Watch your time - Part 1

Protect your most precious resource

Uwe Friedrichsen

10 minute read

Wall with several cuckoo clocks (seen in a hotel lobby in southern Germany)

Watch your time - Part 1

This is my 100th blog post and the first post, I release in 2023. I would like to use this post to write about something more general for a change. I would like to write about time.

Not about time in general, its relativity or the problems with time in distributed systems. I would like to write about time as your most precious resource, as the only actual currency of your life.

Yes, you read correctly. I wrote that time is your most precious resource. It is your limiting factor. It limits what you can learn, which skills you can hone, how much you can do, who you can spend time with and all the other things you want and need to do in your life.

Apropos time: As this post has become longer than expected when I started writing it, I decided to split it in two parts to not occupy too much of your valuable time at once in case you are interested in reading it.

Having written this, let us come back to your time.

The scarcity of time

If you are young, time feels endless. There seems to be so much of it that some people even elevate wasting time to a form of art.

Do not get me wrong: This is not an “old man telling young people they are doing it wrong” story. Moreover, this is not a “Carpe diem!” story. I wasted plenty of time myself and I cannot say I really regret it. Therefore, I am the last person judging anyone for not quenching the last bit of efficiency out of their time.

We need time to relax. We need time to goof off. We need unproductive time to recharge. And sometimes, it feels great to do nothing useful, to “waste” time. This is all fine and I am not your judge.

This is more about what we use the “productive” share of our time for. If you are like me, there are always way more things you want (or need) to do than there is time available. A day has 24 hours and my daily list always cries for 96 hours or more, making time the most precious resource.

So, what to spend the limited time for? How to invest that scarce currency best?

And now, it becomes tricky. Very often, there are a lot of tasks you need to do, e.g., because that is expected from you in exchange for a monthly salary 1. There are also things, you want to do, e.g., because you are genuinely interested in them or because they will help you advance your career. And then, there tend to be people pulling at you for very different reasons.

This is also not a story about time management. Hence, I will not discuss the Eisenhower matrix or other methods for time management.

I would like to stress a much more fundamental question:

What are you willing to spend your time for? Whom are you willing to give your time?

Answering this question for yourself can help you cancel a lot of tasks on your list already. To the remaining tasks, you can apply some time management techniques if you like.

There is not a general answer to the question, what persons and topics you are willing to spend time for. It can be useful to make a list of your top priorities, the persons and topics you love most and the topics you absolutely need to do to make ends meet.

If you should realize that this list already requires a 48h-day, you should consider saying goodbye to some of the topics even if it hurts. In the long run it hurts more to struggle all the time and never find enough time for any of your beloved topics. 2

But then there are usually still a lot of other topics and persons that do not make it to your list and some of them are veritable time killers. Often, they silently sneak into your life, first only asking for a tiny bit of your time and then extending their time share bit by bit over time. And you will notice it only if you start to take stock and make your time consumers explicit.

Often, these time killers are job-related. They steal more and more time from your regular work hours and over time you find yourself working extra hours and weekends to catch up with the other job-related tasks you want or need to do. Home office, flexible “work-life balance” models and alike make it even more likely you suddenly find yourself at 10pm completing some work you were not able to do during daytime instead of spending your time with the persons or topics you really love.

Hence, it can help to examine your time consumers closely and shed off some of those time killers that keep you from doing the things you really want to do.

Here are a two of the biggest time killers, I have encountered in my professional career. They have become so “normal” in business contexts that they often go unnoticed or are considered the way things need to be. There is a good chance, they are also big time killers for you. That is why I would like to discuss them.

In this post, I will discuss the first time killer. In the second post, I will continue with the second, worse and harder to avoid time killer. But let us start with the first time killer.

Ignore egoistic time thieves

I rigorously reject all requests from other people who expect me to invest my time in helping them achieve their selfish goals. My job title suggest that I have a higher management position. I have to admit that I do not really feel like a high-level manager (and I hope I do not act too manager-ish), but that is what my job title says.

As a consequence, every single day a herd of sales people try to get hold of me, offering me hiring support, “ready-to-use” project teams, tool partnerships, and a lot more things. They send me mails, spam me on LinkedIn, call me, use tricks like starting their mail subjects with “RE: …” to pretend we already had a conversation, try to appeal on my conscience, and, and, and – every dirty little trick they learned in their sales trainings. 3

The key point is not how those people try to contact me. The key point is:

They want my time to reach their goals.

