Founders: Tempus Fugit, use it well.

Looking at photos from the past, time seems to have collapsed on itself. On Christmas Day at my parents, I was seeing photos I’d never seen before. Taken in summer 1963, it shows Mum, Dad and myself (aged nine months) sitting in the sand dunes at Barmouth. I get a funny feeling; I feel like I’m looking at a frozen image of my own future, which has now itself become the past.

I am really intrigued. My younger sister is looking through a box of old photos with me, which I found in the attic getting their Christmas decorations out a few weeks ago. They have turned out to be unimagined treasure. We shriek with laughter and amazement to see ourselves from so long ago.

Next, here are our young parents – aged in their thirties, now in their eighties, in front of a Christmas tree. Gaudy coloured lights on the tree the size of ordinary light bulbs. Mum in a honey-coloured cardigan, Dad in a purple V-necked jersey, both probably knitted by my grandmother, who sits wearing her gentle smile. Each of my parents has a cigarette between their fingers, and Mum also holds a sherry.

In the next photo, two years have passed. It’s Christmas again, and everyone is around the table with paper hats and Christmas dinner. Dad reckons its 1975. My sister and I are both wearing a festive smile, I have on my regular childhood face, which is almost comically miserable. My hat has slid down over my ears, my eyebrows knot together in a practiced bored, petulant teenager look. I stare at the camera with abject despair.

And how do my parents respond to this heart-rending picture? They laugh, of course. As do I. Because this face of my mine is familiar to all of us. When out with my Mum, her friends would look at me sympathetically before asking Oh dear, what’s wrong with him? to which Mum would reply with exasperation Nothing, that’s how he always looks. But I was just a teenager who took everything very seriously, a sensitive, intelligent soul. Luckily in the next picture I am beaming at the camera, so be reassured, I had other teenage moods.

We got to the end of the box, and it took an hour, each photo leading us down a path of reminiscence and storytelling. It was a joy seeing photos of our parents so young and carefree. The lava lamps and the crazy heavy design wallpaper! That red Ford Escort! The size of the gramophone – it was a wooden sideboard!

Over Christmas I was drawn deeper and deeper back into the past, nostalgia not regrets, and I found myself thinking of TS Eliot, and the opening lines of Burnt Norton:

Time present and time past,

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

But time – whether you are relaxing with family or burning it up working, or waiting for it to pass a dentist’s waiting room – cannot truly be measured by rummaging through old photos or even a clock. True, the hands of a clock move as the hours pass. Every time piece with a digital readout blinks to a new digit, it’s a warning that tick (time is passing), tock (time has passed). Tempus Fugit, time flies.

Tempus fugit reminds us that time is limited and relentlessly passing. For a founder, it’s a precious commodity as you set about your venture, guiding your thoughts and actions such as hitting deadlines or by prompting you to stop delaying.  Of course, you could show off your Latin knowledge further by citing Carpe Diem – ‘seize the day’ – to focus on the present and avoid postponing things unnecessarily. And what about Memento mori, a Latin phrase that means ‘remember that you will die’ – a reminder of the brevity and fragility of human life, so get stuff done!

But I’m not here to get you feeling all melancholy about time passing. Time runs through the roughest day, but you can create your own time – saying ‘I don’t have time’ is just you avoiding things. Time management is an oxymoron. Time is beyond our control, the clock keeps ticking regardless of how we lead our lives. Priority management is the answer to maximising the time we have.

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin – but we often set ourselves up in ‘back-to-back’ meetings  and our task-oriented culture prioritises the urgent, so that we’re trapped in a vortex of time and when something unexpected shows up it can easily derail you, and it’s a struggle to get back on track.

It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know when it will arrive. What if you could take back all the time that was lost to the tyranny of the urgent or being interrupted?  Here are some thoughts I’ve had about how to manage your time better. For me it’s about setting your own timelines.

