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Time as Material

The following speech was delivered at Fluxible 2015

I have spent most of my career talking to people about the importance of practicing information architecture. Surprisingly, I have yet to meet a single person who truly feels like this practice is unneeded.

Sure I have had arguments about who should do this work, when IA should be done, what it should be called and how it is best practiced. But when it comes down to the value of IA, people I meet by and large tell me how messed up things like language and structure are in their organizations and on their projects.

They are also fairly quick to understand how a lack of clarity around language and structure can get in the way of progress and quality.

Instead of objecting to information architecture itself, the number one objection that I face in talking to people about considering language and structure is this: “Yeah, IA sounds like something we should do. But we don’t have time for that.” After years of hearing this from more people than I care to even admit, I decided to do some thinking about time. Because if we don’t have time for critical thinking about important things like clarity, then what the heck do we have time for?

William Penn once wrote: 

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”

We all have hopes, we all have dreams, but with those hopes and dreams we also carry with us the reality that without time, none of our hopes and dreams are possible. It may seem trite to say but: absolutely nothing can be accomplished without time. Whether it takes seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years to accomplish something, time is the one thing we always need to get anything done.

Admittedly, the trickiest part is that we don’t know how much time we have. And it occurs to me that this uncertainty about the timing for our eventual demise can leak all over our present. We all deal with this as part of our daily reality, even if it is sad or disheartening to dwell on.

The tasks that add up to you reaching your dreams might feel overwhelming to look at in the present moment. The hurdles you need to jump over to get closer to your hopes might not feel worth it when compared to the nap you could take instead.

Yet, these decisions, of how we use our time, are all that stand between who we are today and who we wish to be tomorrow.

Time is a material we can use to build the life we want. It can also be the material that stands in the way of that life. We are individually in control of how we wield this material and we make determinations about time every moment that we are alive.

Today I want to talk to you about time. I want to take you on a journey of personal exploration into how we use our time, and how looking at time as a material can change our ability to live the life we wish for.

Simply put, we are the result of how we spend our time. And the only person who knows how you use every ounce of time available to you, is you. Many of us hide behind the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, rather than dealing with the realities that reside in how we actually use our time.

I recently did a survey of 100 people about how they use and lose time. In the survey I asked people to tell me how they spend their time, and what they wish they could spend more and less time on. I was not at all surprised to learn that most people wished to spend less time doing the same things that they also rated as being the things that they spent the most time on.

The top contenders for time sucks were:

  • Social Media
  • TV or Netflix
  • Email
  • Idle time, Busy Work, Zoning Out
  • Switching contexts between tasks

While none of these responses shocked me, some of the responses to another question I asked did. I asked how they would spend their time if they suddenly had more. Many people aspiration-ally named hobbies, projects or time with friends and family.

A black and white word cloud in the shape of a circle. Some of the larger words: Traveling, Writing, Reading, Cooking, and Friends.

Those weren’t shocking. What was shocking was the many responses that also said things like:

  • “I’d probably fritter it away”
  • “More anxiety avoidance”
  • “Realistically, I would spend more time on the computer. Ideally, I would go outside and be athletic”
  • “Oscillating with option paralysis and ultimately doing nothing productive”

These responses probably sound familiar to many of you. I know they sound familiar to me. Sometimes it feels like time *is* after us, like some monster breathing down our neck reminding us that we aren’t doing what we should be doing.

There are two words I wish I could ban from discussions about time and intention: should and but. Most of us spend far too much time and energy shoulding all over ourselves and seem to have a “but” ready at hand for every “should” we utter.

We end up filling in the same sick mad-lib over and over instead of doing the things that will get us where we want to go.

I should _______________ but _________________.

These blanks are filled with our hopes, fears, obligations, excuses and obstacles. These blanks are what hold us back from wielding the time we have available to get us to our intention. This got me thinking a lot about judgment. Specifically, the judgment inherent in talking about time as productivity or efficiency. It seems as if we have societally set up an unsustainable equation for ourselves when it comes to our use of time. In this equation, idle time is bad, and productive time is good. Using time wisely is universally recognized as using time to be productive.

But what if this isn’t actually in line with who we each want to be, or the life that we want to live. Sure there are many of us for which procrastination and distraction keeps us from accomplishing important things or getting where we want to go. But there are perhaps many more of us who need to spend less time being productive, and more time staring into space or not being so efficient in order to be happy.

If you do enough research into time, you will see that productivity and efficiency are the focus of most of the advice available. From Getting Things Done to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the last few generations of those of us living in the western world have been brought up to believe that time is made for tasks, and being idle is a waste of time.

