What’s an hour?

When 15 + 15 + 15 + 15 does not equal 60

Remember the first time someone asked you what’s heavier — a pound of feathers or a pound of lead? You probably fell for it. I sure did.

A pound is a pound! Duh!

But the same thing doesn’t apply with an hour. Every hour may be 60 minutes total, but that’s where the similarities end.

Take this big rock and this pile of crushed stone.

Lets assume the crushed stone was the big rock. The same weight, same total mass, same color, same material. They started out as the same thing.

What are your hours like? A pile of pebbles — fragmented, shattered, a collection of short work moments? Or are your hours like a big rock — solid, whole, uninterrupted?

Do you have 60 minutes? Or do you have 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 25 minutes, 5 minutes, and 5 minutes?

Look at the tools you use, the expectations you set (or live by at work), the schedule you’re required to keep. Are they giving you more big rocks, or more pebbles?

I recently spoke to 600+ people at the Lean Startup conference. I asked “Who here can remember having 4 continuous hours to themselves at work any time in the last 5 years?” Maybe 20 or 30 people raised their hand. Out of 600+. That’s tragic. That signals brokenness all over the place. And it’s getting worse, not better. The state of that art is fucked.

A few years ago I gave a TED talk about a related topic.

It hasn’t gotten better since then. It’s far worse. Now it’s not just meetings and managers, but it’s chat, notifications, presence, and always-on expectations. These are negative influences on your own time. They’re making pebbles out of your stones.

If fragmented time was seen as the disease it is, it would be labeled an epidemic. No wonder people are putting in 80 hours just to manage to sweep up 30 good ones.

Time is the most precious thing there is, yet we split it up and give it away like there’s an endless supply. And whatever time you do have, you have even less attention.

So… Guard your big rocks. Hoard them. Protect them. Don’t let the job crush them into smaller and smaller pieces. And if you’re a manager, team lead, or owner of a business, make it a top responsibility to protect and preserve your people’s time and attention. Treat it as the most precious resource there is. Because it is.

I’ve come to realize one of my top jobs at Basecamp is to create an environment — and a product — that doesn’t steal people’s time and attention. I want people to have as much of their time to themselves as possible. The company should not encroach.

Dig this story? Think it would be helpful to others? Please tap that heart below. It helps other people see the story, and it helps me know if you’d like to see write more about this topic. Thanks! -Jason