Please enjoy this transcript of a special compilation episode of 15-to-30–minute clips from some of the best podcasters—and also best interviewees—in the world, and certainly some of my favorites, as well as one or two of my favorite clips from episodes of The Tim Ferriss Show.
You can view this episode as a buffet, and I strongly suggest that you check out the shows included. If you like my podcast, you will very likely enjoy the featured shows in this episode.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Greetings, friends. I’m Tara Brach and I’ve been teaching meditation primarily from the Buddhist tradition for about 45 years, and I’ve spent about 20 of those years as a clinical psychologist. I’m also author of several books, including Radical Acceptance and Trusting the Gold. My weekly podcast of talks and guided meditations, which goes by my name, draws on Buddhism, psychology, and science, and we explore everything from how to work with self-judgments, fears, trauma, losses, to how to resolve conflict and increased intimacy, to how in this time of such global trauma and divided-ness we can be part of a larger societal healing. In the deepest way, the weekly talks are guides to realizing who we are beyond the story of a separate and often deficient self, realizing the love and awareness that expresses our true nature.
In addition to the podcast, I lead a mindfulness teacher training program with my colleague Jack Kornfield and offer a wide range of online classes, presentations, and workshops. So, friends, I hope you’ll visit my website, tarabrach.com, to find information about all my offerings, including an upcoming introductory course to meditation and a program on radical acceptance. Both are featured on the homepage. And also find links to my books, hundreds of free talks, guided meditations, and other resources.
Tara Brach: Namaste. Greetings, friends. A good number of years ago now, the Dalai Lama was interviewed by network news, and the inquiry was really about happiness, because that was the subject of his latest book. And they asked him a question, which was, “What was your happiest moment in memory?” And his response, he first gave that kind of now classic mischievous look. And his response was, “I think now.” I’ve always loved that story because for many listening, being present here and now is not a new idea. And yet, as we know often it’s mostly an idea. We’re usually on our way somewhere. We’re usually checking things off the list. So often we’re lost in thought and thinking that the important moment of our life is we’re on our way to it or it’s already in the past, but it’s rare that we sense, well, right now, this moment really matters.
The gift of meditation, of training in presence, is that it really allows our body and mind to be in the same place at the same time. It allows us to arrive in the one place where love and happiness and creativity and healing, freedom all is possible. So our inquiry really is what takes us from presence. And if we begin to look, we’re in a trance of thinking most of the time. And that trance is typically driven by wants and fears, by the sense that something’s missing right now or something’s wrong. And even under that, it’s often, and this is usually our core focus, it’s something’s wrong with me, with how I am, with what I’m doing. That sense of never enough, that I’m in some way deficient or flawed and that failure’s around the corner. And the expression of that is a background sense of fear or anxiety and uncomfortableness and sometimes shame.
So this will be our subject for this talk, which is, how do we wake up out of this trance, of feeling like there’s something wrong with us? How do we disentangle from the self-judgments and live our lives? And one of the stories I’ll always remember, a woman described being with her mom when her mom was dying, and she was in a coma. And at one moment, her mother woke up from the coma and was very lucid and looked her in the eyes and said, “All my life I thought something was wrong with me.” And those were her last words. And for this woman, in a sense, it was a gift because it made so clear how we can go through decades, how many moments we miss of living, of loving, of enjoying beauty when we’re all wrapped up in thinking that we need to be different, that we’re falling short in some way.
And this is what drew me to write my first book, Radical Acceptance, as a response to that sense of being flawed, being caught in what I called the trance of unworthiness. I remember after writing the book, I was on book tour and one stop, I was giving a workshop on this and there was a big poster of me. And the caption at the bottom was, “Something is Wrong with Me.” It was a great welcome to a new community there. And yet, for those of you listening, if you start looking at your life, most of— I mean huge amount of self-judgment. And what we don’t always realize, and this is why I call it a trans, is how much that underlying sense of not enough affects our moments, affects how generative and creative we are at work, affects our relationships, how intimate we can be because it’s very hard to be close to others if we feel something’s wrong with us. It affects everything.
