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Copious free time? Carefully protected!

Posted: - Modified: | life, productivity, reflection, time

While we were chatting about hobbies, one of my mentors joked about my copious free time.

“My carefully protected free time,” I said, and I realized it was true.

“Free” time is valuable. Limiting my work time forces me to work more effectively and efficiently, while giving me the space to explore things that often turn out to be surprisingly useful.

So much depends on how you approach life. Some people tell me I do a lot. Some people say I have too much time on my hands. I think I’m okay. It’s the same life, the same 24 hours.

I try to be intentional about how I spend time. Life is short. There’s so much to learn and share. I think a lot about time. I care about work-life balance. I limit the overtime I work. I plan what to do with blocks of free time. I think about what I do well and how I can do things even better, which helps me free time and smoothen routines.

I play. I relax. That’s important as well. 

There are more things I’d like to do than I have time to do, but I’m happy because I can spend time on what matters to me. In order to do the rest, I help other people learn as much as they can so that they can help make things happen. That’s the superpower I’m working on.

Consciously choose how you spend time and arrange your life to do so, and you’ll probably be happier with the time you have. We all have different priorities and commitments. Some people have fewer responsibilities, and others have more. It doesn’t matter how much or how little other people do. All that matters is what you do, whether you’re happy with it, and how you can be even happier.

I think that’s the difference between feeling overworked and feeling that you have enough time to breathe.

Unstructured time

Posted: - Modified: | life, time

The first thread: Paul Graham described the difference between makers’ schedules and managers’ schedules as the difference between needing long chunks of time to focus versus switching tasks frequently, such as every hour. Makers such as programmers and writers do their best when “in the zone”, when they reach the flow state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Interruptions break concentration.

The second thread: W- and I were talking about plans for our upcoming vacation. He’s planning to take two weeks off so that he can spend them with J-, who’ll be with us for two weeks and who had decided that she would rather not attend any summer camps this year. As he’s taking his vacation during the week of my birthday and the week after that, I thought I’d take part of my saved overtime as well so that I can share more memories. Due to my paperwork situation (I can’t leave Canada at the moment), they ruled out a trip to New York even though I urged them to take the first circus. Because of our cats, we probaby won’t wander far from Toronto. So a staycation it is.

Tying the threads together: For us, staycations aren’t about sleeping in. They’re unstructured time, maker time, when we can use large chunks of focus to develop skills that are difficult to work on during evenings or weekends. W- and J- are particularly looking forward to developing their photography skills through deliberate practice.

I could work from home and just join W- and J- in the evenings (or work in the evenings and take some breaks during the day). Taking the time as a proper vacation, though, means that I can use that maker time to improve my skills to the point where I can make even better use of evenings and weekends in the future. For example, if I can get much better at photography, then our casual photography trips will be more rewarding. If I can get much better at sewing, then my occasional sewing weekend will be more fruitful. If I can get much better at presentations and storytelling, then my occasional talk will be even more effective. Up-front investment yields continuing returns. Yes, my billable utilization is lower, but the concentrated skill development will make me a better person and a better employee.

I spent some time reflecting on what I would do with unstructured time. I started by thinking about what I would do with a life of unstructured time–if I achieve financial independence. Then I thought about what I’d do with a year, as I might have if I take a sabbatical (which is a very good practice, I’ve heard). Then I reflected on progressively smaller increments: a month, two weeks, a week, an evening, an hour, five minutes. Starting with a wide-open field and narrowing it down made it easier to see how I felt about different activities.

What would I do with a life of unstructured time?
Start businesses
Make and deliver presentations for fun
Write blog posts and e-books
Visit friends and family
Get really good at delegating and working with a network
Get really good at drawing and photography
Replace my entire wardrobe with things I’ve sewn myself
Take lessons on how to play the piano, and get to the point where I can easily read and play music
Host lots of get-togethers
Build systems to make my life and other people’s lives better
Pick up lots of skills and interests

What would I do with a year or two of unstructured time?
Start a business
Take courses or make up my own
Cook lots of recipes
Host a number of get-togethers
Make and deliver presentations for fun
Learn how to play a few piano pieces well
Build a system to make my life and other people’s lives better
Replace most of my wardrobe with things I’ve sewn myself
Make a couple of photo collections
Write a couple of short e-books

What would I do with a month of unstructured time?
Get started on a new skill
Make an e-book
Learn a piano piece
Sew a few outfits
Make a photo collection
Polish my presentations and draft new ones
Bike every day
Revamp my site
Cook a number of new recipes

