When it comes to time, the human brain has many foibles. We overestimate what we can do in the short term. Sure, I will respond to 1000 emails in the next hour, and write that report too! But the corollary is also true: we tend to underestimate what can be done in the long term, even with very small actions. Small things done repeatedly have great power. One of my favorite sayings: Water hollows the stone, not by force, but by persistence.
In managing time, one of the most important decisions you can make is what small things you will do daily. Keep doing these more days than not, again and again, and you can turn even vast achievements into reality. Good time managers choose to hollow the stone.
I particularly see this with creative careers. Some of the most prolific writers might crank out two books per year. If each of these has 80,000 words, that’s 160,000 words. Over 250 work days/year, that’s just 640 usable words per day, or less than the length of this blog post. To be sure, most writers aren’t just writing books, but if you set a target of 1250 usable words per day, this would get you to 300,000 words in a year, which is enough for an 80,000 word book, 100,000 words of blog posts (e.g. 200 500-word essays), two 1000-word published articles per week, and change left over, maybe for longer feature stories. What is amazing about this is that 1250 usable words per day isn’t all that much. Even if you had a 50% wastage ratio, you would be writing much, much less than what it is possible to write in a day.
Artist LeUyen Pham is one of my favorite examples of such prolificacy. She is the children’s book artist I profiled in What the Most Successful People Do at Work. While an average illustrator might do 1-2 books a year, Pham easily doubles that. She has learned cues to be creative on demand (good, when you have small kids who might keep you from working 12 hours straight in an attic somewhere). She has honed her process to minimize wastage, and she just keeps going. Creating art is about putting yourself in the chair and doing the work. While many people fret about some sort of trade off between quantity and quality, the truly prolific know that almost none of us is on the other side of that optimization curve.
For most people, the best way to get better at something is to do more of it. And then do it again.
Given how powerful small daily actions can be, it is important to choose these well. It is also important to stick with them. Both these considerations sound momentous, though they become less so when you realize that most people already have daily habits. I drink coffee daily. Here’s hoping the current thinking that it’s OK for you doesn’t turn out to be wrong! I brush my teeth daily. Probably you do too, and have for decades. You are quite capable of keeping a daily habit, as long as it is simple, works with your life, and makes you feel good.
So if you would like to build a new daily habit, make sure it meets those same three criteria. Some ideas:
– sending one how-are-you note or email daily and thus building incredible social ties over time.
– getting 20 minutes of physical activity a day.
– meditating for 10 minutes.
– writing 500 words a day (125,000 in a year! Or 182,500 if you do weekends and holidays too).
– playing an instrument for 20 minutes a day.
– saving $10/day.
You don’t want to choose many. Just take a few that you think will make the most difference in your life, and then create a checklist, something executive coach Sabina Nawaz tells me she does with her clients. Did I get outside today? Yes/No. Did I spend time with my kids before they went to bed? Yes/No. Maybe you aren’t aiming for 7/7 each week, but to count as near-daily, 5/7 or 6/7 are probably the way to go. And you might be surprised how often you can do 7/7 if you want. I am on a decades-long streak of eating 7/7 days per week, even though it is quite doable to fast for 24 hours. Hollowing the stone requires devoting just a few minutes per day to something chosen, knowing that over time great things are possible.
In other news: This post is part of a series looking at foundational time management habits. If you are enjoying these posts, please share them with a friend!