"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

3rd of 5 installments, from How to Escape Lifetime Security and Pursue Your Impossible Dream

If You’re Going to Invest in Yourself You’ll Have to Steal Time for Your Dreams

Work management doesn't work.

Time and work are, in one essential regard, opposites. Here are the laws of time-work physics:
  • Time is finite. We only live so long and, while we're alive, we have only 24 hours in every day.
  • Work is infinite. Work, whether good or bad, always generates more work, expanding to fill the time available.
Given these physical laws, it should be obvious that work is unmanageable; that only time can be managed. Yet people regularly sabotage themselves by trying to manage work. "First I'll catch up with my day job, then I'll take time for my dream," or, "First, I'll get my family in good shape, then I'll find time for myself."

Don't get me wrong. Work is what we're trying to find time for. Writers write. Craftsmen make tables or boats or flower arrangements. Actors and models go for auditions and interviews. Salespeople make sales calls--the more calls they make, the more sales. Shakespeare's observation, that "action is eloquence," is not only creatively productive, it's the best way to stay sane. Even one phone call a day in the service of your career transit, means, if you take two days off each week, 200 calls per year. That's definitely progress. Success comes inevitably on the heels of constant work, as the ancient Greek poet Hesiod pointed out in his almanac: "If you put a little upon a little, soon it will become a lot." Major effort leads to major victory.

My mentor Tom Bergin (Sterling Professor of Romance Languages and Master of Timothy Dwight College at Yale) was the author of fifty-nine books by the time he retired and eighty-three by the time he died. Yet he described himself as a "plodder." He just kept plodding away, in the vein of Hesiod. Tom and I exchanged hundreds of letters from the time I left Yale to the time he died. He taught me the relentless equation between consistent, minor actions and ultimate productivity. One day, by way of complaining about having no time to do any serious work because of all the trivial errands and duties he had to attend to, he sent me a quotation from Emerson: "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind."

Against the accelerating incoming bombardment of the things of contemporary life, Type C work happens only when we steal time to make it happen. Yet schedules, to-do lists, self-revising agendas are constantly being tested and found insufficient. They work for a while, then become ineffective. Without recognizing this reality, through the Mind's Eye's awareness, each time this happens it may send us into a tailspin that moves us further from success. Life delights in creeping in to sabotage our dreams if only to make sure we’re serious about them. One of my clients, after six months of working together to change her habits to become more productive, told me I was the "Ulysses S. Grant of time management." She told me that Grant wired Lincoln: "I plan to hammer it out on this line if it takes all summer"--and that his telegram was read along the way before it was handed to the beleaguered President. The jealous snoops told Lincoln, "You know, we have reports that General Grant drinks a considerable amount of whiskey." "Is that right?" Lincoln replied. "Find out what brand he drinks and send a case of it to each of my Generals." Lincoln recognized that whiskey was Grant's caduceus.

The human nature of time

Archimedes: Give me a lever and I can move the world.

Time is the Type C’s lever.

All you need to make your dreams come true is time. Using time as your most faithful collaborator begins with understanding its interactive characteristics and protean shapes. You'll begin noticing that time behaves differently under different circumstances. When you're concentrating, your awareness of time seems to disappear because you've taken yourself out of the Accountant's time and are dealing with the Visionary whose experience is timeless. When you're away from your writing, you become very conscious of time because your Visionary is clamoring in his cage to be released from the constraints of logical time.

"You've got my full attention": compartments of time, time and energy, rotation, kinds of time, and linkage

Time-effectiveness is a direct function of attention span. When you're concentrating, giving the activity you're involved with your full attention, you produce excellent results. When your attention span wavers and fades, the results diminish. Until you recognize that attention span dictates effectiveness, you're likely to waste a great deal of time.

The key to avoiding this situation is assessing how long your attention span is for each activity you engage in--and then doing your best to engage in that activity in appropriate compartments (allotments of time that you've found to be most productive). Since my particular career is multivalent, covering writing, editing, producing, managing, etc., I pursue what I call a "rotation method” of moving among activities that support my producing, managing, writing, and speaking. I love all these activities but each one has its own high ratio of crazy-making aspects that diminishes automatically when that activity is juxtaposed with the others.

Except during a crisis in one of the four areas, at which point all other activities stand aside until the crisis is resolved, I find it stimulating to spend an hour working on production-related matters, then spending the next hour on calls that manage various client projects in development. I've also learned that it's a waste of time to try to control things that only time can accomplish--such as making a phone call, then waiting next to the phone for a response to it; or staring at the toaster waiting for the toast to pop up. The only time you have anything approaching direct control of anything is when the ball is in your court. During that moment I focus on getting the ball out of my court into someone else's court so that I’ve done what I need to do to make the game continue.

Rotating from one activity to another ensures that the outreach begun in Activity A will be "taking its time" while I'm engaged in Activities B, C, and D. When the phone rings from the A call, I interrupt D to deal with it--and it's generally a pleasant interruption, knowing that one facet of my work is vying with another for my attention.

An hour is probably my average attention span compartment. But the length of the particular compartments (remember that "compartments" are allotments of time given to a particular work activity) changes from time to time as my attention span for that activity evolves. During the original drafting of this book, for example, I spent two hours a day writing, whereas before I began the draft my attention span allowed me to spend only an hour or less a day thinking about the book and gathering my notes for it.

There's no magical formula for determining attention span; it changes as you and your circumstances change. Yet once determined, attention span is the mastering rod between the serpents, the compartment of time where past and future meet in a present that feeds from the first and nourishes the latter.

Obviously attention span is related to your energy level at different times of day, and with regard to different activities. Activities that drain you should not be scheduled one after the other, but should alternate with activities that create energy for you.

Energy and attention span will also be different depending on whether you are at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a particular objective. Your attention span is most in danger of sabotaging you in the middle, where it's easy to confuse your fatigue from the hard work of plodding forward with some sort of psychological upset caused by the process you're engaged in. Usually that situation can be resolved by shortening the allotments of time you're devoting to the present objective; or changing the activities around which you¹re scheduling this objective's compartments.

When a particular compartment is nearing its end, use the last few minutes of it (when the Accountant comes back online to remind you that the time is "almost up") to jot down what you’re going to do the next time you revisit this compartment. This automatically puts your Visionary and Accountant into a percolation mode in which they bat things back and forth "in the back of your mind" while you¹re busy working in the next activity's compartment.

Buy How to Escape Lifetime Security and Pursue Your Impossible Dream: A Guide to Transforming Your Career on Amazon

Read 4th installment

If You’re Going to Invest in Yourself You’ll Have to Steal Time for Your Dreams from the beginning.

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