Stretching time, or how to get things done when you’re busy

Photo by @officialdavery / Unsplash.com

I like to meet people, and spend time with people. In this day and age, it’s a rare luxury as everyone’s very, very busy. We need to agree to a lunch meeting two months ahead of time, and then someone cancels at the last minute. There are so many things we have to do, choose, and react on, that many people I know playfully joke about having more than 24 hours a day for tasks.

This post draws from my own experiences from the past five years. I wanted to frame it like this, as 2019 has been very different than the previous four years before that. During this journey, I’ve learned a lot about how to allocate time, how to choose which projects to work on, and how to get enough sleep.

This post isn’t about a framework that magically transforms everyone and everything in your life. It’s merely a reflection of how I’ve organized many things in my life, and how it seems to work for me.

I like to work

And I’ve worked a lot. I’m not keen on bragging about one’s heroic sacrifices, so I’ll spare you the details. What I mean is that working a lot is fun, when the work is rewarding and you get closer to mastery. You get things done, people might praise or appreciate your efforts, and you will generally receive fair compensation. Perhaps not immediately, though.

In the European Union, the average working hours per week is 42.3. That’s about 8.5 hours each weekday. According to Eurostat, Finnish people work on average 39.4 hours, which is on the lower side, while the Turkish people work an astonishing 48.5 hours a week. The Bureau of Labor Statistics for the US tracks average hours people spend working, and on average it’s 8 hours a day, or 40 hours a week for Americans.

I’ve generally worked between 45 to 55 hours a week, occasionally stretching higher, when required or needed. Currently, I work between 25 to 35 hours a week. This gives me time to pursue other interests in my life as well, that I feel are not part of ‘work.’ Community activities, book writing, blogging, our new podcast and similar I feel are outside usual work responsibilities.

Work should be fun, challenging, and rewarding. Hours you put into work fly past, and even 50 hours might, at times, feel easy, or relaxed. Obviously, this varies a lot.

The body battery concept

I was drawn to the body battery concept a few years ago, when Firstbeat, a company founded in Finland commercialized the idea of measuring heart rate variability. I wear a Garmin Fenix 6-series smart and fitness watch, and it has the Firstbeat technology and algorithms built-in.

The concept is simple, yet clever: The watch records sleep metrics and based on your activity during the day your body battery is slowly depleted until it’s time to recharge again.

Right now it’s 2 pm on a Thursday, and my body battery is at 49 (out of 100). I started the day at 6.20 in the morning, and my body battery was 79. I slept for about 8 hours and 30 minutes, but I’ve had plenty of physical exercises, and I still haven’t recovered fully from a visit to the gym on Tuesday.

It’s interesting to measure your weeks against the body battery concept. If I get enough sleep, don’t drink a glass of wine in the evening (which I rarely do nowadays, partially due to this), and exercise regularly, my body battery is always 100 in the morning. At the end of the day, I still have about 35 left.

Framing the thinking on how to stretch time, achieve more and get things done when you’re busy, the concept of something like the body battery is helpful, and it provides good guidance. I now frequently look at my body battery index and try to optimize my patterns of behavior based on it.

So, about stretching your limited time

I spent some effort this year cleaning my calendar, shedding responsibilities I felt are no longer relevant to me, and focusing more on tasks that matter. It wasn’t easy, and it shouldn’t. It’s a bit like when you realize you’ve gained some excess weight; it took you months to do that, so it often takes you months to lose a bit of weight. The same applies to responsibilities and work – you accumulate a lot of tasks, projects and other items in your calendar, so it takes a bit of time to delegate or defer those.

I’m a huge proponent of letting go of something, in your search for something new, exciting and worthwhile.

For me, I stretch time by removing things from my life that take a lot of time and consume my body battery, without giving back anything I value.

In 2019, I’ve left Facebook, got rid of bookmarks, read more books on Kindle, left my job, stuck to more routines, optimized my monthly subscription fees, and thought about how I learn effectively.

This has given me more clarity, focus and most importantly, time, for a number of tasks. Okay, one could argue that simply by leaving one’s job would give you about 42.3 hours back each week. Perhaps, but one has to make a living somehow still.

For me, it’s about scheduling time diligently and saying ‘No, thank you’ to a lot of opportunities on the way. I say ‘Yes, please!’ to many opportunities each week, but at the same time I’m politely declining on a number of things I could be doing, but don’t have the time or passion right now.

For scheduling, I use a simple system, as I think simple works best when you’re busy.

Every Sunday, I sit down with my partner and we go through the upcoming week, and anything major that looms on the horizon sometime in the future. This is our dialogue:

Me: “Okay, so I’ve got to be in Seattle for this week, I could take the Sunday flight there if you drop off the kids on Monday”

Her: “Sure, and then remember on Friday evening we have the football practice, and I got my rehearsal at the same time so I’ll prep dinner by the time you’re all back”

We then plot the family priorities, work priorities, and deviations from the usual routines in a shared calendar. It’s not foolproof, but it’s pretty great. And only takes about 20 minutes. As part of this, we also allocate time for exercise, which is a priority among other priorities.

Create time to focus

What I then insert into my own work calendar, which typically demands my time from 9 in the morning to 3.30 in the afternoon, is focus time. This is a block of 2-3 hours of uninterrupted time, where I shut the door to my office and concentrate on reading, thinking, and dreaming. It’s obviously not going to happen every day of the week, but perhaps a couple of times between Sunday and Friday evening.

I cannot give enough praise for this approach. I frequently collaborate with amazing people, who tell me they’re struggling with their calendar. “I have 9 back-to-back meetings today!” they might say, and I think “..but when do you actually get anything done?”

These few hours of solitude provide me with time to reflect on the challenges, and problems I’m trying to tackle. They might be technical, or organizational, or business-related. It takes a bit of practice; we’re too attuned to multitasking, and hopping from one meeting to the next, that concentrating on not rushing to the next thing is now immensely hard.

It’s a delicate balance

I still sometimes struggle to get everything done before looming deadlines, or a family vacation. It’s hard to admit you’ve failed on something that you sort-of promised to do, even if someone else sets the schedule, guidelines, and deadline for you.

Careful balancing is required; For me, this happens on a daily basis by using post-it notes. In the morning I scribble down the top things I need to achieve. It usually looks a bit like this:

  • Write that one tough email
  • Call this and that person to agree on something
  • Finalize a technical spec
  • Proof-read the book before it goes to the printer

I prioritize these not based on effort but based on how tough they seem. How much body battery am I consuming when I write that one tough email? Probably more than when I leisurely skim through a technical spec and make a few remarks or fixes.

I might be done at 2 pm with all four tasks I’ve listed above. What then? I walk out the home office, and go for a run, or brew coffee, and catch up with friends. I try not to compress more work, even if I have the time.

You need to be gentle on yourself, as it’s not a sprint – but a rather long marathon.

In summary

This post was a bit different from all the Azure and technical posts I’ve done recently. I find it refreshing to reflect on how I work, and I feel I become more efficient in return.

In essence, to stretch time and make more stuff happen I try to follow these simple principles – and it’s not rocket science, but I feel it’s important to internalize something like this in your own approach to architecting your weeks:

  • Plan your week on Sunday; take into account future prospects and other possible blockers in the horizon
  • Learn to say no politely, and don’t be afraid to say no every now and then
  • Identify your time-wasters and remove them without mercy – but don’t forget to keep the fun things in your life!
  • Focus, focus, focus. It’s a lost skill for many, but just as when you didn’t have a mobile phone back in 1991, it’s a skill you can regain with practice.

Tags: