January 20, 2020

Accidental Time

This week I made a new google calendar for myself. It’s called retrospective.” This isn’t a calendar for future events; it’s for logging past events, like a structured diary for how I actually end up spending my time each day.

It may sound very strange, but I made this calendar because I keep getting this feeling that I’m accidentally spending up all of my time. Sometimes this accidental time is getting pulled into a distraction I didn’t mean to get absorbed in — the classic hour scrolling through social media” bit. Other times, I’m really intentional about saying yes to something (I haven’t seen you in forever! I’d love to grab drinks! We should catch up!) but then I sometimes accidentally make sacrifices I didn’t mean to. It’s easy to skip a day at the gym when you go drinking with friends.

How much of your day did you spend the way you wanted to? It’s a weird question I’ve been asking myself that I can’t seem to shake.

The main goal of this calendar exercise is accountability. I can’t change my behavior if I’m not even fully aware of what my behavior is.

A retrospective calendar is a tangible way for me to see my accidental and unmemorable use of my time. If I do this exercise right, I hope I’ll evolve into doing what I mean to do with my time. Purposefully relaxing, purposefully hanging out with friends, purposefully doing nothing, purposefully diving into work that is important to me.

It’s only been a week, but I’ve made a few observations studying my accidental time.

Infinity pools

John Zeratsky likes to use the word infinity pools to describe certain distractions. The kinds of distractions that you can find yourself swimming in forever.

Your Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter feeds will never end. You can spend hours watching YouTube, clicking the next recommended video. There’s always something new to binge. So when you start this type of activity, it’s actually possible to never really stop. The easiest way to lose several hours of your day is to engage in an infinite task.

At the very least, my calendar supports John’s argument. I’ve accidentally spent more time than I wanted wading in infinity pools literally every single time I engage in these activities. Ten minutes can turn into an hour without any thought. Even worse, I usually can’t recall most of what I saw when I browse through an infinity pool. If you asked me what I read on Reddit or Twitter today, I couldn’t tell you 90% or more of it.

As of writing this, I’ve deleted the following apps from my phone:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • TikTok

I’ve decided to leave Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and YouTube on my phone, but with aggressive time limits set through the screen time” setting on my iPhone. I’m also requiring a password in order to bypass the limit, just to add a bit more friction.

To some degree, my work life has infinity pools too. Email and slack can be nearly infinite, and a lot of it is noise. While I am leaving these apps on my phone as well, I’m striving towards goals like zero inbox” so that there’s nothing to mindlessly scroll through.

If it has the potential for scrolling infinitely, I want to minimize its role in my life.

Task Momentum

Based on my reflections calendar, my productive days are really productive, and my unfocused days sometimes never really get back on track. The days where I also start the morning with a simple habit that I wanted to do (gym, meditate, read, etc,) the rest of the day usually turns out more focused.

Going forward, one of the things I am going to try be mindful of is the idea of momentum. I don’t think it is a coincidence that my productivity leads to more productivity. I feel really good about myself when I check a todo off my list, and I conversely feel really shitty about myself when I know I just wasted the last 30 minutes scrolling through bad jokes on Twitter.

These emotions are very real, and they impact my ability to do work. This isn’t to say that I’m at the complete whim of my mood, but I want it to be easy for me to succeed. Why add to my cognitive load and fight with myself more than I need to?

I want to do the easy stuff first. In the morning, I want to mark the todos off my list that are quick and simple. I want to end my first hour awake with the feeling of momentum, like I’m on a roll and ready to make the most of my day.

Liquid Time

Schedules and plans are only fool-proof if there aren’t any surprises. As Nassim Taleb would say, there are too many Black Swans in life — unknown events that you weren’t even aware you didn’t know about — to always stay true to your calendar.

About half of the times my retrospective calendar events differ from my planned calendar events are when a surprise came up. Often times, this is a really pleasant surprise. I had a few impromptu hangouts this week that made me super happy. But just because I indulged in these moments doesn’t mean I don’t intend on accomplishing whatever was needed during the calendar event I skipped.

When people say money is liquid they mean it is in a very flexible, easy-to-use form. Maybe some brokerage account offers a really good return on your investment, but you can’t withdraw that money very quickly or easily, so for many people in many situations, this isn’t advisable.

I want to invest more of my time with this mindset. I want my time to be liquid; if I need to pull some time on Wednesday for a nice dinner date, I should have pre-allocated emptiness to shuffle things around. I don’t want to feel locked in by my calendar, and sometimes having a calendar in itself causes that feeling.

My goal around time liquidity is to open up my calendar and instantly move events around when something else comes up. I don’t want to stress over what I’m not doing. I don’t want productivity FOMO. I just want to know when I’m going to get it done later. If I decide to drop everything and spend the day with a friend, that’s fine. I’ll just move all of my tasks to when I have time. Life isn’t about sticking to the plan, but it is about doing what you want to before you die. As long as I time-box my goals and am diligent and honest with how I move my time around, I think I can remove a lot of mental stress by being more liquid with my calendar.

