How to 80/20 Your Time

In Essays, Productivity, Self Improvement

Time is an illusion.

~ Albert Einstein

As I explained in the earlier essays, you need to think creatively about how to apply the 80/20 rule to your own life.

I don’t know you, I can’t give you specific advice about your situation. What I can give you is a template that you can use as a starting point. You can, and should, modify the ideas that I will present here to suit your own needs.

Applying the 80/20 Rule to Time

This might see a strange starting point but it’s actually the fundamental building block of the whole 80/20 approach to life. If you can manage to change the way you view time, to turn in from an enemy into a friend, you can reap huge rewards.

Just think about how we use the word ‘time’ in day to day conversation. Often the way we use words is indicative of the way we think.

  • I haven’t got the time.
  • This is a waste of time.
  • I want to spend time with you.
  • Let’s take the time to do this.
  • This is time consuming
  • I have time to kill
  • I had a lovely time
  • There’s no time to lose
  • Your time is up
  • Time out
  • and many more..

The first thing to realise is that the majority of events and achievements in life happen in the minority of the time. Generally speaking, the vast majority of the average person’s time has little to no value.

There are small fragments of our time here on earth that are far more valuable than the rest. An individual’s major achievements that add value to their own, or other people’s lives, happen in the minority of their time. It doesn’t matter if you measure their time on a daily, weekly or even yearly basis.

Think about this: the average person spends 32 years of their life asleep!

The trick is to recognise these fragments and make as much use of them as possible. Ideally, one could identify what makes these time fragments so valuable and then try and replicate them. As usual, this is a case of focusing our energies on the valuable 20%, except that when we talk about time the valuable part is often just 5% or less.

If we accept the fact that only a fraction of the time in our lives is significant we can arrive at the conclusion that nobody is short of time. This makes sense: after all, if we only make good use of five, ten or twenty percent of our time, there can be no shortage of it!

Try this short experiment. Try and remember the entire year so far from January the first to the current moment. Unless you are highly gifted, you may find this extremely difficult if not impossible.

Of course, that’s what journals are for. I bet what you do remember from this year is that special 20% of time. The time that really counts. The highlights. Everything else seems to blend away into the background until only a small selection of events stand out. That’s what represents your year so far, and that is also what represents your life. Obviously, this won’t follow the 80/20 rule precisely, I mentioned above how the key moments are generally less than 5% of our overall time. You can’t really accurately measure it and you don’t even need to.

Now you might be thinking ahead here and expect me to say that what we require is a method to manage our time more efficiently. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The problem with time management is that it’s the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound.

What is required is a completele change in the way we approach time. The problem with time management is that it makes the assumption that we already know what’s the best use of our time. If this was the case, why would we need to manage our time any better? If we knew what was the most important thing to do in our lives, we would probably be doing it already. As I stated in my previous article, without a lot of deep thinking it’s often very easy to reach incorrect conclusions.

If you were to write out a list of absolutely everything you have to and want to do in life, you would quickly come to the conclusion that there just simply is not enough time to accomplish it all.

Isn’t it strange how with all the technological advances in the last 50 years, people still manage to be busy? Considering that in every single industry in the world the average worker is many times more productive than 100 years ago, isn’t it absurd that weekly working hours are slowly creeping up each year? This is more to do with the profit-driven system we live than anything else but, within this we can see why our attitude towards time is wrong.

We think of time as a resource, something that we can spend, waste, save etc. A resource very much like money. Except, time is nothing like money. It’s not like we can accumulate time in a vault and then use it later on. Time is democratic, money is not. Time continues it’s march and leaves nobody behind. Nobody has the power to stop time.

Thinking of time the 80/20 way

Firstly, we need to accept that our current notion of time is not logical. There is no point trying to patch up our time problems with small fixes. A bold solution is required.

Secondly, we are not short of time. It’s quite the opposite, we have plenty of time! We just need to increase the amount of time we spend on pleasurable and profitable activities. Ideally you could work far less than half the time and enjoy a much higher level of productivity and happiness.

