How to Take Back Your Time
January 15th, 2021 | 7 minutes to read
Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.
~ Thomas Jefferson
You live in a busy world. You always have endless emails to reply, lots of meetings to attend and thousands of tasks waiting to be done. After work, you just collapse at home, checking social media apps, news apps, or playing computer games. Everything seems to be designed to squeeze out the last second of your attention. And your attention is too precious to lose.
Then one day you look at your New Year's Resolution, you have accomplished none on your list, yet half of the time has passed. You wonder, where did the time go?
In this article, I will list a few strategies that could aid you to live a more productive and meaningful life. I've personally tested them myself. As I am just an ordinary human like you, easily being distracted in today's attention-seeking world. Note, all the tools I list are NOT endorsement, I encourage you to do the research and find the tools that suit your own needs.
Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash
Monitor Your Time Consumption
When we are at the desktop, mostly we spend time using browser to surf the internet. Sometimes it's necessary for your study or work. For instance, if you're a developer you are probably googling for answers to solve your problems, or check tech videos to learn more. If you're a writer, you need to research for materials. But oftentimes, we can be led to a rabbit hole if we are not careful. Anyone who has checked a cat video probably knows what I mean. So, the first step is to install an extension, such as Webtime Tracker for Google Chrome, use it for a week, then you will get a good visualization of where your time has gone to. List those websites, ask yourself, are they relevant to your work or you can do without them during work?
Install Time-limiting Extension on Your Browser
After you know where you waste your time, it's time to set a limit. I personally use WasteNoTime for Chrome and LeechBlock for Firefox and they work like magic. Usually I will set up a time limit within working time when I want to focus and be productive. The website lists that are not relevant to work, that we gain from monitoring our behavior, can go here. Then outside the working time, I also set a limit for myself, because I don't want to waste all my time for entertainment or leisure. For instance you can allow yourself 1 hour of youtube after work per day on your weekday.
What if I still need to use youtube for study purpose and I need more hours you ask? Good question. I've found it best to have separate user accounts and set up different limits on different browsers. For instance, for your study account you ONLY watch study-related videos on chrome, this way, your "feed" will also be cleaner and you only get study related materials; for your entertainment you can use another account on Firefox, and you can set up the "after work hours" here. At the beginning you might feel tempted to "break the rule", but after a while you will get used to it. If you still can't do that, simply set up rules on BOTH, until you get used to having a limit.
I know many sites nowadays run on advertisements instead of subscription fee. In order to make a living, many content creators have to write in favor of their advertisers. They also write click baits to attract more advertisement revenue. At the same time, readers also have bad reading experience by having advertisements flashing constantly.
You can install an advertisement blocker such as AdBlock Plus (available both in Chrome and Firefox) to block them, and perhaps subscribe to your favorite newspapers, magazines or authors instead. They will speak for you once they have your interests in their mind, not their advertisers.
Set Hardware Time Limits
When it comes to hardware limits it might get a bit difficult. For people who use Linux or Mac it's easy to schedule cron jobs to manipulate their computer. For instance, I used to shut down my computer at 10 pm every day and set it up a rule which is "from 10 pm to 2 am, every 5 minutes, it will shut down again", to prevent myself from breaking the rule. At the same time, I also have a system message to remind myself the computer will shut down soon, so I don't forget to save something. At the beginning, I struggled with it, for instance, one time I was watching a movie and I had the last 10 minutes to finish then my curfew was up. Even after I restarted it, I could watch another 5 minutes, then it shut down again. So I had to restart it the second time to get to the end! Since then I learnt to plan my time ahead if I want to watch a movie and make sure I finish them before 10 pm. It was very effective, and I keep this habit every time I switch the computer.
For Windows, I am not sure which app is the best. As this will directly work with your system, I suggest that you do a thorough investigation before you install it on your machine so it doesn't do any harm.
Otherwise you can just simply use the old alarm clock, but often, I found it not strict enough and people simply ignore it.
Use Your Phone Less Often
Nowadays people are addicted to their phones. Phone is small and convenient to bring anywhere. That's why a lot of phone apps are designed to gain your attention constantly or hook you up as long as they can. That is bad. First of all, phone is less secure than computer when it comes to data transmission, I personally think people should not do everything on the phone unless they have to. Secondly, phone apps aren't easy to inspect (unlike website, we have devtools at least) for ordinary people, and you don't know whether it's solidly coded, how it collects your data, how it runs in your background, whether it scans your data without your consent in your background etc.
One thing you can do is to limit the apps installed on your phone. Turn off notifications. Concentrate most of your digital activities on the computer and properly regulate your time so use your phone as little as possible. Trust me, you will take back your time much quicker.
Cultivate Offline New Hobbies or Interests
It can be a bit hard to use your extra time properly when you don't have offline hobbies or interests. But I am sure you have something you want to do. Perhaps you just don't know it yet? Maybe it's simply to read one book a year, maybe it's to learn how to knit a sweater, maybe it's to learn to bake your favorite cookies. Just find something to do, which relaxes you and preferably not requires digital devices that might drag you again to the rabbit hole. So... I don't think watching Netflix can be an interest. I'm not saying you should have zero time for entertainment or leisure, I am just saying those should not occupy the whole time when you are off work. You need to find something to do that you are proud to boast to your families and friends at the end of the year.
Have Goals and Monitor Your Progress
It's not uncommon that many of us don't meet our New Year's Resolution. It's just being human. However, I do have a tip to make it better. I personally use Trello, a project management tool, to manage my goals. For example, I have a list of coding courses I want to learn. I usually divide them into groups of topics, such as Linux, Frontend, Backend etc, then I attach a picture for each course on each card, so it's easy to spot them. For each card, I also have a checklist for course sections, so I can inspect how much I have completed. I also write the percentage on the title. This way I can easily track my progress and it makes me happy to see they're moving. It makes me even happier to see some of them go to that "Finished!" list.
You don't have to use Trello, I am sure you will find other similar tools to do the same thing. You can even do it with pen and paper and put it on the wall. One important point is that this goal tracking status must be easily seen and often checked, so you know you're on track. So you are reminded of your goals. And it motivates you to do better once you see your progress. Try it, trust me, you will love it!
I also have a few books I would love to recommend, and a documentary I think everyone should watch.
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
- Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
- Atomic Habits by James Clean
- The Social Dilemma
- Monitor Your Time Consumption
- Limit Your Time Consumption
- Remove Distraction
- Set Hardware Time Limits
- Use Your Phone Less Often
- Cultivate Offline New Hobbies or Interests
- Have Goals and Monitor Your Progress
I hope those tips help you achieve your goals and live a fulfilled life!