What would I do with two weeks of unstructured time?
Polish my existing presentations
Gather and organize material for new presentations
Organize the house
Bike every day
Learn a new sewing skill (maybe making tops)
Get started on a new piano piece
Try a new recipe or two
Host a get-together

What would I do with one week of unstructured time?
Gather and organize material for new presentations
Organize the house
Braindump, read, and explore
Cook a new recipe
Sew an item
Explore one kind of photography

What would I do with a weekend of unstructured time?
Go for a bike ride
Tidy up the house
Organize a room
Work on an outfit
Practice a piano piece
Cook something new
Organize a get-together
Explore one kind of photography
Process my photos
Do some long-term brainstorming

What would I do with a day of unstructured time?
Write a few blog posts
Brainstorm and reflect
Mindmap/draw a presentation
Tidy up the house
Play a bit of piano
Take a few pictures

What would I do with an evening of unstructured time?
Brainstorm, reflect, and blog
Tidy up
Practice a piano segment
Prepare a presentation
Process photos
Sew a little bit

What would I do with an hour of unstructured time?
Practice a piano segment
Mindmap a presentation

What would I do with five minutes of unstructured time?
Brainstorm and reflect
Share a laugh

This list is sure to change, but it’s a useful start. =)

Creative work can be squeezed into five minutes here and there. It’s nice having a block of time where you can focus, though, and I think it’ll definitely be worth taking a vacation. Not only will I develop skills, but I’ll also get better at making the most of unstructured time.

What would you do with unstructured time?

Making the most of opportunities – tips for managing time, energy, and money

Posted: - Modified: | finance, time

Over dinner at Linuxcaffe last night, my friends and I had a great time catching up and sharing our latest adventures. I learned a lot from that conversation, too! =) In particular: the value of a crazy idea kitty fund.

Nigel asked me if I knew lots of other people who were also experimenting with delegation and virtual assistance. I told him that a number of people were interested, but few people actually took the next step and gave it a try.

It’s understandable. Even in good times, most people don’t experiment with ideas because:

  • they don’t set aside time, energy and money for doing so
  • they second-guess themselves, or
  • they don’t know how to even get started.

In order to make the most of opportunities, you need time and energy–and often, money too.

You can free up more time for experimentation and learning. Trim your passive leisure time, like the time you might’ve spent watching cable television, if you still do. Find ways to do things more efficiently, like occasionally working from home in order to save your commute time. Increase your productivity so that you can get your work done in less time. Reassess how you spend your time and whether you can eliminate some activities or adapt them to include the new things you want to do. Batch your work for more productivity. Buy time back by asking or paying someone else to take care of some tasks.

People often tell me that they’d love to save time, but they don’t have the time to figure out how they can. If you’re running flat out and there’s no room in your schedule for even five minutes to breathe and think, you’re running at an unsustainable pace. Slow down. This may require you to adjust people’s expectations of what you can deliver, at least in the beginning. But you need that time to think and make things better, and you’ll benefit a lot from having a little more control over how you invest your time.

You can manage your energy. Figure out what and who give you energy, and what and who drain it. Figure out if you enjoy starting projects or finishing them, at what times of the day and in which circumstances you’re most productive. Manage around that instead of fighting yourself.

I know my passions and what I can do to pursue them. I’m surrounded by wonderful, supportive people who cheer me on and help me recognize room for even more improvement. I can finish some projects, but I can start many more projects than I alone can finish. I’m definitely a starter, although there are some things that are difficult for me to get rolling. I’m better doing creative work in the morning than in the afternoon. I work well when I’m not worried about deadlines and when I have room to make things better.

How can you go about understanding your energy? Experiment and reflect. =)

You can save up money. Invest in yourself. When coming up with ideas or experimenting with new things, it pays to be able to invest a little on things that may or may not work out.

How do you make space for this? Keep track of all your expenses and see which ones aren’t worth it. Set up automatic savings programs so you don’t even see the money in your bank account. Spend less on things and more on experiments and experiences. Focus on free or low-cost ideas in the beginning, and snowball your savings by reinvesting your profits back into your “crazy idea fund”.

You can explore lots of interesting things when you set aside some time, energy, and money. Good luck and have fun!

Kaizen: Moving time around

Posted: - Modified: | kaizen, life, productivity, time

I recently (re)discovered that writing is much easier and more enjoyable in the early morning when I’m fresh and focused than late at night when I’m thinking more about what I’m doing at work. To take advantage of this, I’ve been slowly moving my waking time earlier and earlier. Yesterday, I went to bed at 9 after tidying up and preparing for the next day. Today, I got up at 5:15. It was fifteen minutes later than I’d set the alarm clock for, but I realized that the dream I was dreaming wasn’t all that interesting compared to what I might learn if I started writing.