As mentioned earlier, do not think of time as the enemy, think of it as a friend. After all, time is simply the thing that links the past, the present and the future. The time that has already passed has not been ‘lost’, it’s been invested. Whether it was a good investment or bad is up to you to decide.

There is always more time coming up, that’s the beauty of time itself. At a fundamental level, humans seem to understand this.

That’s why we don’t measure our days as a long list of numbers. Can you imagine if instead of calling next Sunday by it’s name, we called it Day 4938123 and the following Monday was Day 4938124!

Finally, we should think about ways to ‘spend’ less time doing actions and more time thinking about how to accomplish them according to the 80/20 rule.

A quick tip to get you started: if you have a project, assign yourself more planning time than you normally do and then give yourself only 60% of the time you would normally require to complete it.

There are two facts that work in your favour if you do this.

Firstly, work has a tendency to expand so as to fill the time available for its completion. This is know as Parkinson’s Law.

Secondly,time-wise the last 20% of a project is by far the most productive because everybody involved can see the deadline approaching. While almost halving the time for work on any given project seems counterintuitive, it can often lead to a doubling of productivity!

So we know that trying to do things more quickly or become more efficient with the use of our time is not the way forward. In fact, this way of thinking is actually part of the problem.

By viewing time as this narrative sequence, running left to right we get the feeling that every moment we live in is immediately ‘lost’ forever. A much better approach is to view time as something that is always with us (it is!) and that is growing and that we are growing with it.

This is a much healthier approach to time and gets rid of a lot of the guilt associated with ‘wasting’ time.

Time is not the enemy, our use of time on the other hand may well be. Stop and think, is there an imbalance in the way you use your time? If you are like most people, you can probably answer that question with a yes.

So how should we go about ending this imbalance?

So now we are going to attempt to do the 80/20 analysis of time. Some, if not all of the following issues may be true in your life:

  • 80% of your happiness is experienced in 20% of your life.
  • 80% of time you are not doing anything of lasting value.
  • 80% of your achievements are attained in 20% of your life.
  • You feel you don’t have enough time for everything.
  • Time flies!
  • You work 80% of the time.
  • You only feel creative 20% of the time.

If any of these issues are applicable to your life then perhaps you need to read the following seven points on how to sort out the time imbalance in your life:

1. Dissociate Effort and Reward

In other words: Work smart, not hard. I spoke at length on this topic in my previous essay How to Think 80/20.

Let me, modestly, quote myself:

The real trick is to stop wasting your 80% of your time on the things that produce little to no positive results in your life. Your life will be simpler, more productive and you will actually have more time and less stress. After all, the rewards in life are not given to those who work the hardest, but to those who simply do the best job regardless of the effort they put in.

You are over 16 times more productive when you apply the 80/20 rule and concentrate your energies on that productive 20%! This is secret to the ultra-achievers in life. After all, they don’t physically have more time than you have so how is it possible they get so much done?

Wealth from investments dwarfs the amount of wealth you can create through actual work. The Capitalist system is actually designed to reward investments and punish the worker. Think about it, in America the person who goes to work in an office five days a week pays somewhere around 30% in tax to the government while the guy who lives a life of luxury and doesn’t actually have to go to work only pays 18% tax on his investments!

Get rid of what I call the 50/50 fallacy. We have been mistakenly brought up to think that world is a fair place and that hard work is rewarded. Perhaps this is due to the fact that in the West we are subjected to a democratic regime and so we obviously see the world through that prism. That’s just not the case. Smart work is rewarded. Sometimes working smart means working hard, but nobody cares how long you spend doing something, they just want it done well. If you can take a shortcut and get the same result in half of the time, why not?! Remember: One unit of work does not equal one unit of reward.

2. Give up Guilt

This very much links up with point number 1. There is a whole culture that has grown around the fact that if you are working well, you need to be busy and stressed. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Looking busy and being stressed is more often a combination of two factors. The first is a lack of organisation, especially with regards to prioritising what is truly important. The second is to do with the guilt that people feel if they have very little to do. This is often so deeply ingrained into their psyche that they themselves would deny this.

