The other day, I was watching a productivity course on Skillshare, and I learned something interesting about what separates very productive people from non-productive people.
It has to do with how they perceive and relate to time.
This idea was so profound, it has radically changed the way I approach my days and weeks. And that is understanding that the idea, the excuse we give when people ask us why we are not doing the things we are supposed to do, why we are not living the dreams, or operating at the level we seek, this excuse – ‘I don’t have time’ is just a myth.
This is a knee-jerk reaction that comes up a lot.
There are so many things and ideas we have. Many lives yet un-lived inside us that we want to get out and make real, but we sometimes we don’t never do. But it is not because we don’t have time. it is because we don’t use it well enough.
We all get the same 24 hours. How are some people able to get a lot done, balancing full careers, learning new skills, maintaining relationships, indulging in hobbies while others can barely keep it together.
I mean this guy I’m listening to is a doctor working full time, who also lectures, maintains a YouTube channel, creates courses on Skillshare, and runs a small business. How does he find the time to do all of that? And there are many people like this. What separates someone like that from someone like me who can barely manage a blogpost a week.
It is the relationship with time, and how intentional you are with it.
Exposing the excuse
When we say we don’t have time (especially for things we say are important to us), what we are really saying is, I cannot be bothered to make time for it.
Perhaps I’m already overwhelmed, or maybe I am just lazy. Whatever the reason, I have just abdicated responsibility for my life’s greatest asset – my time.
If you took a closer look at how you spend your time, you would most likely find a lot of time that is just spent…lost scrolling through feeds, or travelling, or watching something or just doing nothing at all. If we did a time audit on our lives, we would find that we do have the time, we could probably just use it well.
When we say we don’t have time, what we really mean, is that we don’t have enough time to do all we have to do as leisurely as we are doing everything right now. We live like we have all the time in the world.
And sure, unstructured time is also important, downtime, even wasted time can be useful in allowing yourself to be bored and receive flashes of inspiration. But for the times that you are ‘on’, when you need to get things done, you become more effective, the more intentional you are about how you use your time.
Being intentional with your time
The idea that you don’t have time is a myth. All you have is time, and not an infinite amount of it. It is about how you deploy it. It is constantly moving, it is up to you to use it in the things that are important to you.
You have to shift to the mindset of making time.
To decide that if a thing is important to you, be that a relationship, a business, a skill, a project, a goal, then you have to make time for it. As basic as that sounds, that is really what it comes down to. If you want to get it done, make time for it.
We all have the same 24 hours. And there is only so much that can be done in a day. For many of us, most of that time is already taken up by our responsibilities, it can be legitimately hard to get things done. Our time is limited, so we must maximise our investment. We have to be clear on what our priorities are, on what is important for us to get done.
It is easy to do this when the priorities are backed by social pressure, or imposed deadlines from work or school. But when it comes to self-directed projects, things we deem important to do, but because no one is holding a gun to our heads to get it done, it becomes way harder. There is too much distraction in the world around us.
That is the battle – making time for what is important, protecting and properly using that time.
What shall I do with this 24?
Is the question that pops into my mind every morning lately when I wake up.
I’m up to a new 24 hour cycle. What am I going to do with it?
I have responsibilities, I have errands, I have deadlines, I have people to talk to, and things to get done. I also have the projects I want to start, the thing I want to learn, the idea I want to research, the art I want to make.
If I’m intentional enough, I can plan ahead, I can consider my time, and only try to take on only what is appropriate. I can decide what to prioritise and what to put on the backburner. To set asides the times that are to be invested in certain activities, and make sure that nothing else intrudes on them.
I can systemise and hack my way to becoming better at using my time and better at execution. I can become skilled and massively productive, my results compouding over time, solving intractable problems quicker than normal and being present enough to pounce on opportunities as they arise.
Because if it is a lie that we don’t have time. Then the truth is that all we have is time.
And time can be anything we want it to be. It is literally a matter of what we make of it.
Or how to throw time at your problems.
We have all heard about throwing money at your problems, paying to get things fixed. The core of the idea is that of deploying the resources you have against your problems to get to optimum results.
But what of how we use our most valuable resource – time? How do we use it, how do we throw it at our problems?
