You Can Do A Lot In An Hour!

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Years ago, my friend quit his job and decided to take some time off from work. We occasionally hanged out. In the beginning, he mentioned how he was playing tennis in the morning and meeting friends for lunch and dinner. As time went on, he seemed to be less and less busy. A year passed. One day he told me that the major accomplishment of the day was getting his laundry done. He wondered where the time was going.

heinz_doofenshmirtzWhen a major disaster occurs, first responders (firemen, doctors, nurses, volunteers) arrive to help from all over the country, maybe from a different country. They are trained and equipped to help, except their walkie-talkie radios, from different manufacturers, most likely are unable to talk to each other. So someone is assigned the task of being a message dispatcher. He is the man wearing the vest full of different radios. His job is to relay messages from one radio system to another.

A startup I joined, a decade ago, had the goal of replacing that man with an affordable and easy-to-use solution of hardware and software. It was a worthy goal because during an emergency, any delay in communication could cause additional loss of life and property. The faster we worked in the startup, the sooner we could get our product out into the field and the more lives we could potentially save. So we took it from concept to product in less than six months. I remember writing code until 3 am in the morning, driving home, going to sleep, getting up at 8 am, and driving back to work for months on end. I accomplished overnight what others might have taken a week or two to do. I wasn’t tired or sleep deprived. I was driven to wring out as much as I could from each waking hour.

Time seems to expand and contract. For my nonworking friend, time compressed so that his days flew by without much activity. In my startup job, time expanded so that I seemed to be able to do a whole lot in a little time. Alternatively, I could say that my friend’s time expanded to fill his day with laundry and my day compressed along with my day’s work into an hour. It seems that the amount of time required to do a task varies, and if you really want to, you can drastically reduce that time.

In the 2011 movie “In Time”, time is money. The more you earn, the longer you can live. If you spend all your time or run out of time, you die. The rich, with lifespans measuring in centuries or millenniums, had grown accustomed to lives of leisure. The poor worked hard to earn only enough to live another day, and any mishap (like a raise in bus fare) could mean their death.

After the authorities unfairly confiscated everything but two hours of his time, the protagonist escaped and robbed a rich lady of all her time but a day. She despairingly wondered what she was going to do with a day. Surprised, he responded that you can do a lot in a day; he thought he had been generous leaving her with a day. As the movie progressed, the protagonist ended up in increasingly worse situations; he went from having only hours to live, to minutes, and at the end, to seconds. Each time, he persevered and pushed onward. You can do a lot in an hour, in a minute, in a second if you don’t give up.

I Can Do A Lot

The movie reminded me that in the past, I could accomplish so many things in a day because I believed I could. I really can do a lot in an hour! Holding this conviction again has made me much more productive. It helps me to work smarter by looking for a more efficient approach. It forces me to focus on the essential part that needs to be done. It pushes me to think outside the box in coming up with ways to complete the task, even if one of those ways is to eliminate the task itself. It permits me to say no to requests. My time is precious and should not be wasted.

If “work expands to fill the time available for its completion” (paraphrased Parkinson’s law), then work should also contract to fit the time remaining for its completion. Procrastinators instinctively use the latter principle to meet deadlines, though usually with poor results. High performance teams have used the latter principle to focus and work together to pull off the impossible in record times. (Although, there are probably many more teams that have crashed and burned.)

“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.” – Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law

Given a choice, I would want to choose the principle that directs me to do more things in the same or lesser amount of time. I’m not suggesting to rush through and do poor work. I believe that we are capable of doing high quality work in less time that we usually expect to. We just have to believe and push ourselves to. We may just end up surprising ourselves.

Your Money or Your Life

More importantly, the movie gave me a kick-in-the-pants reminder that time is very precious and that earning money costs me time. In the movie, every cost is measured in units of time, specifically your lifespan. A cup of coffee costs 15 minutes of your life. A new laptop could cost half a year. A house, a couple of decades.

Except if I think about it, it’s not just in the movie. It’s the same in real life. If I earn $10/hour and a Starbucks drink costs me $5, then that drink costs me 30 minutes. Is the coffee worth it? Probably not. That $100/month cell phone plan costs 10 hours of life per month, more than an 8 hour work shift. And a $1500 Macbook will cost a hundred fifty hours of life. Actually, everything costs even more because taxes take a chunk of life coming (income tax) and going (sales tax).

“If time is worth more than money, then why do we spend time earning it?” – Lance

The above way of thinking about money was covered in the 1992 book, “Your Money or Your Life”, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominquez. The book’s most important premise is that money is equal to your life energy, so it behooves you to increase what an hour of your life energy earns and to spend it wisely. Instead of spending it on a Starbucks Frappuccino, you may wish to spend it on a class to acquire a new skill or career. I think that if we can start thinking of costs in terms of life energy (a.k.a. time and effort), folks may be more mindful of how they spend their money.

