How we spend our days, is how we spend our lives.

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. These words from American author Annie Dillard have always resonated with me. Of course, it’s an obvious statement, but reflect upon it, it has a deeper meaning than on first reading.

One of the most unchanged elements of our lives today is our working day, and how long we work. Generally, each of us does around eight to ten hours a day, and yet for most of us it is obvious that this has little to do with how efficient or productive that pattern is. At least, that is what I personally find for my own productivity. So what’s the right daily shift?

With stories from successful entrepreneurs working four hours a week (Tim Ferris) to sixteen hours a day (Elon Musk), it’s hard to know if there is an optimum shift. And why do we have eight-hour working days in the first place? The answer is from the Industrial Revolution. In the late C18th, when owners started to maximise the output of their factories, getting to run them 24/7 was key and for workers, ten to sixteen hour days were the norm.

These ridiculously long working days weren’t sustainable and a brave man, Robert Owen, a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropic social reformer and a founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement, started a campaign to have no more than eight working hours per day. His slogan was Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. However, it wasn’t until Henry Ford implemented the eight hour work day, that standards really changed.

In 1914 Ford not only cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled worker’s pay in the process. Surprisingly, productivity off these same workers increased significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter working day as standard.

So the reason we work eight hours a day isn’t scientific or much thought out with regard to the well-being of workers, rather it’s a century old norm for running factories efficiently.

However, let’s not forget that as humans, we are distinctly different from machines. Machines move linearly and humans move cyclically, and today’s business and economic models are fundamentally different. On this basis, research by Tony Schwarz suggests managing our energy rather than time, and identified four different types of energies to manage every day:

  • Your physical energy – how well are you?
  • Your emotional energy – how happy are you?
  • Your mental energy – how well can you focus?
  • Your spiritual energy – why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?

Time, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. There is an unshakable and discomforting sense that in our obsession with time in terms of optimising our routines, and maximising our productivity, we have forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

Equally, beware the startup mantra that a working week of relentless twelve-hour days is needed. Anything else, and well, you may as well not bother. Not true.

The secret of success is to be fully awake to everything about you. You also need to instil a set of good daily habits around your energy and time. Not only do the habits we hold dictate the quality of our lives, but they also reflect our potential for success. Bad habits will always hold us back.

Of course, the worst habit is procrastination, wasting time doing nothing. Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived in the C8th B.C., put it best: Do not put off your work until tomorrow and the day after. For the sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor the one who puts off his work; industry aids work, but the man who puts off work always wrestles with disaster.

As the complexity of our working life grows, we need to renew our commitment to simplicity, paring back and focus, so that we have space to breathe and control our energy, as highlighted by Schwarz. Leo Babauta identifies a number of reflections, which resonate with me:

We create our own struggles The stress, the frustrations and disappointments, all the busyness and rushing – we create most of these ourselves. By letting go, we can relax and live more simply to focus on the things that matter. How much of the tension in your working day is self inflicted?

Become mindful of attachments Recognising that we fill our own heads that leads to clutter and complexity is half the battle, only you can put a stop to the bad habits. What are the things that loom and fill you head, like the box of frogs leaping everywhere in a random manner?  What is important, and what becomes urgent, and why?

Create a prioritisation system Stephen Covey once said: The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. We often tend to miss the essentials that bring value in the long run or focus on a single thing too much and leave everything else in the backlog. Time management strategies like Getting Things Done design a methodology structured around creativity, focus, and efficient planning.  Learn to prioritise both long-term activities that gain momentum later in time, and short-term goals necessary for incremental results.

Distraction and constant switching are mental habits We don’t need any of these habits, but they build up because they comfort us. We can work more simply by letting go of these mental habits. What would life be like without constant switching and distractions? The addiction to smart devices and social media are primary examples of this.

Single-task by putting your work focus in full-screen mode Imagine that everything you do goes into full-screen mode, so that you don’t do or look at anything else. You just inhabit that task fully, and are fully present as you do it. Things get your full attention, and you do them much better. And you can even savour them.

Create space between things We tend to cram as much as possible into our days and this becomes stressful, because we always underestimate how long things will take. We never feel like we have enough time because we try to do too much. But what would it be like if we took a few minutes’ pause and break between tasks, to savour the accomplishment of the last task, to savour the space between things, and time to think?

Get clear about what you want, and say no to more things. We are rarely clear on what we want to complete in a day, and often the course of a day veers off in a direction we didn’t anticipate. When someone invites us to do something cool, we instantly want to say yes, because our minds love saying yes, to all the shiny new things. Saying no to more things at work would simplify our lives, having discipline means giving more focus and more chance to get stuff done.

Practice doing nothing Allocate unstructured time – this is exactly what it looks like, it is a time allocated for nothing. By ‘nothing’, it’s anything aside from a work agenda. Unstructured time is your ‘me time’. Why? The more time you put into your schedule, the busier you get. And the busier you get, the more you push yourself into physical and mental exhaustion. The point is it’s the time when your brain is free to wander which allows you to be more imaginative and refreshed, thus, having more energy, attention, and focus on work.

Create a long-term roadmap While it’s okay to have individual tasks emerging from your interactions during a working week, creating a long-term plan lets you focus better, and decide whether your new tasks are in line with your goals. Set out your key goals, assign milestones, and take it from there.

By defining the key issues that are crucial for your future success, you can determine the expected outcomes and measure them once or twice a week. You will also get a clearer picture of your weekly availability and stop overusing your buffers by putting too much on your plate.

The problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has yet to come.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention.  It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, 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 what it will bring.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

So, let’s reflect again on the words of Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

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