Why ‘Stop Watching TV’ is Bad Time Management Advice

About the author: Robert Graham is a solo founder and maintains a blog about the experience. Robert has been working in software since 2005. He is a Ph.D. dropout who spent time working for Google. Someday he’d like to work for himself.

I don’t know if I have ever read an article about time management that didn’t have a collection of statistics about how much TV the average American watches followed by telling you that those hours are now free for you to use.

That advice isn’t really useful. Giving things up is hard. How do you quit TV? What if you don’t watch much? Isn’t quitting an addictive habit hard? What if you really enjoy watching TV? Read on, my friend.

I’m going to talk you through a few ways to better manage your time in order of efficacy.

Plan
It’s not the freshest idea in the list, but it may be the most critical. A saying that comes to mind is, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” Writing down plans and goals for your time will force you to be realistic about how much time you have to spend and make you more aware of where you spend it. I use two planning tools for time management.

I write down a list of 6 things I want to accomplish every day. Often the list contains some easy wins, but the consistency of forward progress is the key. All those small wins are like compound interest. Not only did you get something accomplished, but it will usually grant you satisfaction that will build your momentum. I use a notepad and Google Tasks for my lists.

I also mentally track time estimates in my head for activities I do in the evening that are not producing. Here is an example:

  • Arrive home 5:30 pm
  • Dinner and Family Time 5:30 – 7:30 pm
  • Chores 7:30 – 8 pm
  • Watch Top Gear 8 – 9 pm
  • Work Time 9 – 11 pm

Some days have more time available and some less. Don’t plan to multitask. Focus. Your accuracy in accounting for an evening or day will improve over time. I know I’ve only got 2 hours in this evening for work before I arrive home. That means I best plan how to use it well.

Prioritize
I have a good friend that never buys a drink when we eat out. I often do. We make jokes about this distinction frequently. I don’t spend a lot of money, but I really enjoy a tea or a soda with certain meals. He doesn’t really care for either.

This friend spends most of his time in the wood shop he made in his garage and he turns my cokes and sweet teas into shapers, joiners, lathes, and a nice table saw. I like the idea of wood working, but I’m not much good for it in reality. I am happy with my choice to buy a drink because I get value from it. Make sure you get the same value from your time. You won’t choose the same things as others, but you need to be sure you get value for what you do choose.

You don’t have enough time to accomplish what you want to. Start there. What are the one or two major things that could 10x your business? What actions can you do today to get closer to those? It is probably not learning Photoshop and it’s usually not writing code. Pick the most critical high-level items according to your goals and then pare down the scope.

You should outsource what you can. Ruthlessly optimize the rest. Find 80% solutions to problems. Apply the MVP philosophy to design, marketing, and SEO.

Environment
Research shows that people will eat less if they use smaller plates. It also tells us that you will eat less candy or reconsider getting seconds if it is six or more feet away. This makes sense. Much of landing page design and conversion optimization on the web is aimed at reducing any possible friction points like these. No matter how minor the barrier, it will hurt your conversion rate.

Changing your environment is a lot easier than changing your behavior. More than that, it’s a much better strategy to change behavior. My wife and I haven’t had cable in years. About a year ago we moved our only TV into a spare bedroom of our house. Each time we add these minor barriers in our environment I think about television less, I turn it on less, and I watch less.

Group dates for teens is an example of parents changing the environment to change behavior. Many restaurants increase turnover with noisy, sense-overloading environments. The more you consider it, the more examples and uses you can come up with.

Automation
You do things in life that you don’t have to.

Buy timers for your sprinklers or get a sprinkler system. Subscribe to grocery staples on Amazon and save money and time. Automate your finances and bills. Pay others to take over tasks like lawn maintenance, car maintenance, draft writing, and even answering email. Get RescueTime and automate focusing on your work.

Remove any recurring tasks from your plate to add more time you can spend getting things done. If you’re writing code make sure you automate repetitive tasks as you go. I can spin up a new instance of my production server from backups using one command, and I have a checklist so I don’t have to think about the procedure when I do it.

