For a person living under the poverty line, the most important resources are food and shelter.
For a person living in a war-torn country like Syria, the most important resource is peace.
What is the most important resource in your life?
The answer is quite simple —
the most important resource in your life is your personal time.
There is another important difference. The person living under the poverty line and the person in the war-torn country do not have control over their conditions. But YOU have almost complete control over your life.
And yet, sometime in your life, surely you have found yourself saying / believing the following, “I really want to do this, but I just do not have the time.”
This is true for so many of us. We have so many desires and ambitions. To travel. To explore. To write. To paint. To create. To be an entrepreneur. To exercise regularly… The list goes on.
The specific desires may be different for each of us. But common to all of us is that we find ourselves running short of time in fulfilling our own aspirations. Between the work-week, and the chore-filled weekend (laundry, groceries, socializing etc.), we never find the time or energy to seek our unique ambitions.
But wait… What if I told you that there was some lost time that could be retrieved? What if I told you that even the busiest of persons could find time in their super-busy schedule? Well I am sure you would not believe me at first. But hear me out, and you can decide at the end.
I do not find the time to exercise
Let us take up the example of exercising. This is something most of us want to add (or need to add) to our life’s schedule. Yet, I hear so many friends and relatives admitting that they are so busy that they do not find the time to exercise.
I am no exercise freak myself. I am also not one of those guys who is hitting the gym every day, or who is perpetually doing some outdoor activity like hiking, biking etc. But I do make it a point to exercise as often as I can. Also, it is amongst my most firm beliefs in life that everyone should exercise regularly. So when someone tells me that they do not get the time to exercise, I tell them the following (or at least feel like telling them):
“If the President of USA Barack Obama, holding what is possibly the most stressful job on the planet, then surely you can do so too.” (Link)
Well, I could tell you that it is all a matter of prioritizing. But that would be so passe. First, setting priorities is tough. And next, adhering to a well planned and prioritized schedule is super difficult.
Instead, what I will tell you is this:
STOP CHECKING E-MAIL OR FACEBOOK TILL NOON.
Sounds ridiculous, right? You might think, “How can such a simple thing affect such a major change in my life?” Let me explain…
Immediate Gratification Syndrome
First, let us admit something. We like e-mail. And we love Facebook.
Facebook is like the ultimate manifestation of immediate gratification. ‘Like’ a friend’s pics here. ‘Share’ another friend’s status update there. Sad news in someone’s family? – feel a moment of sadness and express condolence. Then move on again. Find an inspirational quote shared by a friend — hit ‘Like’. Awwww, another cute cat video. LOL. Facebook is like a ‘WaterfALL‘ of micro-emotions cascading continuously right in front of us. No wonder we find ourselves hanging out at Facebook so often to take a break from a dreary work-day, or just to pass time.
Similarly, it is only human of us to feel happy when we find some unread mail in our inbox at the start of the day. So when we find some e-mails that can be replied to quickly, we tend to immediately shoot off those replies. Hitting the ‘Send’ button gives us immediate gratification, and we tend to repeat this whenever possible. Then there are e-mails which require longer consideration, and hence more time for a response. Typically, unless these are directly related to our work, these e-mails remain as drafts in our mailboxes and are never sent.
In the end, we interact with both Facebook and e-mail as a mediums for transacting micro-emotions. Whether this is good or bad is not up for judgement. The fact is that Facebook and e-mail are here to stay.
Instead what I want to point out is that we should avoid using Facebook and e-mail as mediums of micro-emotion at least till noon.
Morning makes the day
Sages have said and scientific research has shown that, for most of us, morning is the most productive time of our day. This is when our mental and physical abilities are at their peak. It is no mere coincidence that most of the world starts work in the morning. (If you are one of those people who have their productive times at another period of the day, or starts work at a different time, feel free to use ‘morning’ as a placeholder in the rest of the article for your most productive time of the day.)
Remember how our parents always kept telling us to get up early and start studying? Though we hate to admit it, they were right. Morning is when we should do the toughest tasks of the day. Well, as grown ups, we need to take care of a few other things e.g. getting ready for work, commuting to work, fixing breakfast, dropping kids to school etc. But for the remaining time in our mornings (up to before lunch-time), we should attempt to reduce distractions as much as possible.
Keep Facebook as your after-lunch treat
First, restrain yourself from checking Facebook till after lunch-time. If you have a habit of checking Facebook when you wake up, or if you tend to check it a few times before lunch, getting off that habit will be difficult. Also you might think, “I check Facebook only for a couple of minutes each time. What harm can that do?” So here’s the deal — keep Facebook as your after-lunch treat. Basically you want to minimize the morning’s distractions as much as possible. Removing distractions increases concentration, so you will find it easier to knock off some tough tasks from your to-do list every morning. And thus you will have earned your sweet Facebook time by lunch-time.
