This month I learned how to invent time and actually make progress towards long-term goals. I feel so productive already in November, and I still have over a week left!
Deeply thinking about my long-term goals and setting priorities accordingly has hopefully permanently changed my work balance. The hope with this post is that if you spend your life like I was in working towards only those things that are the most urgent, but maybe not the most useful (which is a HUGE problem in academia!), this can give you the inspiration you need to also reset and rediscover your goals and passions.
There are a lot of things I want to do with my business and blog right now. Instead of working towards these things, I spend my time mainly putting out fires…taking jobs with emergency last-minute deadlines, allowing people constant access to me through phone or email and dealing with issues as soon as they crop up, never saying no to anyone, etc.
This is a common issue in all of academia. Everyone is super busy, there are about a million things that seemingly need your attention at all times, and in the end, you are just one person. The things that unfortunately get thrown aside are generally less “urgent”, but are the things that are likely related to long-term goals – which might be writing more papers, writing more grants, and writing both of these early enough to get useful feedback.
I read a book a few months ago, “The ONE thing”, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, and it taught me that I was basically doing it all wrong. The main principle is a strict and exaggerated application of the 80/20 rule – which states that 80% of gains come from 20% of the work. I’m sure you can already see how I was stuck spending all of my time working towards the things that would give me only 20% of my gains.
Ultimately, continuing to allow the urgent tasks take up all of my time was leaving me like a hamster on a wheel – tons of frantic spinning, but ultimately going nowhere.
Through some thought exercises, this book showed me that, as suspected, I was spending almost no time working towards the things I was claiming were my major long-term goals. This book then took that 80/20 concept even further and suggested that I sharpen my focus to not just the 20%, but ONE thing that I can work on to get me to where to want to be.
To employ this technique, the book suggests asking a few questions for, first, your overall life, and then again for each smaller component (think family, career, health, etc.):
“What ONE thing that, if accomplished this year (or 5 years, depending on how long-term you want to start), will make everything else easier or irrelevant?”
“What ONE thing can I do this month to get closer to that goal? This week? Today?”
He then suggests the seemingly mad task of then putting 80% of your time and efforts into that goal. 80%!! Naturally, I was like “well, I obviously can’t do that because what pays the bills right now isn’t necessarily what will make my long-term gains…and I like food. And a roof.”
After reading this book, though, I was able to at least keep those less urgent but arguably more important priorities closer to the forefront of my mind. In the end, I did try to schedule more time to do things like work on new workshops into my week, but that ended up getting maybe an hour or two of my time while I did everything else.
Then, academic writing month started in November (see: https://butlerscicomm.com/join-me-why-november-is-the-ultimate-month-to-reconnect-to-your-writing/), and I was determined to spend more time on my writing and workshop projects. For one month, I wanted to actually employ the ONE thing strategy to see what I could accomplish.
Therefore, I made a pact with myself that these projects were my ONE thing priority. For one month, I was going to maybe not spend 80% of my time on these projects like suggested in the book, but I was at least going to make sure that they were the #1 priority when I managed my time. I figured if it was hard on my freelance business, it would only be for one month, so it would be easy to fix.
Spoiler – no fixing required.
Here is what happened:
Setting aside time, first thing, to work on your goals literally invents time
I uses to work from the mindset that if I got all of my “required” work done for the day, I could then work on the “extras” that I wanted to do. Well, I’m sure you see where this is going, but I rarely had any time leftover for those extras. These past few months have also been an absolute killer in terms of level of work, and I couldn’t see how it would even be possible to employ the ONE thing techniques.
This month, however, with my major goal being to work towards my projects, that became the focus of my day. I expected that I would have less time to do my actual work, so I also booked my clients and projects accordingly.
Turns out, though, I am working an average of 1.5-2 hours per day on my “extra” projects to reach my goals before completing any “required” work. This steady >1.5 hours has been amazing for advancing some projects I’ve been working on on the side, and, amazingly, I am getting in just as many “regular” working hours as I was normally.
What on earth happened here? The best I can figure is that I am using my time much more efficiently, though it doesn’t even feel like that. It feels like I have literally invented time, because that time I was wasting before was likely on such mindless or unimportant activities that I don’t even notice that time is gone.
Working towards long-term goals is energizing
That brings me to my next point.
