Making Time for What's Important Requires a Major Mental Shift

11/25/2017 11:44 am ET
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Person 1, struggling: “I don’t have time for X.”

Person 2, being wise: “Make time for X.”

When we don’t have the time to do something we want to do the problem is priorities. We’re putting other things above X. Of course, this is natural. There is a finite amount of time in a day, in a life. We can’t change that. But we can change what we consider to be important, and by doing that we can change how we distribute our time, attention and energy amongst all the things that are competing for them. This makes sense, right? But only to a certain extent. See, there are some things we can’t de-prioritise—at least not without severe consequences.

As a 25 year-old man with no debt, disabilities or crushing obligations, it’s easy for me to follow the advice above. For example, a few years ago I decided I wanted to write. So I slapped together a blog, got up earlier every day, and began. I “made time for X.” But what if I was a twenty-something with a few kids? What if I was a thirty-something with a few kids, a marriage and a mortgage? What if I was a forty-something, with multiple teenagers to manage, a decaying marriage to rescue, and a dying mother? It’d be a bit harder to “make time for X”, wouldn’t it?

That’s the problem. As you get older, two things happen. The first is that you get better at estimating what an activity or obligation is going to cost you in terms of time, attention and energy. The second is that as you age, you tend to accumulate responsibility and obligations. The result of these two conditions is that, as you age, you have increasingly less slack in the system. Your time management is optimised to such a degree that the only way to take back big chunks of each day is to cut something out.

But sometimes you can’t do that. And if you can’t cut and make big chunks available for new and important pursuits, what can you do? You can’t make time, so you have to make do.

Which is a problem. Paul Graham coined the idea of a maker’s schedule versus a manager’s schedule. The kernel of his idea is that makers need long, uninterrupted stretches of time in which to get deep into their work, think and create. Managers, on the other hand, have small windows, tiny snippets of time—an hour here, thirty minutes there—in which to accomplish their tasks.

Anyone attempting to do something new—start writing, learn to paint, build a new skillset and transition into a new career or field—needs to operate on a maker’s schedule. That’s because anything creative or intellectually taxing is said to require these long periods of time, extended stints in which you can become immersed in the task.

But what if they didn’t? See, the rhetoric around maker’s schedules, deep work, immersion and creativity all focuses on making changes to your external environment, on changing how your life works. What if you focused internally and made changes to your mind instead?

The power of a four hour block of time is that it allows you to attain the desired state of mind. The first hour of that block is going to be spent attaining that ideal mindset. The middle two, or two and a half, will be where the real work gets done. The last hour or so will be when you feel your creative power waning. But what if you didn’t need that first hour? What if you could train yourself to drop almost instantly into a state of immersion? Imagine you only needed five minutes to drop into the ideal state of consciousness. Suddenly, the need for a maker’s schedule is superfluous because you can use that odd hour, that unexpected thirty minutes and get some high quality work out of it.

If we recognise this as a possibility, it changes the game. The options are no longer make time for something or don’t do it at all. A third becomes available: change nothing about your schedule or management of time and use the small windows that everyone says are too minor to be of consequence.

But how? It’s one thing to say, “Make that thirty minutes count!” How do you get yourself to a state in which you can flip a switch and occupy whatever mood or mode is most necessary? The answer: learn to create your own earthquakes.

It’s a phrase from Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning. The ability to “create your own earthquakes” means the ability to make rapid, conscious transitions between different states of mind. In Waitzkin’s book, he talks about it in regard to high performance, but it can be applied to practically every avenue of human endeavour. Let me give you an example of Josh’s process using my morning routine.

My morning routine used to be made up of three parts: meditation, reflection and journaling. My meditation consisted of breathing ladders. Inhale for one, exhale for one, inhale for two, exhale for two—I’d go from one to ten and back to one five times. Then I’d pick up my copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and read a few passages, letting my attention settle on whichever passage resonated most in that moment. I’d stick with that passage and turn it over in my mind. After I’d done that, I’d do a page or two of freehand, stream of consciousness writing in my notebook.

That process would usually take about thirty or forty minutes, and after it was completed, I’d feel relaxed, calm and ready to do what I needed to do that day to the best of my ability.

In his book, Waitzkin described how he worked with people to create similar rituals and routines that encouraged optimal performance. But problems arose when he realised that you don’t always have the luxury of being able to complete your ritual in full. His solution was called “making smaller circles”. In essence, it’s an act of compression.

Again, using my morning routine: to compress it into ten minutes—rather than forty—I could do just one breathing ladder, read one passage, and write half a page of notes. Naturally, to go from forty minutes down to ten is a gradual process. In the same way that you don’t go from practising the form of a deadlift to lifting three times your bodyweight in a week, you don’t go from full ritual to compression in a short period. The transition is gradual. You have to train yourself to achieve the same state of mind in less time.

Above, I compressed my morning routine into ten minutes. But what if I’m travelling, working late and rising early? I may not even have ten minutes in a morning, or I may be woken unexpectedly, so what can I do? I can compress, I can “make smaller circles”. Rather than doing a full set of breathing ladders, I can take just one quality inhale and exhale. Rather than flipping through the Meditations, I can recall one short passage which always resonates: “Take care that you don’t treat inhumanity as it treats human beings.” Instead of making copious freehand notes, I can visualise myself writing one sentence which describes my inner state in that moment.

Heck, I could compress it even more: I could do one quality in-breath and out-breath whilst holding a Stoic precept in my mind.

Doing that, moving from a thirty-plus minute morning routine to a single-breath routine could take a year of training. Maybe more. But the point is that it’s possible. And we can use a similar process when we don’t have the autonomy to rearrange our lives and schedules.

If I really can’t de-prioritise or rid myself of certain responsibilities and obligations, if I can’t play calendar tetris and make myself some maker’s blocks, I don’t have to worry. I can create a ritual which allows me to access my desired state of mind and then I can learn to compress it, to shrink it down The result is that those small windows of what others say are useless time, become veritable windows of opportunity.

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