Also post-lunch is the worst time to get any work done (all the blood-flow is in the tummy anyway). This is an ideal time for lazing around at Facebook.
e-mail is a totally different beast
Keeping away from Facebook is a binary (ON to OFF) task, so it is relatively easy to measure your success in this endeavor. e-mail, on the other hand, is a totally different beast.
For most of us, e-mail is the primary means of communication at our workplace. So staying away from e-mail for the entire morning is difficult, if not impossible. So why am I asking for the impossible? I am doing so because many efficiency experts and thought leaders have pointed out the same:
- Heard of the 80/20 rule or the Pareto principle? Robert Kiyosaki (famed author of the bestselling book “Rich Dad Poor Dad“) had pointed out that 20% of the world’s population owns 80% of the world’s money. More recently, Tim Ferris (“Four Hour Workweek“) showed that the same rule applies to time management too — we do 80% of our work in 20% of the total time. This means that we are highly inefficient for the remaining 80% of our time at work.
Now guess what is one of the biggest time killers at work? Yes, it is e-mail.
- Cal Newport (Professor of Computer Science Town at Georgetown University, and author of the book “How to be a high school superstar”) explains in a fantastic piece how, in a research study,:
technology workers would make it, on average, only 11 minutes into a project before being distracted. It then took 25 minutes to return to the task post-distraction
He also explains the concept of batched e-mail checking — keeping all routine tasks like e-mail restricted to two or three sessions of 30 minutes per day. This way, the rest of the day is kept clear of similar diversions, thus allowing one to “work in big chunks without distraction.”
- In his book ‘Focus‘, Leo Babauta writes how e-mail, Facebook, Twitter etc. provide instant positive feedback, and slowly get us addicted to constantly checking these. He stresses that what others call as ‘The age of information’ is actually the ‘The age of distraction’. For example, while social networks allow us to be constantly connected to the world, being a little disconnected might actually be helpful.
Some personal observation exercises
I hope that all my writing has convinced you that constant checking of e-mail and/or Facebook is actually taking up a lot of your life’s time. If you are not yet convinced, try to observe yourself on your next work-day (especially in the period before lunch). Try these following exercises:
- How often did you check e-mail during the morning?
- How many e-mails did you send? And how many of those could have waited till after lunch?
- Did you spend at least 15 minutes on Facebook?
- Did you head over to your inbox to check a particular e-mail, but spent more time than planned because you saw other e-mails in your inbox?
- Did you get new e-mail / Facebook / chat notifications on your desktop (through popups), or on your phone (through push notifications)? And if so, did you immediately check out those notifications?
- Were you able to complete a major chunk of your work during the morning, or was your time taken up by other activities / distractions?
In most cases, you will find that you have room for improvement. For example, fifteen minutes of Facebook might seem extremely trivial at first. To disprove this, try a reverse experiment. Replace that same ‘trivial’ 15 minute period of Facebook checking by doing another activity each day (something that you really wanted to do, but never got time for). You may do something as simple as taking a 15 minute walk some time in the morning, or reading a book (or listening to a podcast) during the morning commute. You will find that at the end of a month of this exercise, you will be addicted to those 15 minutes of your personal time. Only that this time, it will be a good addiction!
The final verdict
Do I still sense some skepticism in you about my approach for disconnecting yourself from e-mail and Facebook during the morning? Well, I will leave you with a few other pointers in this direction:
- Your job may not allow you to avoid e-mail for the entire morning. Then try batching your e-mail habits. Keep a period of 30 minutes each morning when you will check (and respond to) your e-mail. Promise yourself that you will not check e-mail any other time during the morning.
You may repeat the 30 minute e-mail window one or two more times during the day. Sticking to this habit will make you immensely more efficient at managing your work through e-mail. (For more details on uber-efficiency through e-mail, check out ‘Four Hour Workweek‘ by Tim Ferris.)
- There is a software application called ‘Freedom‘ (for Mac). This application blocks the user from using the internet for a preset period of time. This is a best-selling application, and many creative gurus swear by it. Makes you wonder why, doesn’t it?
Thus, multiple things point out to the same thing — (to extend what Cal Newport said in his piece ‘A Day Without Distraction‘):
Check email (and Facebook) only a small number of times per day! Work in big chunks without distraction! Everyone has heard this suggestion. But almost no one follows it.
Of course, if your job requires extreme responsiveness, or if you are one of those super-focused people whose concentration is at 100% despite continuous distractions, then you may ignore my advice in this post. But for most of us, the simple change of reducing distractions in your morning can change your entire day (and life).
Trust me and try it out — check Facebook zero times, and e-mail zero or one time before noon. And let me know in a few weeks time if you do get a better grip of your time. I can bet that you will!