a time magician means using the full equation to your advantage. That might sound counter-productive. After all, we just found out that constantly weighing the dollar value of time is bad. Now I have to think about the quality of each minute, too? But this is where the power resides. Remember, time is squishy. Which is why it’s easily manipulated and compressed. With the right intentions, you can stretch and grow time.
How to time travel
Unfortunately, there is no way to travel backwards and forwards through time (yet). But, that doesn’t mean time is static and immovable and marching on. Time traveling means stretching the depth of time (say an hour) into something more valuable. It means tricking minds into perceiving time as slower and more impactful. Is this time magic possible?
There are two methods.
1) Active Focus (Deep work)
Cal Newport’s 2016 bestseller Deep Work is perhaps the best introduction to the value inherent in the ability to focus. Newport argues that the ability to do deep work is a powerful differentiator in the economy and puts you on a path to greater self-fulfillment and accomplishment. He sees today’s culture of open offices, the constant influx of immediate response-demanding Slack conversations, and a steady drumbeat of meetings as the enemy.
Take an hour. It comprises of 60 minutes. Imagine you plan to spend the 60 minutes reading. In a Deep Work mindset, you read without distraction. It’s a pure 60 minutes. Non-deep work is the same 60 minutes of reading, broken up by distractions. Let’s say you got 10 text messages over the hour. The problem isn’t the texts directly. It’s the switching time between reading texts and your book. You need to shift back into the book mindset each time you close a text.
Thus 60 minutes of non-Deep Work become 10 mini reading sessions, separated by the time to read and respond to each text (let’s estimate at 2 min/text), and the switching costs to get back into the groove of reading (let’s lowball it at 1 minute). So you end up with 10*1=10 minutes of switching, and 10*2=20 minutes of texting, and 30 minutes left over to be divided into ten, three-minute chunks of reading.
60 min Deep Work = 60 min reading
60 min Non-Deep Work = 30 min reading + 20 min texting + 10 min switching
The 10 minutes of switching costs are essentially useless. You’ve shrunk an hour into 50 minutes! But that’s not all. In the non-deep work scenario, you’re only technically reading for three minutes at a time. Imagine reading a complicated text, or watching a complex thriller. Part of the value comes from thinking deeply about the content you’re consuming. Making mental jumps in three-minute increments is tough.
The good news? If your normal involves texting, emailing, and digital admin, you have the power actually grow the amount of time you have in a day by switching between tasks less. Imagine if each of your hours was ten minutes longer. And, with longer focus on individual tasks, the quality of that time gets deeper. Maybe the task completion time even gets shorter. Magical.
Is this realistic? Maybe. How many times have you tried to use your phone less? Or read an article harking the value in keeping your phone away from your bed. Yeah, sure. Holding off on checking emails is hard. Texts even harder. There’s a chance you might miss something.
Tristan Harris of Time Well Spent refers to this phenomenon as FOMSI (fear of missing something important). Much of the internet is designed to capitalize on this fear. According to Harris, ‘This keeps us subscribed to newsletters even after they haven’t delivered recent benefits (“what if I miss a future announcement?”)’ and ‘friended’ to people on social media we don’t really know or like (“what if I miss that important news story or fall behind what my friends are talking about?”).
Disregarding FOMSI isn’t easy, which is why mini ‘hacks’ and rules don’t get you very far. Becoming a time magician is a bit like dieting — true success requires a full shift in mindset. It comes from valuing deep, focused time over the potential value of a notification. The potential notification value is real. You very well might get a last-minute invite to a concert and miss out on the invite if you’re not on your phone this very instant. But you can’t entertain that possibility and maximize the value of your time. What’s more important?
Alex Edmans, a professor at London Business School, perhaps said it best when he stated, “to do things no one else has done, you need to not do things everyone else is doing.” A FOMSI mindset will keep you in the loop on what others are up to. But to be most intentional with your time, you must accept sometimes missing out.
Repeat after me: there are things I will miss. There are small things I will miss and it’s okay. Because I will create/grow/learn/build/understand/enjoy more by focusing without distraction and growing the value of my time over the course of my life. Phone into a pocket. Focus on the task.
2) Vary your days
While Deep Work is about getting more value out of our time, variance is about our perception of time. Ever notice how time seems to slow and speed up at certain events? Say, you knock over an expensive vase and you see it crash in slow motion. Did time actually slow?
Neurobiologist David Eagleman of Baylor College set to understand if time actually slows and speeds up. He organized a bungee jump style fall, and had participants estimate the time length of their fall. On average, Eagleman’s subjects overestimate the length by 36%. But were participants actually experiencing longer amounts of time?
Eagleman also gave them a watch which flashed a number just too quickly to be perceptible. Despite a memory of time slowing down, subjects still couldn’t see the number on the watch. Net: time didn’t actually slow. Eagleman found this result more interesting: “It suggests that time and memory are so tightly intertwined that they may be impossible to tease apart.” In other words, it’s possible to trick your brain into recording time as slower and fuller depending on the experience.
So, do you need to put yourself in danger to stretch time? Not necessarily. In another one of Eagleman’s experiments, he set subjects up to watch a screen with a series of flashing images. Most of the images were of the same brown shoe. But every now and again, the image would be a flower. Both the shoe and the flower appeared on screen for the same amount of time, yet people report the flower as appearing for longer. The key is novelty.
When in a non-routine environment, the brain “kicks into overdrive, recording every detail of that experience.” Time slows. The flip side is normalcy. When you’re in a routine, your brain does not need to go into overdrive and record every last detail of the experience. Time speeds up. Before you know it, you’re asking how it’s already July.
If our ultimate goal is to experience long, full lives, variance is a way to trick your brain into recording more, and ultimately seeing life pass by more slowly. There are other benefits to varying your routine. More creative connections. Improved memory. Stronger focus. And unlike avoiding addictive distractions, variation is easy. Walk a different way to work. Try a new restaurant. Read from different news sources.
Time traveler’s guidebook
Rules of Time Travel, Summarized
- Active Focus — maximize the value of your time by focusing on one activity at a time. You eliminate switching time (first order benefit), and you allow for deeper thoughts (second order benefit), stretching activities interrupted with mini distractions into pure shifts of connections and focus. If you’re struggling, set a timer for how long you plan to focus. And, remind yourself that the value of focus is greater than the benefit of distracting yourself before focus is up.
- Variance — Aid your focus and lengthen your memory by changing up your routine. Call up an old friend to catch up. Update your workout routine, or plan a day trip.
One last note
In, “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg postulates that the easiest way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace the bad habit with something else. His favorite example is the workplace snacker who wants to lose weight. Instead of always grabbing a cookie at 3 pm, the snacker can replace that habit with a walk. The walk gives him something he craves (a break from work) as well as something to do instead of thinking about cookies.
The same idea can be applied to time magic. When you’re attempting active focus and you get the craving for digital distraction (a scroll through Instagram, a pull refresh on email), try replacing that habit with a variance-focused experience instead. That means a new, stimulating experience. Going on a walk. Reading a book.
Your focus will transfer to this new experience, and you can return to your priorities having flexed your muscles against digital distraction. Over time, your ability to focus will grow. And the memory of your time will be longer than ever.