Such a perfect day – how often can we say that, even on those rare days when we are fit, well, and happy? I usually finish the day with a profound sense of disappointment, feeling that I could and should have done more that day, which means that I should have done things differently.
I have just finished reading Mark Forster’s Secrets of Productive People: 50 Techniques To Get Things Done. I enjoyed it a great deal, and there were several thought-provoking points that stuck with me. I must admit it wasn’t quite what I expected from the title; I was hoping for an analysis of how really productive people actually spend their time (see below). Nevertheless Forster’s books are ones I would recommend to anyone interested in time management, productivity, writing, creativity, or generally living a better life.
I was particularly struck by this quote:
“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”- H. Jackson Brown Jr.
I must admit I thought I hadn’t heard of H. Jackson Brown Jr. before (it turns out that he is author of Life’s Little Instruction Book, which was a bestseller in the early 90s), but I am now sure that I have seen some of his homilies on calendars and tea towels (“Drink champagne for no reason at all” strikes a particular chord with me). Of course the meaning of the quote is obvious and indisputable, but it really brings home how some people seem to have more time than others. There are only 24 hours, only 1440 minutes, only 86,400 seconds available for all of us each day. Yet some make more of those minutes than others; they make their minutes count more than the rest of us. I accept a few people appear to need less sleep than others, but most of us need around seven to eight. Currently I seem to need seven; any less and I notice I really don’t function at all well. Saving on sleep is a false economy (sadly).
So that means I have 17 hours left after subtracting my sleep hours left every day, and let’s assume that a very successful person has about the same. But even the hardest working person must eat, exercise, shower (occasionally), dress, travel, perhaps shop occasionally, keep the house maintained, clean, pay bills, maintain social and family contacts, and so on. I outsource as many of these as possible, and try and cut back on non-essential activities, but there are limits on what you can do. You might be able to prepare two meals at once, but try going out without dressing. Please, yes try it. And maybe you can multitask a bit (although being mindful means to me that when you shower you focus on the shower and enjoying the water, not thinking about something else). So you end up with considerably fewer than 17 hours a day. I also find hard work, including writing and reading tiring, and there’s a limit on what I can that pushes the limit even lower.
Ah, but some will say, the people named in the quote were geniuses: they need less time to get big things done. Maybe. But what makes a genius? Thomas Edison observed that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”, and the latest psychological research shows that he wasn’t far wrong. Success in anything takes real commitment. We now know that although native talent has a role to play in success, above a certain level of intelligence and ability, sheer hard work and the number of hours put in matters much more than most people think. Where do these hours come from?
Are you happy with what you get done? If not, then the key point that struck me after reading Forster’s book is if you want to do more of something else, you have to do less of something you’re doing now. What are you not going to do that you’re doing? I know it seems obvious, but on reflection it struck me as profound point: if I want to do more reading, writing, and thinking, I need to stop doing something else. What?
I probably do less “inessential” stuff than many people. I don’t watch much television; I don’t go shopping; I don’t play computer games; I am fortunate enough not to have to mow my own lawn; and I count writing this blog as work. I’m not addicted (I think) to email and social media, and although I enjoy food and cooking, I don’t spend too long on it, particularly since I’ve gone on my new “diet”, and I don’t spend as much time napping as I used after making substantial lifestyle changes to fight depression. What else can I give up? Perhaps it’s time for a time audit, but they’re quite a lot of effort and I doubt it will show I waste much time. My vices are reading the opinion columns of two newspaper, but that doesn’t take long, and keeps me informed, and occasional shopping on Amazon and iTunes.
In spite of all those I still feel I have too much to do and not enough time to do it all in. I am not alone: most of us feel overloaded all the time. You might be one of lucky few who think they haven’t got enough activities to fill their days, but if so you’re probably not reading this article. We should be trying to drop things from our lives, but often we take on new stuff. We say yes to things that interest us, or yes to our managers (perhaps we have no choice), or we want to write another book or take up a new hobby. These are new commitments. But we start off already over-committed! So every time we take on a new commitment, we have to ask which of our current commitments are we going to drop (or reduce) to make room for the new one? I want to get back to playing the piano. So what should I drop that I’m currently doing, when I already feel under tremendous time pressure?
