All the successful people who have ever lived shared one common limitation: they only had 24 hours available in a given day. This is de-motivating and exciting at once. It certainly makes me feel like an underachiever when I compare myself to some of history’s greatest. Thankfully though, it also hints at the possibility of achieving extremely worthwhile and ambitious goals in what appears at first glance to not be anywhere near enough time.
A common and rather obvious productivity tip that will help you take advantage of this temporal hardcoded limit is to avoid wasting large blocks of time on activities you don’t find rewarding. For example, if you spend four hours a day on Facebook and you believe that your time could be better spent elsewhere, you can force yourself to avoid the site or use software (such as Self-Control on Mac OS X) to aid you in preventing wasting time on that activity. 
That’s certainly a low hanging fruit worth picking. However, many people already cut out/limit TV and Facebook, and still find themselves with no time to achieve the goals they set for themselves (especially true for responsible parents who are taking care of their children’s needs).
Luckily one simple productivity tip can help with that (provided you’re not already doing this). I call it the Fill the gap technique and it really helps me fight my natural tendency towards being an “all or nothing” kind of person when it comes to how I allot my time.
I noticed one day that I have a natural aversion to working on a task if I can’t spend a reasonably long block of time (just) on it. So the day gets fractured in blocks of productivity, which leaves many natural gaps in between such periods of work.
For example, if I need to leave the house to get to an appointment at 7pm and it’s 6:30pm, left to my own devices, I will often kill that half an hour surfing the web, checking Facebook, or watching a video instead of tackling one of the hundreds of available items within my todo list. Deep down, I suspect this has to do with my flawed expectation of demanding the perfect conditions before committing myself to something (typical of perfectionists and procrastinators alike).
Now, many of such tasks can’t be accomplished in half an hour. Looking more closely however, I’ve found that several tasks can be. More importantly, and this is really the key insight, half an hour is plenty of time to get started. Sure you can’t read a whole book in half an hour, but you can delve into the first few pages or even a couple of chapters (depending on the size of the book and your reading speed).
Objectively, it is not hard to fill that gap with a productive task. It’s just that unless I consciously make the effort, I tend to naturally default to more distracting options.
These days I remind myself to “fill the gap” and reach for my todo list to see what would be a good fit for my current energy, amount of time, and mood. I’m not perfect at it, but am getting into the habit of consciously choosing what I like to call “tidbit progress”. I’ve found that, a the end of the day, week, month, and ultimately year, all of those 10, 15, 30 minute gaps compound into a huge deal of extra time and productivity.
Interestingly, ever since adopting this technique, I find myself adapting it beyond the traditional domain of time management. If I can make some progress, I’ll happily take it instead of giving in to the all or nothing natural instinct.
Case in point: today I found myself by the Walmart parking lot after completing some errands. I knew that my wife and I would go grocery shopping tomorrow, but I still decided to take advantage of the proximity to Walmart to pick up a few few heavy items (cat litter, canned beverages, etc). I could have said, “eh, we are going groceries tomorrow anyway” and just waited, but instead I “filled the gap”. Tomorrow, we’ll have a lighter load to carry after we hit the grocery store. Small progress compounds.
I realize that many people out there are already doing this, but it really made a difference in my case, so I wanted to share it here in the hopes that other may benefit from this technique as well. I personally consider it to be a small victory in the bigger goal of letting go of perfectionism. Conditions in life will never be perfect, so we might as well just dive in and make as much progress as we can now.
- It could be argued that some people had more time than others thanks to a longer lifespan. Yet another argument in favor of prioritizing our health.
- Facebook is not necessarily a waste of time. Contrary to what most folks will tell you, I believe that you are the only person who is able to honestly assess whether the time you invest on that site (or any other area of your life) is genuinely worth it to you or not.
- The phrasing here reminds me of those shady “one trick” ads with headlines such as “Productivity experts hate him”. 🙂
- In which case, great job!
- On top of properly scheduled breaks, that is. I am not, of course, advocating being productive every second of your life. That’s as a good as a surefire recipe for burnout – or worse!
- These days I use the excellent, but not perfect, Omnifocus.