Most people also feel guilty if they are doing something they enjoy when they feel they should be “working”. Part of the above-mentioned culture is the whole “anticipation of the weekend”. Everybody is glad that Friday is coming up and they can relax and wind down. The reason for this?

The reason for this?

They don’t enjoy their work. There is only one solution to this:

There is only one solution to this: Quit.

In a way, it’s quite strange how society goes about giving different rewards to people with different jobs. The work that nobody really wants to do, such as cleaning toilets or being the proverbial office bitch, are paid the least while the jobs that many people would love to do, such as being a famous actor or musician are paid the most.

It goes completely against what we are taught about supply and demand. Of course, that is only one way of looking at it. The reason that the famous actor gets paid tens of millions a year is because there is a huge demand for him or her while the person cleaning toilets often think that they have very little choice in the matter.

Not only are the middle and upper classes rewarded with higher salaries and more interesting jobs, they also receive a huge amount of other perks. Higher pensions, assistants, business travel, hotels and more.

Generally speaking, if you do the things you love doing and you do it well, you will my amply rewarded.

The whole system is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about it, to become great and successful at any endeavor, especially in the artistic world, requires a large output of work. If you think of any of the great historical artists they were all prolific. Beethoven wrote 32 incredible piano sonatas, 9 symphonies and dozens upon dozens of other works. Picasso virtually never stopped painting. How else could you produce such a body of work without a true love for what you are doing?

How else could you produce such a body of work without a true love for what you are doing?

Going back to my original point about getting rid of guilt, you should avoid separating your life into “work” and enjoyable activities in your spare time. Everything (at least 80% of the time) should be an enjoyable activity and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it!

3. Free Yourself from Outside Obligations

What exactly do I mean when I say “free yourself from outside obligations”?

Research has shown time and time again that people are happiest when they can see the point of what they are doing and when they have control in how they work. Outside obligations can manifest in many ways:

  • The most obvious is when you work for someone else. They can dictate what you do, when you do it, and also how you do it.
  • Moral, social or traditional obligations. Often people feel that they have to act in a certain way to “follow convention”. An old fashioned example is when young couples used to be forced by their parents to marry because the girl was pregnant. This still goes in many parts of the world.
  • Financial obligations. If you have a mortgage or other loans that you haven’t paid off, the bank virtually owns you. The same goes if you live a lifestyle that outside your means.
  • Mental or psychological obligations. This would appear not to belong in the category of outside obligations but often the case is that you’ve been influenced by advertising or other people.

The simplest and easiest way to learnt to free yourself from many obligations is just to learn to say no. When you change your attitude plenty of people will be surprised and you might end up losing some acquaintances which you thought were friends. I wouldn’t worry, after all, if someone is willing to break up a friendship because you refuse some request or favour then it just goes to show how weak the friendship was in the first place.

Obviously, it’s not possible to free yourself from all obligations. Life is too complex a web of interpersonal relationships for that to ever happen. In fact, some obligations can actually be positive. Think of the athletes who feels an obligation to his fans to perform at his very best.

4. Be creative with your time

Don’t be afraid to claim back your own time. Try new things. Wake up at 4am for a month, give Polyphasic Sleeping a shot, or simply add a nice long nap in the afternoon. Perhaps create one day a week were you completely focus on yourself without any outside distractions, or perhaps do the opposite and spend one day a week completely focussed on other people by volunteering.

The famous 20% [or less] of time that you are at your high productivity level is probably not when you are stuck in the daily grind of meetings or doing the dishes.

Obviously, you can’t be excessively unconventional or you run the risk of alienating yourself from society. You need to draw the line somewhere.

Again, I can’t give you specifics as I don’t know you and your life but I think a great place to start is to wake up earlier than the average person. Generally speaking, 5 am is a good time as you get to enjoy the sun coming up and the peace and quiet before the rest of the world starts waking up. You may well find that the first couple of hours of your day become your productive 20%.

Write down several scenarios where you manage to reclaim time from the mundane things in life and channel it towards the things that make you happy. Then just test them out and see what works.

