How to Be More Productive by Hacking Your Perception of Time

The evolution of time management in 5 stages and 3 epiphanies. (play audio)

My life used to be a never-ending battle against the clock — one I would always lose. Every evening, I’d look up to find that clock face glaring back at me as I bowed my head in defeat.

The pressure of time pervades our lives on every level, but it serves a clear purpose: It gets us to work on time, motivates us to break personal records in the gym, and stops our cooking from turning into a charred mess. Deadlines can also improve productivity by increasing motivation to complete a task.

But feeling time-pressured can occupy the brain’s limited executive resources, impairing performance in everything from piloting airplanes to creative thinking. What is the right approach?

It may lie in the perception of time. I’ve tried many approaches to managing my time. Through conscious effort, I’ve found that I can free myself from the anxiety of time pressure.

Stage 1: The Clock-Slave

 

 

Graduating from medical school ejected me from carefree student life into the chaotic life of a junior doctor on a gruesome shift pattern. But it wasn’t the 14-hour shifts, the 24-hour on-calls, or the back-to-back night shifts that got to me. It was being under constant time pressure — pressure to get up and ready for whatever time my shift started, pressure to review critically unwell patients, and pressure to get to sleep quickly when the day (or night) was over.

As a student, apart from the vague deadline of our end-of-year exams, I had virtually zero time pressure. I would skip lectures in favour of home study, lying in the hammock strung to the rafters of my attic room, next to the tropical fish tank that calmed my mind whenever the stress of studying got a bit much. It was a glorious time, and I had plenty of it.

Now, as a doctor, I found myself 10 hours into a 14-hour shift, not yet having had a lunch break and my pager going off like a smoke alarm in a raging inferno of unfinished tasks. Time was scarce, elusive, and always running out.

Clock slavery warps one’s perception of time. Time fast-forwards during busy periods and screeches to an unbearable halt in quieter times. You are either begging for the clock to speed up or slow down. The result is a kind of bipolar relationship with time and a lose-lose-lose situation.

  • Busy periods on the job go too quickly, with the feeling that there is never enough time to get your tasks done.
  • Quiet periods go too slowly, making you painfully aware of how many minutes are left on the clock.
  • Off-duty time is like hitting the fast-forward button, your precious free time melting away in a haze of Netflix and takeout pizza.

This relationship with time affected my morale to the point where I had to make a drastic change. I didn’t want to be forever at war with the clock.

Inspired (or corrupted?) by Tim Ferriss and his ridiculously appealing 4-hour workweek (at that point, I would have been sold on a 40-hour workweek), I decided to take my time into my own hands. I took a sabbatical from my full-time position as a psychiatry registrar to begin working on a start-up.

Stage 2: The Time Tracker

 

When you’re working on your own time and have limited funds, you start to view your time very differently. After leaving full-time work, I became obsessed with my use of time. Deeply obsessed.

So obsessed I would track my every waking activity on a fifteen-minute basis, from the moment I woke to the moment my head hit the pillow. I even tracked the time spent with my partner as QTWP, short for quality time with partner. Apart from how sociopathic this appeared in retrospect, she understood my time tracking obsession and only asked that I apportion more time to QTWP. But a clean 10% seemed like a reasonable goal. I know, I know — she’s a lucky lady.

I reasoned that rigorously tracking my time would make me accountable for every minute I spent doing anything. At the end of each month, I would make a pie chart out of the data and analyse my use of time. I would then create an action plan of how I intended to squeeze more time into the work portion of the pie chart.

The first month I couldn’t believe how much time I was “wasting”. I had hoped for around 70% of waking hours spent on work, but in the first month, I only made a measly 34%. I cut time anyway I could — showered quicker, exercised less, cooked only the simplest of meals. And no, I didn’t cut any QTWP before you ask — I’m not a total monster.

After six months of scrupulous time management, I got the work slice from 34% to 70%, which created a very satisfying pie chart:

 

The pie chart looked better, but I felt more burnt out than ever. I was under constant, self-imposed time pressure. And the more I tried to squeeze out of every waking minute, the less time I felt I had. No matter how much I got done, there were always more tasks, but not enough hours in the day.

My morale got worse, and I became increasingly irritable. All I cared about was making that pie chart pop and completing the tasks set by my supreme leader — Meistertask.

I would go on holiday and the entire time I’d be wishing I was at my desk instead. Recreation felt like a waste of time. And whenever I’d be spending QTWP, I wasn’t giving her quality time, I was just in my head thinking about how I could use this time to complete tasks on my to-do list.

