Spending Hours

As New York City slowed down this week in anticipation of the Passover and Easter holidays, I was speeding up in an attempt to “get everything done” before the holidays.  Since I’m congenitally unable to leave things well enough alone, I found myself asking “What is it that am I racing around to get done?”

I should know better than to ask a question like that.

The reality is that for far too many of us, the things on our To Do list represent chores to be disposed of rather than activities that add meaning and joy to our lives.  If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at Leo Babauta’s recent experience.  On April 1, he wrote Ultra-Simple 3-Step Productivity System for Getting Amazing Things Done and then interesting things happened:

Last week, when I wrote the simple guide to Getting Amazing Things Done, a commenter asked me to write a 12-step guide to the first step — Find Something Amazing to Work On.

I thought he was kidding. I mean, it’s simple, right? Look at your to-do list and pick something that really excites you, that will really make a difference in your life and (ideally) in the lives of others.

But after reading some of the other comments, I realized that not everyone has tasks like that on their to-do lists. Lots of people still haven’t found their Amazing Work.

Folks working against a billable hour or in jobs that count time spent as a proxy for results achieved have an additional problem.  They often find that they measure success by the number of tasks completed by the billable hour and the number of hours occupied.  Here’s how Daniel Tenner describes it:

When working in a self-employed, services job (e.g. freelancing), the idea that hours matter is deeply ingrained, because hours are the measurable thing that we charge for (even though what the client really cares about is getting the job done). In “regular jobs”, hours are also important, because they are the basis of the long-term contract between employer and employee (“Your working hours are from 9am to 6pm on weekdays, excluding public holidays”), and they are the first mechanism an employer will use to make sure you’re working hard enough.


When we measure results instead of hours, something interesting happens: the distinction between work and not-work blurs away and vanishes, for two reasons. First, clever ideas can make a huge difference to results, and ideas occur anywhere, at any time. In fact, they’re least likely to occur while sitting at a desk working. Secondly, it soon becomes obvious that our actual output of things done is correlated far more to how we feel on the day than to how many hours we spend “working”. The real measure of work is not hours – it’s energy.

He goes on to suggest that if we are measuring our days by focusing on energy rather than hours, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • How much energy do you put into your work?
  • How much of your daily energy do you spend increasing your total energy? Do you feel you spend enough? Do you feel you spend it on the right things?
  • How much of your daily energy do you waste each day? How do you define waste? Is all that waste really unproductive or does it have some beneficial side-effects? Are those side-effects sufficient to justify spending that energy?
  • Do you spend energy on things which actively hurt you?
  • Has your daily energy increased or decreased in the last 6 months? year? 5 years?

Whether you slow down for religious observances this week or not, it would be well worth your while to consider how you spend your time and energy.  After all, those hours you spend can never be recovered.  And only you can ensure they are spent well.

[Photo Credit:  kuow949]