“You have to live on this twenty-four hours of daily time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect, and the evolution of your immortal soul. Its right use, its most effective use, is a matter of the highest urgency and of the most thrilling actuality. All depends on that. Your happiness — the elusive prize that you are all clutching for, my friends! — depends on that.”
― Arnold Bennett, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day
I was deeply fascinated reading Arnold Bennett’s book “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day” years ago. In it he expresses his puzzlement of the amount of literature and focus that people put on the “money problem” — how to get by on X-amount of money — however, almost none on how to get by on 24 hours a day. The world offers countless possible activities, a multitude of possible paths to follow, infinite lives to be lived, but at the same time you have been bestowed with a very finite time on this earth. In light of longevity research still being far away from cracking the code of immortality, we have no other choice than to accept this and make the best out of it.
Now while back in Bennett’s days, there was not much to read and learn about how to maximize the utility of time, today we see a very different landscape. One quick search on Google or Lifehacker reveals countless posts and videos that offer productivity systems and tactics to optimize the 24 hours in a day. So why is it that we still can’t seem to get a grasp of it nearly as much as we want to? Sometimes days seem to fly by in a blur without us getting that much done at all. To-do lists grow larger by the hour until the day comes where deadlines catch up to us and we are forced to buckle down. Such work sprints lead to stress and sub-quality work. Even worse, sometimes the sprint might not be enough because of some unexpected complication taking the only time left we need for successful completion. While we all seem to be more busy and occupied, we are not getting more done.
There are thousands of tactics that promise to give you your time back. Get up at 5AM, complete every task that takes two minutes or less immediately, pre-prepare your meals for the week, etc. But adapting one or multiple of these tactics does not lead to the desired result. It seems as if they only tackle one aspect of a deeper problem.
“But what about productivity systems?”, you might argue, “Aren’t they working on a holistic scale?”. Well yes, however, they are highly individual and different systems work for different people. There are thousands of productivity systems out there and most of them will not work for you.
I tried David Allen’s “Getting Things Down” method or used tools like Habitica, Trello, or Todoist to increase my productivity. Now, after about three years of deliberate experimentation have even found a system that works for me. But that is exactly the problem, it works for me. Tools, tactics, and even systems are highly individual and what works for me might not work for you.
However, I have found that in all those productivity advice, there are underlying principles that are largely the same throughout. Hence, instead of providing yet another set of tools and tactics to be more productive, I aim to provide the principles that allow you to find your own personalized way of getting more out of your 24 hours. These five principles apply to everyone.
Know your “what” and “why”
Every day you decide how to spend your 24 hours. You have countless options to spend the next hour. As humans, we tend to deal badly with too many options. It often ends in decision paralysis or in us automatically typing “youtu…” in our browser or opening Instagram on our phone.
It is essentially a question of priority. Therefore, knowing your “Why” is crucial. Only when you are clear about what you want to achieve with your time (your “Why”) can you derive what you should do (your “What”).
Are you actually browsing through that feed because you take value or enjoyment out of it? Or is it just your default option when you are bored or want to avoid something more important?
Being clear about your “Why” is the basis for using your time purposefully and what to do with your 24 hours becomes clear.
Dead time vs. alive time
Robert Greene coined the terms of dead and alive time. The idea is ancient and already found in Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s writing. It is the most important distinction for how you look at your time.
Dead time is the time that does not contribute to your goals and overall well-being. It is you scrolling mindlessly through your feed while commuting. It is you watching passively the third episode of that sitcom you think is “alright” in a row.
Alive time on the other hand is the opposite. This time is spent on things that enrich your life in some meaningful way. That does not exclude leisure. To stay with the TV example, it is you watching a great movie that gets you thinking or gives you a different perspective. This definitely counts. It all depends on your individual goals and the value the time provides. Alive time enriches your life where dead time does not.
You always want to maximize alive time while minimizing dead time in your life.
Measure your time
Of course, now is the time to quote the management guru Peter Drucker:
“What gets measured, gets managed”
But as with most of these annoying quotes you see a thousand times, it is actually true. The reason is consciousness. If you track something you make yourself aware of it. This makes it impossible to make passive and unconscious decisions about it.
I dare you to roughly write down how many hours each week you spend on things. How many hours do you sleep? How many hours do you eat? What about chores and admin stuff? What about work? Friends? Fun? Commuting? Write down an estimate of all the activities you do in a week and sum it up. You should get roughly 168 hours. If not, you “lose” time somewhere. This means that you spend a lot of time on things that you do not remember or you underestimate the time things actually take. Both of these things you do not want. Seneca warned against this almost 2’000 years ago in his book “On the Shortness of Life”:
“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”
If you want to know for sure, track your time for a week or two. Sebastian Marshall from Ultraworking goes so far to track his time in five minutes intervals. I never went that far and do not plan to. I do roughly track a normal week once a year to check if my life still aligns with my priorities.
Tracking your time gives you the opportunity to readjust. It shows you how and on what you spend your time and allows you to ask yourself: Is this how I want to spend my time?
Effectivity over efficiency
Productivity hacks are a big thing nowadays. Tactics like Steven Olenki’s “2-Minute Rule” and ridiculously expansive “Best productivity tool” lists promise new heights of task-management. Tools and tactics help you how to be more efficient, meaning doing things the right way.
More important, however, is being effective or doing the right things. As Tony Robbins says, the tragedy of life is that most people “major in minor things”. If you become very efficient at doing something that is of low value to you, well, that is lost time right there. Instead you should prioritize your tasks and activities according to your “Why”. Then finish the high-ranked tasks with higher priority than the low-listed ones.
This principle is connected to Pareto’s 80/20 rule. Meaning that 80 percent of the results stem from 20 percent of the inputs. This implicitly means that there are diminishing returns on your time spent. Hence, perfectionism diminishes effectivity. Because of this the prioritization of your tasks might change over time. Adapt and focus on what is important.
Define what is important, follow the 80/20 rule and focus on the 20% first.
Live according to your biology
This principle follows the ancient wisdom from the temple of Delphi in ancient Greece: “know thyself”. We must live in accordance with our biology. Different chronotypes affect our energy levels throughout the day. Different energy levels produce different cognitive states and make certain times of the day better for certain activities and tasks.
When your energy levels are high you are better able to focus. This is the time for Cal Newport’s deep work and Paul Graham’s maker schedule. Reserve the high-energy hours for high-cognition and analytical tasks such as writing and solving difficult problems.
At times where your energy levels are lower, complete low cognition tasks and follow a manager schedule by doing tasks like chores and administrative work. Here is also the time to tap into your creativity by using your diffused thinking (see Barbara Oakley).
Finally, stay healthy to keep your energy levels as high as possible. Life is more enjoyable if you are not tired. Eat a diet that works for you, exercise, move a lot, get some sun, have some fun.
The principles presented are interconnected and overlap. Violating one will affect your life profoundly. Following them will build the foundation for living well through consciously and deliberately choosing where you spend your time.
“Life is long, if you know how to use it.”
― Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On the Shortness of Life