How to stop people stealing your time

It’s not just at work that you find yourself led astray. You sort of expect it there. You watch out for it.

Maybe your boss asks you to stay in late to finish that project. Maybe a colleague asks you to help out with some seemingly important task that throws your to-do list off for the day.

But maybe it’s also your friends, your family. The people you love to spend time with, but maybe you spend up spending too much time with.

Whether it’s a holiday or long weekend away, there’s always the risk of other people throwing you off course for a few days. And it takes a few days to get back on it.

They want to do everything together, as you do too. But you’ve got to meditate, to journal, to write that article or record that podcast. They are just in full-on escape-from-work mode. They want to disconnect. Not hear the words ‘productivity’ or ‘creative’. They just aren’t interested.

Which is fine, but you’ve got keep those habits up.

So find yourself a few hours, maybe before everyone is up. Go to a café, do some writing, carve out those 1-2 hours you need to create something. Be focused. Leave it at 1-2 hours. Then go & enjoy your day.

Because, at the end of the day, you’re going to remember the experiences enjoyed with them in 20 years, as opposed to the writing or the meditating or the podcast.

But you can still do both.

Mornings Can Make Or Break Your Day

Mornings determine how you spend your day. How you spend your day determines how you spend your life. So mornings are important.

In Tools of Titans, author Tim Ferriss interviews some of the world’s best, across a diverse range of fields. One commonality? Almost all of them follow a very strict daily routine, mostly applied to their mornings.

I won’t delve into what those habits are & how to incorporate them into your own lives. Other authors have already done a much better job than I could ever do.

Rather, I want to highlight how following – or not following – a morning routine can create a string of successful, or unsuccessful, days that can compound to lead your life in two very different directions.

One, the path of success & constant improvement. The other, a state of reactive survival mode, characterised by frustration & a lack of progress.

Follow a strict morning routine & you set yourself up for inevitable success in life.


“But I’m not a morning person”

What does this even mean?

We say it in such a matter-of-fact way that we rarely even stop to question it.

Does it mean you’ve had a bad morning? That you are in some way “bad” at mornings? That you tend to get up late? That you’re unproductive in the mornings?

There is some evidence to suggest genetics may play a role, affecting determining our natural circadian rhythm. However, for the vast majority, not being a “morning person” stems from bad habits.

The usual suspects:

1. Not sleeping enough: drinking a lot of alcohol before bed, staring at bright screens before bed, having your phone on loud by your bed, going to bed too late, worrying about your schedule the following day, etc.

2. Waking up late: Lack of sleep tends to mean you wake up later & you wake up tired

3. Rushing: You rush around, because you got up late, forgetting your keys, wolfing breakfast down & forgetting that report you need for work on the way out the door

4. Failure to plan & prioritise: You start work or whatever you’re meant to be doing that morning with no planning, no thought into it & a slightly muddled, bumbling approach to execution

5. Being reactive: You don’t look for tasks to do, but rather wait for tasks to be sent your way or for (apparent) crises to pop-up to immediately deal with. You put out fires rather than pro-actively building something yourself

To put this in perspective: Do you think somebody that has slept 5 hours, wakes up 10 minutes before they need to leave, rushes out the door to the metro, runs to work & arrives flustered & exhausted is going to be able to execute & prioritise effectively in the first hour or two of their morning? Are they going to describe themselves as a “morning person”?


Mornings are habits

A successful morning is one formed of a collection of habits. Our cognitive abilities wear out throughout the day, so many highly successful people try to put as much as possible on auto-pilot (I.E. convert an action into a habit).

By doing so, they are then able to spend their finite cognitive abilities on whatever is most important to them, whether that be prioritising for the day or creating unique content.

Rather than worrying about what they are going to have for breakfast today, for example, they just always eat the same thing. It’s just a decision they don’t need to – or want to – be making.

I’ve experimented with morning routines for a few years now. It tends to change a little every few months, but generally I try to stick to the following when in a full-time job:

  •  6am wake-up
  • Cold shower to really wake yourself up & get an endorphin hit
  • Meditation for 10 minutes using Headspace
  • No breakfast (I follow intermittent fasting), but always a coffee
  • Quick 5-10 minute journal (free-flow writing & priorities for the day)
  • Write one article to publish on Medium
  • Short break (maybe read an article or go for a quick walk)
  • 90-minute immersive block focused on my main priority for the day

Now that I’m self-employed, I tend to get up a little later & I will add another 90-minute block in the late morning on my priority tasks.

Routines like this may seem intimidating if you’re mornings are currently a mess. But it shouldn’t be. These are habits I’ve integrated over a few years. They are now automatic. I don’t even need to think about them. The only thing I need to think about is what I’m creating for my article & what my priorities for the day are. All the trivialities of my day are taken care of.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t hit your exact routine every day. Just aim for every day. I tend to hit mine 70% of the time.


Mornings are the Cornerstone to Success

I cannot stress this point enough: Follow a strict morning routine & you set yourself up

for inevitable success in life.

