“I never feel like I have enough time. It’s the end of the day and I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything I set out to. I feel like there’s too much to do that I can’t focus on anything!”
If you’ve ever felt something similar to these sentiments, then you’re most likely drowning in what’s called time debt.
Every task on your to-do list, unread email, meeting request, project update, and goal requires time to complete.
But more than just that initial expense, the actions and choices you make today have a compounding impact on how much time you have in the future.
The more time debt you take on from overcommitting yourself, inefficient processes, and wasting time, the less time you’ll have in the future. Eventually, you take on so much time debt that every hour of your day is spoken for before you even start!
But you don’t have to go into debt with your time. With a few tweaks to how you approach your daily work, you can start building “time assets” that free your future up.
So how do you make sure you’re building more time assets than debts?
Before we dive in, did you know that 92% of people regularly work in the evenings and on weekends?
Your bank account has a finite amount of money in it. However, if you have a credit card, you can access more money with the understanding that you’ll have to pay it back (with interest) in the future. In other words: You’re making a choice to get something now knowing you’ll pay more for it in the future.
But debt doesn’t just relate to dollars and cents. In software development, there’s a term called “technical debt.” Technical debt is accrued when you quickly build features to keep up with demand even though you know it will need to be reworked later. Again, you’re making a choice to build something now knowing you’ll pay more (in time and resources) later.
The problem is that debt in any form is easy to take on but hard to pay back.
Continue to rack up credit card expenses and you’ll end up with a bill that would make Warren Buffett blush. Or keep cranking out patchwork feature updates and you’ll end up with a codebase so convoluted that it could bring your entire company crashing down.
The same goes for your time.
We all know that our daily time is finite. Yet few of us treat it that way. When we analyzed 185 million hours of data, we found that workers average just two hours and 48 minutes of productive time a day.
Instead of prioritizing, delegating, saying no, and being smart with our time, we obsessively say yes, overcommit on our daily tasks, and work longer hours to catch up. When we interviewed 800+ knowledge workers, only 5% of people said they complete their tasks every day. Instead, those unfinished tasks get pushed to tomorrow’s list and the next day until suddenly your day is fully booked before you can even take on your most important work.
As freelance writer Sierra Black explains, “Pretty soon, I needed to start repaying some of that borrowed time. . . . I ran into the same problems I’m familiar with from money-based debt: I owed more than I could pay.”
Time debt comes with its own form of interest (and it’s harder to pay back)
Just like you have to repay money you borrow from a bank (with interest), there comes a time when you have to pay back the time debt you’ve accrued. Unfortunately, just like monetary debt, time debt also comes with interest that makes it harder to pay back.
Time debt takes its interest in focus and attention. The more time you’ve loaned out to other tasks, the more those tasks weigh on your mind and steal your attention. For example, it’s much harder to focus on an upcoming deadline when you have tons of overdue tasks hanging over you.
One study found that people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing.
Not only does this splitting of your attention make you unhappy, but trying to multitask or context-switch like this eats at your productivity. In fact, every additional task you try to take on or even think about takes away 20% of your productive time.
On the other hand, time assets are tools, choices, and workflows that give you time in the future.
Balance your time budget with this 7-step process
Here’s the good news: Getting out of time debt isn’t difficult, but it does (ironically) take time. You get out of time debt by spending wisely and building better habits.
1. Start tracking where your time is going
If you want to save money, you track what you buy. If you want to get out of time debt, you need to track where your time currently goes.
Time debt accrues when you’re unaware that you’re committing more time than you have or you’re not using the time you have wisely. So it only makes sense that to turn that trend around you need a deep understanding of where your time is actually going.
RescueTime’s free time-tracking tool automatically observes how you spend your time on your devices so you can get a clear picture of where your days go.
If you want a more basic pen-and-paper approach, you can also track your day in 10- or 15-minute chunks on a spreadsheet. However, this requires constant attention and will bring in some level of observation bias.
This might seem like a lot of work, but the goal here is to dig yourself out of debt and start building assets that give you more time in the future. Once you build the habits that will get you out of time debt, you’ll most likely stay that way.
2. Declare time bankruptcy on your daily schedule
Coming back from time debt requires more than just building better habits. You need to be drastic and rebuild from the ground up.
Now that you have a system in place for tracking your time it’s time to declare time bankruptcy. In other words, audit your calendar and to-do list and clear out everything except for mission-critical tasks.
Now, see what happens. Are all those “priorities” really that important? Is anything broken?
If you need a precedent for making such a huge change, just look to Dropbox. Back in 2013, the company deleted all recurring meetings from their calendars and didn’t allow new ones to be booked for a two-week period. Two years later and with triple the team size, they still had fewer meetings on the books.
