How to prevent time theft?

I have practically no memory of what happened yesterday morning. No, I wasn’t drunk or unconscious.

But yesterday’s forenoon was a blur. All I remember is writing a post on LinkedIn. Then I checked emails and soon got sucked into a bunch of small tasks. One thing led to another, and the hours just flew by!

On the other hand, after lunch, for 4-plus hours, I was intensely focused on creating videos for our upcoming productivity program. I was grappling with some hard questions, which really made me concentrate.

End result: The post-lunch session felt 100x more productive than the forenoon – no exaggeration. Also, it feels like I fully lived those hours, even though the work was hard.

This brings us to an experience we have all had. After a hectic day, we look back and sometimes wonder, “Where did the day just go? What happened to all those hours?”

It sometimes feels like someone just stole our time. Today, we will talk about how to prevent that ‘time theft’. 😊

Let us start with a counter-intuitive fact: Time has no absolute value.

Say, you have 8 hours tomorrow. Is it a lot of time, or is it too little? It all depends.

With clear priorities and deadly focus, 8 hours is A LOT. In fact, yesterday evening, I still had time left but my creative energy was spent! The next time your mind says “I don’t have time”, do four hours of deep work and often, you will run out of steam before you run out of time – I promise you.

In short, we almost always have time but we fritter it away. To stop this time theft, let us understand how it happens.

Here are the things that suck away your time:

1. Fragmentation

Let us say, you have an hour before the next meeting. It is a good chunk of time and you feel confident that you can get some good work done.

But say, you get distracted and sucked into some random task and spend 20 minutes there. Next, you spend 15 min on email. Soon, you have only 25 min left and feel it is too little time to do anything meaningful.

On top of that, you are frustrated that you threw away that 1-hour time block. So you give up on the remaining 25 minutes as well. Has this happened to you?

This is how fragmentation steals time. A one-hour block has value X, but when split into three, its value becomes nearly zero. Fragmentation does not split value – it destroys it

How to prevent it:

A. When you have a reasonably long block of time, fiercely resist the temptation to get sucked into any other task other than your chosen priority.

When the work is challenging – and which work isn’t? – your mind will be tempted to do many other things. Don’t. Jot down whatever tasks come up in your mind for later, but DON’T attend to them right away (unless they are life-threateningly urgent).

B. Learn to use smaller blocks of time. Here is a simple technique.

I almost always do 25-minute pomodoros (focus sprints) followed by a 5-minute (or longer) break. So even a 30-minute block feels quite enjoyable. Below is the screenshot of the ‘Be Focused’ Chrome extension I use, which I normally set for 25 minutes.

If you have only 10-15 minutes left, then use it for email or tasks like that. What else can you do?

2. Poor prioritization

This is an invisible time stealer. Here is why.

Value comes not from doing things, but from doing the right things.

When we don’t have clear priorities, most of us stay busy to alleviate our guilt. Often, we respond to emails and messages. While it helps with guilt, it rarely creates value. This is how even most hard-working people fritter away their time, working on non-priorities.

Then how do you prioritize?

While there are many nuanced ways of doing it, at its core, prioritization can be simple. For starters, pick 1-3 burning tasks for the day, every morning (ideally just one task).

Ask yourself: What tasks, if completed today, will make the day worthwhile?

Don’t worry, it is not that hard. By temperament, I am also not someone who plans everything methodically.

However, I have trained myself to start the day by identifying a few burning priorities. Yesterday, my priority was to create six videos. So even though I got a bit overconfident and complacent in the morning, I could use my day well because I had a clear priority.

We hugely underrate prioritization. If you take away nothing else from this newsletter, grab this point.

3. Work interruptions (and useless meetings).

If you are interrupted frequently by your colleagues, or by your emails and Slack messages, it will cause you to switch your attention. Attention-switching degrades focus and takes you away from your priorities. It makes you stressed and unmindful.

And when unmindful, you lose sense of how time goes by.

You must have noticed that on the days you are interrupted a lot, you feel busy but nothing really moves.

While there is no perfect solution to this, here is an approach:

– Carve out 1-2 hours of uninterrupted time when you are mentally fresh (ideally in the morning). Tell your colleagues that you have something urgent to attend to.

– Use this to slot to focus on your top priority. If you do this, even if the rest of your day is full of interruptions, you would have used the day well.

Try this for 3-4 days and my hope is that it will motivate you to make it a part of your routine.

4. Digital distractions

This is the mother of all evils – because it causes all of the problems listed above.

If you are habituated to checking your smartphone very frequently, no matter what productivity system you follow, nothing will work. You will keep fragmenting your time, throwing away your focus, and feeling anxious. Hours will go by without you even realizing it.

I have known many people who were spending up to 7-8 hours daily on their phones (especially on weekends). They hated it, but couldn’t stop themselves. And even they could come out of it. (We address this in our digital detox bootcamp – Undistractable.)

If you don’t break out of your phone’s clutches, then all bets are off.

If you are not sure how your time is getting stolen, do a time audit. For one day, every 30 minutes, jot down what you did in the last half hour. To remind yourself, set up a reminder recurring every 30 minutes.

In this newsletter, I have looked at time only through the productivity lens but time is much more than that – it is your very life. And if your life is precious, your time also has to be precious.

So stop this time theft. Push back hard. I hope this writeup can guide you in fighting back.

Good luck. And thank you for reading this.


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