Time strategy #3: Hollow the stone

IMG_1198When 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!

8 thoughts on “Time strategy #3: Hollow the stone

  1. “For most people, the best way to get better at something is to do more of it. And then do it again.”

    I have a great example of this. I am on bed rest due to surgery (it’s killing my soul). Our household duties are pretty evenly split. My husband does laundry, ironing, and the like. I cook meals and clean up the kitchen, and the housekeeper does everything else. Both of our duties are daily jobs. However, I can’t perform mine. Now he could have taken the easy road and got take out and he did for awhile, but we live in a rural area with few options so that got old pretty quick. He has been preparing dinner for the last few nights. Dinner takes me less than an hour from start to finish, complete with packing next day lunches, and getting the kitchen back in order. Bless him. Last night it was almost 9:30 before he finished. It took him almost 3 hours. I do this daily and have for 15 years. I know where everything is, what I have on hand, and have it down to a science. I thought he would give up and go back to take out, but he said he was planning to cook tonight as well. He is determined to get the hang of it. I may have to take a page from his book and buckle down on a few of those difficult tasks.

    1. @Jennie – yep! One key thing for many couples is not accepting that someone (usually mom) is inherently better at whatever child or domestic task is up for debate. Often, she is “better” just because she is more experienced. The other party could become an expert with practice.

      I hope you are doing well and recovering quickly.

      1. I’m blessed in this regard because our duties were split by preferences. I trained in kitchens before making a radical career change. I love to cook. He doesn’t love laundry, but he does not like my willy-nilly approach to laundry. But this little bump in our road has made me wonder if we shouldn’t cross train each other a bit!

        1. The article is just about why mothers may seem better, juste because they are more experienced – not about cooking vs. laundry…

          1. I agree with the article and this likely happened with my oldest child. My husband defers to me a lot with him (now 13). When my youngest was born, I went back to work very quickly because I felt well and my husband had a procedure that kept him home for 6 weeks. I only took 2 weeks maternity leave before handing him to his daddy. With our youngest, he is the primary. Our daughter (middle) got us both. We both were off 8 weeks with her. But, had I had the usual maternity leave situation.. I could see where this would have come into play.

  2. Great post, Laura. I totally agree that it’s the little things you do most often that make such a huge difference. I’ve been conducting an experiment on myself to try to get more writing done (as opposed to learning, researching, and marketing) and have been setting aside 7:30-8 every morning to write and only write. (If I’m not writing, I have to just sit there in front of the page or computer screen.) It’s working great so far, and I’m going to expand it to another session every day, shooting for more words so I can crank out those blog posts, articles, and eventually that book.

    One of the things I like best about your posts is that they make me feel like big accomplishments are possible!

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