Recharging
I do some activities that burn me out and others that make me more apt to continue getting things done. I have only recently begun to isolate what tasks do this for me.

Many people assume that leisure activities like watching TV or playing games would let them relax and recharge, but I find that they leave you with less energy and make you more likely to continue being unproductive.

The type of task that gives me energy is productive in some sense, simple, mechanical, and repetitive. The best tasks for me are unloading the dishwasher, doing the dishes, cleaning up clutter behind my daughter (18 months old), and taking out the trash. These are easy to accomplish and usually gear me up to do work. Another good friend of mine prefers mowing the lawn or grilling. Pay attention and find the tasks that add energy for you.

You can stop watching TV if you are willing to change your environment. If you adopt each of these strategies you will be amazed what you have time for. Back to work! Right after this show…

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11 comments ↓

#1 Joel on 11.08.11 at 11:54 am

I think it’s easy for us single founders to get trapped in the “do, do do!” loop. This can lead to burnout, stress and anxiety. These are great time management tips, but I think sometimes it’s important to step back and be OK with being unproductive once in a while.

Robert Graham Reply:

Thanks for the thoughts, Joel. I think taking time for yourself is important as well. I am advocating that you do so on purpose and with activities that you really value.

#2 Alan on 11.08.11 at 12:05 pm

The gist of the article contradicts its title.

Robert Graham Reply:

It’s an attempt to address some of the shortcomings of a common bit of advice with ways to turn it into action. What missed for you?

#3 Eric Davis on 11.08.11 at 12:11 pm

“I write down a list of 6 things I want to accomplish every day.”

I’ve been doing this for about a year or so along with the Pomodoro technique (work in chunks of focused time). Then I started to feel really pulled in different directions though and would beat myself up for not finishing everything every day.

I’m trying something new now: only pick one large task to do each day. Usually this will directly work towards my long term goals. The great thing is that I can really focus on it for 4-6 hours and make huge progress on it. Then I don’t feel guilty the last part of the day: I can take off early, I can do lower value work like email, or whatever other “filler” work that has to get done.

Shri Reply:

Totally agree with you there… Having a “minimum requirement per day” idea

Joe User Reply:

I’m most productive when I can do this (IE not a crappy cube job). It’s “not a minimum requirement per day” though. It’s really a “I’ll be happy if I get this done” list.

What’s really important though, is that if you’re not finishing early more than half of the time, you’re trying to do too much.

The real trick with a list like this is that YOU, ARE, DONE.

If it takes 2 hours to finish. Fine. You, are, done. Tomorrow you’ll do better at estimating tasks that will take more than 2 hours. Today. You, are, done.

This is vital for creative works. Having a predetermined cutoff point will mean that you can more readily enjoy downtime, and recharge for the next bout of creative work.

This also works for professional musicians…

http://calnewport.com/blog/2011/11/11/if-youre-busy-youre-doing-something-wrong-the-surprisingly-relaxed-lives-of-elite-achievers/

#4 Why ‘Stop Watching TV’ is Bad Time Management Advice | Software by Rob | Clean Code on 11.08.11 at 3:06 pm

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#5 Marcus McConnell on 11.08.11 at 3:51 pm

Thanks Rob! Good advice. I never thought about how emptying the dishwasher gives me a boost of energy too. It must be something about fighting entropy in the world that agrees with my programmer brain. Anyone else have tips on energy boosting tasks?

Rob Reply:

Other things that give me energy:

– Since I don’t have a commute, a short drive tends to get my gears turning
– I do a lot of my best thinking in the shower
– Going for a jog
– Working out, especially if I’m listening to thought-provoking podcasts

#6 John McFarlane on 11.09.11 at 11:38 am

I have found that constantly switching between tasks makes eveything take longer, once i calm down and focus on one thing at a time i usually get through the task better and it feels better knowing that at least one job is done.