Awesomely, from a certain viewpoint, earnings from savings and investments (interests, dividends, and capital gains) actually add time to your lifespan. If your investment earns you $500/month, it can be considered as adding 50 hours to your lifespan (if you make $10/hour) each month. Awfully, from that same point of view, the interest you pay on your debt deducts time from your lifespan. Hours, days, months, or years of your life may be needed to service your debts.

False Opportunity Cost

When thinking of whether you should do a task yourself or pay someone to do the task, you might decide to consider what the cost to you is. If you remodel the bathroom yourself, but it would take you 500 hours, then the money equivalent cost to you would be $5000 at $10/hour. If you can hire someone who can do the work for less than $5000, it may be worth it because it ends up being less costly for you.

There is a fallacy in the above calculation if you plan to include your non-money-earning hours. If you plan to remodel the bathroom on your free time, then the cost to you may not be $5000. It may be significantly more or less, depending upon how much you value your free time or the activity you would have spent your free time on instead. If you would have spent your free time watching TV, then maybe your free time is worth only $1/hour and the cost of the work is $500. Can you hire someone to spend 500 hours working for you for $500? Probably not – it’s better for you to do the work yourself. If you plan to spend the free time taking a computer class so you can become a software engineer and earn $50/hour, then the cost to you might really be $25,000. Can you hire someone to do the work for that money or less? I think so.

In Time, We All Die

Generally, people think negatively about time. They think that it can’t be done. That there isn’t enough time to do it. That time is running out. That time is going to kill them in the end (yes it will). I suggest thinking positively. Think about how much we can do in the time given. Even better, how much more we can accomplish.

Act as if you believe that you can do most anything in an hour. Sure, you could end up taking longer than an hour (maybe two hours or two months), but you did accomplish something and maybe even eventually completed the goal. The progress is what counts. Psych and motivate yourself to exert the fullest effort by turning time into an optimistic cheerleader, instead of a pessimistic slave driver.

Remember, you can do a lot in an hour!

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Procrastination is Just a Feeling

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I procrastinated on writing this post about procrastination for half a year. I need help. I wonder why there is no 12 step program for procrastinators. At extreme, it is a mental health issue, right? Society tells us so, teaches us so and shames us so. It’s probably for the best because a procrastinator would rarely make it past step zero, showing up to the meeting.

droopy_dogInstead we procrastinators struggle alone, feeling like failures. Reading books and attending seminars in the hope that someone somewhere has a magic bullet to solve our compulsion to not do things that we need to do. Actually, we most likely read books and attend seminars to avoid doing stuff. Unfortunately, as with every other important problem, there is no magical quick fix.

Note: To me, procrastination can mean two things: delaying doing something until you do it, or delaying until you end up not doing it. Both cause a lot of stress and guilt. The former usually ends in sub-par results. The latter could result in catastrophic endings or be a huge windfall of effort saved.

No Rhyme or Reason

Everyone has their theory about the cause of procrastination and thus what the fix should be. Unfortunately, the causes and fixes are different and sometimes conflicting. I procrastinate because I fear failure. No, it’s because I fear success. I’m afraid to start because it is a huge undertaking. No, I don’t start because it is a small one and thus not worthwhile to do.

Since I could remember, I’ve procrastinated about some things and not others. In school, some subjects I study diligently for and others I would cram the night before an exam. Early at my job, I worked in cycles, months of extreme productivity followed by periods of forcing myself to do the minimum. Liking or hating didn’t seem to be the reason because I procrastinated on subjects I liked and did the work I hated and vice versa. Neither was wanting to please or not please family, friends, classmates, teachers, teammates, and managers. Fear or defiance of the consequences drove me to do or not do. I didn’t know why I was motivated or why I was not.

Just-In-Time Management

I tried time management tools like tracking my minutes or the Pomodoro Technique (which involves breaking work down into 25 minute intervals), but that was more work than just doing the work I was avoiding in the first place. I ended up using prioritized to-do lists and a calendar for meetings and appointments. My to-do lists are text documents that I frequently edit to sort tasks based upon importance and to delete tasks which are done or no longer necessary. When I feel motivated to work, I try to compete as many to-do items as possible.

Over time, I’ve trained myself to take care of the small tasks right away. For small tasks, the burden of having to remember to do them is greater than just doing them. It is a relief to complete them and checked them off in my mind. At work, for medium to big tasks, the angst of feeling like a failure or loser from not doing the task (in the eyes of peers and managers) is greater than just doing the task, so I do it. Outside of work, the medium to big tasks were problematic to do if they didn’t have undesirable consequences like family members being mad or the IRS asking where my tax return was. However, though I will complete the tasks to avoid the consequences, I may still procrastinate until the last moment and endure the stress.

For medium to big tasks that had no external consequences (like writing a novel on the side or learning a new language), my last theory was that I was afraid to start something because of the large time commitment. The solution I came up with was to trick myself by just committing to start for a short period of time, say 15 minutes only. Once I started, I usually ended up spending much more than 15 minutes. I explored this solution in a previous post, Roadblock To Nirvana (see the “A Simple Plan For The Rest Of My Life” and later sections). Unfortunately, some willpower was still necessary to overcome the fact that I knew that I was trying to trick myself into thinking of a large time commitment as a tiny commitment.

