Making Space

Most people who come to me for advice are either working too hard or not hard enough. The latter group knows that there’s a problem and want to fix it, but the former group always come under the guise of wanting to work on something else. No one, except maybe your family, will criticize you for working too hard, so it’s not obvious that it’s a problem.

I’ve gone through both phases in my life. Most of my twenties was spent working not nearly hard enough, and about half of my thirties was spent working too hard, so I’ve seen the pros and cons of each. Those pros and cons interact with different times in our lives in different ways, so there are times when it’s appropriate to work “too hard”, and other times when it’s appropriate to barely work at all.

Hard workers are often driven by the metric of “what percentage of my time is being spent working?” and strive for 100%. This often leads to burnout, a very narrow area of expertise and experience, and poor results relative to time invested. I noticed some of this when I was working on Sett. I eventually got burnt out, but the biggest thing I noticed was that my prodigious output of work didn’t always result in better results. Sometimes I spent a month or two working feverishly on a feature that ended up being useless.

If I had really stopped to think about what I was doing and why I was doing it, I may have realized that what I was working on didn’t matter and could have saved weeks of time. I had no time to stop and think, though, as all I thought about were my tasks. Once I finished a task my goal was to start another one as soon as possible.

My biggest sources of inspiration come from three places. The first is my friends. Often a conversation with a friend will spark some idea that I could not have thought of by myself. The second is through random research. Random research is a very high variance activity, because you never know what will be useful and what won’t be. I spent an hour or two researching how heat pumps work because I only recently understood what they were. Will that ever translate into a big gain in my life? Probably not, but I would have also said that when I first started researching cruises, which eventually led to starting a cruise agency. The last source is just idle time when I begin to feel the first inklings of boredom and begin to let my mind wander.

Some people have too much of this sort of time, of course, which is why one must also have a honed work ethic and time to turn ideas into reality. Others have none of this sort of time and they miss out.

As a general rule, if you’re the sort of person who maps out a routine for your life, I think it’s good to have about an hour of space in the day where you have nothing planned. Sometimes you’ll have important tasks that spill over into this space, and that’s ok — a buffer is a good thing. If that happens every day, though, you probably don’t really have space.

During that time you shouldn’t watch TV or play video games, but you shouldn’t otherwise have a very high bar for how to use the time. You can sit around and let your mind wander, take a walk, tinker with something that doesn’t seem very important, or go down wikipedia rabbit-holes to learn about new things. Think about things that mystify you or things that you wish were another way.

Most of the time you’ll think through and idea and realize it’s not worth pursuing, or you’ll learn some trivial amount about something useless and never learn any more about it. These results are valuable by themselves because they let you close that door and not think about it anymore. One rare occasions, though, you’ll find something meaningful that will have a huge impact and justify all of the other time spent.

Make sure that you have some space in your life for exploration and curiosity. It will help you understand life better, get more out of it, and focus your productive efforts on things that matter.

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Photo is a mob of ducks on Lake Mead. The weather is finally good for boating again (I would have never bought a boat if I didn’t have idle time to learn about boats and the lake)

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