Leveraging The Power Of Time Constraint To Get More Done
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of less lately. Living on less money was the origin point of this reflection and it’s where I began my journey. I learned how to live on less money and how to thrive as a result. It’s sheer liberation to live on less money (a concept I riff on all the time around here), and it leads you to financial stability, independence, and ultimately total freedom from worrying about money.
After coming to this realization a few years ago, I began to apply these same principles–of wanting less, of needing less, of being truly content with less–to other areas of my life. I recently wrote about my latest foray into the minimalism of my stuff when I did a whole-house de-cluttering project, which resulted in me getting rid of a bunch of unneeded stuff and, as a result, reducing my stress level.
Parallel to using less money and less stuff is my investigation into using less time. Or more accurately, getting more done in less time and not wasting time doing things I don’t enjoy.
You Have Enough Time And Enough Money
My belief is that extreme frugality is a question of using both your money and your time only in pursuit of the things that matter most to you. Ultimately:
You can afford to buy the things that are most important to you and you have enough time to do the things that are most important to you. In order to do this, however, you have to eliminate all of the unimportant time and money drains from your life. There are also, of course, many caveats for privilege, which I discuss here and here.
The money part of this was easier for me: I just stopped buying stupid stuff (ok it’s a tad more complicated and you can follow my exact steps in my free Uber Frugal Month Challenge). The time aspect, however, presents more of a conundrum, especially since Mr. Frugalwoods and I are the parents of two very young children (one of whom was born last month!).
However, in a great twist of irony, I’ve found that I actually get more done now that I have less time. My days are firmly constrained by the schedule of a toddler and a newborn. There’s not a lot of room for error and yet, somehow, I find that I’m able to accomplish more of what I want to accomplish than I ever did pre-kids.
Leveraging The Power Of Constraint
I thought I was a little crazy for thinking this until I started having similar conversations with other parents of young kids who’ve also made tremendous professional and personal leaps under the time (and money and emotional) constraints imposed by parenting. I’m using “parenting” as my example because that’s where I’m at in my life right now, but you could substitute any number of classic time constraints, such as: starting a business, going back to school while working, developing a side hustle, pursuing a challenging hobby/sport… you get the picture.
Then I read the book, Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined, which further illustrated for me that there really is something to achieving at a high level while experiencing major constraints, either on your time, your money, or any other resource. So I started thinking about how to apply these principles to my own life.
Before having kids, I wasted inordinate amounts of time doing the following:
- World-class stressing out about random, meaningless things, especially as they related to my job at the time (a standard 9-to-5 office situation).
- Being anxious that I wasn’t accomplishing enough with my time (I’m not kidding; very meta).
- Reaching for perfection in EVERYTHING I did. Like I could not just clean the bathroom, I had to scrub the bathroom as though surgery needed to happen in there (newsflash: it did not).
- Wasting WAY too much time on daily maintenance activities. These are the things we need to do on a regular, repeated basis and which, if allowed to run unchecked, will in fact gobble every second of our discretionary time. Examples include:
- Personal grooming
- About 19 million other things when you have kids: diapers, feeding, baths, washing hands and faces, dressing, blowing noses, playtime, etc
- Watching TV and drinking wine. After a hearty day of doing items 1-4, I’d sink into the couch thinking “poor me” and enjoy some Trader Joe’s wine while watching TV.
I couldn’t seem to ever buckle down and get things done because I was spending so much time worrying about other things that I should perhaps be doing instead. Now, I frankly do not have the time to do anything on the above list. I do still watch TV with my husband, though much less, I do still drink wine, though much less, and OF COURSE I still stress out about stuff, but it’s quite diminished on account of… you guessed it… not having enough time!
I’ve also realized that my opportunities for doing things other than daily maintenance activities are quite limited. I could, in truth, spend all day every day doing nothing other than keeping our little family going. And this is with an equal parter who does all of this work alongside me (not to mention that he does ALL of the cooking).
Even still, if I wasn’t ruthless about my time, I’d find myself wiping counters and noses all day long. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but there’s more that I want to do with my time. I love my work. I love to write. So, I wrote a book this past year, and I write this blog. Surrounding this writing work, I do interviews, mastermind sessions, speak at conferences, mentor, and more.
