Most of my life I was busy doing, running from one thing to the other. It’s only a few years ago, in my mid thirties, that I also started to think about being, and learned how to take care of myself, reflecting on my life from a larger horizon. I had to learn it the hard way, through hitting walls and feeling my energy spread so thin that it was impossible to get the results I wanted. I had many questions and looked for answers in books, but I rarely found one that gave me exactly the answers I was looking for.
One of my big question was: how do I find time for all the things I love? What I found, was a hard and painful truth: there’s never time for everything we want to do. We cannot have it all and it will make our life easier if we just accept this as a fact. And second, we don’t just find time. We make time for what matters most. But to do that, we need to start with ourselves and understand what we value and what motivates us to act.
Putting First Things First
A few years ago, eight, to be more precise, my life took a very different turn. I became a manager, taking on a completely new level of responsibility and job complexity. Shortly after my promotion, I found out I was going to become a mother. Being a rookie at both roles, I was literally in survival mode for the first years. In my head, I had to do everything perfectly, I had to give it all, fit one thousand things in one day and still, it wasn’t good enough. As I wrote before, I thought that doing more was the solution I needed. That by doing more, I was doing better. I was wrong.
Besides meditation and mindfulness, which helped me slow down and be more present, managing my time and priorities was the second most important learning during these challenging years. Was there a better way to plan my days, my weeks, my months, so I could avoid getting burned out, trying to fit too many things in the only box that can never expand: time? As I found out later, while reading Nir Eyal’s Indistractable, the best place to start, is understanding what we truly value in our life.
The principle is very simple. We all have a thousand things we want to do and there’s never enough time for everything.
But if we step back for a second, there are really three big life domains that we need to focus on and balance: ourselves, relationships, and work.
If we simply drew a clock and add all the hours in a day, how does yours look like? Let’s say you have a good sleep schedule, 7-8 hours a night and you have a steady job, working 8-9 hours a day, including breaks. That leaves you around 8 hours for everything else you want to do: cook, eat, personal care, time spent with family and friends, shopping, exercise, relaxation, hobbies, personal finance, planning, cleaning the house, doing the laundry and the list goes on. You might have a partner who does a fair share of household activities. And still, it's not easy to fit everything in 8 hours, right? How much of your free time do you spend with yourself? How much time do you invest in meaningful relationships? How much time do you spend doing what is important for your future and brings you joy?
The first step in focusing on what matters, is to actually understand what is it that matters.
The most challenging part in living in alignment with our values, is that we need to make choices that are hard and painful. We need to say no to certain things and activities that we like, to be able to spend time on the ones we love. This is also something I learned the hard way. Being someone with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, I used to say yes to too many things, too fast. And by doing that, I overcommitted and underdelivered many times. But once I spent time reflecting on what truly mattered to me, making those choices became easier and more automatic.
I was recently talking to a friend about the conflict I feel between my core value of growth and learning and that of love and family. Sometimes these two values compete in the same time space. I usually have time to read or follow a course in the evening or in the weekends. But that’s also the time I have available to spend time with my family. So, I often feel this inner struggle that I should be doing something else instead.
It’s easy to come up with a list of values that sound good and honourable. But it’s super hard to walk the talk and live and breathe your values every day. When I started to work on defining my core values, it took me several months of reflection and refinement, until I got to the few core values that guide me every day. If you want to do this exercise for yourself, this is a good list to start with, from Brené Brown.
The good news is that growth and family can co-exist in my life. Sometimes I find activities that reflect them both at the same time, like going to the science museum or building a challenging Lego set with a fascinating background story. But most of the times, they cannot co-exist. And that’s fine. Because I realised that not everything that is important, must happen at the same time. Everything that is important cannot fit in one day. But most of the times it can fit in one week.
It’s Not Easy to Do What’s Right
So we spend weeks, months, maybe years figuring out what’s important and we are convinced we want an authentic life, guided by our values. Why is it then so hard to follow through and do what we say we want to do? We want to learn and grow, but every time we work on something challenging, we end up answering emails and talking to other people about small things. We want to spend more time with the people we love, but instead, we find ourselves glued to the screen of our smartphones. We say we’re going to save for that emergency fund, and still, month after month our savings account is flat. We say we want to stay healthy and fit, but we stop by KFC on our drive home (never happened to me!).
Illustration by ©George Rosu
Why is doing the right thing so hard? Long story short, because we are human, and we are wired to find the path of least resistance. We always look for shortcuts and for possible ways to save energy. We are also wired for present bias and instant gratification. We are impulsive and we want one marshmallow now rather than wait longer to get two. We are also overestimating our willpower and we are too optimistic and overconfident, which has been proven again and again to be negatively correlated to actual results. So, doing the right thing that help us on the long term, often means that we need to manage a discomfort short term. And that’s the hard part.
