How to Find the Time to Accomplish Anything
William Hertling is a web strategist, programmer, father, short-order cook and the author of two award-winning and best-selling techothrillers: Avogadro Corp: The Singularity is Closer than It Appears and A.I. Apocalypse. You can follow him at @hertling or on his blog, williamhertling.com.
Maybe you want to write an app or a book. Maybe you want to start a business or learn to play the piano. Maybe you just want to kick butt in your day job. If there’s anything at all that you’ve wanted to do, but struggle to find the time and energy to do it, the tips below will help.
In the last five years, I’ve managed to find the time to write, publish and promote multiple books, including two award-winning bestsellers, develop a web application, maintain a blog, and present at conferences. I did all that while still excelling at my day job and actively raising three young children.
I’m not here to brag, but I do want to emphasize that if I can do all that while raising twins (twins!), then you too can find the time and drive to accomplish something big, whether that’s starting a business, developing a mobile app, or writing a book.
I’m going to share a bit of my own personal path as well as nine key techniques to making time, creating personal drive, and prioritizing activities that you enable you to accomplish anything.
Enter the Craziness
In 2002, I met Libba and Gifford Pinchot, cofounders of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, at a retreat. The two tried to convince me to enroll in their new MBA program focused on sustainable business. I protested, saying that I was too busy. Libba said something similar to, “You can be busy for the next two years, or you can be busy for the next two years and get an MBA.” I ultimately chose to be busy and get the MBA.
Life may seem busy, but it always seems busy. That alone isn’t a reason to avoid taking on a new project. (I ultimately finished that MBA program while working full-time and with a newborn child, whom I brought to class with me.)
Once I was enrolled in the program, I grew to become friends with Libba and Gifford, frequently staying at their home. I noticed that Gifford worked all the time. Other than short breaks to play disc golf or to participate in drumming circles, I never noticed Gifford partaking in what I then considered relaxation activities: watching television or just sitting around doing nothing. I asked him about this. He told me that when he was doing what he loved to do, then it was enjoyable. The joy of accomplishing something worthwhile exceeded the joy he received from more mundane activities like passively consuming entertainment.
I should also mention that Gifford did take summers partially off: he would work only a third or half of the day, and spent the remaining time outdoors, chopping wood, kayaking, going on hikes, or doing woodworking projects.
The Nine Principles
Accomplishing something is a combination of having a goal (e.g. finishing a novel), making effort toward that goal (e.g. sitting down to write for an hour each morning), and making the most effective use of the effort (a combination of efficiency and priorities).
There are many techniques I use, but I want to share the most important.
The Only Person I Have to Cheat is Myself
Purpose: Fostering motivation and focus
When I was writing my first novel, Avogadro Corp, I would spend my most productive time writing in coffee shops. I developed a rule for myself: I imagined that if anyone in the coffee shop saw me surfing Facebook or the web, they’d laugh at me: “He doesn’t have anything better to do than surf Facebook.”
The sad truth is that on a moment by moment basis, it was vaguely satisfying to check in on Facebook and see what my friends were doing. But the time I had in the coffee shop was precious: carefully carved out of my daily schedule, limited to an hour or two at most. I could spend that time on Facebook, but at the cost of not writing. Or I could write, which might be painful on a minute by minute basis, but was immensely satisfying as I saw my novel take form.
In effect, I was using willpower (as facilitated by imagined peer ridicule) to exercise self-control to work on what was most important to me.
The notion that willpower is an exhaustible resource, also known as ego depletion, has been much discussed regularly. However, a 2010 study found that “reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion”. (My emphasis added.)
In my own experience with weight loss, I found that the trick to avoid exhausting my willpower was to decrease the amount of time spent thinking about it. When trying to lose thirty pounds in 2011, I found myself thinking at length about the cookies, cake, and ice cream I was passing up, trying to rationalize whether I could have a small piece, what the effect might be, and whether I even wanted to lose weight. After many days of agonizing over my desire for sweets, I realized that no one else cared whether I ate those sweets or if I was fat or thin or somewhere in between. No parent, teacher, friend or spouse was going to tell me what to do, and quite frankly, I was exhausted debating it with myself.
