Finding More Time

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Could any commodity be more precious than time?  Is there anything any of us want more—or more of—that at the same time seems to be more beyond our control to increase?  Who among us wouldn’t strike the most Faustian of bargains for an extra year of life?  Or an extra decade?

We certainly can all adapt habits that have been shown to increase the likelihood of our living longer:  moderate our alcohol intake, avoid smoking, exercise, and so on.  But such measures won’t give us what we really want:  an increase in the amount of time we have each day.  Then again, even that isn’t what we really want.  What we really want is enough time to do what we must so that we don’t feel stressed as we go about doing it, and then to have enough time left over to do what we want.

Which means that finding more time isn’t really about time at all.  It’s about prioritization, energy, and efficiency.  Twenty-four hours is actually an extraordinary amount of time to have each day, even when you subtract a necessary eight hours for sleep, leaving sixteen hours of wakefulness.  World-shaking books have been written while children were being raised over a series of sixteen-hour days.  Space shuttles have been built and launched over a series of sixteen-hour days.  Sixteen hours a day is more than enough time to live a satisfying life.  The question really is:  how can we learn to use those sixteen hours a day in such a way that we don’t feel constantly harassed by the tick of the clock?

First, we must keep those sixteen hours for the most part limited to sixteen hours.  It’s tempting to cut into our sleep time to increase our awake time so we can accomplish more.  And as an occasional practice, this strategy can work.  As a habit, however, it’s one doomed to fail (as I wrote about in a previous post, The Critical Importance Of Sleep).  Sleep isn’t just a strange state of unconsciousness into which we fall at the end of the day.  It’s a crucial biological process that helps us function at our maximal intellectual and emotional capacity and efficiency.  Reduce it over the long haul at your peril.  If the goal is to feel as if you have enough time to accomplish all that you must and the number of hours that exist in a day can’t be changed, we can only change the way we use those hours—and that requires energy.  Defend yours to the death.

We can also increase our efficiency (meaning, how much we accomplish per unit of time).  This we can do principally by eliminating non-productive activity, which means eliminating distractions.  Yesterday (when I was growing up) this meant primarily television.  Today it means television and Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and…

How do we find it within ourselves to resist these temptations?  By avoiding them altogether.  How do we avoid them?  By increasing the activation energy necessary to access them.  We have to make it so inconvenient to read our email that we find ourselves forced to schedule a time to batch read them all at once (software exists that throws up all kinds of barriers to our email and the various programs to which we’re all addicted on the Internet).

In order to construct an efficient day with few interruptions, however, you also have to prioritize.  You have to decide some things are so important to do that you will forgo others (or, at the very least, significantly cut down on time spent on them).  On the other hand, if you cut down or eliminate something you find yourself missing terribly, then perhaps that was something you really wanted to make more time for.  Sometimes, in fact, you don’t actually know what your priorities are until you try them out.  A cliche it may be, but we often don’t know how important a thing is to us until we lose it.

Because in order to feel like we’re using our time well—which is what finding more time is really about—we have to spend it doing those things which feel most meaningful to us.  (Which usually aren’t the things that are easiest.  It’s generally true that meaningful activity costs energy.  Watching television, for example, is easy, and though that fact by itself isn’t what makes it feel mostly meaningless, we’d be hard pressed to disconnect the two.)  So if you’re looking for a simple rule with which in one fell swoop to find more time, eliminate or minimize activity you find meaningless (being careful not to entirely eliminate meaningless activity you also find pleasurable—we all need some of that; on the other hand, too much of that is often the main problem we face when we’re trying to find more time).

Finally, like overeating without realizing it, we often waste time in small increments that in isolation seem insignificant, but that when added up fully explain why we feel like we need more time.  Much like the act of keeping a food diary itself has been associated with eating less, keeping a time diary can help us stop wasting time and provide us a sense that we’ve got more of it than perhaps we even need.

Next WeekI’m on vacation, so look for the next post in two weeks.  Feel free to browse the archives in the meantime and have a happy and safe holiday season.

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  • One of the most effective and easy way of finding time is to prioritise towards a higher goal. It take a sharp intellect to identify and reduce time wasting activities. Working towards a higher goal can channelize energy and increase pleasure time during the activity.

    Thanks for the insights.

  • I like retiring. It works for me. But I thought when I quit practice and didn’t have to worry about night calls I could sleep 8 hours. I still can’t get more than 6 hours good sleep even with out the pressure of work. That is my time frustration. I would like 8 hours sleep.

  • Thank you.

    I will try.

  • An excellent post, Alex, and you have cut cleanly to the heart of the matter!

    My only disagreement is with this: “Who among us wouldn’t strike the most Faustian of bargains for an extra year of life? Or an extra decade?”

    *I* would NOT strike a Faustian bargain for a longer life. Frankly, I find life very time-consuming (no pun intended) already. (And no, I am not depressed! I just find my life to be entirely full as it is.)

    And while I exercise, eat well, etc. to maintain my health, I am not induced to do that by the potential for a LONGER life; rather, I do it for a better quality of whatever lifespan I have.

    What exercise, etc. cannot change is this: most of us are subject to biological diminution with age. We have less energy, our eyesight is not what it was, arthritis sets in or worsens, etc.

    There is no appeal (to me) in having an extra year or extra decade of life spent in the biologically-diminished condition most of us experience at age 80 or 90. An extra decade of feeling 80 or 90? No thanks!

    If I could be promised an extra year or extra decade in which I would enjoy the kind of energy & health I had when I was 35, that would be a different story entirely!

    Wishing you a happy holiday season, Alex, and looking forward to your future posts.

  • “Eliminate or minimize activity you find meaningless.”

    Thank you. Good advice.

  • Have a fabulous vacation! Your work continues to be an inspiration in my daily comings and goings.


  • Hey Alex,

    I think the way to find more time is to manage your life better. I mean live by your values, set up goals, forget about multitasking, concentrate on solutions, don’t worry about the problems you can control, do less get more done.

  • To me the main way to make the most of your day (and life) is to know in your heart that life is precious. People who get this concept are more productive, more likely to set meaningful goals, less likely to waste time, will naturally look after their health more and can accomplish more in a year than some people do in a lifetime. From this perspective, length is not the main issue, it’s what you do with it that counts.

    Time management courses taught me to prioritize stuff on an important-urgent matrix, but the best lessons on all this are the ones I’ve had from Richard Jackson, creator of The Winning Edge personal development program (which I now teach). Richard points out that there is nothing in a 24-hour day that we ‘have to’ do. We don’t have to be a ‘taxi service’ for our kids, we don’t have to do the ironing, we don’t have to do our paperwork, we don’t even have to carry on breathing… we CHOOSE all of it based on our values and goals and therefore should treasure every moment and not resent the things we feel we’ve ‘got to’ do. Richard says: “You don’t have to enjoy everything you want to do.” Delegates often wish they had more ‘me time’ and gradually realize that they get 24 hours of ‘me time’ every day (even if it doesn’t always feel like it!!). Another good way to focus on making the most of your time is to count how many days you have left—in our heads we tend to assume it might be another 100k. But assuming I live to the average age of 78, that gives me just another 11,000 days to make the most of. Best, David