To properly value my time, I have to constantly remind myself that it is scarce. Both Buddhist and Western philosophies (such as stoicism and epicureanism) say that, to truly value your time, you must contemplate the fact that you will die and thus that time is fleeting. Some call this morbid and would rather not think about their own mortality. They do their best to think of their time as infinite, and infinite goods have little value. It is only when we struggle to breathe that we appreciate air, when we are in periods of drought that we appreciate rain.
On my phone, I have a simple countdown timer app called T-Zero. I looked up the actuarial lifespan of a male in the U.S. (76 years), and I created a timer that counts down the time until my 76th birthday. Watching the seconds and minutes pass and knowing that they are finite encourages me to ask myself how I am using my time. Do I really want to spend these precious minutes playing a game for the 100th time or aimlessly browsing reddit?
Or do I want to spend that time talking to my wife, learning something new or helping to create the change I want to see in the world? Sometimes, I really do want to play that game. But often, it helps to reset my perspective and focus on what matters.
That same concept of counting down time, when applied on a more prosaic level, is probably the single greatest driver of my productivity. It is sometimes called the pomodoro technique, but the point is to set a timer—usually for 25 minutes—that you can easily see.
Pick a task, focus on that task exclusively for 25 minutes and then stop and take a five-minute break. Repeat. When you want to check Facebook or when you get a ping from an email notification (although I recommend turning all of your notifications off), you’ll know that you’ve set aside time at the end of the countdown to do those things so that you can focus on your work. You’ll be amazed at what you achieve the first day you start using this method.
Read more: 9 Secrets the Most Productive People Know
It’s also important to review your day. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. However, it’s not simply 10,000 hours of doing a job. There are many managers who have spent more than 10,000 hours managing and yet show little progress. Gladwell was referring to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That means consciously being aware of what you are doing, reviewing how you performed and then adjusting your behavior based on your learnings.
It’s hard. However, the best way to start is simply by spending some time at the end of the day writing a review of your own performance. I use a set of standard questions, such as:
- Were there any occasions today where you lost your cool or spoke without thinking?
- What stopped you from being maximally productive today, and what can you change?
- Were there any interactions you would do differently with the benefit of hindsight?
- How much did you listen and ask questions today, as opposed to talking and issuing statements?
These help me review my performance and think about how I can do better tomorrow.
Tony Haile is the founding CEO of Chartbeat, the leading data toolset for global newsrooms and an adjunct professor of journalism at Stanford University and Columbia University.
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