How easy it is to slip into those habits that waste our precious time – the ones that are a daily ritual or something we “need” to do, or something to make us relax. The TV watching, Facebook checking, house tidying or book re-reading. Things which keep us vaguely entertained, but don’t make us excited or stimulate interesting conversation or give us ideas to change our lives or the lives of others. Things that probably fall into the procrastinator’s “dark playground”, as described by Tim Urban in his Wait But Why blog post.
Everyone will have their own form of time wasting – they might even make it look really productive and useful on the outside. But the truth is, you know it’s not something you really REALLY want to do. You might know what Good Stuff you could be doing instead, or you might not. And I don’t mean “I should be doing the dinner but I’m going to watch TV for a bit instead”. No, I’m talking about The Good Stuff. Those things that drive your passion and interest, that excite you, that you think about when you’re at work or in the shower. Those topics of conversation that get you really fired up or that you bore your friends and family with by always talking about them. The stuff you can’t not do or think about.
Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes time wasted is not wasted time – I get excited about sitting down to watch my favourite TV show or scrolling through Pinterest or re-reading Harry Potter again. Just watch for when that slips into a habit or procrastination tool. If you don’t actively look forward to it or want to do it, then don’t. Do The Good Stuff instead.
These are some of the things I’ve cut back on to make way for the good stuff:
- Pointlessly and habitually checking my phone
In the morning, and at other times too, particularly looking at emails, messages and Facebook (argh that place is a time suck!) This is an easy one to slip back into though as I always have my phone on me.
I used to watch hours of TV every night. Then we cancelled our TV license and only watched dramas and films – better as I was more interested, but still a couple of hours a night and sometimes just vaguely interesting stuff to fill the time. Now I watch 1 or 2 hours occasionally with my husband if there’s something really good on Netflix, or a film with friends. This is probably my biggest time save.
- Things that other people have told me to read / watch / do
I always found it easy to feel compelled to undertake a suggestion made to me, particularly if something had been lent to me or I knew someone was going to ask me what I thought of it. New experiences that interest me = great, I’ll definitely do it! Obligation to use my time for something of no interest = I try to avoid it.
- Internet surfing
I used to read and watch thing after thing on the Internet, getting sucked into a vortex of stuff that didn’t really interest me at all but I couldn’t tear myself away from. I don’t really do this at all any more actually.
- Household chores
Yup, my house is messier than it used to be and the bathrooms don’t get cleaned that often and the washing piles up to unfathomable amounts before I get to breaking point when I run out of underwear. But you know what, I’m still a functioning member of society and my friends still come round and haven’t labeled me a hobo, so it can’t be that bad. Probably quite a bit of time saved here too, and I no longer give into the “shoulds” of chores so feel much happier.
OK, this probably isn’t the healthiest habit so it’s not like I’m recommending this. However, I have realised that I actually need less sleep than I thought I did – 7-7.5 hours a night does me fine, and if I’ve had a particularly late evening I can get by on 6, I can still get up and do things I want to do in the morning. In fact, that’s what I did this morning to write this blog. I can catch up later. Just don’t do it too many times in a row!
The Good Stuff
It can be really hard to give up time wasting habits when you don’t know what Good Stuff you’re actually going to fill that extra time with. Start making a list, physical if you can, of The Good Stuff. This list might change over time as you meet new people, discover new things or saturate your brain with all the info it needs on something. It might be a very small list to begin with. It might have things on it you think make you boring or crazy. But it should always contain stuff that fires up your soul. That makes you passionate or excited or see possibilities you didn’t see before. Things that might scare you, but are so rewarding to do.
My list of Good Stuff consists of but is not limited to:
- Writing this blog (quite a ne wone for me!)
- Education – reading about the state of affairs, talking to people about it and dreaming up ways it could be different
- Reading about neuroscience and understanding how the brain works
- Thinking about starting a business helping people to see the world differently
- Colouring in
- Listening to the podcast of Kristen Kalp
- Listening to the audio book of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (I listen to both of these on my ride into work actually)
- Watching courses on Lynda.com (can’t believe we get this for free at work now, hurray!)
- Reflecting on experiences with friends
- Learning about Human Centred Design and Design Thinking (through this IDEO.org course)
How will you make way for The Good Stuff?
This morning I woke up about 7 minutes before my alarm went off after a really good night’s sleep. I had a refreshing shower, spent some lovely time with my daughter and ate a good breakfast whilst watching an inspiring TED Talk (this one about How To Find The Work You Love if you’re interested). The sun was shining brightly on a chilly but beautiful morning as I jumped on my bike to ride to work. I felt like the world was in sharp relief, the edges of things were clearer, colours were more vivid and there was literally more in the world than usual.