What if instead we looked at the idle time as just as powerful a tool as a productive time? What if we looked at the choice of what do to with our time as the ultimate tool for getting what we want out of our life?

This is my truth.

For my entire adult life, I have been described by those that love me as “a workaholic” — for many years when I thought about my life and my use of time it was all work, no play. I was “successful” …sure, I always looked really good on paper. But I didn’t have hobbies, I never relaxed, I didn’t take care of myself, and ultimately I wasn’t happy with who I was. I spent the first ten years of my career dreaming about this woman that I could be, if only I had the time.

I would have a loving partner, a happy home life, a healthy routine of self-care, and time for hobbies and friends.

I didn’t want to give up on my career; I didn’t want to be unsuccessful. I just wanted to have a life. Was this even possible? For many years I decided that it wasn’t. And that was my truth. That was the monster I woke up to each morning and said goodnight to each night.

Four years ago, on the eve of World IA Day, I was hospitalized for exhaustion. As my best friend, Dan, sat with me in a hospital room fearing that he might lose me, to me. I was left with a choice. This was a turning point in my life, one of the biggest I have ever faced. I hadn’t even reached my thirties yet, and already my life was falling apart in front of me. I was killing myself being efficient and productive. When I looked at the materials at my disposal to make the changes I knew I needed to make, time stood out as the single material that could save my life.

It was at this moment when I started to realize that I could use my time to progress the current story line of myself as a workaholic, or I could use my time to progress another story. A story I had not yet written. A story about that woman I dreamed of one day becoming.

For the first time, I could see clearly that my use of time was a decision that I got to make, that no one could make for me. Each moment, each hour, each day, each week and year was a material I could put towards my future self, or use to kill my dreams.

This was a scary place to be, in front of a mountain I was unsure I would ever have the ability to climb. But climb I started. And today I am 1400+ days closer to the person I want to be.

I finally learned that time is truth. That there aren’t any do overs. That once you choose to use your twenties for workaholism, you have walked away from the opportunity to do anything else with that time ever. I learned that while today can feel like a dress rehearsal, in truth it is the performance of a lifetime.

This is about the time that I expect you to feel a bit uncomfortable with the ideas I am spewing. Because questions of how we use our time and whether they add up to the person we wish to become are hard questions to ask, sure. But they are even harder to answer. You might not like who you have to admit you are to become the person you want to eventually be.

Abstract image of blocks of color depicting a calendar year.

In the last year, I have researched my own use of time intently. In looking at the details, I realize that as far as I have come in the last 1400 days, there are still things I need to work on to climb the rest of this mountain.

Also through this process I have been reminded time and again that perfection is not possible. But also that progress is possible.

I have learned about my erratic habits when it comes to eating and sleeping.

Abstract image of blocks of color in blue, gray, and white. Depicting time spent eating and drinking in a calendar year.

I have learned that I watch a ton of Netflix.

Abstract image of blocks of in orange, white, and yellow. Depicting the time spent watching netflix in a calendar year.

I have been reminded that I am still a workaholic, even though I have improved.

Abstract image of blocks of color in green, white, and yellow. Depicting time spent working in a calendar year.

I have learned that I spend a lot of time on planes and trains and in order to reach the goals and that this amount is likely to increase in the coming years.

Abstract image of blocks of color in red and white. Depicting the time spent traveling in a calendar year.

I have learned that while I often make time to socialize, it is very rare that I take a whole day off.

Abstract image of blocks of color in white, maroon, and pink. Depicting social and vacation time in a calendar year.

But more importantly, I have learned that shit happens. Moods happens. Life happens. Some days I wake up ready to take on this mountain, other days I would rather not even try. Some weeks I look in the mirror and see a girl that looks much like the girl I was in that hospital bed. The real change over the last 1400 days is not that I have completely eliminated workaholic me. It is instead that I can see the choices I am making in a way I could not back then.

I used to feel like the choices were made for me. By society, by circumstance, by bosses, by partners, by family and even by friends. But I realize now that what I actually do with my time is my choice. I also know now that those choices add up to the person I am today, standing on this stage. I can’t hide from her the way I used to.

The time has come for me to turn the tables on you as the subject. I have exposed my underbelly with hopes you will each have the courage to start to do the same.

So…the hard questions:

How are you using your time? Are you treating it like a precious resource, like a material to get you to your goals? Or are you, like many people, frittering it away hoping the end result will still be one you can live with and be proud of?

Time may be a sketchy material that is hard to pin down, but it is a material none the less. This material can be individually used for our personal goals or pooled together to reach goals we have as a group. When we make products and services for other people to use, we are asking them to use their precious time on things we have made for their use. We know they are taking that time from a bucket that is forever dwindling, never refreshing.