In the end, whether I procrastinated or not still depended upon how I was feeling, whether I could motivated myself or not. All the above were compensatory tools, to reduce the occurrence or duration of procrastination, that ended up not working most of the time.

Root of All Procrastination

These past few months, I’ve tried to find the root cause of procrastination. I’ve discovered that there is none. I procrastinate on anything for any number of reasons; from not going to the gym because my stomach felt a little bloated to not wanting to clean the bathroom because hey, it’s not a pleasant thing to do. I’m not motivated to do it so I don’t.

I’ve realized that there is no logical cause and no logical fix. No way to think myself out of this problem. It is because the problem is not thinking, it is feeling. Procrastination is just a feeling. Hey, I just feel like not doing it. As with any feeling, there is no way to reason with it. There may be no obvious cause for a feeling so digging for one would only turn up dead-ends and false positives that might make the situation worse. I can argue with myself about why I should not be having the feeling, but that doesn’t get rid of the feeling. I can override the feeling but eventually my willpower will be exhausted.

The only effective solution is to accept the feeling. To acknowledge that I don’t feel like doing something and then doing that something in spite of it. A small amount of willpower is still necessary, but I’m not fighting the feeling; I’m just letting it occupy the extra guest bedroom in my mind until it decides to leave. In the meantime, I just do what I need to do.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” – Stephen King

I still felt that something was missing. We are beings with free will so if I want to procrastinate, why shouldn’t I be able to? If I’m willing to accept the consequences of not doing something, what’s wrong with that? What is so bad about procrastination? From past experience, procrastination has helped me to avoid doing tasks which, at the last minute, turned out to be unnecessary. So there are good things about procrastination.

procrastination_poster

Saying that procrastination is just a feeling is incomplete. To be more accurate, procrastination is just a feeling of not wanting to do something that we have judged should be done. That is the conflict. For whatever reason, we have decided that something needs to be done and because we don’t do it, it remains at the back of our head that we didn’t do what we have committed ourselves to do. We didn’t meet the expectations we had of ourselves.

For me, having an unmet judgement or expectation results in mental baggage. We have failed ourselves and we can’t hide that failure from ourselves. Worse, resentment usually follows the disappointment. Who judged that we should do something? Who decided that we should do something we don’t feel like doing? Procrastination may be our rejection of that judgement. Our rebellious self could be saying, “You think it should be done… well I don’t and I’m going to prove it by not doing it.” Fatally, in the final analysis, the judge is us and we are only rejecting ourselves.

My solution is to remove the judgement and expectation, which would eliminate the resulting resentment and rejection. We should not have to do anything. We can choose to do something for whatever reason. There may be consequences like bad credit if we have late or missing payments. But if the consequences are acceptable, then the choice should exist as it always does. Do I do it now or not or ever? Any decision is fine. A decision not to do something is equivalent to deciding to accept the consequences of not doing that something.

Note: See my posts, Who Are We to Blindly Judge? and Expectations Are Bad, M’kay?, for tips on how to avoid making judgements and expectations.

In practice, expect to have feelings of procrastination often. When you can catch yourself feeling them, stop and accept those feelings. Try to realize if you are judging or expecting yourself to do that something. Determine the consequences of not doing. Then make a decision to do or not do. Over time, you will learn to be okay with having the feelings and doing or not doing.

Dark Side of No Stress

I implemented my solution above and ended up doing nothing beyond what is necessary. This is bad. I completed job tasks and other daily living tasks like paying rent. But I didn’t do anything extra that had no consequence, like writing a blog post. Without the self-imposed judgments and expectations driving me to do, I ended up not doing.

While it was peaceful and pleasantly stress-free, this was not the desired end state. The dark side of the solution is not getting much done because I don’t expect myself to do anything. It turns out that setting goals and expecting myself to accomplish those goals is what makes life interesting. It’s the drive that pushes me forward, to improve myself, meet interesting people, and experience new wonders.

It’s like when Alice asked the Cheshire Cat which way she should go:

Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
(from Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

Goals determine which way we should go. Without them, I ended up stuck in the same spot, not forcing myself to take a step in either direction. This state of being is stress-free and stagnant.

On Pain of Doing

Rather than re-introduce my self judgments and expectations and their attendants, stress and guilt, the answer is to make the consequences so undesirable or unpleasant that I would decide to do what I have determined I should do. Or to make the goals so pleasurable and worthwhile that I would want to do them anyhow.

I needed to identify my important goals. Goals that would be painful not to do. The goals that I would regret not pursuing on my deathbed. The goals that if I didn’t make an effort to accomplish would render my life void of meaning. I’m talking about those goals.

I didn’t need to succeed at those goals, I just needed to try my best. They could be one or many. I could do them one at a time or several at once. They just needed my attention and doing.

I’m not sure if the above will work, but at least I’m moving in one direction. Whether it is the right or wrong way, I do not know… I just feel like doing something.

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