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Stretching Time

Time is valuable. It’s a precious commodity that, if we’re not too careful, can slip effortlessly through our fingers. When we think about the resources at our disposal we’re often guilty of forgetting the most valuable resource we have to hand: time.

We are all given an allocation of time from the time bank. 86,400 seconds a day to be precise, not a second more, not a second less.

It doesn’t matter if we’re rich or we’re poor, no one can buy more time (and no one can save it). We are all, in this regard, equals. We all have the same opportunity to spend our time and use it to maximum effect. As such, we need to use our time wisely.

I believe we can ‘stretch’ time, ensuring we make the most of every second and maximising the opportunities that time affords us.

Through a combination of ‘Structured Procrastination’ and ‘Focused Finishing’ we can open our eyes to all of the opportunities in the world around us, whilst ensuring that we deliver our best work precisely when it’s required. A win win, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Structured Procrastination

I’m a terrible procrastinator. I used to think that was a curse – “Why didn’t I just get started earlier?” – over time, however, I’ve started to see procrastination as a valuable tool if it is used in a structured manner.

Don Norman refers to procrastination as ‘late binding’ (a term I’ve happily hijacked). As he argues, in Why Procrastination Is Good, late binding (delay, or procrastination) offers many benefits:

Delaying decisions until the time for action is beneficial… it provides the maximum amount of time to think, plan, and determine alternatives.

We live in a world that is constantly changing and evolving, as such the best time to execute is often ‘just in time’. By delaying decisions until the last possible moment we can arrive at solutions that address the current reality more effectively, resulting in better outcomes.

Procrastination isn’t just useful from a project management perspective, however. It can also be useful for allowing your mind the space to wander, make new discoveries and find creative connections. By embracing structured procrastination we can ‘prime the brain’.

As James Webb Young argues, in A Technique for Producing Ideas, all ideas are made of other ideas and the more we fill our minds with other stimuli, the greater the number of creative opportunities we can uncover and bring to life.

By late binding, and availing of a lack of time pressure, you allow the mind space to breathe, enabling you to uncover elements that are important to the problem you’re working on and, perhaps, discover other elements that will serve you well in future tasks.

When setting forth upon the process of writing this article I consciously set aside time to explore. I allowed myself the opportunity to read, taking in new material, safe in the knowledge that what I discovered – if not useful for this article – would serve me well in the future.

Ron Burgundy summarises this neatly:

Procrastinator? No. I just wait until the last second to do my work because I will be older, therefore wiser.

An ‘older, therefore wiser’ mind is a good thing. We’re incredibly fortunate to live in a world where we have a wealth of information at our fingertips. Don’t waste the opportunity to learn, rather embrace that opportunity. Make the most of every second to fill your mind with new material, the rewards will be ample.

Deadlines are deadlines, however, and deadlines offer us the opportunity to focus our minds, bringing together the pieces of the puzzle we found during our structured procrastination.

Like everyone I’ll hear a tiny, but insistent voice in my head that starts to rise when the deadline is approaching. The older you get, the closer to the deadline that voice starts to chirp up.

At this point we need to focus.

Focused Finishing

We live in an age of constant distraction. Smartphones are both a blessing and a curse, they keep us connected, but if we’re not careful the constant connection they provide can interrupt our flow.

When a deadline is accelerating towards us it’s important to set aside the distractions and carve out a space where we can work in a clear and focused manner.

When it’s time to finish, it’s important to avoid context switching and focus. All those micro-interactions throughout the day – triaging your emails, checking social media and browsing the web – can get in the way of you hitting your deadline. At this point, they’re distractions.

Chunking tasks and managing when they’re scheduled can improve your productivity by a surprising order of magnitude. At this point it’s important to remove distractions which result in ‘attention residue’, where your mind is unable to focus on the current task, due to the mental residue of other, unrelated tasks.

By focusing on a single task in a focused manner, it’s possible to minimise the negative impact of attention residue, allowing you to maximise your performance on the task at hand.

Cal Newport explores this in his excellent book, Deep Work, which I would highly recommend reading. As he puts it:

Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.

To help you focus on finishing it’s helpful to set up a work-focused environment that is purposefully free from distractions. There’s a time and a place for structured procrastination, but – equally – there’s a time and a place for focused finishing.

The French term ‘mise en place’ is drawn from the world of fine cuisine – I discovered it when I was procrastinating – and it’s applicable in this context. The term translates as ‘putting in place’ or ‘everything in its place’ and it refers to the process of getting the workplace ready before cooking.

Just like a professional chef organises their utensils and arranges their ingredients, so too can you.

Thanks to the magic of multiple users on computers, it’s possible to create a separate user on your computer – without access to email and other social tools – so that you can switch to that account when you need to focus and hit the deadline.

Another, less technical way of achieving the same result – depending, of course, upon your line of work – is to close your computer and find some non-digital, unconnected space to work in.

The goal is to carve out time to focus so you can finish. As Newport states:

If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive – no matter how skilled or talented you are.

Procrastination is fine, but only if it’s accompanied by finishing. Create the space to finish and you’ll enjoy the best of both worlds.

In closing…

There is a time and a place for everything: there is a time to procrastinate, and a time to focus. To truly reap the rewards of time, the mind needs both.

By combining the processes of ‘Structured Procrastination’ and ‘Focused Finishing’ we can make the most of our 86,400 seconds a day, ensuring we are constantly primed to make new discoveries, but just as importantly, ensuring we hit the all-important deadlines.

Make the most of your time, you only get so much. Use every second productively and you’ll be thankful that you did. Don’t waste your time, once it’s gone, it’s gone… and you can never get it back.

About the author

A designer, writer and speaker based in Belfast, Christopher works with purpose-driven businesses, helping them to grow and thrive. He encourages small businesses to think big and he enables big businesses to think small.

The author of numerous books, he is currently hard at work on his eighth – ‘Designing Delightful Experiences’ – which focuses on the importance of human-centred design. It will be published by Smashing Media in 2019.

As a design strategist he works with companies, large and small, to help drive innovation, drawing on over 25 years of experience working with global clients including: The BBC, Electronic Arts (EA) and Adobe.

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