This is a responsibility we need to take seriously. We need to be asking questions like: Are we saving our users’ time or taking more of their time than we need?

We are creating a world that is increasingly about promoting constant partial attention, it seems as if we are constantly fighting over each other’s eyeballs. Many business models are based on taking away other people’s time while few are focused on saving people time. Think about engagement metrics like time on site and click through rates. When a company asks us to make these numbers go up, what are they really asking us to do? They are asking that we convince a bunch of people to reallocate time, potential away from their hopes. We know this is time they will never get back.

“But what about personal choice!?” might be a fast retort as you start to explore these questions.

And sure, these people are choosing to spend their time using the things that we design. To this retort I bring the hard comparisons of the fast food and tobacco industries. Smoking and eating processed foods are “choices” too — and they are choices that at first seemed harmless even trendy, until we realized the gravity of their impact on society and on our individual health and happiness.

My question to this world and to this room is this: How long will it be before we realize that products and services designed to take needless time from people might be just as harmful? I think the only way for us to deal with this reality is to think long and hard about the time we are asking for from other people, and what they will get from having given that time. Whether that keeps you from designing that form to be one field longer, writing one more clickbait headline or scheduling an hour meeting when a half hour or an email would suffice, we should be looking for ways to save other people’s time with hope that they will help us save our own.

The truth is this: the only person’s time you can truly control is your own, so we must start there. So I want to invite you to start to explore how you use your time.

To get you started, I want to share some actionable advice and exercises with you today that I hope will get you on your way to using your time to become the person you want to be.

Like money, the less time you have the more you need to budget.

Do you know how you use your time? Most people think that they do. And yet, our minds tend to tell us stories about how we use time more than reveal the realities of how we actually spend it. If you think about the average person who holds a job working 40 hours a week, and does all the normal things like eating and sleeping, there are still around 44 hours left on the table each week. That’s 2288 hours each year that are set aside for whatever life you are looking to lead.

That’s more than an entire other full time job worth of time. Yet, most of us if asked to allocate those hours to actual uses of that time would struggle to do so concretely. And if we started to count, we might be surprised or even embarrassed to admit the numbers we find. If you find yourself to be one of these people unable to put their finger on how they are using their time, try this experiment.

Take this hour by hour worksheet of a week and start by blocking out how much of your time is already allocated. What do you spend at work, doing house work, commuting, taking care of other people, taking classes or working on personal projects.

Count up those buckets and see how you feel about those numbers. These are the person you are today. The question is do these percentages make sense for the person you want to be?

Now count how many hours are left on the table. Is this number higher than you expect or perhaps it is lower? Either way, you have some more concrete data to think on. You now have the ability to make important decisions about how you are using your time. Maybe you decide that you can’t live with the amount of hours you are spending driving to work, or maybe like me you are floored by the number of hours you are spending watching Netflix when you thought you were reading.

Next set some quotas for yourself. Decide how much time you think is appropriate for a certain thing in your life and then think about the changes you would need to make in order to hit those quotas. These quotas might be limits like “I will spend no more than 10 hours per week watching Netflix” but they may also be goals like “I will spend at least 5 hours writing each week.”

Next experiment with routine. Once you have your quotas, make sure you can fit them into your weekly calendar. You might set a goal for yourself to spend 5 hours writing only to find out in looking at your calendar that that isn’t possible except at night when you are too exhausted to write. Or you might try to do 30 minutes a day only to find out that you need longer blocks of time to get into flow.

Experimentation is important.

These considerations might lead you to change your schedule. A quick note on perfection, again. Setting yourself a schedule that is jam packed with activities for every minute of every day may seem good on paper, but try to remember that change is hard. Take it slow. Implement one thing at a time, and always remember: Shit happens. So don’t get down on yourself if a day doesn’t go the way you had planned. Instead, resolve yourself to try again tomorrow.

In my research, I have started to look for patterns in the advice people have for the way we use our time. I have found three prevailing buckets in which to sort time based tactical advice.

As you are architecting your own use of time, here are some patterns and ideas for you to consider. I have tried all of these myself, and have found that each has its own super power.

Illustration of the word sequence broken up over three steps descending left to right.

The first set is about the sequencings of tasks and events. Many pieces of time related advice are about how to sequence the way you use your time to find flow and eliminate the time it takes to switch context. Stitching habits together into routines has been truly life changing for me, so if you don’t already have some of your life architected as a routine, it is the single best piece of advice I can give you to start wrangling your time.