And the Buddha said that the great suffering we experience is not realizing the truth of who we are, our true nature and being caught up in an identification with a small, limited self. And there’s a story I’ve always loved that I think describes this so beautifully. True story, that there was a enormous clay statue of the Buddha in Thailand and it wasn’t beautiful, but it was loved and revered by the populations that had survived over centuries of storms and battles and so on. And in the ’50s there was a long dry season, and during that time some cracks appeared. So an enterprising monk shined a flashlight into the crack. And what came back was the gleam of gold and shined into another crack and another. And they took off what turned out to be just a covering of plaster and clay and found the largest solid gold statue of the Buddha in that part of Asia.
And what’s interesting is the monks say that the statue was covered to protect it during tumultuous times. And it’s much in the same way that we protect our innate goodness and purity we covered over when we feel threatened to be able to navigate our world. And the suffering is when we cover over with our defenses and our aggressions and so on, is that we get identified with the covering. We think we’re the covering. That controlling, promoting self and we forget who’s looking through. We forget the tender away heart, the awareness that’s looking through. The essence of all sickness is home sickness. There’s a suffering when we forget the gold, when we leave home. We forget what we really belong to, that aliveness and awareness and loving. We forget who we are. It becomes such a profound inquiry. What leads us to forgetting who we are, to judging ourselves so harshly, to becoming so identified with the coverings.
And really we can look first the main culprit, the messaging of our culture. Our culture tells us what it means to be a respectable person, a successful person, a likable person. And the primary funnel for our messages that trap us in the trans of unworthiness is through family and caregivers. Of course, this is the domain of most psychotherapy. It’s the primary channel for the culture of insecurity and fear of failure. I mean, if you could ask what a child most wants, what a young child most wants and needs, it’s to be understood and loved. Yet, out of their own insecurities and fears, most parents don’t know how to see clearly and mirror back who this child is. Most parents aren’t equipped to love unconditionally. So for so many there’s an experience of severed belonging, cut off from the most significant other and really severed belonging from the not okay parts of ourselves. I mean, the core wound, “I’m not lovable, I’m not loved, I’m not worthy.” This is the trance of unworthiness.
The healing, the path to realizing who we are, and living from that freedom, in terms of the trainings of meditation, is learning to bring radical acceptance, an unconditional, compassionate presence to the experience of the moment. This is what helps to dissolve the coverings, to make the coverings transparent so our light, our creativity, our love, our intelligence can shine through. Radical acceptance, really opening to the present moment. But I want to note here the objection. Most people have a fear of accepting how we are in the moment, our fears, our shame. And the fear is I’ll never change, I’ll never get better. And yet, as American psychologist Carl Rogers put it, “It wasn’t until I accepted myself just as I was that I was free to change.” In other words, the prerequisite for true transformation and healing is this radical acceptance, this presence and kindness with what’s right here.
So the rest of this exploration is, how do we do that? And what I’d like to do here is introduce a practice, a meditation that weaves together mindfulness, a mindful presence with self-compassion that can really free our hearts, that can wake us up from the coverings and allow us to rest and express the gold of who we are. And the meditation’s called the RAIN meditation. I know many are familiar with it. RAIN is a acronym for recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture. Recognize, meaning see what’s here. Okay, fear. Just name it, name it. Allow, allow it to be here, not to fight it, not to judge it, just let be. Investigate. That doesn’t mean cognitively investigate. That can be a trap. It means investigate by deepening the inquiry into the body and feeling what’s here, contacting it. And then nurture. The last part of RAIN is to bring kindness to what we find.