Time is a surprisingly malleable entity, at least in perception. It seems to slow down and expand while you are stuck toiling away at a boring mind-crushing task, but then find yourself having a good time and watch it speed up and slip away like sand through your fingers
Sure, time is an objective thing that we measure with our watches and clocks, but it is also very subjective in our experience of it. Plus it is always moving and we all have a finite amount of it to use.
It is our most precious resource and asset because once it is spent it can never be recouped. Worse still, it is always being spent, and how we use it is everything. We can invest it, we can use it productively or we can waste and squander it. But it will always keep moving, with or without us.
In my mind, there are 3 different ways we can use time.
On a long enough timeline…
There’s the quote attributed to Jeff Bezos I think, that basically says that on a long enough timeline, you can find the solution to any problem. I always liked that quote. It meant that no matter what problem I was facing, if I approached it with the right timeframe and worked on it consistently, eventually I would crack it.
That is what I would call throwing long time at it. Investing an extended and consistent period of time moving in a certain direction. We already do this automatically in many areas of life. School is one such example. You throw 3-4 years at the problem of obtaining a qualification. You make the consistent effort at the time, eventually, hopefully, you get there.
I have expressed this idea in a previous post about making time work for you. You do so by installing the right habits and routines into your life, so that as time passes, you get better, things grow exponentially, life improves. This is investing. Making your resources work for you.
If we think in this way, then we know that every action we take today is an investment to recoup or a price to pay for tomorrow.
So we are intentional and deliberate about what we do. If we fail to do so, if we laze around without direction, we will find ourselves lost to time.
Shorten the time
Tackling things over the long term is good. It works well for tackling particularly thorny issues and solving intractable problems. But shortening the time you use can also be a very powerful tactic.
This is the power of the deadline. Restricting the amount of time you have to get something done, forces you to work faster, smarter and more efficiently. It causes you to bring massive effort within a focused concentrated burst of time and can this yield powerful results.
It is when you give yourself 3 hours on a Sunday to get your finances in order. It is spending 30 minutes to bang out a blog post.
If there is a nagging problem in your life, an absolute thorn in your side, something you have been procrastinating on, you could probably go extremely far in solving it if you spent a few hours just working the shit out of the problem – googling, YouTubing, researching and experimenting until you solved it.
Here the quality of the time you spend here must be high. This demands full focus, no distractions. So, unless you need it for what you are doing, put that phone far far away and get to work.
Or capturing the moment.
Kairos is an ancient greek word meaning the right, critical or opportune moment. In rhetoric, it is described as a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.
This is taking advantage of time as opposed to merely using it.
There are those special moments that arise. Sometimes, out of the blue with no warning. Other times as a slow steady build you can see coming. But this is a moments when things come to a head, where the all the factors collide and something powerful happens.
Usually this is a time of great volatility and instability. If you are awake, if you have been preparing, using long time and short time to position yourself, you can seize this moment and take advantage. This is the moment of the big opportunity, the big break. It is the chance interview, or introduction. It is the moment of chaos where sparks fly and the great flame erupts. This is when the iron is white hot, this is when you must strike.
It is the time ordained by God, the universe, the higher power and powerful things happen if you are at the right place when this moment arrives.
So use time, in all its glory, in all it’s forms. We are bound to it and its relentless flow. It is up to us to be skilful in our use of it. In this way, we honour it, by making the most of it.
In my last post, I spoke about reducing chaos in your life. I defined chaos as the vagaries of life, the unpredictable factors and events that happen to us.
If there is too much outside our control, we suffer. If things can easily happen to throw us off, we are vulnerable. If there is too much chaos in our lives, we don’t have the stable space to make meaningful progress.
However, if there is too little chaos, we become stuck in a rut, losing vitality and life. If everything is too tightly controlled, there is no space for magic to happen. And so the proper way is balance. We must have the calm conditions we need, but we must also have chaos under control and knowing how to deploy it and when to unleash it.
Chaos is chance, possibility, unpredictability. It is in these moments that there are great upsets – down becomes up, up becomes down, empires crumble, empires are born. These can be powerful moments disruptive moments in time.
