I’m terrible at doing what people tell me I should do, but I still get things done. I’m not sure why this is, but here is my best guess:
I manage my desires more than my time.
In high school, I never seemed to find time to do homework I didn’t want to do. It got so bad that in 1969 my high school calculus teacher, Mr. Foster, told me that if I did one single homework assignment, he’d base my grade on my tests—meaning I’d get an A. But if I continued to do absolutely no homework, he’d base my grade on the homework and give me a zero.
So I decided that if I was going to do only one homework, I would make it suitable for hanging in a gallery. I spent a big chunk of my savings to buy a mathematical font attachment for my parents’ IBM Selectric and I typeset my answers. In my dad’s sculpture studio I was able to use fixative to emboss my answer sheet and mount it on a wooden backing that I carved by hand. Mr. Foster was so thrilled that he wore my homework around his neck the entire day. Other teachers saw it and they all demanded one homework from me, too. Damn!
To this day, before doing something I don’t want to do, I try to transform it into something I’m eager to do. For more on this I refer you to that great 20th century philosopher, Mary Poppins, who said, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and—SNAP—the job’s a game!”
Don’t do hard boring useless things
My friend, Ken Caldeira, runs a very productive lab at Stanford. He once told me that many academics get bogged down with really hard esoteric problems nobody cares about, even the researchers themselves. He told me he only wants projects that are fun, impactful, and easy.
If someone is paying you to do hard boring useless things then you need to have a conversation with your boss. If you are a student going into debt to have people give you hard boring useless assignments then perhaps you’d be better off dropping out.
You don’t need to finish what you start
Recently, a successful businessman told me that a few years ago he was diagnosed mid-life with ADHD. This helped explain why his personal and business life was such a mess; he was always starting things but he never finished them, and that would drive everyone around him nuts.
He told me his therapy began with a year of Ritalin, then a year of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and then finally his business itself became his therapy. He explained that the drug gave him a break from himself, and the CBT helped him re-frame his circumstances. Finally, he realized that most people are great at finishing what they start but they have a hard time getting started. So he starts all manner of things and gives his projects to other people to finish. They are happy, he is happy, and his business has really taken off.
As he exemplifies, the biggest problem with ADHD isn’t so much that you have it but that everyone around you hates that you have it. Just think how much better things would be if schoolmarms would stop guilt-tripping the rambunctious and just let them start running the world as soon as they are ready.
Clear thinking saves time
I once asked Dennis Shasha of NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences how he accomplishes so much and still has time to help so many people. He said, “I focus on what I do best—usually thinking through a problem, writing something clearly, or programming in K.” I also try to think clearly, and for problems that cannot be expressed with words I use APL, which is a forerunner to K.
Having time for people saves you time
The more you do for others the more they will do for you. This saves you time. Kind of obvious, if you think about it.
Living in a fictional world is exhausting and a huge time sink. Don’t do it.
If you want your life to be about being of use to other people then there is only a very limited amount of time management that makes any sense. Other people have needs and present opportunities on their schedule, not yours. You need to get good at managing those people and the time will take care of itself.
Learn how to say “no” and this will allow you to say “yes” much more often. I once asked a friend to do a favor for me that would have taken him about six hours. In his e-mail turning me down he said that while many people might say “I don’t have time,” that would be false; he has the same amount of time that we all do, and although it would be possible for him to do what I asked, he chose to spend his time differently from the way I’d hoped.
Perhaps you are not used to such forthrightness, but interestingly if you treat people honestly in this way then you’ll find it strengthens your relationships rather than hurts them.
But don’t manage other people’s time
When I asked my friend to do something for me, I was trying to tell him what to do with his time. When he told me “no” he was not telling me what to do with my time, he was telling me what he did not want to do with his time.
And if you are a grownup, stop torturing the little ones. My parents let me have a childhood, which is an age-appropriate thing for me to be doing at the time. They forced me to do chores, but they didn’t make me do much of anything that was “for my own good.” Summer, for example, was for getting into trouble, getting out of trouble, and not telling my parents about it. This was fine with them as long as the lawn got mowed.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was first released in 1952, the year I was born. It was 130 pages long and listed 106 mental disorders. By 1994, when my sons were children, this manual had grown to 886 pages and itemized 297 disorders, some of which I think are fancy names for what Mark Twain used to define as a boy, namely: “Noise with dirt on it.” A new DSM has just come out and I suspect they have not added Time-Obsessed Parenting Syndrome, and they won’t until someone comes up with an expensive drug for it. But there is a cure: just stop.
To-do lists are best if you cannot remember where you put them
The great thing about writing something down is that your subconscious brain will stop obsessing about it and you can relax and go to sleep or the movies or whatever. But the bad thing about to-do lists is that you might feel compelled to do all those things. Luckily, I’m great at making and losing lists. The list helps me get to sleep tonight, and then tomorrow when I cannot find it I only do what I remember to do, which turns out to be the important things.
Also, keep “did” lists. If you track all you’ve already done, the little bit still to do will seem less daunting.
I am writing this story for Quartz because I should be getting ready for a presentation instead. But I am sick of thinking about that so I checked my inbox for something fun to do and found a request from my editor at QZ. This is how my life works; nearly everything I’ve accomplished has been because I was trying to avoid doing something else.
John Perry, a professor emeritus at Stanford, calls this “structured procrastination” and he has a website and even a whole book about it. Someday you should read it, unless you’re behind on a deadline—in which case you should read it right now.
What is time good for anyway?
What are we talking about anyway? We are talking about your time on earth, so before you decide on how to manage your time, you need to know what you want your life to be about. You cannot have it all and therefore if you concentrate on one thing then something else will have to give.
For example, if your life is about checking chores off of a to-do list then you will probably have less time to explore unanticipated opportunities. And, if you are more of an explorer then you’re likely to leave undone the things you were working on when you received the call to adventure.