I'm a big fan of YNABs mantra to "give every dollar a job".
(For the uninitiated, YNAB—You Need A Budget—is a budgeting software and methodology. While the software can lapse into tedious minutia, like reconciling accounts, their framework for managing money is quite useful. If you'd like to give YNAB a try, click here.)
It's super powerful to take my pay-checks or other income and decide then and there how I'll spend that money.
It increases my sense of comfort, decreases my anxiety about money, and helps me align my spending with my financial goals.
Alas, this is not article about money.
It's about time.
Something I've always found peculiar about time is that we (here in the USA & Canada) associate time with money.
Just look at this list of common phrases about time, all of which frame time in terms of money:
This makes sense given the culture of work in my part of the world, where time is carefully quantified and commoditized.
This isn't the only way to measure time. It wasn't until 1884, barely 3 generations past, that world time was standardized according to Greenwich Mean Time, UTC 0:00.
Before then, long after, and even to today, different locales measured time according to their own seasons and sun sets. For much of recent European history, time was measured against holy and spiritual doctrine and numerology.
In the fall of 2020 I began noticing that the ways I was passing the time weren't serving me. My values and the activities I was doing didn't match up.
I was regularly getting sucked into the vortex of my screen. I'd open my laptop to do some work and bam: 20 minutes later I'm reading a list of user-voted "Most Problematic Words of 2020"—wait, why am I even on my computer?And that's an example of a small distraction. On a bad day, I'd emerge from a 4 hour Youtube binge, my eyes aching as if they were dry sponges, a big dose of despondency surging in me.
The hardest part about these moments is transitioning out of them and rediscovering my purpose.
On a wet, rainy walk I had the idea to assign each day a specific category to help prioritize important projects or duties—in other words, in the language of YNAB's budgeting software, what would happen if I gave every day a job?
This is the experiment I ran last month.
My hypothesis was that if I gave each day a job I would have more clarity of purpose. This clarity of purpose would help me make smooth transitions, resulting in less distraction and wasted time.
To set up my experiment I began by defining a priority for each week day based off of my responsibilities at work.
Here are my daily priorities for this experiment.
I started implementing this strategy on January 4, the first day of the first work week of 2021.
You can find my week by week reflections below or skip further to my take aways.
It was helpful for me to have the structure of this rubric last week. It made it easier to get up, shower, feed myself, light a fire, and do the things that would enable me to focus on that day's task. The hardest part was navigating how to roll with the punches without self-recrimination. Partly because it was the first week of the year and partly because our business generally operates on a 'do this now' basis, rather than on the basis of following through with a planned schedule, I was often pulled off course by events that came up. Realistically, I only spent about 2 active hours each day on the prescribed task. This is about a third of my total allotted working time for the week, which is quite a lot. And it felt like the bare minimum. For some of the longer term projects, this amount of time will simply be insufficient. However, I do believe that piecemeal work yields a better product. One of the most liberating aspects of the week was knowing where to put a task when it came up. Was it something non-urgent that would only take 10-30 minutes? Send that to Monday when I'll catch up on small tasks. Was it an Ontraport management issue? Send that to Wednesday. And so on. Having this amount of clarity made me feel that there was more intention behind my responses to the punches, rather than feeling that "something came up, I've got nothing better to do, so I'll do this".
Transcribed from my hand journal January 14, 2021:
I feel like I've failed. Monday was a good catch all. Tuesday & Wednesday I completely lost focus. What did I even do?
This made Thursday and Friday both very compressed. My intention from the beginning was to open more spaciousness. The walks certainly helped. I went on a couple walks the last two days. Youtube was the big culprit. But beneath that, loneliness, I think. In combination with fasted days, a big greasy meal, and the antecedent slump.
This Monday went very well. I did a good job of delegating items in my Things inbox into the "small fiddly tasks" category. So when Monday came around I was set up well to crank it out. The one mistake was that I hadn't factored my Keystone Accelerator homework into my week.
Monday's error meant that I showed up to Tuesdays Q&A without a good sense of what I needed to do to leave feeling like I got good feedback. This oversight set my emotions down low for a brief period, but I was able to bounce back after a walk. Did I do much work on the project management project? No... I didn't. My computer started acting up which meant chatting with Apple chat support for an hour, restarting my computer multiple times, and dealing with that situation. At which point I had a team meeting--this was on theme, which gave the day a certain degree of relaxation--and then i had to update the DTL homework, which still takes too much time for what it is. I think the main issue here is that I feel behind, given our very tight timeline of a two day turn around. What's on for tomorrow? It's my ontraport day. I have quite a lot to do for that day. First, I need to catch up on my Keystone homework. Then, I have writing and thinking to do around our list management. All of this has set up for my future self in Things. Part of the benefit I'm getting out of this article so far is the perspective that comes from a brief daily journalling exercise.
A few things went will in my experiment and a few things didn't go so well.
On the not-so-good side: I could have been more consistent with my follow through. As my weekly journal entries (or lack thereof) attest, I stopped writing regular reflections after week 3. I began to lose sight of the value of the project and I hadn't ritualized a habit of reflecting daily. The consequence here is that I can't say with certainty what it was like to achieve a daily goal for one month. That being said, my experiment wasn't to achieve a daily goal but to see what'd happen if I set one. With the clarity of hindsight I can say that this was both a limitation and a good thing for my study. The objective I set was limiting in that I could have accomplished more had I defined clearly a target outcome for each day. Instead, I was left with the uncertainty and ambiguity of having to judge each day's success as it came up. I had to ask myself, did I achieve today's pre-defined purpose?
In the end, this was the most powerful takeaway of this experiment.
The most helpful conclusion is that regularly holding my high level values and goals against my daily actions is super powerful. So powerful, in fact, that I have begun journalling daily.
The reason that my daily reflections didn't last in the experiment itself was because my "high-level" values weren't thoroughly considered. I basically said, "here are the things I'm working on so here are the activities I'll do each day," rather than asking what is my best area to contribute and how can I fill my days with as much of this possible? In order to account for this I have created a daily journal template.
The second most significant learning has to do with a pair of insights. First, I learned that checking tasks off of my to do list is super rewarding and really build momentum. Second, the more precise and clear my to-do list is the better. I frame these as a pair of insights because together they mean more than individually. These two insights taken together means that I can downscale the scope of my projects to make their outcomes and goals smaller and turn over more of them to keep a sense accomplishment and motivation rolling with strong momentum.
Going forward I'll be implementing two new practices. The first is to keep a simple daily journal (I've made a template here). I'll spend no more than 5 minutes on it. The second is to downsize the scope of my projects.
My goal with this experiment was to align my priorities and the ways I spend my time. In other words, I wanted to budget my time by giving each day a job. Along the way I learned some techniques that can help me with this. Am I done? Certainly not. The goal of integrity remains a goal without end. I look forward to continue to pursue it.