Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

The Fallacy of Efficiently Using Time

For as long as I can remember (and that’s quite a while), I’ve heard constant exhortations to efficiently use time. Not just at work, but in our personal lives as well.

But what does that mean? I’ve been puzzling over that for years, and I still haven’t found an acceptable answer.

One thing I do know is that one person’s efficient use of time is not the same as another’s. I know a number of people who believe that efficiently using their time means packing as many tasks, no matter how trivial, into their day. In the end, they fall into the trap of assembly line productivity. They’re doing a lot, but most of that work either isn’t engaging or it isn’t important to them. It’s just a grind of task after task, job after job that doesn’t seem to end.

What’s missing from that, and what seems to be the goal of all that work, is time for themselves and time to tackle work that is important.

How can you do that? As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, what one person views as an efficient use of time may be different from someone else’s view. Here’s what I see as an efficient use of time:

This is nothing new, but I believe in getting all the small, unimportant tasks out of the way as soon as you can. Create a batch of similar tasks — like making phone calls and replying to or sending emails. Make sure the individual tasks in the batch don’t take a lot of time, and make sure that they don’t require too much physical or mental energy to complete. Then, set aside an hour or two and tackle those tasks.

Once they’re out of the way, devote the majority of your energies to work that matters. But don’t just bang away at the keyboard. Have a plan. The best way I’ve found to do that is with a short and focused to-do list. Again, you’ll need to devote some time (usually at the end of the day) to create one, but that’s good use of your time.

Working from a plan helps streamline your work by laying it out in front of you. You aren’t flailing at your work, wasting time and energy that’s better devoted to what you’re tackling.

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