When my first daughter was born two years ago, I didn’t do any work for a month or so following her birth and I sunk into a depression of sorts. Through that experience, I learned that I need to pursue projects I’m passionate about. In order to be a balanced, well-rounded, happy, fulfilled person, I need to write. I need to follow my calling of challenging people to be better with their money, of encouraging people to take charge of their finances, and of demystifying what it means to live a financially stable life.
Doing More With Less
I am shocked that I’ve been able to do more in the two years since becoming a parent than I ever did before and I attribute this to the inherent constraints on my time.
I once wrote over 2,000 words in 20 minutes because that’s all the time I had before I needed to go pick Babywoods up from preschool (to be clear, I had to majorly edit this later on, but the key is that I got it down on paper). My book was largely written in hour-long increments. I didn’t have the luxury of going on a writer’s retreat for a week or spending full days writing or even of having an interrupted afternoon to write. Instead, I squeezed my writing into naptimes and after Babywoods went to bed and all the other little moments of each day that present themselves.
At this very moment, for example, I’m writing at the kitchen table while Babywoods intermittently romps around the house, sits beside me and plays with play-doh, and reads books with Mr. FW. My work/life balance is unusual and highly fluid, but it’s also convenient for me, allows me to do the things I want to do, and spend lots of time with my daughters.
Knowing that my time is always limited–at present, I have about 15 minutes before we need to get dressed for church–prompts me to get more done in less time. I don’t have the luxury of procrastination or hesitation or scrolling through Facebook for half an hour before settling down to write (something I used to do every time I opened my computer). It sounds overly simplistic, but it’s honestly no more complicated than that.
The Seven Steps To Getting More Done In Less Time
(…at least, the 7 steps I’ve discovered. Probably there are more, but hey, 7 seemed like a lot)
1) Ruthless prioritization
Identify your highest and best goals every single day and work only in service of those goals. This one’s short because only you can identify your highest and best priorities. It’s exactly like spending money only on what matters most to you. Set those priorities and then…
2) Eliminate unnecessary tasks
These tasks are also known as anything that didn’t make it onto your list in step #1. The quickest way to fail is to try and do everything. So while, yeah, I’m talking about tapping into your internal ability to do more, I am not talking about doing it all. Kind of like how you cannot spend your money on everything and still expect to create a life of financial stability, you similarly need to let go of stuff that you don’t need to do.
For me, most of these unnecessary tasks actually take very little time individually, but they tally up to a fair amount of time over the course of a day and a week. By giving myself permission to stop reaching for perfectionism and stop trying to do everything that pops into my head, I’m able to recall the ruthless prioritization of step #1.
Here’s a quick list of stuff I don’t do anymore:
- Look fabulous on a daily basis. I’ll be honest here, I save a lot of time by not fixing my hair, not wearing makeup, not painting my nails… the list goes on. I get dressed up on occasion, but what I recognized is that getting dressed up on a daily basis wasn’t a priority and was consuming a lot of my time. Sure, maybe only 30 minutes per day, but people, that’s 3.5 hours per week!!!! Do you know how much I can get done in 3.5 hours?! A lot.
- Maintain a constantly clean home. Our house is not clean all the time. That’s all there is to it. Mr. FW and I tidy up together every night and we both clean as we go from room to room throughout the day, but in terms of deep cleaning? Doesn’t happen all that often. And that’s ok.
- …now I can’t think of anything else, probably because once I stopped doing it, I forgot about it… which means I shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place!
3) Dedicate your time and don’t deviate
I’m writing this paragraph during Babywoods’ afternoon nap because her nap time is my 100% dedicated writing time. The house is quiet, no one needs me, I am happily and in solitude at my laptop writing. But it’s not like there aren’t other things I COULD be doing right now. There are always other things to be doing. The crucial factor is that this block of time is already committed.
Determine what you’ll do when and then write it in your calendar or make a to do list or promise yourself that you will identify the highest and best way to use your time during specific blocks and then do it. Don’t be tempted to do ANYTHING else. This is hard for me and so I often think of myself as operating with blinders on during these dedicated times.