Time tracking isn’t inherently detrimental to productivity or morale. Some find it an excellent way of ensuring they stay on track. But in my case, when combined with excessive time pressure, it became unhealthy and ineffectual. My productivity had been high initially, but as my morale declined so too did my industriousness.

Epiphany: The Scarcity Spiral

When you are time-pressured, you see time as a precious and scarce resource — the hourglass half-empty perspective.

This triggers a stress response, which can improve motivation in the short term, but often at the expense of morale in the long term.

This blow to morale leads to a decline in productivity — an unhappy worker is a less productive worker.

With lower productivity, there is even more time pressure to get things done.

And on goes the cycle.

Stage 3: The Smart Breaker

 

Something had to change. After studying the science of time management, I started using smart breaks.

First, I tried the Pomodoro Technique:

  • Divide work time into 25-minute chunks called pomodoros — named after the tomato-shaped timer the inventor used to track his time.
  • After each pomodoro, take a five-minute break.
  • After four pomodoros, take a longer break — fifteen to thirty minutes or until you feel refreshed. Then repeat the cycle.

For some, this works wonders. For me, it didn’t. It felt like every time I’d get into a good workflow, that alarm would go off and I would have to take another break.

Next, I tried the 52–17 rule. This was based on the findings of the Draugiem Group, who analysed data from the productivity app DeskTime to see what their most productive employees were doing differently. Their top 10% of productive employees were seen to:

  • Work for 52 minutes
  • Break for 17 minutes

This was simpler to follow, and easier for my time tracking spreadsheet, which I was still doing. But 52 minutes still felt like too short a period of work time.

Finally, I learned of ultradian rhythms and the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle. Here the work period is based on 80 to 120-minute natural rhythms your body follows. We see this in the sleep cycle, where roughly 90 minutes of non-REM sleep is followed by around 20 minutes of REM sleep.

Applying this to productivity means that for every 90 minute work period, you should take 20 minutes of break time. This was definitely my sweet spot. I found my groove, and I was back in business. For a while, anyway. My morale was better, particularly as I was using the break time to do healthy things like meditate, listen to music, and exercise. It seemed like the perfect balance, and my productivity picked up again.

But it didn’t last.

The truth was I could take as many breaks as it took to be more productive, but if my internal state was still that of a horse behind a whip, I would only get so far. The time pressure never stopped. What was driving this tyrannical regime?

Epiphany: The Inner Tyrant

 

The biggest reason I left my full-time job was because I wanted to escape the clock-slavery and be free to work on my own schedule. But now I was more time pressured than ever. The worst thing was that I was time pressuring myself. I didn’t have an overbearing boss setting unfair deadlines or pushing me to meet targets — I was my own slave driver. My life was being ruled by an inner tyrant.

You may have one too. When a time constraint is placed on you, he will bark “Get to work!”. If a task takes longer than expected, he will cry, “What is taking so long? We have a lot to get done here!”. And at the end of a hectic day, he will kick you when you’re down and tell you “You have done nothing today!”.

But you can overthrow this tyrant.

Stage 4: The Free Spirit

 

Around this time, I stumbled upon a guy called Naval Ravikant. Naval is a serial entrepreneur and investor, former CEO of AngelList, and has an insightful and wise view of the world. In a Tim Ferriss podcast, he explained how he opts for a more spontaneous and free life, and avoids keeping a rigid schedule at all costs. So much so that his e-mail used to be [email protected] Naval summed up this message in a tweet:

“The single best productivity hack that everyone should aspire to — don’t keep a schedule.”

If the idea of being productive without a schedule to ensure you’re on track sounds insane — good. It is certifiable insanity. But when you actually try it, the effect it has on your perception of time is profound.

In a radical transformation, I stopped time tracking or keeping a schedule. Suddenly the air was lighter. Things seemed effortless. My inner tyrant had left his post, and so too had any sense of time pressure. Now there was an abundance of time, rather than a perpetual scarcity of it. And there was no inner voice barking orders anymore. My morale dramatically improved, with a sense of wellbeing at the end of each day that was infinitely more enjoyable than the usual feeling of defeat.

With that space, I could see how productive I was really being. The revelation was that all those months of toiling away were primarily to appease the inner tyrant. Much like when your boss walks by your desk, and you immediately start bashing away on the keyboard to look busy — I was feigning busyness.