Moving tasks to the night before can support this early-morning writing by freeing up more time. The more I can do the night before, the less I need to do the morning after – and it pays off even when the exchange isn’t 1:1. For example, moving the half-hour I used to spend cooking steel-cut oats for breakfast from morning to evening means that I spend just a few minutes heating up a breakfast with much more texture than instant oatmeal. I packed my lunch last night, so I just need to grab it from the fridge and head out the door. I checked my purse for my keys and badge, too. Doing these little things the night before helps me streamline my morning routine.

What else can I do to free up time? I might try watering the plants in the late afternoon or try outlining in the evenings. OpenLoops has good tips for making the most of these early morning hours, and I’m sure I’ll discover more along the way.

I’d also like to look into freeing up weekend time. I used to save laundry loads and library runs for the weekend, but if I can use my weekday evenings to take care of these things, then that frees up a larger block of uninterrupted time.

Reflecting on time and overtime

Posted: - Modified: | career, life, reflection, sketches, time, work


This week gave me an opportunity to think about time, work, and money.

I had spent much of Sunday and my evenings on conference-related work. As much as I enjoyed the opportunity to reach out and touch people I wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet, I also realized that it was time I took away from my personal projects and my other relationships. By the time the conference wrapped up on Wednesday, I was looking forward to a quiet day working at home.

Although I’d already worked the typical number of hours for the week, I still felt that I needed to keep working on Thursday and Friday. I wanted to make some more progress on my main billable project, and I was also helping a number of volunteer efforts get off the ground. I put in a full day of work on Thursday, and I headed into the office on Friday.

After I did some more work on my main billable project, demonstrated some of our internal Web 2.0 tools, and replied to my e-mail, I looked into the process for filing overtime. I had given the company my personal time because the company wanted the value I could create, so I figured that I should be able to get some of that value back. I knew I could be compensated in either money or time, but I needed to do some paperwork.

Catching myself getting frustrated by the process for filing overtime, I decided to put off the paperwork until next week and enjoy some of the time that I had earned.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the opportunities I have to grow and work with such wonderful people. I just want to make sure that I’m living the values that I want to live, because I won’t be effective if I’m not authentic. This doesn’t mean that I don’t love my work. This means I love it enough to want to always love it, instead of coming to resent it or losing touch with myself.

During my commute back, I looked at the options of no overtime, overtime for money, overtime for time, and free overtime, thinking about their effects on my happiness, relationships, increased opportunities to help, career progress, and bank balance. This is the chart I sketched on the subway ride home.080718-21.49.23

VALUES: Personal happiness and relationships are very important to me. I enjoy opportunities to help, but I’m not too worried about it because there are more than enough awesome opportunities to reach out and make a difference, both inside and outside work. I think about but am not overly concerned with career growth, because that tends to follow opportunities to help. Money is flexible. I don’t mind growing wealth and I’d like to share in the value I create, but because I enjoy being frugal and I don’t have many financial demands, I’m not driven to earn more and more.


No overtime: If I try my best to stay within the 40-44 hours that forms a "typical" work week, I think this will have a terrific effect on my happiness and my relationships. I’ll be able to explore other areas, exercise my creativity, and keep myself from going overboard. I’ll miss out on some opportunities to help at work and my career won’t progress as quickly as other people’s might, but I’ll have more opportunities to help outside work and those opportunities may turn into things that can make money for me, too. This doesn’t stop me from volunteering on things I love about work during my free time (but only the things I love!). =) What will I do with the rest of the time? Experience new things, think, learn, write, dream, doodle, listen, share, grow…

Overtime compensated by money: Ideally it would be overtime for something I really enjoy and would be doing anyway, but even in that case, I’d still have to deal with the paperwork. Once I sort out the paperwork, though, this will be less stressful. (I should revise this chart after I complete the process a number of times.) On the downside, I might find myself doing overtime on things I don’t particularly care about, in which case I’ll probably feel the strain of not enough rest, reflection, or creative randomness. I may also end up finding it easier to focus on work than on relationships, so that’s not too good either. In addition, money is flexible, but time is irreplaceable. On the upside, it’ll open up more opportunities to help at work, it would be good for my career (particularly that utilization target), and it would grow my bank balance (well, after taxes). It’s also a good way of making sure that I spend time on things that other people will find valuable.

Overtime compensated by time later on: This depends on the circumstances. I would need to fill out paperwork and coordinate with my team members, which will take effort. On the other hand, if this allows me to move time around so that I can have more chunks of free time, then that can work out well for personal happiness and relationships. If I can put in work when demand is high and take time for myself when demand is low, then my opportunities and career would probably be positively affected. On the other hand, there will probably always be demand, and it’s hard to take a break when other people are working hard.

