One night, I was very tired because I had exercised earlier for two hours. It was 10:30 pm and I hadn’t done much work. Figuring that I would go to bed at about 12:30 am, I resigned to spend the rest of the night relaxing. All two hours of it.
Some part of me felt uncomfortable with that decision, and now I know why. I was looking at my available time too broadly. I had two hours before bedtime, and I thought it made most sense to relax since I was tired. But here’s the kicker: I can divide up that two hours however I please!
We tend to schedule our lives by the hour or half hour. This is a natural result of wanting to be on the same page as the rest of society (and practicing it until it’s routine), but it has an unintended and wasteful consequence.
While I was definitely too tired to do two hours of work, I was not too tired to do 15 or 30 minutes of work. And 15-30 minutes of work is extremely valuable to me!
Time Is Infinitely Flexible
My first mistake: My unwillingness to fracture a two hour chunk of time. If the two hours had to be 100% work or rest, then it had to be rest, but time is exactly as flexible as we need it to be. If I got too tired to work even after only 7 minutes, I could stop there and rest for one hour and 53 minutes.
My second mistake: I assumed that I knew how tired I was and how work would affect me. Prior experience has taught me that these projections are wildly inaccurate. I’ve planned to work all day and barely done anything. I’ve planned to play all day and worked all day instead. I’ve had work sessions that felt like play and play sessions that bored me. I’ve been tired before a project hooks me and gives me more energy. It’s impossible to predict the exact dynamic of any activity on any given day.
Three Important Lessons I’ve Learned about Time
1. Dividing your time into large chunks is wasteful. When you have free time, let it be free. Don’t tie it down arbitrarily into clean one-hour segments. Yes, you should only do one activity at a time, but the amount of time you do it is flexible. There’s no rule that says you can’t play piano for 13 minutes and nap for 47. And yet, we have been conditioned to think, “I have an hour. Should I nap or play piano?” … How about both?
2. Activities do NOT need to share equal time and attention. Back to the piano and napping example, it’s still not correct to think ”two activities means 30 minutes each.” That introduces the same problem as choosing only one of two activities for the full hour. If you give yourself 30 minute pieces of time, that’s twice as flexible as one hour, but it will still thwart you if you are only willing to play piano for say, 13 minutes.
3. Small pieces of time have HUGE value. Imagine someone practicing piano for 5 minutes a day for a year. Now imagine someone practicing for 1800 minutes in a row. That’s a little bit more than a day, and the same amount of time as the 5 minutes per day guy. Who will be the better player after one year (once the marathon practicer gets some sleep, of course)?
Intuitively, we know the consistent daily practicer will be better. Why? Because his brain has had time to rest and integrate the days’ knowledge and skills into long term memory.
The right answer of consistent practice in this extreme example is obvious, yet people still go for the “big wins.” That’s because most people don’t project the true trajectory of their actions. They instead try to force an unrealistic trajectory.
Bottom Line: Large Time Chunks Kill Dreams
Caption: If your only experience of time is in one hour chunks, what moments are you missing?
It’s a fact that you will have more 4-minute chunks of available time than one hour chunks. Within a single hour, there are 15 units of 4 minutes. On the days you don’t have an hour’s worth of time, an hour’s worth of energy, and an hour’s worth of willingness, you will almost certainly have them all in a smaller amount.
On the day that one hour of piano practice works out, it will seem great, but on all the days that it doesn’t work out, you’re missing out on the biggest and greatest opportunity of your life. Sometimes it’s what you don’t see that costs you, and you won’t ever realize the incredible effect of small compounding actions unless you do them and experience this power yourself.
There’s a reason that the first book I wrote is now in 17 languages, and it’s not my writing skills. I read some books and think, “Wow, I wish I could put together a sentence like that…” Or “I wish I had the creativity to use words like that…”
The Mini Habits book has taught people how to use tiny fragments of free time to change their lives. With this strategy, which embodies what I’m saying here, people have written books, learned to play music, kept their homes clean, and even conquered their fear of the dark. But this concept is broader than mini habits. It affects every moment of every day. It’s fine to have one hour meetings, but don’t think for a second that you have to apply that same societal framework to your free time.
Let your free time be free, and divide it into as many pieces as you please. Every piece is valuable, no matter its size, and it’s all malleable.
That night in which I had two hours was tonight, and because I was willing to spend a small amount of time writing, it ballooned into one hour and four minutes writing this. I love this idea because it enables me to do more of these difficult but beneficial activities that I would otherwise skip. I only planned to write for a few minutes, but I had more in me than that. That’s why you can’t rely on your projections!
I have 56 minutes left now, and I’m going to work a bit on my video course before taking a break. I might work on the course for 2 minutes or two hours, but the exact amount of time isn’t important. Time is flexible enough to handle either one.
When you match your flexibility to time’s natural flexibility, you gain infinitely more control over your life. Say no to large, arbitrary chunks of time and you’ll be able to say yes more often to more things. Try it. You won’t look back.