"If distraction costs us time, then time management is pain management". Nir Eyal
Nir Eyal defines traction as a set of actions that draw us toward what we want in life and distraction as those actions that pull us in the opposite direction. His Indistractable framework is in fact a very simple four step formula that I have been using as a reminder when I felt I was not spending time on the right things: master your internal triggers; make time for traction; hack back external triggers and prevent distractions with pacts.
Mastering Internal Triggers
Writing is for me one of the most difficult and challenging tasks. Writing is a complex process, involving several steps that sometimes take days from start to finish. A bit like making sourdough bread. Starting to write is always the most difficult phase, because I know that once I am in the flow, I cannot be easily distracted. But to start, there are a few things that need to happen. I need to block a certain amount of time in my calendar; I need a (relatively) clean desk; I need to hide my smartphone; I need to have all my notes and materials organised in one folder, so I don’t have to search for anything online; and I need either complete silence or special focus music. If I start writing and I get interrupted after a few minutes, it takes another half an hour to get back to where I left it.
From all distractions that can happen, two are are the most dangerous for me: the smartphone and food. I cannot remember how many times I told myself “I will start writing after I make this [insert recipe here]”. Or after I take a sneak peek at my email, in case anything urgent happened. Nothing that urgent ever happened. Never.
But the distractions in our lives are not the real issue to blame. There’s always a deeper root cause that we need to stop and pay attention to.
Sometimes we get distracted because the task is too difficult, so it requires too much energy. Other times we are just bored. What’s important to accept is that just trying to temporarily block the distraction will not help long term. It’s like treating the symptom but not the cause.
Instead, we need to find ways to cope with our cravings. Here are a few ways to do that.
1. Notice the discomfort that precedes the distraction. Do you feel anxious and restless, do your feet start moving, are your fingers twitching, do you feel butterflies in the stomach or pressure on your chest? You can write down the trigger, so you become more aware of it when it happens next time.
2. Be aware of what happens when you move from one activity to another. Are there some cues that accompany that transition? For example, when working in the office and moving from one meeting room to the other, I always stop by the coffee machine to get another coffee. Until I realised I was drinking way too much coffee and this was becoming an unhealthy habit. Being aware of that trigger, I just replaced the coffee with tea. I kept the trigger (moving to another meeting) and the reward (taking a short break) and just changed the routine (healthy tea instead of less healthy coffee).
3. Reimagine the task at hand and think about how you can make it more fun. If you know that working on that difficult analysis or presentation is the right thing to do for your career and growth, stop checking emails and pretend you’re busy doing anything else. Imagine how it would feel if that difficult task was fun. Can you find three ways to make it fun? I must admit, the “make it fun” part doesn’t always work for me, but what works is focus music. When I know I need to work on a difficult report or presentation, I have a special playlist called (very originally) “Focus Music” and the moment I play it, I’m in the flow. It’s scientifically proven that music helps with focus. But it must be without lyrics, and you need to stick to that music only when you do that specific task.
Make Time for What's Important
When I first read Indistractable, back in 2019, I was bothered by the idea of a timeboxed schedule. Timeboxing is considered one of the most efficient methods for getting things done and focusing on what we plan to do. It recommends that you plan your agenda by including the activities that are important to you in blocks of time, ideally color coded. Like this, when you open your calendar, you immediately have a visual overview of what you’re spending your time on. My problem was that I found it rigid. I was so bothered by it that I sent the following email to the author:
"I just finished Indistractable and I wanted to share some feedback with you. While overall I found it a helpful reminder that we need to focus on what is important in our lives, I don’t agree with the timebox approach that you propose. It seems that what you suggest is a 100% planned life, that leaves no place for spontaneity, flexibility, and creativity. I get a lot of ideas and think more creatively when I wonder off and do things that are not planned. So, I just wanted to ask you how do you see this? Where does creativity fit in the perfectly planned timebox?"
His reply was very simple and concise:
"It’s up to you how you want to spend your time. We never said you should plan to be “productive” every minute of the day. That would be boring! Instead, if you want to have time to let your mind wander, to take a walk, to meditate, do it! Just do it on your schedule, not someone else’s."
And I think this is the essence of planning for traction. To schedule time for what’s important to you, so others cannot steal that time and use it for what’s important to them. I didn’t understand it at first. But when my life became busier and busier, my job more and more demanding, I started to feel the consequences of not having time for what I found important. I didn’t feel in the driver’s seat and time boxing actually helped me regain that control. Spending time on planning doesn’t mean that things will always happen exactly as scheduled. There will always be unexpected things and we must be mindful of that and keep our flexibility.
A timeboxed schedule reviewed every week, is a reality check and requires a lot of discipline. It gives us a clear perspective of what is possible and what not. It helps us make choices and cut things from our unrealistic wish list. It shows us how every hour spent on a distraction, takes from another bucket that would move us toward what we love. I only recently started to block time for everything, including weekends and outside working hours. I can tell you, it’s painful at first. You must accept you don’t have time for everything you want to do and you need to give certain things up. But at the end of the day, it’s reassuring to see that while you chose not to do a few things, you still spent your time on what mattered most.
