General thoughts

Your Days Are Numbered

Have you ever wished there were more hours in the day to get things done?

Have you ever wondered where you will find the time to read the books that people have suggested to you?

How about the gym membership you bought at the start of the year that is yet to be used?

If any of these ring even slightly true, I’d say you are in a vast majority.

The most common thought around today in relation to this, is that our lives have never been busier. However, it is hard to find any scientific evidence of this. It is certainly true there is a deluge of distraction around us, caused by the capability and affordability of technology, but the busyness we now have could arguably just be the modern version of the busyness of old.

Centuries ago the busyness was far more involved in survival in many ways. From diseases to warfare, the olden days were riddled with a different range of activities that most certainly didn’t promote a high degree of comfort for many people. However, it is sadly not the case that everyone has an easier life today, in fact the level of poverty in the western world is at a surprisingly high level, but then again, so is our increasing life expectancy.

Mathematically we’ve never had more time on our hands, so why is it so common for us to feel that we don’t?

Recently I was facilitating a workshop in London to a range of business executives and the final question I was asked was this:

“I manage a group of people who constantly complain that they don’t have enough time in their lives. What can I do about this?”

My answer was pretty much the following and you can perhaps apply it yourself or to your team:

With any question regarding a limited resource, the starting point is to accept that the resource, time in this case, is limited. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to intentionally avoid a school of thought (which I have some allegiance to) that would argue that time is an artificial construct and all that exists is the moment.

The starting point of acceptance is easy to describe yet sometimes tough to properly digest.

On my 42nd birthday I held a party that I called “15330”. This was simply a calculation of 42 years x 365 days. My attitude to life is structured around the days I’ve been alive and the probability of the number of days I have remaining. For the record, I have decided that I now have fewer days left than I’ve been alive – and I don’t mean to sound negative about that and I’d be delighted if it isn’t the case! Whatever the reality becomes, I can’t guess what will happen in the next few minutes, let alone the next day, week, month or year, so I attempt to live each day as if it is very much numbered. This isn’t to justify acting with reckless abandon (well, sometimes!), but it is to create a personal mindset that every day is drawing from a limited resource.

When a contact of mine asks me about a decision they need to make, I often refer to the options available in the amount of days. For example, to answer a question about whether to commit to something for the next 18 months of a remaining 10 year career span, I would point out that approximately 547 days out of the next 3650 isn’t necessarily a massive investment numerically. 2000 would be higher, right? Of course we need to take into account other factors such as whether the decision would potentially improve career opportunities etc, but in general I believe it is healthy to add the numerical perspective to the mix. An alternative view is that 3650 is already relatively small number in relation to a perceived lifespan, so investing 547 is a hefty price and would need to super-charge the remaining 1453 to really make sense.

Now we’ve appreciated that time is a limited resource, the next step is to work out how much time is spent on things.

If you work out how much time you spend on social media, commuting, checking emails, at the gym, watching TV, spending time with loved ones, eating, sleeping and so forth, you can plot this into a simple spreadsheet and ask, “What does 24 hours look like in my life?”

The final step is to then assign a priority to each thing. Personally I use 3 levels:

Priority 1: Need to have – things I absolutely must do otherwise I am unable to live, without which my mental and physical health would be in danger

Priority 2: Nice to have – things that fundamentally fulfil my mind, body and soul, without which it would be harder to achieve real happiness, however my mental and physical health would not be critically at risk without them

Priority 3: Noisy to have – things that I do that don’t necessarily fulfil me in a fundamental way but I feel I should do for one reason or another

You can choose your own priority levels, however I’d advise that one of the levels is linked to what is mission critical (e.g. my Priority 1). Now the analysis of your day is complete and you may be able to see a pattern. If, for example, your day is mostly Priority 3, this may well be having an impact on your happiness and health.

I believe that the time that could be used doing more productive and fulfilling things can be found in the Priority 3 camp. Sure, some of those things are necessary because of various obligations, but are there some things in there that could be reduced?

When the question was asked in the workshop, I asked the gentleman whether his team spent a lot of time on social media? He said “Yes, they are always on Facebook or something similar”. My short answer was that this could be the area where a time saving could be made. I gave an example that shaving 25 minutes a day off noisy activities could find over 12 hours each month for more meaningful ones. However, everyone is different and some may find it absolutely critical to spend time laughing at cats!

I’m not judging what fits into which priority, but I’d highly recommend trying out this approach to see whether you really are short of time, or whether you have a prioritisation issue that you can absolutely rectify if you wish. In my life I have found this to have a major impact in my productivity and happiness. I hope you do too, after all, your days are numbered.