When relieved of time pressure, I approached tasks more effectively. All this time, I’d been working in a suboptimal and habitual way. This is a known effect of time pressure — it promotes cognitive heuristics or “mental shortcuts”, which favour speed over more informed decisions. These shortcuts can lead you to complete tasks quicker, but often at the expense of quality.

Now with an abundance of time and a glorious sense of wellbeing, not only was the quality of my work improving, but I was loving every minute. These benefits spilled into my personal life too. QTWP was no longer a metric of how I was using my time; it was actual quality time with my partner.

How could something as simple as not keeping a schedule have such profound and far-reaching effects?

Epiphany: The Abundance Spiral

I made sense of this radical transformation by applying the same principles of the scarcity spiral; only now, the opposite was happening.

Without the time pressure, you view time from an hourglass half-full perspective. This perceived abundance of time improves wellbeing, which in turn increases productivity. When productivity is high, there is less time pressure, and time feels even more abundant.

And on we go until that hourglass is brimming with sand.

 

Stage 5: The Enlightened One

While working on my own schedule, I had few actual deadlines or external time pressures. But the real world is far less generous.

After my sabbatical, I returned to work as a doctor in psychiatry. I no longer had the luxurious autonomy of prioritising things as I saw fit. Now I had irritable nurses demanding discharge medications be scripted. Agitated patients requiring immediate de-escalation. A rigid schedule of patients I had to review. It was a rude awakening.

The harsh reality is that sometimes the clock will always have the upper hand. Life will always throw deadlines at us, and there may be negative consequences if we don’t meet the deadline. But these battles with the clock don’t have to end up in all-out wars.

My experiences as a “free spirit” changed my perception of what time pressure is. Time pressured tasks are simply tasks that require a certain amount of prioritisation. But we mistake this need for prioritisation with a need to evoke a stress response, as the brain believes this will assist us in meeting the deadline. As a result, we have difficulty separating a time constraint from the stress response it is associated with. But they are separate and distinct entities.

A time constraint is an objective — a time in the future when we must have completed a task. The stress response is subjective — that feeling of sheer terror as you race to finish the report due in ten minutes.

When a time constraint is placed on you, the stress response it triggers can then lead you to believe there is a scarcity of time. This perceived scarcity of time becomes the foe you must battle against.

But this scarcity of time is an illusion.

The clock is indifferent as to whether your start-up will fail if it cannot find a customer before your burn rate leaves you in ashes. It has a callous disregard for a patient’s chance of survival if you cannot get the defibrillator pads on in time. And it is unconcerned as to your potential loss of revenue from not following up your leads on time. The clock just ticks and tocks on, indifferent to your daily struggles.

You are at war with an enemy that does not exist.

This wisdom changed how I deal with time pressure. My busy shifts were now more bearable. I was more efficient in all my tasks. Reality felt less chaotic. These benefits carried through into my free time too. Because I never felt time-pressured, I could work longer hours and not feel as mentally fatigued.

But I’m still human. I still feel the impulse to stress out when a time constraint is placed on me. This is hard-wired. Through much of our evolution, feeling time-pressured had clear survival advantages. From the time it took for a lion to get to you, to the time it took for your food supply to run out — gauging time and reacting accordingly was critical to survival.

As a result, being time pressured alters how your brain processes information. This is why you use those “mental shortcuts” when rushing to meet that deadline— there was a time when they saved your life. But now our survival is no longer at stake, we can evolve beyond this.

 

How to Get Out of Scarcity and Into Abundance

Your relationship with the clock not only governs your productivity, but also your entire experience of life. In the harsh reality of urgent tasks and never-ending deadlines, it’s easy to slip into the scarcity spiral. Common signs include:

  • Every time you look at the clock you feel defeat
  • Each day ends with a longing for more time to complete your tasks
  • Recreation feels like a waste of time
  • You are irritable towards anyone or anything that takes up your time
  • You answer good advice with “that sounds great, but I don’t have enough time!”

Some personality types are more prone to this mindset.

The type-A personality type — characterised by being highly organised, ambitious, competitive, neurotic, and inherently time-pressured — were found to estimate one-minute periods as shorter than their chilled-out, type-B counterparts. Type-As also tend towards working at maximum capacity, even when there is no deadline. When they are given a deadline, they make significantly more errors than type-Bs.

If this sounds familiar, this advice is especially for you. Also, in case it isn’t obvious, I am a raging type-A. But thanks to Naval, I now come off like an easygoing type-B.