If I were to walk through my house right now–at this very moment–I would be able to find at least 19 things to do that would occupy the remainder of Babywoods’ afternoon nap. I’d see that there are dirty dishes in the sink, I’d notice I need to make more bread, I’d then clean the counter and probably sweep the kitchen floor too. Moving into the living room, I’d pick up toys for awhile before drifting upstairs and noting that I could get a jump on the laundry.
Yes, this stuff all needs to get done at some point, but right now is not the dedicated time for this stuff. I will put away dirty dishes while Babywoods plays in the other room and I will have her come watch me make bread (an activity she finds fascinating), Mr. FW will pick up all the toys after Babywoods goes to bed tonight, and Monday mornings are my dedicated time block for doing the laundry.
This approach does mean that I have to live in some discomfort right now as I sit at my laptop–I have to accept that there are in fact undone chores and things that will, at a later time, demand my attention. In the past, I absolutely could not abide this discomfort and so I’d fritter away my hours flitting from one chore to the next, never giving myself the opportunity to settle into meaningful work.
By dedicating my time in advance, I’m able to stay on track and accoplish my highest priority tasks every day. Some weeks, I prioritize writing and it’s basically all I do in every spare moment. Other weeks, I need to clean the house or run a bunch of errands or weed the vegetable garden. My priorities vary, but dedicating my time in advance is the constant. There’s also a great deal of spontaneity in my life since toddlers (and newborns!) have a way of changing their minds about what they’d like to do on a dime, which brings me to my next tenet…
4) Be agile
Ok I realize I just outlined how I rigidly dedicate my time in advance, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t always work out that way on account of people not napping or being sick or needing snuggles during a time that they are normally independently playing… and so, I’m agile. Some might say frenetic, but I think agile sounds better. I will often hop from task to task until I land on something that suits our present situation.
For example, say I’d planned to load the dishwasher while Babywoods played on her own, but she is livid that’s not going to happen. In that case, I’d redirect us upstairs to her room where she can investigate different toys and I can put away her clean laundry. Then, halfway through putting away laundry, Babywoods’ll decides she’s done with that activity, so we’ll pop back downstairs and bake some bread. Next, we’ll sit down together and read a few books, which will prompt her to want to read on her own.
While she reads books (out loud–very loudly–to herself), I’ll sit next to her and respond to emails. Eventually I’ll circle back to those dirty dishes and clean laundry, but in the interim, rather than waste time, we pivot from task to task. I will not say that this is an ideal mode of existence for my linear, efficiency-oriented brain, but I will say that it does allow me to get a lot done. This agility and ability to task-shift is something I’ve cultivated while parenting because kids are often in need of a change of scenery or a mood reset or a cuddle. In this same vein, I’ve learned to…
5) Acknowledge every window of time as an opportunity to get something done
I used to think I needed massive chunks of time at my disposal in order to accomplish anything. However through constraint, I’ve realized that I can get a lot done in 15 minutes. A LOT. I was talking to my sister–a working mother of three–on the phone the other day (while we both multi-tasked) and suddenly she said, “Ok, I’ve got to go because I have 15 minutes alone in the house before the kids get back.”
I immediately agreed and got off the phone because the amount you can accomplish in a house sans children in 15 minutes is ASTRONOMICAL. Probably you could discover a cure for cancer. It’s likely you could figure out how to colonize Mars. Doubtless, you could write half a blog post, clean your entire kitchen, race through all of your email, and start a load of laundry. It sounds ridiculous until you try it. When you leverage every window of time, it is profound how much you’ll get done. The caveat is that you might need to make some concessions in how well these tasks are done, which brings me to…
6) Letting go of perfection
To be clear: these tasks are not all going to be done perfectly and you’re going to discover a dehydrated piece of partially toddler-chewed green pepper embedded under a couch cushion (I don’t know how these things happen to me… ) and you will need to edit that blog post and you might’ve missed a few socks when loading the washer, but, the crucial element is that you accomplished at least 80% of the task at hand. That remaining 20%? That elusive ‘perfect’? Forget about it. Let it go.
It’s difficult for me to even write that as a constantly recovering perfectionist (can I just say I’m “living with a perfection addiction?”), but I try to remember this mantra every day. In truth, I am nearly tortured right now by the knowledge that there’s a miasma of salt and pepper on my left kitchen countertop, which I failed to clean up after lunch. But I am allowing it to sit there, in all its salt and peppery-ness, while I sit here and write. Also I just looked down and realized there’s yogurt smeared on the front of my sweater. But I will not waste time going upstairs to change clothes (also let’s be honest, more food will get smeared on me before day’s end) because this is dedicated writing time.