Hack Back External Triggers
We get distracted everyday by external triggers. You know you have a busy day ahead, everything is planned by the hour, you are motivated to get all things done and be productive, but suddenly you see a WhatsApp notification popping up. It’s a friend sending you a hug and asking when you can get on a call. You take a few seconds to answer, but you see another message from your work group. Since you’re already on your phone, you also check your Instagram and LinkedIn feeds, just out of curiosity (also never happened to me!). Before you know it, you just lost twenty minutes without doing anything.
Emails are another big distraction factor. We can feel busy answering emails all day long, but the more emails we send, the more we get back. I was talking to a friend a few days ago and she was telling me about an experiment she did. For one week, she tried to not answer any emails, unless they were critical. She found out that many emails that came in were related to small issues from her team, that magically got solved without her intervention. When people don’t get answers, they might look for solutions on their own and take more personal responsibility. Plus, sending less emails will result in receiving less emails.
It’s also important to communicate the right expectations to the people you interact with. To set clear boundaries. If people are aware that you prefer a call or text message over an email, you will be surprised that they will use that way of communicating.
People don’t have bad intentions when they interrupt other people. They are just not aware you are doing something else which is more important to you.
The problem here is not the technology per se. Closing our social media accounts will not solve the problem of our distraction. Instead, we need to set a clear intention about why we spend time on each platform. If I use Facebook because that’s where I interact with some old friends from high school, that’s great. Set a certain time to reach out to them and engage. In the end, a call will probably do a lot more for the relationship, but hey, everyone has her favorite communication tools. If you like Instagram because you find visual inspiration for your home or baking recipes, that’s also fine. But do it for a certain amount of time, intentionally, not just scrolling mindlessly. In general, blocking all push notifications is a good idea that will reduce distraction. Studies have shown that the mere presence of the smartphone in the same room, decreased people's cognitive capacity.
Illustration by ©George Rosu
Over the years, I did many experiments to reduce time spent on the smartphone. I used the grey scale instead of the color screen. I used the downtime functionality to block all the apps during working hours. After reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, I uninstalled all my apps for a week and then re-installed the ones that were truly important. In a few months I was back where I had been before the experiment. What helped me was not to think about tech as a distraction, but to find ways to focus on what was important for me to do. The tech usage decreased consequently.
Prevent Distractions with Pacts
There are many tools and apps available to help you commit to what you’re planning to do. I personally haven’t used so many of them, but I did pacts with myself, especially when I was starting a new habit. If I do this for 30 days, I will buy myself a new audiobook. There is also a technique called temptation bundling that works very well, for certain activities. When I started to run, it was very difficult to push myself out of the door, so I started to listen to certain audiobooks only during the run. These could be novels that I wouldn’t otherwise find the time to listen to, or podcast episodes about food and cooking. After a while, I was looking forward to that half an hour of running, also because I was curious to find out how the story unfolded. However, this technique doesn’t work when you work on a task that requires mental effort and your complete focus.
Another tactic that can help boosting our confidence and increase the chances to follow through is to explain to others what we are trying to achieve. This encourages accountability. The simple fact we told other people we were going to do something, increases the chances that we will do it. This helps us avoid cognitive dissonance, which is the lack of alignment between what we say and what we do. For this same reason, organisations like the Alcoholic Anonymous encourage sponsors to support newer members. When you’re a sponsor and explain to someone else the journey you’ve been through and the obstacles you overcame, there’s less chance that you will take a slippery slope.
My best accountability tool is to explain to my seven-year-old son what I am planning to do. It’s amazing how fast he will notice and remind me that I’m not doing what I said I was going to do. Children have an incredible gift to hold other people accountable for their words. I wonder how we can teach them to apply the same technique on themselves. Oh wait, what was with that instant gratification thing again?
What Are You Doing in Four Thousand Weeks?
Don’t get me wrong, I have never been, and I will never be a productivity geek. I am not obsessed with planning and having everything scheduled by the minute. There are days when I just don’t feel like it. But overall, I need some structure and discipline, to make sure I don’t forget what matters most. It’s easy to get distracted and off track, doing small things that don’t add up and don’t benefit anyone. But it’s even easier to forget to make time for ourselves. So planning, to me, is a healthy way to keep this balance in my life and avoid unnecessary stress.
I recently finished reading Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks and I loved its pragmatic, funny and detached perspective. He opens the books with a painful hard truth:
“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. Here’s one way of putting things in perspective: the first modern humans appeared on the plains of Africa at least 200,000 years ago, and scientists estimate that life, in some form, will persist for another 1.5 billion years or more, until the intensifying heat of the sun condemns the last organism to death. But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.”