5. Identify the 20% that produces 80%.

I’ve written about this at length in the previous essays. This is something you should always do because you should be thinking 80/20 all day. In time, it will come naturally.

The first issue that we encounter is actually working out what you are trying to produce! Are you trying to achieve some goal or are just trying to be happy? Most people are generally trying to do both. Although they are two sides of the same coin, let’s look at them separately.

So, as usual, roughly 1/5 of your time gives your the majority of your achievements and also 1/5 of your experiences give you the majority of your happiness. Be aware that while these two segments of time are not the same, they will probably be some kind of overlap.

Tracking Work

I advise you to actually track how much work you do and at what times of the day you do it. This is the easiest way to actually know which fragment of your day is the most productive. Just look back at the work that you are most proud of and remember under what conditions you created it. It’s not rocket science, but it works. Trust me.

For instance, as a composer, I have found that the majority of my compositional ideas and development come either very early in the morning or quite late at night. Armed with this knowledge I made sure to shift the technical, non-creative part of my musical studies to the middle of the day and to be composing as soon as possible after I wake up and also as late in the day as I can. My creative output shot up, but I think my neighbours now hate me! C’est la vie.

Tracking Happiness

While I am a big believer that you should have a steady “baseline” of happiness that purely depends on your own outlook of life, it’s true that external things can and do have an effect on the way we feel. Through mental training and a lot of though we can counteract the effect of uncontrollable external influences on our inner happiness. That said, lets take a look at how we can attempt to track which moments in our lives were our happiest.

Remember our experiment earlier on in this article, where I asked you to remember everything you could about the past year? That’s the basis of how to track your happiness. As we tend to remember the significant events in our lives, they tend to come with either strongly positive or negative connotations. All you need to do is look back on the last few years are remember the times when you were the most relaxed and happy. Make a list and work out what is the common denominator. That’s the key. Do the same for the moments when you were the most unhappy.

6. Multiply the 20% that produces 80%.

So now you have a roadmap on how to achieve increased happiness (and productivity). It’s dead simple: Do more of what makes you truly happy. (Warning: This may require major life changes)

There is no way to actually accurately measure happiness but you can be sure that by concentrating on the activities and work that make you happy your happiness will increase. It’s quite self-evident.

Another bonus of working how what makes you happy is that it’s a very good indicator of what you should be doing in life. Love the outdoors? You probably shouldn’t be working in an office. While these are not hugely deep insights, it’s worth taking the time (ha!) to think about them.

It’s also never too late to start again. If you have been stuck in the same routine for many years and you are not happy with your situation you actually have an advantage. When you decide to break this routine and then actually do so, your well-being and productivity will increase by such a large amount that it becomes yet another motivating factor. You see yourself improving and so you continue with your changes.

The obvious flip side of this is that you need to try and do less of the activities that make you unhappy. Obvious stuff, but you might be surprised at how many people never do this in their lives.

7. Eliminate the Crap

This really requires the proverbial spring-clean. Stop watching TV, uninstall the computer games, stop watching porn and stop hanging out with people who don’t contribute anything positive to your life. In other words, stop fucking around and get on with what you need to do. There isn’t really much to say on this, you know what activities suck away time and contribute very little to your life.

When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful

~ Eric Thomas

Can you Really do This?

Can you create a time revolution in your life? I don’t know, only you know. I can just give you a few ideas but you really need to see what works for you and what doesn’t. There is no cookie-cutter plan that works for everyone. If you feel like you don’t mind living the way your are living right now then don’t attempt anything. Coast along and don’t worry about what others think. (They will be too busy actually achieving their goals to care)

I suggest you don’t try to 80/20 your life unless you are really serious about change. You might end up changing countries, losing friends, dumping your significant other. You may also end up with more free time than you know what to do with at first. Radical life changes are inherently risky and I’m not the one to tell you that it’s going to be all fine. Perhaps it won’t, but at least you can look back when you’re older and smile, knowing that you at least tried to do something amazing.