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Budgeting time is a universally popular topic amongst management courses, linkedin articles, and blogs. Time is the universal resource people trade for fun, salary, and sleep. Companies routinely judge employees by the amount of time completed on the job. Man-hours are formally tracked for many companies, work-hours are often explicitly stated, and even informally we are aware of our colleagues who show up late or waste time in meetings. An entire article can be written about how time management is a key component in professional training courses ranging from the military to medical school. Everyone is looking for a way to hack out some additional time in their day.

But I suggest taking a closer look. There are two separate time management issues at hand. The first is the classic triage time management approach of treating work as having different levels of importance. A kid being rushed into the ER is more important than finishing a level on a video game. However, in my own journey to perfect time hacking has led me to a second realization. Certain work is best matched with certain time and understanding that will make you the most effective for yourself, your boss, and your loved ones.

As I was watching my daughter try to shove little triangles and circles into matching holes I realized one of my biggest problems is a misfit of tasks and time. I am less effective when trying to accomplish tasks without properly matching up the best time. Throughout the day my hours have different constraints, I have different emotions, and distractions that impact effectiveness. Intuitively this makes sense. Is 2am a bad time to host a meeting? My co-workers will be grumpy. Should you plan that meeting during the family dinner? The wife starring you down will be grumpy. Are you going to get your best work done at those times? Probably not. But these scenarios are easier to understand because we typically understand if we are inconveniencing others and it is not the best time for them. It is much more difficult to be introspective and discover at what time you will be the most effective.

Different time means different things

I group my time into 3 categories. Creative, routine, and rest. Each one has its own little attributes and quirks that best fit certain tasks.

Creative time, these golden hours, are the most limited and productive times of the day taking swaths of brain power and concentration. This is the good stuff that builds to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of mastery… and it is draining. Its enjoyable because when I’m there it is almost a trancelike state where I am only concerned about what I am doing in the moment. If everything goes correctly I will slowly shake out of my trance relaxed, tired, and with a sense of accomplishment. Alas there is always some micro disaster going on wanting to pull me out of this state. While there are some ways to eek out more of this time by eliminating distractions (hooray headphones) it is always limited. On a good day I can get about 3 golden hours and my average day will knock me down to about an hour.

Routine time can be seen as a very watered down golden hour. This is basically the 5-6 hours a day where I am participating in meetings, drafting reports, and actively listening to problems. It’s not the best work, it’s not the most creative, but it gets things past the finish line or primes a project to launching point. The conditions are not as sensitive and I do not need to worry too much about being distracted.

Resting time doesn’t mean my brain isn’t working. It can just be extremely passive. Mindless television, driving, listening to audiobooks, big meetings, time with family, childcare, naps and knocking off items on the to-do list are all things that help clear my mind. Often we are able to multitask doing these things. Think of all the people listening to audiobooks on their drive. They do not have to argue with the audiobook or be concerned about optimizing their travel time on the road, they can just enjoy. I use rest time as a method to triage other tasks that require more attention at some point in the future. Audiobooks get bookmarks so that I can go back and listen to the information using my routine or creative time. One of my favorite leaders once said that he always went for a run with a problem in his head. He believed that the oxygen deprivation helped him come to solutions for when he got back to his desk. Thats the perfect use of rest time and I highly recommend it.

Fitting the right peg in the hole

The impact comes from how you can manage these three time types to get the most out of your day. Matching up your current work priorities (classic triage) and how you work best is an extremely difficult personal problem requiring good self awareness. So while results may vary, here is how I look at it.

My most important time is now that creative time that comes either at the beginning of the day or right at the end. My daughter is safe at daycare, no emergencies, and no meetings demanding my immediate attention. It is the perfect time to do difficult problems, get some serious work done, and give myself time to sink into that trance. It is rare, elusive and about impossible to get back into that frame of reference after I get ejected from it.

Routine time is the default time used at work. Its inconvenient to stop or start tasks, but not completely detrimental. I can easily handle small emergencies or shift to tackle small roadblocks that have popped up for the team. Small tasks, hiccups, and work roadblocks that you can do without much thought or concern on autopilot can stay under routine work. The real value of checklists and processes are that they turn the unique into the mundane repeatable items you have done millions of times. When they become so ingrained that no new decision needs to be made it can be completed in your rest time.

Rest time makes up the remainder of the day. There is no need for ritual or preparation and it is best for small tasks that can be broken down. When people are ready to “veg” they are doing these things and are tasks that you can be running on autopilot. Reading light literature (blog posts), sorting emails, swiping left and right on mobile apps, paying pesky bills, doing chores, catching up on your favorite TV shows or with family and friends all fall into this category. If you are tired, unenthusiastic or in bad spirits these are the activities people default to. The most important thing to realize is thats ok. You can’t run full throttle all the time but it is good to place complete your simple tasks. By getting things done you can stay motivated without losing momentum or your mind.

Building a nest for those precious golden hours

DO NOT GIVE UP YOUR GOLDEN HOURS! Fight for them with every action of your day. It will give you that creativity, the work boost, and that sense of accomplishment that will carry over the rest of the day. Set up conditions so that your golden hours will be the best uninterrupted work it can be. Also don’t give it all just to your work. Spend some time working on some personal goals and investing in yourself.

I need some prep work to build my nest and get into the zone. I need to have some coffee, find a new area away from distractions, and just go into tunnel vision. My golden hours are so important that I use my routine/rest time to prep for them. I setup playlists, clean up the coffeemaker, and move things into position so I will not have to be interrupted. I schedule meetings and anticipate problems to make sure updates won’t occur during my golden hours. But that is just me. I know other people who need to have just come out of an exciting meeting or workout session to ride that post accomplishment bliss sitting in a rat’s nest of a workspace. Whatever works. The important part is that you are realizing which time space you are in and which work is accomplished best there.

If you want to identify your golden hours I suggest this:

  1. Describe what your golden hours look like? When do you get your most effective work done and what does the environment look like?
  2. For one week see if your hypothesis meets reality.
  3. For the next week, challenge yourself to add 15 more minutes of that effective work time and keep a quick log of what you get done.

I have found being able to tap into my golden hours has helped me achieve much more than I thought possible in a day. While most of our days aren’t optimal, we should seek to integrate time management to match our most important work to the most effective time slots. We should strive to learn when our golden hours are and how to build ourselves nests to capitalize on them to increase creativity. There is no time to waste to do great and interesting things.

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