Use your time wisely, it is a finite resource

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Everybody talks about productivity and optimization these days. The get things done (GTD) popularity has been around since I can remember and most of us are still suffering of constant distractions that affect our productivity and concentration to perform our professional or personal tasks effectively. Also, there are many tools these days that claim they can help you by organizing your email, helping with to-do lists, notes, etc… Some of those tools can be helpful but they require commitment and some of them have a learning curve, and so these GTD apps and tools just become part of the daily distractions.

I recently read a study in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing that showed that most people have developed a habit of checking their smartphones multiple times a day without having a real need to do it.

The study labeled this behavior as “checking habits” — repetitive checks of e-mail and other applications such as Facebook. The checks typically lasted less than 30 seconds and were often done within minutes of each other. The study observed that most people don’t do this out of need but because it had become a habit or compulsion.

“It’s extremely common, and very hard to avoid,” says Loren Frank, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. “We don’t even consciously realize we’re doing it — it’s an unconscious behavior.”

As you can imagine, these type of distractions causes people to switch back and forth from different applications ultimately reducing their productivity, their concentration and even increasing their levels of stress. Then there are people like Tim Ferris, author of the 4-hour workweek telling us not to look at email for days or weeks so we can teach our contacts not to email us unless it is extremely necessary – really? that seems a bit extreme to me. There are also other distractions and habits such as texting, social media networks, phone, and online games, and the list goes on and on and all of these things prevents us from being focus and productive.

Back to basics

Make a list of all the things that you do regularly during the day, these will include checking email, texting, tweeting, peeking at Facebook and so on. Then just simply set a time to do those things, and make it a habit so you create a reliable schedule for all those things. For example, I just recently started to check my emails only three times a day, for about 10 minutes each time. It works wonders, I used to have multiple email accounts open all day long, checking it constantly and replying almost instantly to all non-junk email I received… as soon as a new email arrived, I felt the impulse to read it and reply to it. This behavior was very distracting and exhausting. Checking email only once in the morning, once after lunch and once late in the evening makes a huge difference and it allows me to concentrate on other tasks and be more productive. After just a few weeks I feel less urgency to open email and have noticed a substantial increase in my productivity while working. Not having to switch windows to check email or my social media networks constantly, helps me keep my mind focused on the tasks I am working on at the time, it is great. Also, by scheduling a specific time to read and write email every day, you don’t feel that sense of urgency and it allows you to read and write your emails carefully.

Participating in social media networks is great if you do it right, if you don’t then it can become a time waster as you can end up spending a great amount of time just looking at your feed, engaging in meaningless discussions or randomly clicking on links posted by people in these social media networks. A good idea is to have a set schedule to do this as well, just like with email.

Multitasking does not help you, do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Of course everyone can do multiple things at once, but remember that the goal here is to gain focus and productivity and multitasking just makes things worse. Multitasking is more of an addiction than a benefit, and technology and gadgets are not helping people stay away from it, we are a hyper-connected society, we’ve become internet addicts.

If you truly want to use your time wisely, be less stressed, become more productive and stop being distracted all the time just remember the basics and trust me, there are not GTD apps in the world that can substitute the following:

  • Eat and Sleep well.
  • Focus on one thing at a time, don’t multitask.
  • Do not stress about things that are out of your control.
  • Exercise.
  • Put your phone away.


3 responses to “Use your time wisely, it is a finite resource”

  1. Stefan Brunner Avatar

    Hi Ricardo, your post has a lot of insight. It is true, that the checking habit becomes a real compulsion, because what we are looking for is action we have to react on immediately, and we are disappointed if there is none. But wait, there might be one 2 minutes later… It becomes like a drug, it certainly becomes a dependency.

    How often you check, is a matter of your job role. People with interactive customer focus, or working within big teams need to react faster, than if you have a independent well defined task which takes days to complete.

    On the other hand to ignore valid emails for reasons of ego or arrogance which are excused with time commitment has become a bad habit in recent years. I reply to every legit non-spam email. If I do not have time, I reply something short, like a simple thank you. That is in my opinion common curtesy.


    1. Ricardo Avatar

      There are people that have job roles that require them to check their email often, absolutely. They are the exception to the rule and it also only applies to email checking, not Facebook, Twitter, personal email accounts, etc… People not replying to emails because of ego, well that is a subject for a later time.


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