Free overtime: I can skip the paperwork, but that doesn’t solve the problem of being more stressed because I give up time spent on rest, reflection, learning, or relationships. It’s good for opportunities and career, and has a neutral effect on money.

SUMMARY: My intuition tells me that the no overtime case gets me closest to living my values without too much stress, and even if that might limit my career advancement, it opens so much more of life to me. Overtime for money and overtime for time are pretty much tied, but it’ll be a moot point because overtime is going to be phased out for my job category next year. Free overtime is good for the company, but it doesn’t help me confront and try to live my values, and it’s too easy to get sucked into work.

I’m going to work on the paperwork so that I can get what I’m eligible for and so that I can understand the process. After that, I’ll avoid working overtime unless the company really really needs it, and then I’ll see if I can either take that as time off (preferably) or as money.

I think it’s good to think out loud about things like this. I’ve learned more about my tradeoffs, and I’d love to hear your insights. If my employer disagrees with the way I currently think, I’d rather hear about it now (and maybe work out a different view?) than later. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love my work. Again: all this means I love it enough to want to always love it, instead of coming to resent it. I hope that by thinking about my values and decisions, I can make the fit better and better.

Enough time: a new hire’s reflections

Posted: - Modified: | career, life, time

After one of the new hires read my blog, she asked me, "How do you find the time to do what you do?" This was after I’d sent her a couple of useful links, so I didn’t think she meant it in the "You have too much time on your hands" kind of way. I said that I saved lots of time and and I use that time to get good enough at what I do so that people want me to do what I want to do. After reflecting on the question, though, I realized that my answer is at least half-wrong.

It’s not about time management or productivity.

I probably work less than most new hires do. I don’t work long hours because my evenings and weekends are full of wonderful things to do. (Okay, I do some work in the evenings and on the weekends, but that’s because it’s fun.) I’ve also kept a careful rein on the urge to immerse myself in work because I’ve heard that it can take over one’s life. This is not to say that people who live for work have made the wrong choice (we owe so much to people like them!), but I like the balance I have.

I don’t think I work significantly smarter than other people do. This is not about tips for handling e-mail faster or to make better use of your downtime. I’ve read a good number of productivity books and blogs, and I’ve incorporated many of their suggestions into my habits, but that’s really more to minimize frustration than to trim every last minute and streamline my daily routines. Besides, all these things are things other people can do. Whenever I come across something that saves me time, I try to teach it to other people–lifting as I climb. I’m not looking for a competitive advantage. I want to make the path even easier for other people than it was for me.

Besides, it’s difficult to compare productivity anyway. Let’s take my current project. I can read and figure out PHP code quickly, but it takes me forever to do cascading style sheet designs for websites. Am I faster or slower than my teammate? I don’t think it matters. My manager and my team members are happy with my work. I fulfill my end of the deal, and I help other people work more productively as well. I’m happy with my work and how I spend my time, and that’s probably the best result.

So if it’s not about longer hours or greater productivity, what’s the deal, then?

These three things are true about time: you will always have the same amount of time in one day as other people do, there will never be enough time to do everything, and there’s plenty of time to do the things that matter. The first point is the answer to "Where do you find the time to do this?" The second point is what stresses lots of people out. The third point is what makes all of that easier to deal with. It’s like the difference between a half-empty glass and a half-full glass. If you’re stressed out because you feel you don’t have enough time, you’ll feel even worse and you’ll use up more energy when you’re doing things. If you’re happy that you have the time to do a number of valuable things and maybe even a little more, you’ll feel better and you’ll bring that energy to your work and your life. So much of happiness is in how you see things.

What matters? For me, my formal responsibilities matter. My team relies on me to do certain kinds of work. I can see the value in what I’m doing, and I know that if I do a good job at what I do, I help other people create even more value doing the work they do. So yes, my work matters.

But my formal responsibilities aren’t everything. Even when it comes to work, I feel that it’s important for me not to run totally flat out. Some people relish that kind of challenge. Me, I can probably pull it off as a sprint, but not a marathon. I’m not the kind of person you want working 80-hour weeks, schedule packed to the brim. I need gaps of unstructured, potentially "unproductive" time.

Where does that "unproductive" time go? I use that time to reflect, to learn, to reach out, and to share what I’m learning.

I regularly reflect on what I’ve been doing, how I’ve been doing it, how I can do it better, and where I want to go. This helps me practice relentless improvement. Reflection is such an important part of the way I work and live that when I don’t give myself the time to step back, I feel raw, stretched, frayed. I need that quiet time. I need that space to learn, and I need that space to share.