They give a sh*t about me being successful. They are solely interested in achieving their goals. Why should I invest my most precious resource in them?

Hence, any such mail ends in my spam folder without a second thought. I also do not pick up my phone if I do not know the number. I still have a mailbox for those people who try to reach me for legit reasons – not surprisingly, rarely anyone uses this option for obvious reasons. Same for LinkedIn. And so on.

I had it that someone called me rude for being that rigorous. But seriously? Some people want to waste my time to reach their goals. Who is the rude person?

Hence, if I have the impression that someone reaches out to me solely to satisfy their goals, I ignore them.

I can only recommend you to do the same: Do not let egoistic time thieves steal your precious time, not even a minute.

But help people grow

Of course, this does not mean to reject everyone who reaches out to you. Not everyone asking for your time is an egoistic time thief. As so often, things are not just black or white. People reaching out to you are not automatically time thieves. It is important to make the distinction and to balance your and their needs in a sane way.

E.g., people also reach out to me to ask for advice, like “I have the following situation: … . Based on your experience, what would be a good way to approach it?”. This is a different story.

You could still argue that those people also want my time to reach their goals. Still, it is a very different story and it is important to understand the difference. I think, the core differences are that I care about those people in some way and that those people also care about me in some way.

Often, those people work in the same company. Helping them also means helping the company to become better. Or they are part of the community. Helping them also means helping the community to advance.

This is what you often read in social media: If you are a “senior” in your profession, show leadership by helping “juniors” to grow. Hence, this usually is not wasted but well-invested time.

Of course, there are also limits to this kind of support. “Leadership” cannot mean to invest your whole time helping other people to grow because then you would not have any time to hone your own skills. This would mean that your own skills would deteriorate over time, i.e., you would reduce your value – for the market and for the people who need your support.

So, this is also not an “always yes, no matter how much time it takes” answer. This is a balance between egoistic and altruistic goals 4. Still, investing a fair share of your time in such requests feels like a valuable investment of my time for me.

Hence, I recommend you to do your share of supporting the growth of other people, too.

Summing up

Time is your most precious resource. It is the core currency of your life. Everything translates back to how you spend your time. Hence: Protect your time.

We are always confronted with a lot of tasks and expectations of other people and quite some of them turn out not to have any value for you or other people you care about. Those tasks are time killers and should be avoided.

In this post, I discussed egoistic time thieves as a widespread example of time killers and that rigorously ignoring them is a valid strategy.

Still, not everyone asking something from you is an egoistic time thief. Thus, make sure you find your own distinctions who you are willing to spend your time for and who you are not willing to spend time for. 5

In the second post of this little blog series, we will look at an even worse time killer that is much harder to avoid. We will also touch a few other typical time killers we are confronted with in work life and sum everything up. Stay tuned … ;)

  1. If you are self-employed, basically it is the same story, just in a different disguise: You have clients that pay you money for doing something for them. ↩︎

  2. I would not recommend saying goodbye to loved persons to make sure you have enough time for your other top priorities. In the long run, people are always more important than topics. ↩︎

  3. The people who try to waste your time to reach their goals vary depending on your job title and other details, but typically everyone I know is confronted with their share of time thieves. ↩︎

  4. Usually, egoism has a bad connotation while altruism has a good one. And if you believe in the claims of some of the soapbox barkers at social media, you must be altruistic all the time and must not be egoistic any time. And probably at least in the Western countries, as a society we really need to relearn how to be less egoistic and more altruistic in many ways. Still, both extremes are harmful: Being overly egoistic is harmful for everyone else, being overly altruistic is harmful for yourself (and often also for the people close to you as many altruists ironically tend to focus on people not being close to them while neglecting those who are close to them). In the worst case, excessive altruism endangers your survivability. Thus, as so often the overall sweet spot is somewhere between the extremes: Make sure that you are okay, but also keep the needs of other people in sight and help them if you can. ↩︎

  5. Sometimes, it can be hard to decide if a person who asks for your help is a time thief. But these situations are rare and if the feeling grows that person is a time thief, you can still stop supporting them. Usually, it is quite clear which side the person reaching out to you is standing on. ↩︎