Society tends to promulgate the belief that success can be achieved overnight. People that are successful seem to get lucky, or suddenly just discover all of the skills & talents to make them successful. There’s no hard work involved.

This is a myth. There is always hard work involved. It just doesn’t make for exciting reading to talk about the thousands of hours put in, getting up early & sacrificing your social life to pursue your ambitions.

When, therefore, you have a goal for yourself, such as starting a business or changing career, it’s not just going to happen overnight. It’s not just suddenly going to happen in a year or two years when you snap your fingers & finally commit to that goal.

Success is built up over years.


It starts today by building robust systems into your day. By integrating & maintaining habits that will make the attainment of that goal inevitable.

Want to start a business? Setting aside an hour every morning to write about it will get you there at some point. It’s just a question of when.

Even if you’re only able to get 30 minutes of deep, focused work done before heading off to your 9-5 job, then that is already a successful day, regardless of what happens after.

It means that every morning you are building momentum towards whatever you want to achieve.

Because mornings determine how you spend your day. How you spend your day determines how you spend your life.

Habits Form the Foundations of Business Success

You can bring in new leadership to radically transform a company. Pay a consultancy firm millions to point out flaws you already see. Put systems in place to change culture.

But employees are still liking to go through the motions, doing things as they have always done them. Always defaulting to their past behaviour.

Come in at 9.30. Check emails. Meeting. Lunch. Meeting. Emails. Coffee machine. Look busy. Leave.

If we are creatures of habit, then the companies we collectively creature of habit.

One that evolves independently of conscious action. One that, once set, is difficult to influence. Rather than trying to shift these leviathans, better to start with the foundations.

Change employee habits.

Request meeting times to be under 30 minutes. Ask everyone to experiment with journaling, meditating, 80/20 analysis. Get them to do it on company time so they actually bother.

Transform your employees into more conscious, pro-active & analytical beings & you are likely to find that your company quickly follows suit.




Fear & doing hard things

I look around me & see people just going through the motions. It is action by rote, rather than by creating something new.

In a new startup, employees spend more time worrying about their Twitter profile than hunting down that first customer.

In bigger companies, meetings are organised to discuss things they will never put into action.

In our personal lives, we create problems out of nothing to avoid this self-examination that inevitably creeps in when we have nothing to worry about. We worry about what the traffic or weather will be like, more than why we are even going there in the first place.

But do not think that I look down, detached from this world. I find myself also susceptible to just going through the motions, rather than spending the time – or having the will – to go after one or two high-impact tasks.

We at punchinteface are building our new company out of a need to create world-class culture. We do not except low-impact work & work for the sake of it, yet we are also learning how to best use our time & maximise our impact.


Chasing after 80/20

Pareto’s principal states that 80% of the input tends to yield 20% of the outcome, & 20% of the input tends to yield 80% of the outcome. It is a general rule of thumb that tends to exist in life, whether looking at the yield of vegetables, investment or human capital.

In short, one or two of the tasks you do tends to have a disproportionately large impact, with most being largely ineffective or a complete waste of time.

Tim Ferriss, a hugely successful entrepreneur & self-experimentation extraordinaire, therefore performs a weekly analysis to weed out the ineffective from the effective.

Despite having read about Pareto’s principle numerous times, however, I still find myself struggling to follow it’s lessons.

Firstly, it is inherently difficult to separate the important from the urgent. What’s right in front of you tends to get assigned a disproportionate amount of importance purely because it seems so urgent.

Yes, using techniques such as meditation or writing prioritised to-do lists helps, but there will always be some difficulty in objectively analysing the impact of what you are doing when you are in the inevitably messy, day-to-day of a new business.

Secondly, fear as a driver of action is really underestimated. We usually know exactly what we should do & which tasks will be highly impactful, but we become paralysed by fear.

We find excuses. We organise meetings to discuss it. We try to convince ourselves that actually setting up Twitter or organising our files is essential to the success of the company & nothing should get in the way of it.

We do anything to avoid the foregone conclusion, that one, hard thing that sits waiting for us to tackle.

It hit me yesterday that all of this has been true of myself this week.

I am building the audience for this very blog, but have avoided the hard truth of what I must do.

I have busied myself with SEO changes, organising articles & creating artwork, rather than just building an audience.

Because building an audience is scary. It’s hard. It’s unknown. Building an audience requires hundreds of hours of commenting on other authors, of analysing my own work, of filtering through endless feedback to keep pushing myself to improve.

So last night I forced change upon myself.


I wrote down the following questions:

What are the hard tasks I am avoiding? What would I do if I only had two hours to work each day?


Just this simple, rough approach to 80/20 analysis worked effectively. It also took under 1 minute.

When you ask yourself tough questions, you force tough answers on yourself.

Immediately the answer I had known all along came to mind: that I must only focus on creating value for an audience.

Writing articles relevant to that audience & commenting with insightful thoughts on other articles relevant to my audience. As simple as that. Write articles. Write comments.