When we do that, we experience what’s called after the RAIN, which means we start opening to our natural being, to the goal that’s here, to the awareness and love that was here but covered over. RAIN allows us to change very deep rooted patterning. During the pandemic, I had countless emails, people saying, “RAIN saved my life.” And I really understood what they meant. It’s had such an impact on me. I remember when my mother first moved down to live with my husband and me, and she was 82. And she had a lot that she needed from me, a lot of doctors’ appointments and mostly just needed me to keep her company some. And at the same time, I had a whole lot going on the work and teaching front. And I started feeling increasingly stressed. And I remember one day being at the computer and I was writing a talk, it was on loving-kindness.
She walked into my office to show me an article, and I barely looked up from the screen. And so she very graciously put it down and left. And as I looked up to see her retreating form, I had this thought, “I don’t know how long I’ll have her.” So I decided to do the practice of RAIN and got quiet. And the R, recognize, was a feeling, a sense of guilt and anxiety. I’m just not coming through. And the A, allow, I just let that be there rather than adding more judgment to it. And the allow has this sense of this belongs. Just like the waves in the ocean, this belongs. It was really letting it be. And that allowed me to deepen my attention and begin to investigate. And I started feeling the feelings in my body, the tightness. And I asked myself, what am I believing?
And the belief was, I’m failing. I’m failing my mother and I’m also going to fall short teaching. The feelings in my body were a real squeeze in my heart and this sense of pressure and tightness. And as I open to it, I ask the question that really deepens investigation, which is, what do I need? What does this vulnerable place need? This place of feeling squeezed and guilty and fearful. And what I got was I just need to trust. I need to trust my love. I need to trust my goodness, my heart. And so I put my hand on my heart. And this is a part of nurturing, it makes it even more powerful. And I just gave myself that message, trust your heart, trust your goodness. It’s okay. And as I did that, I just felt more space. Felt more space, more openness. And so I stayed for a few moments and rested in a more spacious, more tender awareness. That’s after the RAIN.
There was a shift. I went from being this guilty, anxious person to the space of compassion, of kindness. And what I noticed in the days and weeks to come, and I repeated RAIN. I did what I call a light RAIN. Just I repeated it, and it was shorter and very effective, because I noticed when I was with my mom, I was able to be really present. I was able to really be with her and enjoy our big salads for dinner and our walks by the river. And when she died, it was a few years later, three or four years later, deep grief, of course, I adored her, but no regrets. And I realized that RAIN saved my life moments with my mom.
When I did the RAIN practice, I put my hand on my heart. I gave myself a message. And that’s often a beautiful way of self-compassion, to give ourselves a message that will bring some comfort and healing. But sometimes we can’t. And I want to name here that self-compassion doesn’t mean that we’re offering ourselves compassion. That a self is offering a self-compassion. You can draw on a larger source. I worked with a vet who came back after being in Iraq. And when we explored what would help him nurture a very, very traumatized place in him, it was the love of Jesus. A man described being with the Dalai Lama and telling the Dalai Lama about his fears. In the Dalai Lama said, “You just let yourself be held in the heart of the Buddha.”
And a physicist I was reading talks about touching a tree and feeling the nurturing there, the connection. You can call on a friend, you can call on a deity, you can call on your ancestors. I sometimes call on formless loving awareness, some larger source. What RAIN does when we offer ourselves attention and when we bring in that nurturing is a kind of spiritual reparenting. We’re bringing the presence and kindness we need to heal. And if you’re more science oriented, you might think of it that we’re actually rewiring the brain with RAIN, because it creates new neuronal pathways to feeling empowered, creative, loving, lucid.
Okay, friends, let’s do a brief practice. We’ll do what I call a light RAIN to give you a taste of it. And wherever you are, you might adjust how you’re sitting so that you can just know you’re feeling comfortable, at ease, awake. You might take a few full breaths, letting your eyes close or your gaze be downcast. And you might bring to mind a situation in your life where you turn on yourself in some way. It might be in a relationship, might be at work, might be related to an addiction, to a health challenge, but somewhere, some situation where you land up feeling judgmental and down on yourself. Let yourself go to the most triggering moment of that. And we begin a light RAIN by recognizing what’s going on. And you might just mentally whisper the word that most captures what’s going on. It might be judgment, shame, embarrassment, fear, anxiety, anger, and then allow it. And that means in some way you’re saying this belongs. This is part of the experience of the moment, letting it be and beginning to investigate it. What am I believing when this is going on? Am I believing that I’m failing, that I’m flawed? That I’m creating pain for myself or for another?