So if you want to take on something new, or find more time, you first have to choose something to drop something you’re currently doing. Obvious perhaps, and easy to say, but much less easy to do.
Over-loading creates other pressures. Most people I know say they’re drowning in a sea of email. Many have hundreds (at least one chap I know is almost proud to say that he has thousands) of emails in their inbox. That’s obviously inefficient – I bet if you’re one of these people you’re wading through the same emails day after day, and often miss important, job-critical commitments. It involves handling the same piece of virtual paper more than once, often many times. And exactly when are you going to deal with the backlog? Most people say “one day”, but one day rarely if ever comes. (My favourite email tip is one I learned about some time ago – perhaps from a previous book of Forster: never answer an email the same day that you get it, unless the consequences will be really terrible – or, I suppose, unless you’re conducting a romance by email.)
Every successful person I have read about swears by their routine. I’ve talked about creativity and routine before. It’s a little tedious, perhaps, doing the same thing at the day after day, year after year, but successful people make time for their perspiration by sweating it out at the same time, every day.
Managing time is even more difficult for people with mental illness. Illness steals time. The unfairness of it all burns, but I think it has just to be accepted. We will never get as much done as “normal” people.
Finally, I am still very interested in my original idea of how some people to get so much done in a day. I would really love to interview an assortment of politicians, Nobel prize winners, Silicon Valley success stories, and business magnates, to find out what they do differently from me. Publishers and agents: if you want to commission such a book, please contact me! If you think you are particularly successful in life and have tips to share, please post a comment below or email me at email@example.com.
7 thoughts on “Commitment and commitments”
Great article! I am self-employed (author), so I need to use my time wisely in order to be productive! I use the TimeLogger app, to track how much time I spend in various activities – even things like this – surfing, reading and responding to others’ blogs. It makes me more aware of my time and also more disciplined, and I tend to move smoothly from one thing to the next (blogging; surfing; writing; editing; housework; putting on my singing-teacher hat, my English-teacher hat, wife-hat, etc.; and back again!) I try to follow the business principle of “once in the hand” – get it done, rather than procrastinating… and some days, the best way to be productive is to break out of the routine and do something creative!
Thank you. Finding time to be creative is one of the most difficult things of all, isn’t it? I find I am inclined to procrastinate a great deal, but once I force myself to get started, things are rarely as bad as I feared.
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Exactly. One step at a time, but forward!
That’s true. The real secret though is to be able to walk one step forward at a time, but know you’re going forward, rather than in some random direction. I often get lost on the way.
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It’s so much easier for me if I know what the goal I’m trying to reach is. Once that’s defined, the little steps along the way will move us closer, even on days when it doesn’t feel like it… Good luck!
Lately I have been obsessed about trying to figure out what is really a waste of time and what is a success in life in general. And decided that it is all too individual to be defined.
As a result in the last few months I’ve been changing my activities from ‘what I think I ought to be doing to be successful and perceived as a productive person on a trail to great achievement’ to ‘what just makes me happy that day and in general’. So I read fiction, attend kickboxing class, sing in a choir, spend time with other people and usually play board games with them, do more crafts and eat whatever I like.
To some people that would be a waste of time, because my activities don’t really amount to life of achievement (become known in a field, contribute to societal improvement, build a business, amass enormous amount of money…) In my view, I am content with what I do day to day, and that is an achievement in itself.
I think I was so preoccupied to do ‘useful’ things with my time, that I forgot to enjoy my life, especially to enjoy my life with other people around me. I was comparing myself often to other people, how they manage their time and seem to do everything: have successful careers, socialising, traveling, raising family. Whereas I was just trotting along not being particularly good at anything. Those thoughts depressed me to complete inactivity where I needed help to get back to doing normal day things like getting out of the house. I still feel like a failure that I am not constantly self-improving or publishing amazing insights in human condition, but at least for short bursts of time, I feel content in moments I create myself by doing many different things I love. To be great success, people usually commit all their efforts to it. And I like too many different things to commit myself like that.
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What an interesting post.
When I read your list of things you do, I thought “what an interesting set of things to do”. But of course what is one person’s meat and all that.
Even sitting around doing nothing can be rewarding (at times).
I also find that if I focus too much on doing “important” things, I stop enjoying life. But then I feel this need to be vigilant against laziness.