Yes, there are important things to consider outside of that, such as monetisation, long-term content strategy, etc., but none of them matter if there is no audience.

Without the audience there is no business, no value, no motivation.


Taking Action

So I urge you to ask yourself difficult questions. To stop hiding behind the guise of busyness. To just go through the motions like everyone else. If you do that, you’ll never create something new, something impactful.

Right now, just write down the 5-10 tasks that are taking up most of your time. Which are creating impact? Which would you complete if you only had 2 hours per day? What will happen if you don’t complete the low-impact tasks?

Add a calendar event at the same time every week to spend 5 minutes doing this. Just 5 minutes. If you don’t add it to your calendar, you will forget. You’ll get caught up, busy like the rest of us, just performing things by rote rather than by deliberate action.

Remember that just going through the motions won’t get you anywhere. Facing your fear & going after that hard thing will.




Being busy: stop taking the easy way out

Differentiating Urgency & Importance

The frustrating reality of work is that most of what you do is a complete waste of time. Even entrepreneurs, who slog away putting in 14-hour days to their company, will inevitably waste the majority of their time.

This is because we tend to be terrible at prioritisation.

Something seemingly urgent will come up & we divert all of our resources to solve the problem, without stopping to think whether it is important in the first place. Or whether it’s even a problem at all.

The problem of conflating the urgent with the important is the greatest drain on productivity in the workplace.

In a corporate environment, the greater complexity of larger teams working together causes further damage to productivity.

There tends to be a lot of people all doing different things, with no clear idea of which direction they are meant to be going, all protecting their own little corner of the company, all trying to get ahead of each other.

A pervasive, manic busyness tends to seep into the culture, with everyone rushing around trying to push through some urgent, but unimportant, change to a product or frenetically working to get an irrelevant report completed.

It’s not inaccurate to say that most companies just about survive despite having a load of headless chickens charging about the place, revved up on caffeine & adrenaline.

As you can imagine, this is not conducive to the long-term interests of the business or the employees themselves.


Human Limitations

There is also a huge amount of evidence supporting the idea that our window for highly productive work is very much limited.

Companies tend to push their employees into working 8- to 12-hour days, but are you really productive during that time? How much productive, important work do you really think you get done?

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that humans have a limit of 3-4 hours a day of intensive, focused work before we burn out.

This is capped even lower if you aren’t sleeping 7-8 hours, eating well, exercising or resting properly outside of work hours.

How productive are you after only sleeping 3-4 hours? What about when you’re a bit hungover? Or you’re hungry?

For me personally, these factors are hugely impactful on my productivity. If I haven’t slept properly, the next day is going to be almost entirely a waste of time. Maybe I’ll get 1-2 good hours of work in if I have a strong coffee before starting. But usually, I may as well just take the day off & catch up on sleep.

One of the issues, however, is that some people are so used to living in a constantly, tired, semi-burnt out state that what they think is a good, highly productive day is usually nowhere near it.

They are so used to a constant feeling of tiredness & of a state of low-impact work that whenever they manage to squeeze in 20+ minutes of focused, immersive work, they see that as the maximum limit of human capability.


## Stop being busy
Start approaching your days differently.

If colleagues put demands on your time, push back. Question the importance of what they are asking you to do? Is it important? Or is it just urgent? Are they doing it just because their boss wants them to do? Or because they believe it has merit?

If you work for yourself, then focus on maximising the 3-4 hours you are productive. Break them up throughout the day, block it out as focus time in the mornings, cut out the faffing around that tends to clutter your day. Take the rest of the day off for learning, coffee with friends or others in your industry, or finally starting the language lessons you always wanted to do.

The hard part comes next, however.

Where before you had problems to solve & urgent issues to attend to, you will be left with a void.

You can no longer comfort yourself with the sense of purpose & progress that comes from always doing, from always working away at some problem.

When you limit your working hours, you suddenly find yourself with 12 hours a day that seems like a void.

The insulation of busyness is stripped away & you will find yourself asking hard questions. You will find yourself putting yourself through rigorous self-examination. You will start examining the direction & purpose of your business on a much deeper level. You will be able to entertain the creative, outlandish ideas you never had time or energy to think about.

You will strip away all the urgent, clutter of a busy life & finally be able to differentiate the urgent from the important, the low-impact from the high impact work.

Anxiety will come, inevitably. You will worry about whether you’re getting enough done. Whether you’re working on the right thing. Whether all the psychology is just bullshit.

But you must push through.

The gravity of this change will hit you. When you only have limited time to work, you approach things differently. You finally start asking the important questions.

Is this important? How can I estimate the impact of this task?
What will happen if it doesn’t get done?
How can I get it done as efficiently as possible?
Has someone done it before? Is there an easier way?

The work you do end up doing will be great work. Work with the fat stripped away, without the comfort of busyness & urgency clouding your judgement & allowing you to hide from the hard truths you must face.