Being productive won’t get you more free time

If free time is what you’re after, productivity will only get you halfway there.

Credits Lucian Alexe

Here’s a surprising fact about productivity: Knowledge workers who are good at getting stuff done don’t necessarily have more free time.

How is that possible? When someone gets their job done well and without wasting time, they should be finishing early, so why don’t they have more free time?

If a cabinet maker has ten cabinets to make, the faster they can make them, the sooner they’ll finish. But when a software developer has ten features to build and finishes them early, they’ll have more work there waiting for them. I call this the infinite inbox problem.

Even if you have a firm handle on your backlog and who can add items to it, you may still have a hard time knowing when you’re done. Knowledge work is never finished. Solving a problem only generates a new and intriguing family of problem children.

With an endless supply of work to be done, being productive means you’ll complete more projects in the same amount of time. That view of productivity is sound when working with atoms, but in the knowledge economy, more doesn’t necessarily mean better. To resist the pull of the infinite inbox, you need a complementary set of skills.

If you want more free time, you’ll need to apply the same intentional effort you put into getting stuff done towards creating and protecting free time in your schedule.

Plan your work in granular steps

Planning is a crucial part of being organized, and it doubles down as an ally to resist the pull of the infinite inbox.

A good plan defines discrete steps to take toward the completion of a goal. You can use it to monitor your progress against your expected timeline and to reassure yourself that you’ve done enough work for the day.

Knowing how much work is enough can be challenging because, as we’ve already seen, there’s always more that can be done.

Planning helps you define “enough” by separating the rational self that spreads works in reasonable chunks from the emotional self that feels compelled to do more. If you craft a plan that your brain finds reasonable, stopping at the right time will become easier. You’ll just have to follow the plan.

Knowing when to stop requires shifting your focus from the short- to the long- term. It’s a matter of internalizing that completing the work you previously identified as “enough” for the day is indeed enough to keep you on track, and that resting is crucial towards achieving your goals.

Define a daily work schedule and stick to it

Alongside the infinite inbox, another challenge to free time comes in work’s tendency to expand to fill all the time available to it — the so-called Parkinson Law.

If you have an open-ended work schedule and enjoy getting stuff done, you might inadvertently fill every possible moment with work. The solution is to constrain the time available for work, and following a daily schedule is an excellent way to achieve this.

A daily schedule integrates the plans for your various projects with the rest of your commitments and organizes them in the most effective sequence. It’s an essential productivity technique because it forces you to face the reality of how much (or little) time you have and choose which projects to focus on and which to ignore.

A schedule can be flexible. You can and should update it throughout the day as new information comes in. To preserve your free time, however, you should only update your schedule to add more work blocks if absolutely necessary.

While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional burst of work or burning the midnight oil, these should be occasional spikes in an otherwise steady-looking graph of effort over time. Remember that consistency in the long run trumps intensity in the short run. The quality of your craft matters more than your time sheet.

I find sticking to my schedule to be the hardest part of the practice. It’s not uncommon to underestimate how much time a task would take or to get to the end of the day and feel like you haven’t achieved enough. When that happens, it helps to think of it as feedback for the next daily plan rather than a reason to add additional work blocks to the schedule.

Schedule leisure as well as work

Psychologist Neil Fiore shares a helpful technique in his book The Now Habit: schedule leisure as well as work.

Fiore recommends drafting your daily schedule by starting with leisure blocks first. For example, when drafting a schedule at the start of your day, you could begin by blocking out one hour at lunchtime to go for a walk, then half an hour in the late afternoon to call a friend.

Explicitly marking out leisure blocks helps you treat downtime as a first-class citizen in your schedule. It also gives you something to look forward to during work hours.

Think of adding space for free time to your schedule as additional support against Parkinson’s Law. It’s harder for work blocks to expand when the space next to them is already occupied.

Sharing leisure with others adds an extra layer of protection – and enjoyment. As everyone with a training partner knows, skipping the gym is much harder when there’s someone else waiting for you there.

Productivity techniques are a form of technology, and like all technology, the results they produce depend on how they are wielded.

Being disciplined and strategic with how you choose, structure, and schedule your work will make you more productive. You will complete your work faster and earn empty space in your schedule.

What you do with that empty space is up to you.

To use the time your focus on productivity earned you on something other than work, you’ll need to deploy the same discipline and energy you put into getting work done to resist getting more work done.