1.         Work in Sprints

You can generate momentum and manage your time by prioritising a weekly Sprint. When we talk about time management, we often talk about it in the context of the daily task list, but really our focus should be on priorities and productivity, making sure we’re making progress toward key outcomes.

It’s critical to find the right increment of time when planning the jobs to be done but not spread yourself too thinly, strike a balance of breadth and depth efficiently. So, I keep a rolling two-week, one-month and three-month Sprint plan to help me check progress, and pivot when needed:

I also like the ‘Eyes on, Hands on, Horizon’ philosophy from Alex Shleifer, formerly Airbnb’s Head of Design:

  • Eyes on: This is work that I don’t need to do currently, but must not forget.
  • Hands on: These are actions that I need to work on with focus.
  • Horizon: This is a category of issues that are about to get on my radar.

I run through the Sprint approach and this framework at the start of every week to ensure timely prioritisation. I put it all in Evernote. The act of choosing to work on the right thing at the right time makes me diligent about what I spend my time on, and consider the opportunity cost and ROI of those choices.

2.         Work on the rocks, not the sand.

If all of the big impactful things you need to do are rocks, then all the granular stuff is the sand, from less important meetings to email and Slack messages. Imagine your day is a bucket. If you pour sand into it continuously by responding to inbound stuff all day, it’s going to fill up fast and there won’t be any room for the rocks. You won’t feel fulfilled, because your impact is limited.

But let’s say you commit to focusing on one or two rocks. If you put a rock in a bucket, you can still pour sand in and it’ll flow around it. One of the best strategies for managing the sand, is letting go of our addiction to messaging apps. I have now developed a habit to work in 90-minute blocks (see below) in which time I focus on doing my own work, and don’t seek to check or respond to messages.

The default expectation is the Pavolvian response to respond immediately is unrealistic. Focus on what’s critical, you’ll process what’s left over much more efficiently when it’s the right time for you.

3.   First things first

When you’ve got a to-do list as long as your arm, it’s tempting to get the trivial tasks out the way first, just so you can begin checking things off. It feels good to have knocked off six things on your list of twenty. Progress! But in terms of effective use of time this isn’t smart. One of the best ways to utilise time is to figure out what’s truly important, and work on the vital stuff as priorities. Once again, the focus is on not getting distracted.

I’m also an advocate of the Eisenhower Principle, named after the US President who used a method to organise his day, maintaining that you should always highlight what’s important over what’s urgent. Many of us are guilty of prioritising tasks with looming deadlines, even when the outcome isn’t really that important. By isolating the tasks that are truly meaningful to us, we can focus on completing them instead.

You only have so much time and energy, and chances are you’ll never have enough of both to accomplish everything you think you need to do each day. What you need to do is focus on the most important tasks first. Not everything on your list is urgent. What outcomes will move your startup forward today?

4.   The 90-minute approach

I’m an advocate of ‘deep work’, working in a state of absolute concentration for short but extended periods of time. How long is up to the individual, and many of us fluctuate when it comes to how long we can maintain focus. Around 90 minutes is my peak.

Research has shown that our brain works at optimal performance for about 90 minutes before dropping off, and that a twenty-minute break can restore our focus. It’s known as the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle, a physiological arousal system identified by Nathaniel Kleitman. The idea is to tap into this natural frequency to maximise our cognitive performance.

Time is the unique currency of your life, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.  Each of us has the same number of hours and minutes every day, and no matter how much time you’ve wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow. But as French poet Paul Valery said Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.

In our personal life, looking at old photos creates the warm glow of nostalgia, amplifying good memories about experiences and relationships, encouraging us to renew our ties with friends and family. Looking back from a business perspective is a way to sharpen the focus on the things you want to change moving forward. I think there’s something about nostalgia that really puts a fine point on the here-and-now, and that can be engaging for a founder.

Make sure you wind up your personal clock every day, and make the best use of your time, because as Benjamin Franklin said Dost though love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life’s made of.

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