If you waste the time you have now with e-mail and reading sports illustrated then that means you don’t take your time seriously and don’t see it as what it is ; your most valuable resource!
– a comment on free time does not translate to massive productivity
I was re-reading this old post of mine thanks to Jacob’s mention of it in Productivity and the Goose that laid the Golden Eggs. I don’t remember being particularly concerned with the comment at the time, since it just seemed to be taking a shot at me and my habits. Now that I’ve come across it a couple of years later it gave me a moment’s hesitation, and then some reconsideration followed by resignation.
It’s related to another exchange/quote I’ve used again and again in my personal life. Unfortunately I don’t remember where I heard it and I’ve never put much effort into looking it up…
Trainer: You need to exercise 30 minutes at least 3 days a week.
Guy: I don’t have that much time – I’m very busy.
Trainer: Did you watch TV this week?
Trainer: You had time. You just didn’t want to exercise.
So true. I’m not using this post to bash the TV – I’ve done plenty of that before – but you could substitute almost any activity in there and they could also be labeled as “bad habits.” I endlessly re-read random chapters of books I like – I’ll yank it off the shelf and read a chapter, then put it back. And yes, I spend more time than I should reading pointless emails and Sports Illustrated and whatnot.
It is easy to reward yourself with mindless, unproductive activities, but you do have to spend some time judging whether they really are a reward or just a habit. TV’s just a habit with me now. I think I “need a break” but probably what I really need is a clearly-defined activity to do to keep my day moving forward – even if that activity is just to lie down on the couch for 15 minutes and rest my eyes! TV is a default habit. Popping open Sports Illustrated is a “neutral” for me – I can idly browse football news, even in the offseason, even about teams I don’t care about. I can shuffle papers. I can pick a lot of activities which aren’t productive but far more importantly aren’t even enjoyable simply because they are easy to remember, do and jump into and out of.
The lesson is simply to try to reflect on whether you really, truly want to do something or need to do it or are simply doing it out of habit. Half an hour before I wrote this I sat down and flipped on the TV and watched 15 minutes of Starship Troopers. Why? I had told myself I needed to write something – ANYthing – this evening and I was simply delaying out of habit. Nothing more. I know I used a number of activities to avoid doing even things that I enjoy doing simply because the time-waster is easy. That’s not a good personality trait: I’d rather do something easy than fun.
As suggested in some of the other comments on that piece, probably the best solution is routine and activity. If I had exactly 30 minutes set aside every day (or every weekday or every other day, etc.) to write, I’d probably focus in much better on writing on those days. But as it is, I write when the mood strikes, and even when the mood strikes writing is hard work: it takes focus, manual effort (typing) and creativity. TV or old books or rearranging the pantry take no focus, minimal effort and no creativity.
Each person has different levels of discipline and focus, but I’ve come to realize that for me discipline is easy only once I mentally commit to absolute positions – taking things cold turkey. Focus is nearly impossible – my mind jumps around, a lot. So the solution is scheduling and self-accountability – making sure I do things in a scheduled time-frame, and keep track of how I did with that process. Single tasking! For you it might be something else. But just remember the next time you sit down to read the paper or play a video game you’ve already beaten that if you’re honest with yourself, you’d probably be better off doing something else – and happier while you do it.