Cognitive Load

Our brains should be thought of like our muscles. Lifting a lot of weight tires you out, often to the point where you can’t lift any more; doing a lot of mental work is a large cognitive load, and can bring you to the point of having no mental energy left.

Maybe one of the most challenging obstacles to think about when I look at my calendar is when I hit a scheduled event I don’t want to do.

8:30-9:30pm
Music Production Class — Assignment 2

Sometimes I feel tired” and I don’t want to work on whatever I planned to do. But it feels like my emotions are lying to me a bit. If I was tired, I would go to bed, but I’m not sleepy. I’m not hungry. I just don’t feel like doing it. When I reflect on my goals, this is something I want to do, but in some moments, my brain says I don’t have the energy.

But I’ve never lacked the energy to do dumb stuff. In fact, one retrospective event on my calendar for this week is Netflix: 11pm-2am.” My bad habits don’t expend my cognitive energy. They are automatic.

My good habits also don’t use any brainpower. I don’t need to drag myself out of bed to brush my teeth. It’s as compulsive as it is desired.

When I look at my want to do” versus actually did” calendar events, I think the dissonance often stems from underestimating my mental energy levels. Context switching to new ideas takes energy. Starting something new takes energy. I only have so much cognitive energy.

I’ve heard that it takes 21 days of consistently doing something for it to become a habit. While I only have so much energy for new challenges, if I can introduce something for 21 days in a row, I can turn something that expends mental energy into something mindless.

If I return to my money mindset” of liquid time, I only have so much energy to spend each day. A sound investment is paying for something for 3 weeks and then having a free subscription to it for life. That compounds my returns for the mental investment I put in.

When I look at my calendar, I think I’ve been too aggressive in the short term because I think about the life I want to live in the long term. But I’m maxing out my cognitive load. If I just get one thing right for 21 days, I can still spend” the same amount of mental energy during the next weeks, but do more with what I’ve got.

The Things to do Instead” List

A friend I recently visited inspired me with a list she put on her wall. It’s titled, How to Feel Better. The list includes ideas like go for a walk,” read a chapter of a book,” and open a window.”

Despite all of these being very simple suggestions, this list is a powerful tool for her. When she goes through depressive bouts, part of what is hard is just considering what to do to pull yourself out of the rut. The list on the wall (or really, its existence in general) offloads the hard decision making task to her moments of thoughtfulness and clarity. While depressed, all she needs to do is follow her own instructions (which is still very hard, just… less hard.)

I feel like this concept is equally useful with distractions. I’d like to call my list Things to do Instead. Whenever I feel the urge to do some dumb pointless thing that is ultimately some distraction I am addicted to, it’s way harder to fight that urge if I don’t have some appealing alternatives. So instead of telling myself I’m going to relax” on Reddit, or I have a few minutes” on the train, or I had a long day at work” here are some things I personally would like to do instead:

  • Read a few pages of a book. 15 minutes a day of reading for a month is a 400 page book.
  • Go for a walk and listen to music. A change in environment + some favorite tunes can more than combat the urge to do nothing, it can reset your mood.
  • Open Instapaper. You’ve saved a ton of articles on this app that you want to read, so read them!
  • Meditate. Waking Up is a great app. You feel good after you use it, so use it more often!
  • Drink water or tea. Being hydrated or caffeinated has an understated impact.
  • Write. This post is writing, and you liked writing it. You have a lot of thoughts. Write them down (especially before you forget!) The act of doing it feels good, even if you just keep it for yourself.
  • Edit photos. This is a task you’ve told yourself you’d do, and now you have 40,000 photos waiting. Make a memory look extra nice, and put it in the queue for being printed so you can have that memory on your wall.
  • Listen to music. A whole album if you can. You love music, but sometimes listening to it while working is distracting — the music distracts from the work, and the work distracts from enjoying the music. You’ll never hear the details if you don’t stop to listen.
  • Make art. Make a short story, a song, a playlist, a short film. Write a review of a restaurant. Open photoshop or illustrator. Dust off your DSLR. If the tools are available, refresh and surprise yourself with your own ideas.
  • Learn something. What are you curious about today? What could 15 minutes of random research teach you that could spark joy?
  • Plan an outing. Where is somewhere you’d like to eat this week? What’s a part of the city you haven’t seen yet? Where is there nature around you? What would make a great mini-vacation?
  • Look around. People watch. You live thirty stories in the sky, observe the world around you. Take in the view; it doesn’t last forever.

Just one week of this exercise has inspired so much thought and reflection. I’ve noticed the consequences of infinity pools, the benefits of momentum, the need for liquid time, and the realities of my own cognitive load. Plus, I’ve got a great start on brighter ways to spend my time.

I’m so excited for my next week of being retrospective.”


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