This post is a slight departure from the core business of software development but is valuable for anyone in the industry, indeed anyone in any industry. I recently gave a presentation to colleagues covering this content and hope you find it of value.
Time is perceived in your head and is a unique and personal experience. What is not so obvious is that it follows that a key way to control time, or more specifically ‘your’ time, is to manage your mind. This post describes a few ways that understanding aspects of the mind can point to novel approaches to managing your precious time more effectively. OK so if you are still reading, I have your attention and your time and so in the interests of the latter, I will cut to the chase. Each of us has certain tendencies and limitations that stem from the way our brains are wired. I propose a three-step approach to turning these to your advantage.
Step 1 – Acknowledge
The first step is to understand and acknowledge that a given tendency or limitation applies to you. This is critical and may be as simple as becoming aware of it.
Step 2 – Notice
Acknowledgement then leads to the next step which is to notice how and when this affects your behaviour, especially as it’s happening.
Step 3 – Manage
The third step is to take action to manage your behaviour, and hence your time, based on noticing how your behaviour was influenced by this aspect of mind. OK let’s apply this approach to some examples.
1) The Butterfly Mind
The butterfly mind explained
The butterfly mind is a concept from Buddhist meditation. It is a metaphor for the fleeting nature of the mind. Like a butterfly flitting from one flower to the next, the mind doesn’t settle for very long and is in search of the next fresh experience. To become fully aware of this, try this simple meditation exercise. Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Breathe naturally through your nose. Close your eyes and focus on the sensations of your breathing. What you will notice is that your mind will wander away from this intended behaviour. In meditation, this is not considered a problem and the idea is to notice when it happens and bring your mind back to focusing on the breath. Another analogy I like to use is that the mind is like a kitten you place in the middle of a rug. The kitten will tend to wander off in a random direction and you then gently pick up the kitten and place in the centre of the rug again. This is your mind. It’s no wonder it can be challenging to stay focused on one thing or to focus on one thing until it is done. In fact, I would argue that other aspects of our personas can magnify the problem when it comes to time management. The above experience of meditation shows that internal distractions arise, but in daily experience we are also bombarded with external distractions. Furthermore:
- We allow distractions – we let them happen and seldom take steps to minimise external distractions, especially in an open-plan office space.
- We welcome distractions – often we welcome distractions and take pride in our ability to swiftly turn our attention to the ‘butterfly mind’ of a co-worker and then snap back into our own focus.
Taming the butterfly mind
Let’s consider some tactics for noticing the effects of the butterfly mind and managing our behaviour and hence our time more effectively:
- Be aware of your thoughts and thought processes; “watch the thinker”. This is not as easy as it sounds but is a great way of enhancing your self-awareness and taking control of the moment. Time after all is composed of a single continuous ‘moment’.
- Practice meditation – it’s a great way to practice the art of “watching the thinker” as well as improving your powers of concentration. Just 5 minutes a day of breathing meditation can improve your concentration within 2 weeks.
- Notice when the butterfly mind wanders from an intended focus and bring your mind back to the task in hand. Place the kitten gently back in the centre of the rug.
- Say no to others, politely but assertively. Help your mind focus and ask people if you can get back to them later or speak to someone else; in the nicest possible way of course.
- Get in the ‘zone’ – use music on headphones; find a quiet space; book a meeting room for a meeting with yourself, i.e. with your own mind!
The concept of procrastination comes from psychology and most notably The Pleasure Principle by Freud. It is the tendency to avoid discomfort and prefer pleasure. Who doesn’t, right? Therefore, any activity that is perceived as involving discomfort will tend to be deferred in favour of an activity (or non-activity!) that brings pleasure. You may not need much convincing of this and may already have acknowledged this fact and how it affects your behaviour. The next time you notice yourself procrastinating, try one of the following:
Procrastination and The 5 Minute Rule
When faced with the choice between a pleasurable activity and a less pleasant activity, tell yourself that you will spend just 5 minutes on the unpleasant activity. That doesn’t seem so bad. For example, it might be tidying up a room, starting to write that proposal or writing that letter to the council. The idea is that after 5 minutes, you are more than likely to continue for as long as it takes to complete the job. The thought of the job, especially when faced with more pleasurable options, is often worse than the reality. Also, once you have started you become absorbed in the activity and those more pleasurable options are simply out of mind.
Procrastination and Kissing the Frogs First
The idea here is that when you notice yourself putting off those unpleasant tasks in favour of more pleasant ones, consider how those deferred tasks will hang over you until they are done, thus adding even more unpleasant sensations. Therefore, do those unpleasant actions first. Get them out of the way now and then you can take full satisfaction from the pleasurable tasks. In fact, you can mentally frame the nice tasks as a reward for tackling the unpleasant ones first. In other words, Kiss the Frogs First. Try this next time you are looking at your tasks for the day ahead.
3) Working Memory
The memory that barely works
The idea of working memory comes from cognitive psychology and neuroscience. The idea is that cognitive processes, i.e. your thoughts, use short-term memory. Unlike your long-term memory, this is very limited and can hold around 7 ‘chunks’ of information (+/- 2) at any point in time. After this it overflows thus losing information, possibly forever, if that information was not committed to long-term memory. You may have been acutely aware of this limitation many times. Consider memorising an 11 digit phone number. You need to break this down into say 3 chunks in order to help remember it. Acknowledging this fact naturally leads to awareness of how this impacts your behaviour. For example, is it realistic to get through even a short meeting involving conversations and interruptions and expect yourself to remember all of the points and actions that arise? That’s arguably just wishful thinking. So clearly it’s helpful to record points and actions as they arise, before your 7 chunks of memory space overflows. What’s more, will you remember where you recorded an action and will you remember to look at it? Working memory needs an upgradeWith this is mind (pun intended) here are some tactics that can be used to overcome this limitation:
- Extend your memory using some external storage, either paper-based or digital.
- Capture a key point or action immediately before it falls from your ‘internal memory’.
- Make sure this extended memory is a reliable source.
- Make sure this extended memory is somewhere where it cannot be overlooked; make this source an integrated part of your daily activity; make it as close to being an extension of your internal memory as possible.
By acknowledging aspects of mind, you become aware of how tendencies and limitations impact your behaviour. Such awareness helps you to take more effective control of your behaviour and therefore your time. It can also lead you to formulate techniques that work for you, rather than simply applying off-the-shelf time management techniques which may not actually work for you. Lastly, I hope these examples resonate with you and fuel your curiosity about the workings of your mind. Mind how you go now.