3. Create a time-blocked template for your days
If you have bad spending habits, the last thing you need is unlimited credit. Instead, you need to create guidelines that keep you on track.
For time management, the most powerful tool here is time blocking.
Time blocking is when you break up your entire day into a set of scheduled work “blocks.” These blocks aren’t for specific tasks but rather types of work:
- Deep work such as coding, designing, writing, or whatever your “core” work task is
- Shallow work such as daily tasks, maintenance, updates, etc.
- Meetings and emails
- Breaks throughout the day to keep your energy levels high
- Buffers in between blocks to give you time to decompress and avoid attention residue
Thanks to something called The Planning Fallacy we’re overly optimistic about what we can get done in a day. This causes us to overschedule and take on more time debt.
When you block your day, every task has to fit into a specific time, and you become much more aware of what can and can’t be done.
4. Prioritize what tasks, meetings, and to-dos you let back in
Now it’s time to slowly start filling in your schedule. This is where most people mess up, by opening the floodgate and letting all of those time-debt activities back in.
Instead, you need to be hyperaware of your priorities. Only you know what work is most important to you and should be included here. In our Guide on How to Prioritize Work, we highlight seven practical ways you can figure out what work should be included here.
The most time-tested method is still the Eisenhower Matrix—a simple box that asks you to score your work as urgent and important. While it isn’t a foolproof system, it will keep you thinking about what deserves your time. Score your tasks and obligations and then delegate or drop anything that’s in the bottom two squares.
5. Pay yourself first
Recovering from time debt isn’t just about tracking time and scheduling your day.
As we wrote in our Guide to the Fundamentals of Productivity, your ability to properly use your time depends on being healthy and happy. In other words, you need to pay yourself first. This means setting aside time to rest and recharge, disconnect from work, and pursue hobbies and work-life balance.
6. Remove energy drains and incomplete items
One of the big issues with time debt is that many of the things that contribute to it are productive.
Creative coach Tina Essmaker calls these Drains and Incompletions. Drains are things we have to do and can’t necessarily remove from our day. For example, long commute times, unnecessary meetings, phone calls, emails, putting out fires, etc. Incompletions are to-dos that take up space in your mind. For example, conversations to be had, deferred dreams, projects to wrap up, etc. Both drains and incompletions sap your energy, focus, and attention and make it harder to properly use your time. To remove them from your day, Tina suggests a 3-step plan:
- Set aside five minutes to write down every single drain and incompletion you can think of
- Cross off anything on your list that you can’t control
- Create an action plan for the rest of your list
For incompletions, this might mean delegating tasks, not procrastinating, and just doing it, finding the resources you need. For drains, you might want to limit your time spent on them, set clear boundaries on your availability, or shift the way you use your time.
7. Practice saying no and turning down requests
Finally, you’ll need to put some work into keeping your system in place. Practice saying no to your boss and coworkers when tasks and requests go beyond the time you have. Be open and transparent about your priorities and where your time is being spent.
For future meetings or obligations, use this simple trick: Ask if you would take it on if it was happening today. When a meeting, deadline, or call is way off in the future, it’s easy to say yes. Instead, ask if it deserves to be on your calendar at all. Would you say yes if it was for next week? What about tomorrow? Or this afternoon? Use this mental strategy to discover the true urgency of a request.
5 tools and strategies for building more time assets into your life
Getting out of debt is one thing. But if you fill your day with time assets, you’ll actually be steadily giving yourself more time in the future. A time asset is some tool, behavior, or strategy that gives you more time in the future.
Here are a few examples you can start using:
- Use time multipliers. These are simple tools or workflows that give you a compound return on your time invested. Some examples include properly prioritizing your to-do list, getting rapid feedback on habits and routines, and optimizing your work environment for focus.
- Single-task. Focused hours can be 500% more productive than ones when your attention is split. Learning how to focus intensely on a single task at a time is a time-asset superpower.
- Use the 30x rule for delegating tasks. Studies show that most knowledge workers spend 41% of their time on tasks they could easily pass off to others. The 30X rule explains that even if you budget 30X how long a task takes to train someone else, you’ll get a 733% return of free time.
- Reduce communication debt with a “communication runbook.” Email, calls, and chat feel productive but can be huge sources of time debt. Instead, set boundaries and guidelines about when you’re available and what you respond to.
- Block distractions when you need to focus. RescueTime’s FocusTime lets you set limits on apps and websites throughout the workday or manually block distractions for a set amount of time when you need to focus.
Don’t write checks your focus, attention, and energy can’t cash. We have such a limited amount of productive time each day that you can’t afford not to pay attention to how you’re spending it. Take the time to set up a time-tracking tool such as RescueTime and then follow the rest of these steps to remove time debts and build up assets. Your future self will thank you.