So how can we get out of the scarcity spiral?

Primary prevention is to deny that first impulse to stress out when you are given a deadline. This is hard as it counters a powerful evolutionary drive to do just that.

Here are some techniques I find helpful:

  1. Recognise what being time pressured feels like to you. For me, the first thing I notice is an unpleasant, inner restlessness. I start moving in a quick and clumsy manner. I avoid social interactions and try to end conversations quickly. This agitation escalates each time I glance at the clock.
  2. Separate the time constraint from the stress response it triggers. Once you recognise the stress response, you can set it aside and look objectively at when the deadline is, and how you might get the work done in time.
  3. Be an observer of the stress response — acknowledge it, feel it, and let it pass. This can be challenging, particularly in the face of an approaching lion (or your boss before their morning coffee). If that isn’t possible:
  4. Interrupt the stress response — When these feelings arise take a mental step back, a few deep breaths, and objectively assess the situation. What exactly needs doing? And what’s the most efficient way to do it?

Slowing the Passage of Time

To understand how to move from time scarcity into abundance, we must understand what causes time to speed up and slow down.

Time flies when we’re having fun, but it also flies when we’re mentally busy. The underlying cause is the same — we place more attention on having fun or completing a task, and less attention on the passing of time. Conversely, time slows when we place more attention on the passing of time — like during that slow work shift or boring lecture.

So how can we slow down time? If losing awareness of the passage of time speeds it up, then to slow it down we must consciously re-orient ourselves to the present moment. The busier we are, the more we should do this. This is counter-intuitive, as this is when we have the least time to spare.

Many studies have demonstrated how mindfulness can induce time dilation. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found:

“Regarding subjective time, mindfulness meditators experienced less time pressure, more time dilation, and a general slower passage of time.”

The evidence is clear — practicing mindfulness can turn a half-empty hourglass into a half-full one.

Mindfulness is something we all know we should be doing, but tend to dismiss as something we don’t have time for. See how contradictory this is? It is paradoxical to believe we can’t spare the time to be mindful when being mindful will give us (subjectively) more time.

So how can we lead ourselves towards mindfulness in the least demanding way?

An excellent starting point is to practice the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise. Set an alarm at intervals throughout the day, and when it goes off, stop whatever you are doing, and:

  1. Find five things you can see in your immediate vicinity — the clutter on your desk, the grubbiness of your computer screen, the empty coffee cups. Don’t judge. Just observe.
  2. Bring your awareness to four things you can feel — the chafing of your underwear, the ache in your lower back, the deep exhaustion in your chest. Accept them. Feel them.
  3. Listen for three things you can hear — the sound of your teeth grinding after five double espressos, the grumbling of a stomach that hasn’t had food since breakfast, your partner nagging you to do the washing up. Don’t respond. Just listen.
  4. Sniff the air for two smells you can pick up on — the potent body odour of the struggling entrepreneur, the stale coffee coming from those coffee cups. They are not good or bad. They are just smells.
  5. Finally, one thing you can taste — the rubbery tang of the gum you’ve been chewing on for six hours.

Congratulations, you are now you are grounded in the present moment.

Doing this a handful of times each day can reduce stress and slow the passage of time. For a longer mindful experience, use those smart breaks to take a mindful walk in nature or to do some yoga.

But the most powerful method of all is daily mindfulness meditation. You may do this already — if so, splendid job. If not, you can get started with the Headspace app. I’d recommend an absolute minimum of five minutes a day, but ideally two sessions of ten to fifteen minutes, before and after work. Of course, you can also go all-out and follow the author of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, and meditate for two hours every day. But you don’t need that much to get big benefits.

I guarantee, combining daily meditation with mindfulness exercises throughout the day will put the brakes on the stressful freight train of life.

You might even begin to carry this mindfulness into your work. Even when deep in a task, you may begin to notice a quiet observer who remains aware of everything.

Through conscious effort, we can be liberated from a life of tyrannical time pressure, and instead live a life unbound by the constraints of the clock.

Be the Boss You Want to Have

In a world that is moving towards a freelance economy, one day we may all be our own bosses. So now is the time to ask yourself — is your boss a time-pressuring tyrant? Or a wise and gentle observer who allows you to work joyfully at your own pace?

I know which I prefer.

Time. The most precious and finite resource we have. It’s easy to forget we have an abundance of it.

Originally published by ‘Better Humans’ here

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