I will myself on a daily basis not to go down the spiral of perfectionism, not to run around with my dust pan trying to coax every last piece of detritus into the trash can, not to berate myself for imperfectly written words and typos and emails not responded to and interviews I could’ve done better. Because what’s the point? I used to strive for 100% success in everything, which meant I did very little. It’s tremendously time consuming to be 100% perfect; so, you can do one thing per day perfectly, or you can do a million things per day mostly OK. I get bored doing the same thing all day long anyway, so that was a failed approach for me to begin with.
7) Know when to stop and rest
This right here is perhaps the hardest step of all. When you’re on that treadmill of your daily activities, it’s WAY too easy to just sort of keep going… on into the night… on into the wee hours… on until 1am! Eek! Yep, you guessed it, yet another thing I used to do that brought me nothing but grief. If my work was good at 6pm, shouldn’t I continue until 11pm? NO!
Another wonderful change that extreme frugality, and then parenting, brought for us was the enshrinement of “evening time together” (that’s dumb-sounding, but I don’t have a better name for it… ) and a set bedtime. Every night at 7:30pm, Mr. FW and I stop what we’re doing, sit down, eat dinner together, and watch exactly one television show while cuddling on the couch. Then, we clean up the kitchen and get in bed by 9pm.
Of course there are nights when this doesn’t pan out–when Mr. FW has a board meeting for one of the nonprofits he volunteers with or when we’re over at a friends’ house for dinner or when I have an evening conference call–but on the whole, this is our nightly routine. It’s forced relaxation and decompression, which sounds weird, but totally works!! If I’m all wired up and frazzled from being toddler-ized all day and falling behind on writing and etc, etc, etc, it astounds me how calm I become after eating dinner with my husband and going to bed on time. Simple, no frills, and a surefire way to set myself up for a good next day.
We do this by the clock–7:30pm for dinner and 9pm for bed–because that’s easiest for us. But you could identify any other metric for when you need to cease for the day and allow yourself to surrender to the undone. My OB recently told me that “nothing good happens after 42 weeks of pregnancy” and I like that so much that I’ve decided “nothing good happens after 7:30pm in my home.” I’m too tired, too taxed, and too done by that point for productivity. Best to accept that fact and sink into the knowledge that I lived a full day and that I’ll have another chance tomorrow–starting very early since we live on toddler time around here :).
Constraint: The Best Motivator
There is no motivator like constraint because you’re left with few options other than: a) get it done, or, b) don’t get it done. I have limited choices in how I use my time, but that also means I have less room for error and more impetus to sit down and get right down to it. I used to be a pro at waffling, hesitation, contemplation, procrastination, and worry. I’d run through this full panoply of emotions before bothering to ever actually get started on the task at hand. This is how I spent years talking about being a writer without ever writing a word. Oh yes, let me tell you, it is highly possible to do that.
I’ve said before that I think spending is like a gas, by which I mean it’ll expand to fill whatever space you give it. Time works in much the same way. If I give myself an hour to clean the bathroom, it’ll take a full hour. Conversely, if I need to squeeze the exact same job into 20 minutes? It’ll get done in 20 minutes.
Before having kids, I wondered if I’d lose my capacity to pursue my own interests after they were born. And my life is radically different and my time is much less discretionary, but I’m shocked at my ability to accomplish. I don’t say this to talk about how awesome I am, but rather to expose this bizarre power of leveraging constraint to achieve.
Rather than viewing constraints as minimizing, I’m starting to see them as propellants to the next level. Constraints can translate into opportunities and ways to eliminate the mentality of defeat. I don’t spend a ton of time thinking about how I might fail because I don’t have the time. I fail a lot (at a higher rate than ever before), but I’m more resilient and better able to move onto my next project, thanks to constraint. I used to surrender to limiting beliefs and put all kinds of restrictions on myself–now, I’ve largely let those go in favor of bolding charging forward and doing the stuff I want to do.
How do you leverage the power of constraint to do more?
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