It is chaos that offers us our big breaks. It is chaos that births opportunities. It is chaos that provides us with the chance encounters with the people and ideas that change our lives. Chaos is all around us. Chaos is how we get lucky.
So how do we use chaos? What can it do for us, and how can we cultivate the right amount of it?
Shake things up
Routines are great. They are the powerful systemic actions that combine over time towards an ultimate goal. Ruts are not. They keep us stuck doing the same thing over and over without a point. We have all the action but no spirit, no change or dynamism.
It is easy to lull ourselves into a false sense of security. We build our systems and patterns, they work well enough to keep us comfortable and soon we manoeuvre ourselves into a cosy box.
But life is dynamic, things are always changing. To build resilience, we have to introduce chaos every now and again. We have to shake things up.
Do something different, do something out of character, step outside of yourself and stretch.
Take a different route, shop at a different store, take a trip to a different country, write with your other hand, do something different.
Re-connect with the excitement, with the spirit of why you began this journey and tap into that energy.
Increase your chances of getting lucky
If you are a business person, or a professional, or a creator, you should be increasing your chances of getting lucky. You should be prolific, putting a lot of work out there, putting it in multiple places, getting in front of as many eyeballs as possible. the more randomness you expose yourself to, the higher your chances of getting lucky and hitting a big one.
It is no good being the best at what you do, if the people who need you the most don’t know who you are.
Think about what you need to happen and work on ways to increase the odds of that happening.
Use chaos to stimulate creativity
Nothing stimulates creative thinking like a good crisis. At least once the initial panic has died down.
It pushes us violently out of our comfort zones and we are forced to adapt or perish. It causes us to react, to pull from reserves we didn’t even know we had, and bring the full force of our resilience, creativity and skills to bear.
We get more creative when we are stimulated. When there is new information or experience. We can use chaos to get our juices flowing, breaking the rules and putting things together that have no business being together to jolt new thinking and ways of looking at things.
We can do this by being active problem seekers and solvers, by stretching beyond what we are presently capable of, by swinging for the fences. Using the fires of these experiences to deepen our creativity and skill.
Use chaos to destroy
Sometimes what you need is a good blow up, the option to destroy whatever isn’t working. Sometimes despite our best efforts, things just don’t work out. Mistakes are made that can’t be taken back. Or we build a thing and it just fails.
Not everything works out.
Sometimes, it’s okay to burn it all down and then start again. And a good crisis can be a great instigating event, or cover.
Use chaos to create change
In moments of chaos, there is great opportunity. The opportunity to change, to do something different, to create something new. It is the chance to reinvent yourself.
From the ashes of the old, rebuild the new. Allow chaos to open up new ideas, new ways of being, new ways of engaging and new things to strive for. And create something even better than before.
Does your life feel like a raging dumpster fire of problems with no way out? Are you constantly moving around in circles unable to make real progress? It might be an issue in how you manage chaos.
It is impossible to make real steady progress towards a goal or an intention if every time you take a step forward, you get knocked two steps back. Unfortunately, this is the lived experience of a lot of people.
Perhaps you feel unable to pull yourself out of your present situation – a life stuck in unhealthy patterns with no hope of meaningful progress. You keep trying and failing to get your shit together to no avail. And while there might be real external and systemic factors against you sure, a large part of that can be boiled down to how much chaos there is in your life.
Here is the thing, if you want something, like really want it, then you would invariably orient your whole life towards it. You would think about that thing all the time, obsessing over it, eventually streamlining your time, your environment and your actions towards the goal of getting that thing.
You would take steps to achieving your goals and dreams, day by day, week by week. Ideally, you would take these steps consistently over time, letting them stack and build and take you towards where you want to be.
Unfortunately, for many of us, the journey to what we want is instead a series of false starts, detours, and failures. With days, months, years passing us by, while we make no real progress.
Because we have neglected to manage chaos effectively.
In the context of this piece, I am going to define chaos as the vagaries of life, the unpredictable factors and events that happen to us.
Chaos is neither good nor bad. It is just a thing. It can win us the lottery, leading us inexplicably against all odds into some incredible things, opportunities and positions. It can also wipe us out with sudden tragedy.
Depending on how we manage it.
And how you manage chaos is about how you organise and orient your life.
