Owning Your Time: Productivity Isn't About the Best To Do List


A few weeks ago, I took a "work vacation." I was visiting family in the middle of nowhere, fully intending to work without any distractions. This time was supposed to be ultra-productive, but after a week, I looked back and realized there wasn't a single day that I had completely finished my to do list.

I had all the time in the world, and it still managed to disappear, and a lot of stuff did not get done. I call this the NGTD system.

I'm starting to doubt the effectiveness of systems like GTD. Don't get me wrong, the Getting Things Done method has helped me in a lot of ways. One of the most important things it has done for me is forced me to externalize all my thoughts and to do lists and put them in a trusted place. Unfortunately, I find myself constantly playing with these lists, moving stuff around and never finishing them.

Many of us have fallen for the promises of these systems, and they have failed us every time. Working for a short period but eventually breaking down and requiring significant maintenance to even allow you to know what you need to do next. These systems promise complete control but often fail.

Life won't let us be in complete control. It is frequently filled with interruptions, and sometimes it’s those interruptions that make life most fun. It’s not realistic to strive to be in complete control of our lives every hour of the day.

As I look back on this week, I believe my failure was not in the to do lists. I failed to "own my time" and take control of it. I let distractions creep in. Five minute tangents turned into one hour exploration sessions. Ten minute phone calls become half an hour. A text editor crashed, and that unsaved file with thirty minutes of writing was gone. Every day, time was lost, and a large reason is because technology stole it from me or enabled me to steal it from myself.

In case you didn't realize, you can never get lost time back.

Productivity isn't a system. It's not simply a to do list. These things are crutches. They can be helpful crutches, but they don't address the fundamental problem.

Productivity is owning your time and protecting it.

In order to be productive, we need to own time and protect it from the distractions that technology provide, the meetings that drag on, the urgent requests that aren't so urgent. We need to protect time from the systems that can never understand how long it actually takes to complete a task. Most importantly, we need to protect time from ourselves.

We must acknowledge that we don't know what we don't know. You can never accurately estimate exactly how long a task will take you. What you can protect is how long you will work on something today. Do the things that are important. Work on them when you're in the best condition to do so and stop when you are no longer in that condition. If you're most attentive in the morning, write. Don't catch up on email when you should be at the gym.

It's important that you understand yourself and how you produce. Know when you will be most awake. Know when you will be hungry (and eat food that won't slow you down). Know when you can concentrate. Try to schedule everything around this. The worst thing you can do is fight yourself.

I'm not 100% sure where this train of thought will go. It's definitely something that's in progress. I've been practically applying it by thinking more about the things that are on my schedule and monitoring what I'm most capable of doing at specific times of the day. More importantly, I've stopped focusing on my to do list for the day.

I can't know how long every task will take, but I can tell myself how long I'll let myself spend on a task, and I can also know which is most important. I have started to think of my days in chunks. If I'm writing for Less Doing, I'll give myself an hour. If I don't finish an article in that amount of time, then it waits until the next chunk of time. If something is urgent, that's the only thing on my to do list for the day. If it is truly urgent, then nothing else should really matter. You can always figure out what else you need to do, after you have finished the urgent item.

I plan to this into a series of articles. I'll probably use it as a place to record and analyze personal experiments in time management.

Just to be clear, Ari and I have no desire to create a system in the same vein of GTD. Instead, we want to challenge people to think about how they both value and spend their time. We started Less Doing to help people use technology to their advantage. For too many people, technology owns their lives. Ari and I try to use technology in ways that allow us to escape the grip that technology on us and instead use it to create more "functional" time. This makes it important for us to think beyond the tips and tricks that we provide, and explore how to make better use of the time we have. 

I don't want to regret any second of my life whether it is doing work, exercising, reading a book or even playing a video game. I don't even want to regret the interruptions. I want to find a balance in life that makes it easy for me to go to bed every night and not have to check my email or think about what I have to do the next day. I want to find a mindset that lets me give my full attention to the task at hand. It's my hope that Less Doing can help me get there, and maybe help a few other people along the way.