I also noticed a sharpness about my other senses as well. I noticed smells more acutely and could distinguish multiple different sounds far more easily than usual. My energy levels were higher than I’m used to in the morning.
This vividness and clarity extended beyond my senses to my mind as well. I’ve been incredibly inspired about in and out of work projects. Getting on with difficult tasks seems simple today. I can literally get more done. Even making decisions is easier (which is something I often struggle with).
This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this, although I’ll admit it doesn’t happen as often as I would like. I hope you’ve had days like this, they are absolutely wonderful and make what was originally going to be a fairly dull and dreary day a delight and amazingly productive.
However, I’m not just trying to show off about my good day. I wonder, what is the scientific reason for this extra vividness and clarity? Both in my senses and in my cognitive function? Was it just two good night’s sleep in a row? I’m sure I’ve had good sleep without this effect before. Is it the fact I watched something inspiring that boosted my whole vision of the world? I try to do that often, but it doesn’t guarantee me a fantastic day. Is it simply the sunshine? If it is just that though, why don’t I feel like this on every sunny day?
With my zero neuroscientific research background, my guess is that the combined effect of good sleep, good food, serotonin from the sun and lots of good feeling chemicals in the morning caused my brain to remove its mental fog and literally leave more cognitive space for soaking up the surroundings. My eyes, ears and nose hadn’t changed, just the amount of brain processing power I had to compute all the incoming information. As David Allen talks about in his Getting Things Done methodology, I had more “psychic bandwidth”.
I wish I could bottle this feeling and give it out to all. Maybe one day that will be a possibility. But until then I’ll keep exploring the ways we can get to this state 🙂
I was reminded yesterday (via a Lynda.com course) of how wonderful the art of mindfulness is – so easy, so simple, open to anyone and has been shown to have miraculous effects. I haven’t read an awful lot of research on it yet (will do soon though) but the evidence I’ve heard about and seen for myself seems pretty clear. When I spend time, even just a minute or two, focusing on nothing but my immediate surroundings, with no judgement or opinion, just observation, my stress levels lower, my head clears and I can make better decisions, understand others better and get more done.
I think the mindfulness practice can get caught up in a whole load of what people see as hippy bullshit about meditation, loving yourself, hugging trees etc. While I’ll openly admit I could probably imagine myself doing all of that with the right group of friends and mixture of drugs, I urge you to suspend your judgement for 5 minutes and give it a go. Not just once either, do it a few times cos it might have a different effect each time dependant on circumstance, how long you do it for, the weather, your mood, which pants you’re wearing, whatever. I sometimes find it harder some days than others. And if you find it hard to believe it will make a difference, DO IT ANYWAY. It’s only a few minutes 😉
Here’s the ways I get mindful:
- Focus on the food I’m eating. Really feel the textures in your mouth, savour the tastes and take a long time to chew every mouthful. Try to pick out all the different flavours and work out which you like best. Find out whether you actually like the taste of the food (surprising how often I do this and realise I don’t really like what I’m eating!) Best done on your own otherwise your friend might wonder why you’re ignoring them. Also has the added benefit of making you eat less as you’re more aware of how full you are.
- Notice all the sounds around me. I did it this morning in fact while I was walking the dog – there were birds singing, cars going by, someone banging a hammer whilst building and the gentle rustle of the poo bag I was holding (ah, the joys of dog ownership!) Notice all the sounds around you, the obvious and the less obvious. Let your thoughts that stem from these sounds drift on past and re-focus just on the noises themselves.
- Create a calming and repetitive vision to focus on. Mine is a stick man (representing me) walking alongside a road and sitting on a bench. I see cars driving past on the road (I think of these as my thoughts, just driving on past). There are a few cartoon trees and stuff too. My stick man can sit there for quite a while and watch cars go by. It probably works best if the vision isn’t too complicated and can go on for a while.
- Notice my breathing. A yoga / meditation classic, but also works pretty well. Quick and easy, although I find this one easier in a quiet place otherwise it’s easy to get distracted.
- Look at my surroundings. This is quite useful for if you’re travelling or stuck somewhere and can’t move for whatever reason and need a mindfulness fix. Look at your surroundings and notice all the details, the colour of a wall, the shape of a chair, the weather, the number of cars on the road. No need for any of this to stem further thought, just notice things. I sometimes do this on my bike ride to work in the mornings – I notice the type of trees, the clouds in the sky, the colours of cars, the surface of the road. Possibly not quite as effective as other ways but can be useful sometimes.
Happy Mindfulness! Let me know what else you’ve tried that works for you 🙂