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Time management: debits and credits

timemanagement3Everyone has the same number of hours in a day. So it means that we all have the same time each day that Einstein, Marie Curie and Michelangelo had.

That is undeniably a truism, but actually has very little relevance to daily life. Those who can afford a live-in chef, effectively have more time than someone who cannot. If you’re one of the few who can thrive on five hours’ sleep a night, good for you; contrary to received wisdom and science, there really are ways to create more time.

A deeper point expressed by an entrepreneur and programmer called Patrick McKenzie, who says we should think about time in terms of assets and debts, like money. Some ways of using it create more later, just as you make money by stashing your savings in a high-interest account (which really used to exist.) Contrastingly, other ways will cost more time in future, the equivalent of harsh credit-card debt.

McKenzie’s own field, computer programming, is full of ‘time assets’: you write code to perform some function, then never need write it again, you simply execute that code whenever the function is required. Creating a frequently asked questions page for your organisation is another example: invest time upfront, and you’ll be spared hours answering queries. Take a few minutes to fix the door that jams whenever you use it and time saved may soon outweigh time spent.

The scary part, though, is how much of our lives we spend running up time debts. McKenzie defines these as, “anything that you do which will commit you to doing unavoidable work in the future”. For programmers, that includes writing bad code; debugging later will take ages.

It also includes email; almost every time you send or reply to a message, you’re implicitly committing to replying to the other person’s reply, too. So when you spend two minutes writing an email, although it feels like you’re eliminating two minutes’ worth of tasks, you’re actually adding more minutes to your workload. That doesn’t mean you should stop responding to emails, but once you start thinking this way, you may find yourself apportioning time differently: investing a bit more, spending a bit less. It can work.

Gabriel García Márquez once explained how, when he started writing full-time, he felt guilty if he didn’t work all day. “I discovered that what I did in the afternoon had to be done over again the next morning,” he said. So he stopped at 2.30pm. His afternoon work created time debts the next day. It wasn’t merely less productive; it was anti-productive. You think you’re getting things done. But what if you’re undoing them instead?

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