Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Find more useful hours in the day by Time Shifting

I would love to wave a magic wand and be able to have more than 24 hours in a day. But, I'm not crossing my fingers for this to happen anytime soon. The next best thing is to make better use of the hours we do have. Thus springs up the vast literature on such topics as time management, life optimization, and hacking your life. All are aimed at trying to make efficient use of the time that we have. These methods all work to an extent, but may leave people feeling stressed out always having to live life in "high gear" to make sure they are making the most of every hour. On the contrary, I want to get to a state where my life feels effortless, yet I'm able to get my stuff done.

Time Shifting is a way that I've found to make better use of the hours in my day. For the most part, I think there are enough hours in the day, just not the *right kind* of hours. We have a task list of things to do, but not all things can get done at any given time. This is especially true for moms because we have more constraints on our time and play more varied roles over the course of the day. There are certain things that can only be done when the kids are awake, certain things that can only be done during child-free hours, during business hours, on the weekends, etc. I call each of these blocks of time with certain constraints a "context".

Contexts are the key to Time Shifting. You have to recognize your most busy context, find ways to shift tasks into a context that's less busy and learn to be super efficient during your most busy context. By doing this, you can be relaxed during all your other contexts, and still get all your stuff done.

First, you need to differentiate between tasks that can only be done in this context vs. tasks that are more convenient to be done in this context. For instance, certain shopping trips are much faster if I can do them in child-free contexts, but are possible to get done with kids in tow. Sleep, on the other hand, is impossible when you are at home with kids awake. Quality time with your children is impossible when you are not at home, or they are not awake. In your most busy context, you should *only* be doing things that can *only* be done in that context. Time-shift all the other tasks to other contexts – even if they take longer to do in the other context!

You have to make a mental shift – that it's OK to do some tasks in an inefficient way - as long as you are shifting a task from a busy context to a less busy one.

On the week days, I find that I am not spending enough quality time with HB. I get home from work at 6pm, nurse the baby, make dinner, clean up dinner, nurse the baby while my husband is getting her ready for bed, and quickly say goodnight to her at 7:30. Which of these things can be time shifted to another context (i.e. after she is in bed)? Making dinner and cleaning up dinner. I prep dinner the night before and/or use more prepared foods to decrease overall prep time right before dinner. I also wait to clean up dinner until after she has gone to bed. I have time-shifted making dinner and cleaning up dinner to a different context. This gives me about 30 extra minutes to spend exclusively with her. We read books, play with toys, or go for a walk.

On the weekends, I find that I am not getting enough child-free time to get all my errands, to-do's, and household chores done. What things can I shift into a different context? Can I get some of my household chores done while the kids are awake? Certainly, they get done more inefficiently and take up more overall time that way, but I am shifting them to a context where I have extra time. I can even enlist the kids in the chores (perhaps making them take even longer), but have now combined quality time with the kids and the chores all in one. Ditto for shopping trips. And I have freed-up precious kid-free time for those things that can *only* be done sans-kids.

Now, I have to be super efficient about my time during the kid-free context, but can be relaxed about not being as efficient about my time when the kids are awake. I spend a few minutes on the weekend mornings to map out the tasks that are left in my kid-free context. As soon as the kids hit the pillows for their nap, I am like a machine efficiently executing on those really important tasks. I always start with the most important one (you never know when the kids will wake up early from their nap). And I *never* (oh, OK, almost never) use this time for things that can be done in other contexts (because this is my most busy context, presumably there is a backlog of stuff to be done during this time). But as soon as the kids wake up, I can shift back into low gear and focus on them, rather than be frustrated that I'm not getting my stuff done as efficiently as possible.

There are always things on people's list that they want to do, but never "find the time". I call these neglected tasks. Getting regular exercise is one of them for me. For some people, it may be reading books, or responding to email, or calling family that lives far away. The key to "finding the time" is to find a way to work this task into your least busy context.

My least busy context is with kids on the weekends. The most obvious forms of exercise for me are things that require kid-free contexts (swimming, yoga, running on the treadmill, etc). In order to find the time, I need to find a way to exercise while the kids are awake. It may not be optimal exercise, but at least I would "have the time" to do it. Some ideas I have been kicking around are getting a jogging stroller, attending a mommy-and-me exercise class, or doing calisthenics while my kids are at the playground. Previously, I found myself falling behind on reading email and the few blogs I subscribe to. I found a way to time-shift these into my nursing and pumping time by installing an RSS reader on my blackberry and getting a hands-free nursing bra for pumping. Now, I usually have more than enough time to read all the blogs I want and keep current with reading email. I recently subscribed to a few more blogs because I found that I was running out of content before my pumping sessions were up. Now, I just need to find more time to *respond to email* and *write* blog posts.

As you can see, what is your busiest context and your most neglected task can change over time as your life situation changes and/or your ability to time-shift improves.

What's great about time shifting is that you can apply all the other methods for being more efficient with your time on top of time shifting. Delegation is the ultimate form of time-shifting (shifting tasks from one of your contexts to someone else's). Getting unnecessary tasks off your list (time shifting a task to the non-existent context) and/or decreasing the time for a task all apply here too.

So, ask yourself:

What is my most busy context?

What tasks can *only* be done in this context?

Do only these during this context, and do them efficiently.

What is my most neglected task?

Find a way to work this into your least busy context.

Simple, right?


  1. This is a really great idea. I have read a couple of different blogs that have had great organizing/to do's/time planning tips that I'm trying to tie all together. After I read this I found that I sort of was doing this already, but I wasn't holding true to "do ONLY what can be done in a context". I'm still trying to work out the bugs, but once I get going for a few weeks, I think I'll post a summary of how I combined this w/the other 2 tips I read about. Thanks for explaining this!

    OH, a question: what are YOUR contexts? How many do you have? I found I had A LOT and thought I might be making it too complicated.

  2. @Lori - I would love to know how it goes for you. I am always fine-tuning this for myself.

    The "do ONLY" rule only applies to your *most* busy context. The point is that you don't have to optimize any of the other contexts.

    As for my contexts, I try to keep it really simple, so I like coarse categories (at home kids awake, kid-free time during business hours (where you can run errands), kid-free time during non-business hours (usually at night when they are asleep), and then work. Soon, I will be spending significant time commuting, so I will need to add a commuting context.

    The only ones you really need to pay attention to are the most busy one (or two) and the least busy one (or two). The others are not necessary to optimize, and so they aren't necessarily even worth spending time thinking about.

    I used to have a crazy overkill color-coded task list with tens of contexts, but I found that I spent more time maintaining the list and shuffling tasks between contexts that it wasn't worth the time I was saving. Now, I keep a simple task list, and the only tasks I actually label are the ones that fall in the most busy context.


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