2/300: Hacking Time

January 2, 2016

I have always loved deadlines. From the time I was in junior high and writing my first real book reports and papers to my early days as a reporter, I loved the rush, the excitement, the tension of a ticking clock. It was like a drug. But, like all drugs, there are consequences to the high. The consequence of being an adrenaline junkie is, of course, procrastination.

I can procrastinate with the best of them.

Procrastination plus deadlines usually means a haul-tail marathon of activity right down to the wire. And I don’t miss deadlines. With books, with projects, I get things done on time, even if it means spending six or seven hours pouring over the keyboard, drinking bad coffee, writing until my fingers feel bruised. This worked fine for a while, more than a decade in fact, but I came to rely too much upon my ability to marathon my way toward getting things done. Ask anyone who has run a marathon before whether or not the act of dragging your body 26.2 miles is fun and they will so ‘no’ but it was satisfying.

Well here’s the thing, I want writing and reading, exercise and connecting to be fun again. I don’t want the things I like to do to feel like a long, uphill trudge through the mud. I want to enjoy it again. In order to make these things fun, I knew I had to change my relationships with deadlines and procrastination. I knew, if I wanted to do the things I love, I needed to get out of the habit of bingeing and, instead, devise a way to snack a little every day.

Doing more would mean doing less more often.

So, over the course of the last few months, I began timing myself doing the things I love. Not racing, just observing and calculating how long I could do something effectively, enjoyably and repeatedly.


Rather than subjecting myself to long periods of keyboarding, I wanted to calculate how long I can write daily and still be productive. I did this by challenging myself to a two month, daily blog test. Every day for two months, I wrote a blog post. I tried different times of day, different durations, different lengths. I was capable of writing a blog post in about 15 minutes, but found my thoughts tend to run in spurts of 1,000 to 1,200 words before becoming fuzzy. It took me 15 minutes to really get going and I was capable of writing for an hour or more without pausing, but there was a point of diminishing return – in quality and enjoyment – at about 30 minutes.

Great, my goal became writing 1,000 words or for a length of 30 minutes a day, whichever came first.


I’m not a fast reader. I never have been. And unlike writing, I can’t sustain long periods of reading very often. Instead, I read in spurts before my attention wanes. I used a free speed reading test online to calculate my reading speed. I took the test three times – in the morning, at midday and in the evening before bed. I read at a consistent pace in all three, but found my comprehension and enjoyment were highest reading in the evening before bed. It also did wonders for my well being and sleep to read before shutting down for the night.

My reading goal: a half hour every night before bed, around 3,500 words.


I’ve tried learning languages in the past – in school, in college, even a little bit as an adult. It was always hard. I have a hard time with rote memorization. I need context and interactivity, not flashcards. I read about DuoLingo on Tim Ferriss’s blog and decided to give it a try. I started for 30 days with Spanish. You can set your own daily goal and I thought 20 minutes would be doable. I would study for 20 minutes and the next day test myself on what I had learned. I remembered some, but not most of what I had covered. Over the course of a week or so, I worked my way down, eventually finding that comprehension, enjoyment and a willingness to repeat the study daily was maxed out at around 10 minutes. I set my daily goal for 10 minutes (20 DuoLingo points) and will continue on from there. I might not get through the program as quickly, but I will get through and hope to remember all of it.

Language goal: 10 minutes a day on DuoLingo


This one is hard for me. I was an athlete in high school – playing tennis up to six days a week – but since then, I’ve been big on fits and starts. I set a weight loss goal, get close and quit. I set a number of exercise sessions per week goal and never really get off the ground. I read a lot about impulse and productivity over the last few months and spent time talking to my dad, an engineer and project manager about how he thinks about getting things done. I realized that I didn’t need to set a goal for weight loss – that’s a goal based in a negative. Nor did I need to set a goal for working out x number of times per week. I lack the discipline for that. Instead, I needed to set a goal for achieving individual fitness milestones and research tools to help reach those specific goals. I found a Couch to 5K program to get me running and apps to guide me through achieving specific goals around push-ups, crunches, squats, pull-ups, swimming a mile and others. I sequenced them over the course of the year so that I was never trying to do more than one at a time, but was always working toward something and put them in an order of increasing physical demand.

Fitness goal: measurable, sequential, achievement-based programs designed around a 12-month calendar.

Hacking time is about taking a long and short view simultaneously. It’s about limiting yourself and focusing on consistency, not trying to cram as much as possible into a period and burning out quickly and, above all, making everything measurable.

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