Routines can be set daily, weekly, monthly, even annually. While I spent a lot of my life believing that routine was synonymous with boring, I have found in practice that the opposite is actually true. Routine leaves room for spontaneity and leaves space for free time. When we lack routine, our to-do list can seem endless and all mixed up with our should-do list, but when those tasks have a place on our calendar, and in our minds, we are free to use our free time for things we wish to do, not just on fretting about how we will get done all the things we have to or should do.

Some other ideas around sequencing I have found helpful are:

  • Check social media and email on a schedule
  • Group similar tasks together.
  • Institute themes for certain days of the week
  • Take care of the least desirable task first
Illustration of the top portion of a target. The word Focus above it.

The next set of tactics is all about focus. One of the hardest things to tackle in your observation of how you use your time might be admitting to how much time falls through the cracks of focus. Whether it is staring into middle distance, getting distracted by social media and email or people stopping by your desk just when you hit peak flow, distraction is one of those enemies of time that need to be dealt with in many people’s life.

The most important things I have implemented in my life around focus is the use of estimation and timers for tasks I don’t want to do. Because, it is far too easy to make mountains out of mole hills before time is applied. But once you know how long something will actually take you, and you set a timer, it becomes more like a game, that you can see the light at the end of the tunnel of.

Some other ideas around focus are:

  • Create internet on/off hours
  • Don’t Multi-task
  • Break larger tasks in smaller ones
  • Observe your patterns
Illustration of a circle with a slash through it. The slash is labeled Elimination.

This last set of advice is the hardest to take for most people. The dread of saying no, the fear of missing out, the elimination of people and things that may be bad for us, even if they are also fun right now. These are the major renovations in many people’s use of time that are needed to make the most lasting effect.

Some of the most important advice in this set is learning to say no and eliminating people who don’t respect your time from your life.

These changes can break hearts and wreck homes, but without these changes you might be left still feeling like all your time is sold out before you even get up in the morning.

Here is just a short life of elimination tasks that might come up:

  • Changing careers and having to start all over again
  • Leaving a partner or job
  • Moving to a place where perhaps you know no one
  • Downsizing of possessions and basic needs

I have experienced each of these changes personally, and while hard at the time, each was also needed for what I wanted to accomplish. None of these changes have turned into regrets, whereas all of them have turned into opportunities.

Some other ideas around elimination are:

  • Unsubscribe from emails and notices
  • Turn off device notifications
  • Hit Inbox Zero on a regular basis
  • Don’t take devices to bed
  • Declutter personal space/belongings

I’m not going to stand up here and make it seem like this is all as simple as a snap of the finger. Instead I will warn you that this is hard. I will also warn that the leap towards change is the hardest part. What makes the leap hard is that these kinds of decisions are wrapped up in some of the least comfortable sensations and emotions we are able to feel: Anxiety, Confrontation, Uncertainty, Disappointment, Sadness and Fear. Anticipation of these emotions can keep us from making changes at all.

Without making the changes that are holding you back, you will likely feel something much more toxic and much less fleeting: resentment. Resentment is like cancer, if untreated it will grow and eventually takes over everything it touches. You might end up resenting your partner, your boss, your kids, your best friend, or even worse yourself.

With resentment comes another ugly sensation: envy. You may start to turn green in front of those people in your life who are taking their own lives in the direction you wish yours was going.

Living with envy will make it hard to look at yourself in the mirror, get up in the morning, and fall asleep at night. The more envy and resentment in your life, the more likely it is that you will forget who is in charge of your life, you.

When that resentment and envy fester long enough as time passes, we experience regret. More than any other sensation or emotion, regret takes the cake for being the toughest to deal with. Because once today passes, it is gone forever. With each day, your life is shorter.

That may seem dramatic, but it is the only truth we can rely on. Tomorrow you will have less time left to do the things you want to do. There are only two things to do in the face of this scary reality: ignore it or embrace it.

Asking questions about how you use your time is not easy. In fact, if you are like me, this journey may be the hardest one you have travelled yet.

It will take time to realize something is out of line with your intention. It will take time to identify what is causing the misalignment. It will take time to decide how to enact change. It will take time to get over the anxiety and fear of moving from decision to action. And it will take time to get over the emotions that the leaps you need to make are sure to stir up.

Changing might be hard, but there is one tool that helps to accomplish hard things, and that is time.

It is at this point in the journey that I leave you to do what you will with the rest of your life. As we part I want to remind you about the importance of the balance of time that remains.

Your use of time is what defines who you are. Your parents gave you one gift greater than any other, the chance to live a life. Everything past that point is yours to spend as you see fit. Time is the only thing you can use to buy the life you want to live and the stories you want to tell.

Use it wisely my friends.

Note: I am writing a book about time. If you are interested in getting updates, sign up for the mailing list