I developed a simple mantra: “The only person I have to cheat is myself.” Instead of spending a great deal of mental energy over every sweet craving, I shortcut the process.
The phrase embodies three ideas: That your goals are important to you, you’ll disappoint yourself if you don’t focus on achieving them, and you can’t escape responsibility by expecting someone else to step in.
This simple mantra works for any goal you’ve decided is important to you.
Prioritizing the Three Most Important Actions
Purpose: Free up time and increase effectiveness
Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek is loved by some and reviled by others. Part lifestyle choice, part time management, part promotion and marketing, and part entrepreneurship, the book advocates minimizing the time invested in traditional jobs.
One of the techniques Tim recommends is to start the day with a list of the top one to three most important actions for the day that lead towards your higher goals. Focus on those actions until they are complete. Then you’re free to spend the rest of the day however you want.
I believe that without clear priorities on what will achieve the most, most of us will fritter away the day on email and menial tasks. All that busy work is procrastination that avoids the most important tasks.
I used this principle while working at Hewlett-Packard. Each morning I’d spend ten minutes thinking about the most important things I could do that day to achieve my higher level work objectives. I‘d do the first before I’d check email for the day. Then I’d work on the second and third.
By remaining truly focused on the few most important things, we can be far more effective than we are otherwise. During this period, I helped Hewlett-Packard save on the order of ten million dollars a year on customer support costs, roughly a 100x return on my salary.
This principle not only helps you be more effective at what you’re doing, it helps you free up the time to do more. If I finished the three most important things I needed to do, and it was only two o’clock in the afternoon, I felt that I earned the right to choose how to spend the rest of my day. I might choose to fritter it away on menial tasks and email at HP, or I could choose to invest it in new interesting projects at HP, or I could leave early and go work on my own projects.
Stacking Functions: The Permaculture Principle
Purpose: Task efficiency
There’s a permaculture principle known as stacking functions, the notion that everything you plant in a garden should serve at least three functions. For example, an apple tree might provide fruit to eat, shade for another plant, and beautify your landscape.
This principle can also be employed towards work. As a blogger, I’m always looking for good content. If I need to research something for my job, or write a forum response to a question, I leverage that content and turn it into a blog post. My blog posts, in turn, get repurposed into books.
When I surf the web to read about the latest developments in robotics and artificial intelligence (fodder for my scifi novels), I use bufferapp to schedule out tweets to articles of interest. I’m researching at the same time I’m engaging with readers.
Anything can be stacked. With three kids and full work and writing schedules, I don’t get much time for social outings. So when my writing critique group meets, I bring a flask of bourbon.
Avoid Time Sinks (aka Why All-Clad is better than a Nintendo DS)
Purpose: Free up time
In 2006, I’d gotten a check for my birthday, and was wondering what to spend it on. My friend Gene Kim, cofounder of Tripwire and author of When IT Fails, suggested I get a handheld gaming device. (This was before smartphones.) He promised that it was not only a ton of fun, but that the games were playable in five minute increments. But as I had three kids in diapers, I couldn’t possibly imagine having even five minutes.
That’s when it hit me: I couldn’t bring anything into my life that consumed more time. No matter how awesomely great the handheld game console was, I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy it if it required a new investment of time. I could only bring things into my life that either reduced an existing time investment or replaced time spent.
I pondered this for some time, and eventually decided to spend my money on an All-Clad pan. I already spent time cooking. An insanely great pan would improve my quality of life doing something I was already doing.
Although I don’t have kids in diapers any more, I still think about the stuff and activities I bring into my life, and consider whether they require a time investment, create time savings, or are a one for one replacement.
Purpose: Free up time and maintain focus
Gifford and Libba Pinchot ran a consulting business, authored multiple groundbreaking business books and founded an MBA school, all while raising three children. They were smart, passionate, hard-working people, but at some point, that’s not enough.
Guess what? They hired someone else to wash the dishes and clean the house.
Outsourcing household work (cleaning and yardwork) is often one of the first steps. But it’s sometimes harder to figure out the next step.
After I published Avogadro Corp, I knew that I wanted to send review copies to newspapers, bloggers, and other folks in the tech industry. At the same time, I needed to be blogging and engaging online. And I needed to work on the sequel. I simply could not do all this in the time I had.
