Manufacturing quality time

“How do you juggle it all?” is a question I’m asked regularly. Usually with an undertone that I must have some secret. A trick. Is it sleeping just 5 hours per night? Is it working 12 hour days for months on end? What is it!?!

The common lore of Highly Productive People is that they just work harder. Often superhumanly so. They have a singular focus that turns their drive to 11. The media loves to recount these feats of marvelous stamina and determination.

I don’t fit that mold. I usually sleep a good 8.5 to 9 hours every night. I take pride in making work fit the traditional 40 hour/week constraint. I have no drive for more, more, more.

If I have a trick, it’s a focus on the quality of each individual hour. That doesn’t mean Time Management, in the 1990s sense of the term, slicing each hour to the last minute, and squeezing it for every last second of peak productivity. But it does cover a realization that all hours are not created or spent equal.

An hour haunted by stress, interruption, sleep deprivation, or frazzle is not worth the sixty minutes its allotted. It’s a low quality hour. You’d be foolish to expect that you can turn such dirty input into clear accomplishments. Garbage in, garbage out.

40 hours of work every week is a king’s keep. I contend that almost anything can be accomplished with such a glorious budget. But not if you squander it on meetings, multitasking, or poorly defined problems. There’s no limit to the amount of time that can be wasted like that.

Well, there’s a physical limit. And I suppose that’s where many people find refuge. I gave it everything! You can’t blame me, and I can’t blame myself, for failing to accomplish when every second was spent. I left nothing for myself, so have mercy, they rationalize.

Covering your ass to yourself or others might give you some temporary comfort, but it won’t cover the deficit of ambition in the long run. Resignation is a coping mechanism for the beaten.

What you need is a set of refinement techniques. You need to actively work on increasing the purity and quality of your hours. Here are a few that I use:

Do I really need to be involved in this?

Gluttonous curiosity is the siren song that seeks to loop you into all manners of discussions, decisions, and events that you’re likely not a necessary or even important component.

It’s hard to accept that while your insight or experience might be useful to other people, it equally might not be nearly useful enough to offset the cost of yet another head at the table.

The value of just skimming that email, turning down that meeting invitation, not depositing your two cents in that chat seems abstract in the moment. But diligently refraining from chiming in and collaborating is what gives room for making more important progress on fewer things.

Could this wait?

Some problems need to be dealt with today, lest they compound tomorrow. Best deal with those right away. But they’re in the minority. Most problems and opportunities are just as valuably addressed a day or a week or a month from now.

Putting something on the back burner means it might well have dissipated by the time you give it a second look. Wonderful! That was work that then didn’t need to get done. Or just appeared more important than it really was when you first thought about it.

The longer you delay solving a problem, the more you’ll know about it. Lots of pains just go away by adding idle time.

Can I bail on this?

The road to a day wasted is paved with heroic attempts of throwing good hours after bad. Mistaking the depth of a problem is a reliable error of working life.

The crime comes when you continue digging after realizing the hole needed is thrice as deep as you anticipated, without confirming that the solution is also worth thrice the effort originally budgeted.

Learning to give up is a critical skill for making your remaining hours count. Sunk cost is a sucker’s bet.

Am I ready for this?

Sometimes it’s the problem that needs more time to ripen, and sometimes it’s you. We are not equally capable or fit to tackle all problems at all times.

If my head is in tune for writing this week, it’s a good time to complete the copy for the new website, but it’s probably a bad time to organize the work for the next quarter. If my fingers are itching to code, then let’s solve that bug that’s irked me for a month, not try to redirect the passion to doing 1–1 interviews that week.

Our motivations ebb and flow. Swimming with the tide instead of against it is just so much easier. And as detailed above, most things can wait until the water that needs to carry them comes back up.

Even with a strong repertoire of techniques for making each hour count for more, you will still fail regularly. Maybe all the work that needs doing this week just doesn’t include anything you can muster the motivation for. So it slides and you feel shit.

But there’s great comfort in knowing that this happens to everyone. With far more often than most are willing to admit. Despite a finely-honed perception for high quality hours, I still churn through junk frequently. Leaving me with much less than what I had hoped. So it goes!

What matters is increasing the aggregate quality of your hours over the long term. Not to stress when you fail to turn out a perfect batch.

Once you’ve built an awareness and appreciation of quality time, I doubt you’ll feel the same pull to keep chasing more, more, more. The difference between an uninterrupted string of four quality hours versus a few days of crap hours is a revelation.

Even if you squeeze and squeeze to get more hours, maybe you’ll get another 20–50%? Refine the ones you already have and you might get 200–500% more value. That’s the true 10x.

The trick to juggling it all is to stop juggling.

I spend most of my quality work hours building Basecamp. We just released a brand-new version 3, which has a special Work Can Wait feature designed specifically to increase the quality of your working hours by avoiding interruptions. Give it a try!