Yesterday I was reviewing my to-do lists, and was surprised at how reluctant I was feeling about the whole process. Every item that I reviewed was accompanied by a negative reaction like, “man, that will be a pain in the ass” and “ugh, that is going to be a problem.” These feelings were not vocalized in any detail, though, until I pressed the issue and demanded real reasons to accompany the feeling. The alternative was to not do anything at all.
It occurred to me that my underlying reaction was similar to that of a miser. My cheapskate attitude toward spending time was actively interfering with motivation to apply it wisely. I was being the Scrooge McDuck of time!
I do like the feeling of having lots of time, which is the seeming pre-requisite for freedom of action. This is a falsehood, though; the feeling of having lots of time is more about the unspoiled possibility, like a fresh piece of paper or a dream that exists only in my head. The reality of bringing dreams to fruition requires that one actively spends time in pursuit of it. However, the reality of spending time is often messy and frustrating. It’s a lot easier to just sit on it and enjoy the feeling of being time-wealthy, even though it expires through non-use like a bad cell phone plan.
I’m a time hoarder, apparently. My aversion to non-optimal experience is such that I would rather fritter my time away on harmless distractions that don’t add much value to my day; in my primitive slug brain, the treat that pains me less is preferred to the possibility of something frustrating. It has gotten to the point where even allocation of time becomes an activity fraught with negativity; my assumption is that most chores and difficult tasks are going to be frustrating or confining, and my subconscious generates the negative anticipation. This might be one reason why I don’t like playing board games; the idea of being trapped in a game for two hours, however enjoyable the company, is enough for me to not even want to play.
Counteracting the Hoarding Instinct
My attitude toward spending time is irrational, but understandable. Having identified it, I think the counter action might be something like this:
- Recognize that every experience that I spend time on is not going to be “optimal”, and this is not necessarily wasteful. It’s merely a necessary part of the experience. Time applied to a challenge, however frustrating, is time well-spent because this is the only way that anything will get done. As Churchill said: “When going through hell, keep going.”
- Disempower the negative thought by calling its bluff. “What’s the downside? Is it just that I’m uncertain or impatient?” If that’s the case, the solution is to start whittling down that uncertainty by tackling a very limited-scope task.
- Adopt a general attitude of spending time freely in small increments. If I find myself looking at a 40-hour project, this is daunting. Spending 5 minutes on it is much less daunting, and the benefit from doing 5 minutes of REAL WORK is often apparent enough that spending more time seems suddenly worthwhile.
- Look at my time budget and realize just how much time I have. In a week, I have about 8 hours available per weekday for a total of 40 hours. On top of that, I have another 40 hours available for household-related stuff. The weekends offer another buffer of 32 hours. By this reasoning, I have 112 waking hours every week to tackle my various todo lists, through realistically I’d cap it at 40 hours of project work. Still, that’s a lot of time, considering how muh one can do in just 15 minutes to get the ball rolling.
- Measure how long things take. I’m always surprised at how little time it takes to do tasks that I’ve been putting off. Just the other day I was procrastinating on rolling up a burst garden hose, and after three days I finally got up to do it by estimating that it would take less than 5 minutes to take care of the mess and replace it. It took 4 minutes. Sheesh. Not all tasks are so simple, but getting started on them often takes a lot less time than one would think. Keeping a time log of this is a good way of seeing how those tasks break down.
With these realizations, I have some mental tools to help me combat my tendency to hoard time, which keeps me in the moment of illusionary total possibility. Nothing happens in that state, ever, until I blow a chunk of time messing around.
On a side note, I’m using Wunderlist to keep track of my long-term project list, and am evaluating Trello as a possible replacement/supplement. I’m using these tools to keep track of my “Task Cloud of Possibilities”, and my personal productivity is measured by how many of those tasks get actual time spent doing them, and how many are closed at the end of each day.
UPDATE: Here are some followup thoughts on how this insight about being a time miser has led to an unexpected gain in positive attitude.