You can never completely reduce chaos to zero, and neither should you. Too much order will leave you rigid and stale. Sometimes you need to shake things up. But the better you are at managing chaos, the smoother your life would be.
If you have dreams of being successful, but you are in an environment where you can’t even think or be productive – a crowded studio apartment with too many room mates, you have too much chaos in your life.
If it is easy for friends to call you at anytime and completely derail your state of flow, there is too much chaos in your life.
If the basics of your life are not sorted, shelter, food, clothing, if survival is your main concern, you have too much chaos in your life. You have no control, and no leverage.
The path to success starts with reducing this chaos. In racking up the small wins to create calm and control in your life.
Our ability to live intentionally, to go for what we want, to have all of our life working together towards a harmonious whole, lies in our ability to manage chaos.
So, where does chaos show up and how can we manage it?
Reduce chaos in your time
Take a good look at your life. Does your day-to-day routine help you move forward or does it hold you back? We all have the same 24 hours in a day. How do you spend yours? Is it deliberately and intentionally spent in the direction of values you have chosen, or is it at the mercy of forces outside your control. If you cannot have extended periods of time to be productive, to take real directed action, it will be nigh impossible to get the results you want. Outcomes that can build on each other and snowball into greatness.
We push back chaos by being organised, by planning, by managing our time, appropriately allocating it to the things we should do to get what we want.
Reduce chaos in your environment
Is your environment designed to help you reach your goals or is it a major stumbling block? I remember the times I shared living space with mates. They were boisterous, fun loving friends. Nothing against it, it was a lot of fun, with something interesting almost always going on. But it becomes hard to do the things you really want to do, to invest time in working or learning or creating when there is steady stream or activity of people around.
We have to take control in our environment, building a space for ourselves, or carving one out. A space for us. A space that allows us to do that which we must do. It is the study area, it is the quiet time, the productive space, the rejuvenation spot. They serve as lighthouses of calm in the raging sea of chaos.
Reduce chaos in your relationships
Do the people around you, the company you keep, help you be the person you want to be? Or are they a source of drama, low level distractions and thinking? We have heard the proverb, show me your friends and I will show you who you are. It is cliche for a reason.
The people around us influence us, consciously and subconsciously. And for better or worse, the closer we get, the more entangled and enmeshed we become. Entangling with the wrong people is a recipe for disaster over time.
If your relationships are filed with drama and constant conflict, that will wear thin on you causing strain and making it difficult for you to move forward in the way you should.
By mending and managing our relationships, being careful with our connections and who we align with, we can reduce chaos and move with those we can build with.
Reduce chaos in your mind
How is the state of your mind? Are you calm and collected or are you wracked by anxieties and worries, beset by a continuous stream of problems? If your mind is in turmoil, you are living in chaos. It is these stresses that make it so hard to progress. It is these storms that we must calm.
Being mindful of our mental space, taking time for ourselves, to rest, to reflect, to nourish allows us to bounce back from the troubles of life. They give us the resilience to handle strain, to practice courage, to stay optimistic and bring our best selves to life’s challenges.
Be mindful of what you feed your mind, being trapped in the news cycle or social media feeds especially in a tumultuous time like this is the path to overwhelm and shut down. Take care of yourself. Reduce the chaos.
Reducing chaos in your actions
Don’t do stupid shit.
You know those people, the ones who never seem to catch a break, the ones who are walking magnets for problems. Most times of their own volition. If there is a wrong decision to be made, they will make it.
The decisions you make and the things you do will either increase or reduce the amount of chaos in your life.
Decide to go home after a long day of work to a home cooked meal, relaxation and full night of sleep…that will give you some calm and set you up for the next day.
Decide to go to the pub instead and get belligerently drunk, and your chaos meter goes way up, with the possibility of your face being rearranged in a bar fight.
If you are able to reduce the chaos in your life, you are left with calm, you are left with empty space. The space to breathe, to think, to learn, to correct, to plan, to create, to put to action.
If you manage chaos in this way, you will build a calmer and more relaxed life. A life that is aligned with your higher intentions. You will still face problems and challenges, but they will be the obstacles standing directly in front of your goals, good problems, problems to learn and master in getting what you want.
