Multiply Your Time

August 31, 2019

One of my most hated things is when someone over-fills a garbage bag.

You see, an almost-full garbage bag is a small task to deal with – you just close it up and pull it out. But an over-full garbage bag is a problem. Suddenly, you can’t just pull it closed anymore – dealing with the bin now involves biohazardous juggling, something nobody is inclined to do anytime soon. The resulting additional procrastination leads to, in most cases, an unstoppable garbage snowball that eventually destroys humanity itself.

Everybody has their irrational pet peeves. As long as I can remember, this has been one of mine. For years I always tried to prioritize the task of emptying the bin before it got over-filled. Sometimes I succeeded, but other times I failed, and a stupid garbage can would put me on tilt.

One day, when I attempted the task of emptying the bin, I found it over-full. And instead of emptying it, I left. I left for Home Depot, on a different task that would change how I thought about prioritization forever: I bought a smaller garbage bin.

It may be obvious to you, but for years I ignored the root cause of my age-long grief. I did nothing about the thing that actually enabled people to pile in more garbage than the bag could hold: the bin was bigger than its bag. By buying a smaller bin, the same bags simply couldn’t be over-filled. Even the most precariously over-filled bin could be wrapped up swiftly and neatly, using the specially reserved portion of bag draped on the outside of the bin, ready and waiting for duty.

It was glorious.

The quietly worthwhile

There is a lot of stuff you should get done.

Or, more accurately, there is a lot of stuff you feel like you should get done. My OmniFocus tracks 860 actions that, at one time, I felt like I should do. Many of them won’t get done. But there are some things in there that I truly should do, and if I do them, I’ll be very glad.

The question is: which ones?

Some actually-important things are urgent. If you don’t renew your passport, you can’t go on your upcoming trip. If you don’t empty the garbage before garbage day, you’ll be stuck with old garbage for two weeks. The task needs to get done, you need to do it, so you just gotta do it. It’s kind of obvious, because it’s both urgent and important.

More interesting, though, is the non-urgent stuff that is nevertheless very worthwhile. The tasks that are easy to defer, tempting to procrastinate, but actually more important than the supposedly urgent tasks: the smaller garbage bins, waiting to be bought.

So, when I’m looking at things I should do, I keep an eye out for certain kinds of tasks: work that isn’t urgent, but can multiply time. Things that could pay off for months or years to come.

In particular, I try to consider if I can:

  1. Automate. Can you spend 1 hour simplifying or automating something that would then save yourself 5 minutes a week? If so, then I have an incredible investment opportunity for you: you can invest time – the most precious resource we have – at a 430% annual interest rate. The busier I get, the harder it is to get around to tackling these automation and simplification tasks, but the more worthwhile it is.
  2. Teach. If there’s somebody who’d be willing to do this task in the future, but they don’t know how yet, then you have a big opportunity. The long-term payoff for teaching someone how to do a task can be massive. Even in the case of successfully handing something off only for it to “boomerang” back later, having taught still improves your understanding of the work and makes you a better teacher for the next attempt. If you’re in a leadership position of any kind, you don’t have the time not to be teaching people.
  3. Calm. Like many people, I have a certain amount of tolerance for frustration and stress in a given day. At a certain point further annoyances, even small ones, cause disproportionate reactions and sap energy from me and those around me. That’s why I find it useful to prioritize fixing anything that is a persistent aggravation or stressor. In OmniFocus, I keep an ongoing project “Make Life Calmer”. Doing work today that will make tomorrow calmer and more focused is a great investment, and will let you use your future “stress budget” on something more meaningful than the fact the damn kitchen drawer is stuck closed again because the saran wrap and aluminium foil boxes got pushed on top of each other again and god DAMN it why do I have three different sets of measuring cups in here augghhhh.
  4. Improve. It is extremely easy to procrastinate making yourself better. It takes motivation to build new habits, learn how do to something “right”, or to address a longstanding problem. But this work is profoundly worthwhile, since small investments here can have huge payoffs. After 35 years of using a computer like a dumb animal, I’m finally learning how to sit, type, and work in a way that doesn’t permanently injure my wrists and shoulders. Reading books about RSI or learning better posture aren’t necessarily my idea of fun, but I’m going to benefit from the investment for decades to come.

Diamonds in the rough

Next time you’re cleaning up your todos, considering a new goal or theme, or just feeling over-busy, consider how you can be multiplying your time. What things, once done, will have an impact that pays off for years?

What is your smaller garbage bin?

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.