I was able to hire a friend to work about ten hours a week over the course of a month to research outlets, draft cover letters, and send out review copies. For my second novel, I hired someone to research Amazon’s top reviewers for me.
The trick to outsourcing creative work is to have a clearly defined goal (e.g. send a copy to each person in this 150 row spreadsheet, with a cover letter customized to them), and to set up a review point part-way into the work (e.g. “Draft all the material for the first ten rows, and let me review it before you go on.”)
Are you concerned about the investment? Are you wondering how you could justify spending money on an activity that might only be a hobby? In my experience, once I’m investing money, I’m even more motivated to ensure that I’m using my own time wisely. If I’m going to spend $15 an hour to have someone else do something, I want to be using my own time to do something worth way more than $15 an hour.
Don’t Wait for the Perfect Idea
Purpose: Increase kung fu and avoid procrastination
Gifford Pinchot used to say “early learning beats better planning”, and in some ways, this is the entire mantra of the startup movement. Tech startups succeed so often because they excel at doing and learning from their doing, while big corporations excel at planning.
There’s a relatively famous quote from Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Jason Glaspey used to give a talk called Build Something, Build Anything. Jason, who has built multiple successful businesses from scratch, also emphasizes that every new project is a learning opportunity. He interviewed me a few months ago, and we discussed how I’d ping-ponged back and forth: Competing for the Netflix Prize taught me about recommendation engines, which led me to create a customer support recommendation engine at HP, a wishlist recommendation engine for Facebook, and finally led me to write a science-fiction novel in which recommendations engines lead to the first sentient computer software.
If you were to judge it by personal financial success, competing for the Netflix Prize, the Facebook app, and the HP project were all failures, because none of them netted me anything. (OK, I drew a salary while at HP.) But they did lead to expanding my social network, new technical expertise, speaking opportunities at SXSW Interactive, freedom to pursue new projects at HP, and the idea to write a best-selling novel.
Build something, build anything. Cultivate a maker mentality, and improve the quality of what you do.
Cultivate a peer group of similarly driven people
Purpose: Increase motivation, focus, and personal skills
It’s been shown in dieting, exercise, and smoking and alcohol cessation, that the most important group that will either help or hinder you to make changes in your habits is your peer group.
The most important relationship you can cultivate is with your spouse or partner. Fortunately, my spouse, Erin, is also a do-er: competing in triathlons and half-marathons, founding the band Ruby Calling, and recording music. We support each other in our goals and accomplishments.
Having friends like the Pinchots, Gene Kim, and Jason Glaspey is also inspiring, challenging, and educational.
Friends who do things inspire and challenge you to do more. Keeping up with the Joneses has a whole new meaning. And, of course, they can help you.
Gene and I get together at least monthly to share our objectives and talk things through. Occasionally we can offer direct help (I edited a scene in his book, he’s critiqued much of my writing), but the real help comes in the form of advice: “Are you sure that’s the highest priority? Have you considered X? Here’s how to calculate break-even point in sales.”
Purpose: Free up time and increase focus
If you have the option to telecommute, it can be a great productivity enhancer. I telecommuted three or four days a week for eight years. By doing this, I gained about ninety minutes back per day that would otherwise have been spent commuting to work, transitioning between spaces, and other inefficiencies. That’s about six hours a week: nearly an entire workday of gained time.
But more importantly, I could maintain a higher focus on the most important priorities, which both increased my effectiveness (because I only worked on the things with the biggest impact) and freed up more time (because once I was done with the highest priority tasks, I could decide how to spend my time.)
Some question the effectiveness of telecommuting. I don’t. It was during this time that I contributed the most to my employer. I had the freedom to imagine what would make the biggest impact to my organization and then to implement without the distractions that come from the office environment.
I still enjoyed my one or two days a week in the office, and used these mostly as networking activities to connect face to face with coworkers.
Minimum Viable Product
Purpose: Avoid procrastination and increase efficiency
Don’t do more than necessary. I could write about more techniques. But the more time I spent writing this, the less time I have to edit my next novel or spend with my kids. When you’ve reached the minimum viable product, it’s time to stop.