You will not be distracted and derailed by avoidable problems, and you will save yourself from unnecessary stress.
I am a little bit obsessed with the idea of empty space.
You see, life can get very busy. There is so much to do, we all get caught up in the business of living. In this state of perpetual motion, it is easy to get swept up by the currents of life demands, dragged along by the expectations of others or our environment.
If you want to live more intentionally, then you have to create a gap, you have to create empty space.
Empty space is a block of time, a presence of mind that exists separate from everything else. A created vacuum. This space is important because it pulls you out of the hustle and bustle of your life and places you above it. In this space, you can observe, analyse, reflect, make corrections and changes, strategise and push forward.
We access this space in meditation, in the blocks of time set aside for solitude and contemplation. We access it on our days off, in the times that are just for us, in the moments where we are free to exercise complete and deliberate autonomy.
But, empty space is not actually just empty, as I may have assumed all this time.
It actually has a lot of stuff going on in it.
And if empty space should fulfil its purpose at helping us live more intentionally and successfully, then empty space can take on four guises.
Space for rest
I’ve always understood empty space as a space for rest. That’s the first thing we need once we disconnect from the grind. We pull back to recover, to heal and revitalise.
If we don’t rest, we burn out fast.
Life is a marathon and we should approach it as such. It is tempting to just keep working, keep putting in more hours and effort. If it were possible, the most workaholic amongst us would rather stay on the grind and keep crushing it.
But that is not how it works. At some point, we will hit a wall. We are human, we need rest.
The time we take out to rest allows us to be even more productive once we get back to the grind.
Space for research
The best companies in the world spend a massive amount of manpower and money on research & development. That is because to stay competitive in an ever changing fast paced world, companies cannot afford to rely on the success of yesterday, they have to embrace new methods and new realities. They have to reinvent themselves.
What worked yesterday, might not work today.
It is the same with your life. Your sustained success in your career or life’s work depends on your ability to learn and assimilate new things. To discover what you need to know and do.
You will need to learn new skills, connect with new people, start or contribute to new projects. You will not find these things without doing research.
This means exploration. Look out to see what’s out there. Instead of going down the same routes and looking at the same things all the time. Explore new topics, new ideas, new tools.
Work deliberately to expose your self to new ideas, opportunities and possibilities.
It will keep you moving forward
Space for learning
Being a life long learner is absolutely necessary to growth and development.
As you do research and discover new paths to take, go ahead and dive right in. Learn how to learn. Learn new skills, new ideas, new tools. Learn new ways of looking at old things.
In doing this you stay fresh and mentally active instead atrophying into comfortable ruts.
Deepen your mastery of your craft. Revisit the basics, learn new techniques and solutions to problems, do creative studies. Become better, faster, more nuanced, and richer in your craft. You might get a lot of practice in already when you do in the work in your real life. But it is the time you set aside outside the work to learn and test and practice that you can really push your skills and knowledge forward.
Dabble in other fields and cross-pollinate ideas. To grow exponentially in what you do, it pays to look outside. Explore a new hobby, a new field, an unrelated skill. You will harvest new ideas, new ways of seeing that will take you to the next level. The insights that separate you from everyone else and gives you a true edge, a unique thing to contribute.
Space for strategising
To succeed, we have to be deliberate. We have to take a portfolio of actions that will take us from point A to point B. If we are obsessed and focused on results, hitting the mark, then we have to be effective as opposed to just being efficient, or worse, busy.
Strategy helps us manage our limited resources to create outsized opportunities. It gives us leverage. It is important to use empty space to reflect on what we are doing and reinforce where we are going. In this space we find ways around the challenges that have stumped us. We plan and set our plans in motion. We create opportunity.
Life is busy and we have demands on our time and resources continually. It is good to be in the arena, fighting and working. But we must retreat into the calmness of empty space from time to time, using this time to rest, investigate, learn and plan. In this way, we make sure that our days are focused, that we are not just busy, not just productive but deliberate in a way that makes sure that we move forward and grow.
This is how we win.
Or the art of doing nothing
For the past few weeks, I’ve been laying fallow. Just sitting back and doing nothing.
Okay, not completely nothing. I still went about my business, consulting and designing for clients, but about a month, I have not blogged. I eased up from writing, I even eased up from personal development (more on that in another post).
