Be aware of where you spend your time

Last week, my company paid for me to attend One Day University. It’s exactly what it says—for one day, Ivy League professors come and give 90-minute lectures on a wide range of topics.

I was the youngest person in the room by four decades, but—the nerd that I am—I thought it was awesome and I loved “being in class again.” I also left halfway through.

I walked out of a once-a-year opportunity because I could not control my wandering brain. I kept thinking about the errands I should run, the work I should complete before Monday, and the emails I should send. I was actually scribbling my Target list on the back of my itinerary before I finally gave up and walked out.

So next question: Did I have the productive day I hoped for? Did I finish those errands, send those emails, and accomplish everything stressing me out in the first place? Hell no. I kept myself busy doing things that didn’t really matter and woke up Monday just as stressed as I was the day before.

What is a better use of your time? Accomplishing twenty low-priority tasks, or accomplishing the one task that actually matters?

My sophomore year in college, I took a class that truly changed my life—Chinese sociology. It significantly impacted me for two reasons: One, the Chinese mentality under Mao was extremely fucked up and if you haven’t read about it, you should. Two, the class (and professor) was the single hardest class I ever took. It took all of six weeks before the professor delayed the day’s lecture to inform us half the class was failing.

We had a four-page essay due every class. I want to gauge my eyes out just thinking about it. There were multiple times I started and finished that essay 90 minutes before class.

I was one of two people who walked out of that class with an A. Now let me tell you how I did it.

When I wrote an essay, I wrote it. Meaning, my eyes did not leave the screen and my fingertips did not leave the keyboard. I could have spent those 90-minutes doing one thousand different things, yet there was only one thing that mattered: Finishing that essay on time. I didn’t look at my phone. I didn’t check the clock. I never had another window open. One hundred percent of my energy went into the ONE thing I had to accomplish in that hour-and-a-half.

There is a difference between being productive, and being productive in the right way.

I am the most productively unproductive person you’ve ever met. I stay relentlessly busy to distract myself from the things I should focus on.

Last Sunday, I was far from unproductive. I was just productive in the wrong way. I wasn’t out of toilet paper, but I still went to Target. I still had clean underwear, but still thought it necessary to do laundry. I visited my friend Keena when I saw her the night before.

Here are the things that did matter: 1) Attend One Day University, 2) Finish a creative brief for work, and 3) Respond to emails so I could start my workweek with my inbox at 0. Those three things mattered more than anything else on my to-do list. Those were finish-your-essay-before-the-deadline critical.

If you’re running to accomplish things and never seem to find the time, ask yourself: Where is your time actually going? Are accomplishing things that will truly make an impact? Or, like me, are you avoiding working on your top priorities by distracting yourself with low-priority tasks?

I was able to hit ridiculous deadlines in college because it wasn’t an option. I had deadlines to hit, so I focused on the one thing that mattered, and ignored the other 376 things I could be working on. So ask yourself: Where are your tightest deadlines? Don’t make it an option, and make those tasks your priority.

If you’re struggling to find more time in the day, have an honest conversation with yourself about where that time is going. Then work like you’re working to hit a college deadline.

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You have flaws. You f-up on a daily basis. And that should be ok.