When I learn, I divide my time between focused skill-building (like the way I’d burn through twenty books on a single topic or focus on a particular programming platform), general scanning (a feed reader makes it easy to stay up to date), and random-walking in search of serendipitous connections. All three types of learning have given me incredible value, not only for myself but also for other people. Focused skill-building gives me the deep knowledge I can use at work and I can share with others. General scanning lets me fish out just the right example from my memory when we’re throwing ideas around at a meeting. Random-walking helps me draw connections between different areas.

Reaching out to people lets me find opportunities to learn more and to be of even more help. I’m a little shy about inviting people out for a walk or interrupting their concentration with an instant message, but I feel comfortable commenting on blog entries or e-mailing people about something we’ve talked about. My blog also helps me reach out. People come across it for all sorts of different reasons, such as a search result, an e-mail signature, or a casual conversation. If they find it useful, they sometimes write to say hi or to ask a question. So even if I’m shy or busy working on something else, my blog is always out there, reaching out to people for me.

My blog is also the primary place where I share what I’m learning. Teaching something helps you learn it more effectively, and you can create lots of value by doing so. I spent at least two days struggling with multi-step form validation in Drupal, and I happily spent fifteen minutes writing about it in the hopes of saving other people time. I try to do the same with the other things I learn. Teaching what I’m learning is a natural fit with my reflections. It helps me learn more effectively. It’s a terrific way to reach out. I also give presentations, answer questions through e-mail, coach people over the phone, and talk to people. A lot of that material starts out as a blog post, though, as I try to figure out what I want to say and how to say it.

Teaching–whether it’s an informal blog post or a dressed-up presentation–is a fantastic way to keep getting extra value from the time you’ve already spent learning something. It’s like what I tell myself when I make a mistake or when I spend a long time trying to figure something out: "You’ve already paid the tuition. Now collect the paycheck." If you’re the one in that situation, you know that the time you spent is gone. You won’t be able to get it back. What you can do, however, is not only to learn the lesson, but to get even more value out of it by sharing it with others. It’s like passive income, except it’s about creating additional value over and over again. A little investment of time now can save lots of people time in the future, and that has a way of working out for you too.

So that’s the long answer to "How do you find the time to do the things you do?" I do this stuff because it matters to me. It looks like it matters to other people too, so maybe I’m on to something here. I hope it works for you too!

Too much time on her hands

Posted: - Modified: | life, time

“Where do you find the time to do that?” That’s what I often hear from people when I talk about blogging, social networking, or anything outside their current habits. I’ve also heard this as “I don’t have the time to even learn about that,” or even “In order to follow that advice, you have to have a REALLY good job where you don’t have to do any real work.” They’re all variations on the “Too much spare time on his hands” put-down dissected by Cory Doctorow in his excellent blog post.

Too much time on my hands. I’ve heard that a lot. People use it as a convenient excuse to dismiss what I’m saying, to not take action, to not think about what they’re currently doing and what they can do better. And that’s okay–as long as they’re being intellectually honest about their excuse.

When I handle this question at my presentations, I usually show that all the activities I talk about can be salami-sliced into things that people are already doing. Spent two hours searching for how to solve a problem? Spend another two or three minutes posting the solution on your blog so that you can remember it and so that you can teach others. Reviewing the previous week and planning the next one? Blog about it as a way of sharing your progress.

People who understand the principle of relentless improvement (kaizen) and are interested in something will almost automatically find those slices. People who want to learn something but who don’t know how to get started will find those slice suggestions useful. People who think it’s a waste of time will shake their heads and say things like “She has too much time on her hands.”

Clay Shirky made an excellent point about spare time and what people choose to do with them. Here’s an excerpt from one of his presentations about Wikipedia and cognitive surplus:

[The television producer] heard this story [about Wikipedia] and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

Clay Shirky, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Too much spare time on my hands? =) We all have moments when we don’t have to do anything. People can spend that time watching television or indulging vices, or people can do something that helps them and helps other people. As long as people are happy with the way they spend their time and the consequences of their choices, then they’re fine. But if they use “I don’t have the time for that” as an excuse to avoid thinking about how they spend their time, then that’s their decision.

It’s not about having time. It’s about choosing how to spend time. I’m still learning how to do so, and I think I’ll always need to learn more and more about the best use of my time. But I’m pretty happy with the way I spend time – there’s always more to do, but I’m pretty good at doing good things. When I hear other people say, “She has too much time on her hands”, I hear it as less of a statement about me and more of a statement about them.

How about you? How do you feel about time?