Enough time: a new hire’s reflections

Posted: - Modified: | career, life, time

After one of the new hires read my blog, she asked me, "How do you find the time to do what you do?" This was after I’d sent her a couple of useful links, so I didn’t think she meant it in the "You have too much time on your hands" kind of way. I said that I saved lots of time and and I use that time to get good enough at what I do so that people want me to do what I want to do. After reflecting on the question, though, I realized that my answer is at least half-wrong.

It’s not about time management or productivity.

I probably work less than most new hires do. I don’t work long hours because my evenings and weekends are full of wonderful things to do. (Okay, I do some work in the evenings and on the weekends, but that’s because it’s fun.) I’ve also kept a careful rein on the urge to immerse myself in work because I’ve heard that it can take over one’s life. This is not to say that people who live for work have made the wrong choice (we owe so much to people like them!), but I like the balance I have.

I don’t think I work significantly smarter than other people do. This is not about tips for handling e-mail faster or to make better use of your downtime. I’ve read a good number of productivity books and blogs, and I’ve incorporated many of their suggestions into my habits, but that’s really more to minimize frustration than to trim every last minute and streamline my daily routines. Besides, all these things are things other people can do. Whenever I come across something that saves me time, I try to teach it to other people–lifting as I climb. I’m not looking for a competitive advantage. I want to make the path even easier for other people than it was for me.

Besides, it’s difficult to compare productivity anyway. Let’s take my current project. I can read and figure out PHP code quickly, but it takes me forever to do cascading style sheet designs for websites. Am I faster or slower than my teammate? I don’t think it matters. My manager and my team members are happy with my work. I fulfill my end of the deal, and I help other people work more productively as well. I’m happy with my work and how I spend my time, and that’s probably the best result.

So if it’s not about longer hours or greater productivity, what’s the deal, then?

These three things are true about time: you will always have the same amount of time in one day as other people do, there will never be enough time to do everything, and there’s plenty of time to do the things that matter. The first point is the answer to "Where do you find the time to do this?" The second point is what stresses lots of people out. The third point is what makes all of that easier to deal with. It’s like the difference between a half-empty glass and a half-full glass. If you’re stressed out because you feel you don’t have enough time, you’ll feel even worse and you’ll use up more energy when you’re doing things. If you’re happy that you have the time to do a number of valuable things and maybe even a little more, you’ll feel better and you’ll bring that energy to your work and your life. So much of happiness is in how you see things.

What matters? For me, my formal responsibilities matter. My team relies on me to do certain kinds of work. I can see the value in what I’m doing, and I know that if I do a good job at what I do, I help other people create even more value doing the work they do. So yes, my work matters.

But my formal responsibilities aren’t everything. Even when it comes to work, I feel that it’s important for me not to run totally flat out. Some people relish that kind of challenge. Me, I can probably pull it off as a sprint, but not a marathon. I’m not the kind of person you want working 80-hour weeks, schedule packed to the brim. I need gaps of unstructured, potentially "unproductive" time.

Where does that "unproductive" time go? I use that time to reflect, to learn, to reach out, and to share what I’m learning.

I regularly reflect on what I’ve been doing, how I’ve been doing it, how I can do it better, and where I want to go. This helps me practice relentless improvement. Reflection is such an important part of the way I work and live that when I don’t give myself the time to step back, I feel raw, stretched, frayed. I need that quiet time. I need that space to learn, and I need that space to share.

When I learn, I divide my time between focused skill-building (like the way I’d burn through twenty books on a single topic or focus on a particular programming platform), general scanning (a feed reader makes it easy to stay up to date), and random-walking in search of serendipitous connections. All three types of learning have given me incredible value, not only for myself but also for other people. Focused skill-building gives me the deep knowledge I can use at work and I can share with others. General scanning lets me fish out just the right example from my memory when we’re throwing ideas around at a meeting. Random-walking helps me draw connections between different areas.

Reaching out to people lets me find opportunities to learn more and to be of even more help. I’m a little shy about inviting people out for a walk or interrupting their concentration with an instant message, but I feel comfortable commenting on blog entries or e-mailing people about something we’ve talked about. My blog also helps me reach out. People come across it for all sorts of different reasons, such as a search result, an e-mail signature, or a casual conversation. If they find it useful, they sometimes write to say hi or to ask a question. So even if I’m shy or busy working on something else, my blog is always out there, reaching out to people for me.

My blog is also the primary place where I share what I’m learning. Teaching something helps you learn it more effectively, and you can create lots of value by doing so. I spent at least two days struggling with multi-step form validation in Drupal, and I happily spent fifteen minutes writing about it in the hopes of saving other people time. I try to do the same with the other things I learn. Teaching what I’m learning is a natural fit with my reflections. It helps me learn more effectively. It’s a terrific way to reach out. I also give presentations, answer questions through e-mail, coach people over the phone, and talk to people. A lot of that material starts out as a blog post, though, as I try to figure out what I want to say and how to say it.

Teaching–whether it’s an informal blog post or a dressed-up presentation–is a fantastic way to keep getting extra value from the time you’ve already spent learning something. It’s like what I tell myself when I make a mistake or when I spend a long time trying to figure something out: "You’ve already paid the tuition. Now collect the paycheck." If you’re the one in that situation, you know that the time you spent is gone. You won’t be able to get it back. What you can do, however, is not only to learn the lesson, but to get even more value out of it by sharing it with others. It’s like passive income, except it’s about creating additional value over and over again. A little investment of time now can save lots of people time in the future, and that has a way of working out for you too.

So that’s the long answer to "How do you find the time to do the things you do?" I do this stuff because it matters to me. It looks like it matters to other people too, so maybe I’m on to something here. I hope it works for you too!

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