And as weird as that can sometimes feel – not constantly creating and publishing, doing nothing and disconnecting from your usual patterns is an important part of the overall creative and living process.
There’s a farming practice dating back to ancient times of leaving a land fallow after years of cultivating and using it. You would work a piece of land for a while and then leave it alone to allow it to rest, recover, and replenish its nutrients. This gives the land the chance to bounce back and be as fertile as ever when you begin to farm again.
Like the seasons, like farming, we have similar rhythms and cycles.
We spend a ton of energy creating things – writing that book, curating that exhibition, making that movie, executing that project. This creative process takes a lot out of us. And once we are done, we take a break, we rest. Then we pick things up and begin again. Sort of like our 5 days of work and 2 days of weekend.
But sometimes, a little rest is not enough. Sometimes we need a vacation. Sometimes we have to pause,disconnect.
Sometimes we even have to lay fallow.
Where we deliberately refrain from creation. We allow ourselves the extended rest, the extended break. It might seem a bit counter intuitive. It might seem self-indulgent and lazy. But there is a space for this practice of doing nothing, and it comes with a couple of benefits.
It allows you to recover
Our world and culture is mostly of busyness, of always being ‘on’ and available. If we are not productive, we feel guilty. We feel the pressure (and material need) to always be doing, so we jump from thing to thing, from project to project often without being able to take the step back to even think.
The path to getting what you want is a marathon, a lifetime of work and creation, of battles and challenges to overcome. It takes a lot out of us.
We get tired, then fatigued, then we begin to burn out. But the show must go on. So, we keep at it. Soon, we hate the thing we have created, we despise the work we do, and we begin to rebel in small ways. We lash out, we turn to whatever coping mechanism appeals to us. We spiral.
Our creative well dries up, and we take damage, our bodies and minds battered over time in the bid to produce and create.
The art of doing nothing, of laying fallow is an important antidote and counter balance to this ‘always on’ culture. It allows us to truly disconnect. To actually rest. To allow the body and mind to repair itself. To re-embrace rituals. To heal.
It cultivates empty space
Laying fallow allows us to cultivate empty space. An increasingly important and useful thing in a world so full of stimuli.
Our days are usually noisy. There are things we have to do just to sustain life, errands and work to be done. And then there are the relationships to attend to, the requests, the messages, the noise of the world wanting or needing things from us.
Over time, this noise, the ever urgent din of the world around us crowds out the truly important things. Going the opposite way, taking a break, laying fallow allows us to recover from the noise and eliminate it. It allows us to return to a blank slate, to begin anew.
It allows us to be bored.
It gives us the permission to live, to move around, to do something different, out of the usual.
It is this space of nothingness, of absent-minded play that allows us to collect new material, new inspiration, new points of view to integrate into our next work.
It is the space that allows creativity to happen again.
It allows us to see again
The forest for the trees.
Active creativity requires complete immersion in whatever we are making. Our work, our lives become our whole world. We become like the fish who can’t see the water it is in.
Laying fallow gives us some much needed distance.
To reconsider. To appraise and judge our work, our efforts, even our goals.
The empty space we cultivate in the fallow period allows us to be even more deliberate. To put our efforts where they are most effective. To design our lives, routines and affairs more skilfully, so we can accomplish a whole lot more with much less.
There are insights and perceptive breaks that only occur in a relaxed state. In the space where we have let go of active work and our subconscious can drift.
It is the time where we can integrate the experience we just had, the results, the lessons learned. In the empty space, the fallow period, these things settle and forge the essence of our new transformed self.
Be fallow, not lazy
The concept of being fallow is not an excuse to be completely lazy. Otherwise our fields become permanently overrun with weeds and we never return to productivity.
While we rest, we must maintain a balance.
The point in being fallow is to do nothing for a while in a bid to recover, gain some perspective and new inspiration, not to let our creative muscles wither completely.
In this period, we may be at rest, but we still do drills, we still practice techniques, we still study. We explore.
Until finally we are ready…to begin again…
A new challenge rises up, a new idea takes a hold of us, a new curiosity…and then we dive back into the creative space, refreshed, replenished, reequipped and ready for the new adventure.