If you would have told me two months ago that in November, I would be working an extra >1.5 hours per day, essentially, I would have cried. And then likely given up.
But, weirdly, working towards my goals and aspirations has been the opposite of exhausting. Taking the time to work towards my ONE thing has been one of the most energizing experiences I’ve had in a long time. So, sure, I am putting in an extra >1.5 hours of mental work in a day, but it is making the days feel LESS exhausting because I am working on things that are fueling my passions.
Additionally, I find that at the end of the day, I don’t necessarily want to just quit. I’m now spending extra time in the evenings with my computer to do little things like make small changes to my website, format PowerPoints, etc. These are all small tasks that have sat on my to-do list for ages, require very little thinking, and eventually would become pressing. If I were waiting until I had an upcoming workshop to do all of my PowerPoint formatting, for example, it would take away a half day of work. Now, though, I am doing it in the evenings with a TV show on that I might watch anyways, and it seems like it’s taking me no time at all. It might be slower overall, but who cares? It’s getting done in what seems like free time.
I am also crossing tons of those little nagging things off my to-do list, and the lightness of that alone has made this entire month worth it.
I don’t need to respond right away
I do try to keep my phone on silent during short bursts of work, checking it only when I step back for a breather every 30-60 minutes. However, I used to then take those breaks to respond to everyone, so I was generally responsive within an hour to any manner of question or concern.
With my highly focused month, though, I realized how much this was splitting my focus. My five minute breaks away from work were turning into 20-30 while I changed mental gears and responded, and then changed back to the job at hand.
Instead, I began setting myself one time of the day when I respond to everyone’s emails. It seems to be fine, as everyone still gets a response from me within a day, and I don’t have that split mental energy that made getting started back up again with work very difficult each time.
Emergencies are not nearly as urgent as I let them be
The next major thing I learned was that emergencies were often only emergencies because I gave them the power to be. In the first two weeks of this project, I had a client contact me with a project that absolutely needed to be edited by the end of the week. Normally, I would just say “okay”, take the job, and figure out how to make it happen.
This time, though, as I knew my schedule was already booked for a “normal” week and I had other major goals for the month, I told a client that I wouldn’t have the time to accept the job – for the first time in my freelancing life.
It suddenly wasn’t an emergency anymore and I could do it next week if that was better.
It was better, and I put that paper on the schedule for the next week, all while keeping my balance together and not giving up the time I was using towards my ONE thing goals.
My time is worth something
I also find that I rarely bother to charge rush fees unless absolutely required (i.e., fully disrupting my life), and just let emergencies like this happen.
I had another client this month who also had an emergency that needed an overnight turnaround. Because I knew that this would take away from time I planned to spend elsewhere on my monthly goals, I told them that I would definitely need to charge a rush fee. They happily paid what I considered to be an exorbitant fee (I actually thought they might just say no), and suddenly it was no longer an issue to spend a late night working, because I knew I was making money and wasn’t resenting the job anymore.
What I learned here, though, is that previously I was not valuing my time nearly enough. My extra time and personal time is also valuable, especially if I want to reach my long-term goals, and projects that will cut into that time needed to also be valued accordingly.
Overall, I reset my priorities
Focusing and honing my energies on my ONE thing goal has helped me see that I was not doing a good job of making and sticking to my priorities. By actually forcing myself to keep my goals in sight, everything else can fall into place. What I’ve been able to do, essentially, is stop being the firefighter who runs around putting out fires (dealing with the urgent and pressing), and refocused on those less-urgent, but arguably more important long-term goals.
Even if you think you have a good grasp of your goals, spend a few minutes thinking about what ONE thing that, if accomplished in the next year, would make everything else easier or irrelevant.
Then take an honest look at a normal week and see how much time you are dedicating towards that goal.
Is this amount surprising?
How might you change your work habits to get closer to that goal?
Can you try doing a priority and scheduling reset like I did this month? Maybe a month seems too long for you, though I saw major benefits in under two weeks, so try going for a shorter time period.
Ultimately, don’t be stuck like that hamster on a wheel. Make a conscious effort these last ~5 weeks of the year to set up habits that can help you break off that wheel in 2020 and get you closer than ever to your long-term goals.
And, as always, happy writing!