And with whatever I’m believing, what’s the strongest feeling in the body going on? You might feel your throat, your chest, your belly and just sense where you feel vulnerability, where you feel tightness or activation. And you might even let your face and your posture express what you’re feeling. It’s a powerful way to get more somatically connected. Continue to investigate and feel right into the center of the vulnerability and ask yourself, what do I need? How does this part want me to be with it?
And explore nurturing. You might put your hand on your heart, especially if you’ve never done it. Vary the touch so it expresses kindness and just send some message in word that you think might be healing. Could be, I care about this suffering or trust your heart, trust your goodness or I’m here and I’m not leaving, or it’s okay, you’re enough. Whatever you sense will bring some healing and you can have it come from an outside source, a friend, a grandparent, your dog, the trees, a deity, formless, loving awareness. Let that energy of kindness move through your hand right into your heart to wherever you feel vulnerable.
And then let go of all doings and sense the presence that’s here. Sense the shift from a flawed self to the awakeness, the awareness, the tenderness, noticing the gold. Noticing this tender presence that’s more the truth of who you are than any limiting story or belief. The more you trust this, the more freedom, creativity, love, aliveness you’ll find in your life. And take a few full breaths. If your eyes are closed, opening your eyes. And the last part, we’ve been focusing on inner healing. And as we hold our own being with radical acceptance, as we practice RAIN and come home into who we are, that loving presence naturally extends to others. We’re able to see their vulnerability and see their goal. And I’ve worked with so many parents who’ve been reactive with their children and done an inner RAIN process and much more able to see and respond to their children’s unmet needs. Less judgmental.
And I’ve worked with so many people who are in conflict with partners, other people in their life. And that inner work enables us to put down blame and really communicate in a much more intelligent, open-hearted way. And it takes practice. We go into trance, we disconnect from our own loving, awake heart and gold. And then we’re really looking through the filters of our culture, our society. We don’t see others. We see their coverings. If we’re in our ego, identify with our ego, that’s what we see in others.
So I’ll share a final story that’s been a real guide for me on the path. And this story is told by a minister describing a family holiday trip and stopping at a restaurant that’s nearly empty. And she says she sat her son, Erik, her one-year-old in a high chair, and suddenly she hears him squeal with glee. “Hi, there,” two words he thinks are one. “Hi, there.” His face is alive with excitement. Then she says, “I saw the source of his merriment and my eyes could not take it in all at once.” A tattered rag of a coat, baggy pants, gums as bare as Erik’s hair, uncombed, unwashed. His hands were flapping in the air around loose wrists. “Hi there, baby. Hi there, big boy. I see you, buster.” My husband and I exchanged a look that was across between “What do we do?” and “Poor devil.” Erik continued to laugh and answer, “Hi, there.” Every call was echoed. This old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby. I shoved a cracker at Erik and he pulverized it in the tray. I whispered, “Why me?”
Our meal came and the nuisance continued. Now the old bum was shouting, “Do you know patty cake, atta-boy, peek-a-boo? Hey, look, he knows peek-a-boo!” We ate in silence, except Erik, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring applause of a skid row bum. We had enough. Dennis went to pay the check imploring me to get Erik and meet me in the parking lot. I trundled Erik out of the high chair and looked toward the exit. The old man sat poised and waiting, his chair directly between me and the door. Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik. I headed toward the door. It soon became apparent that both the Lord and Erik had other plans. As I drew closer to the man, Erik had his eyes riveted to his best friend and leaned far over my arm, reaching with both arms and a baby pick me up position. In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight, I came eye to eye with the old man.
Erik was lunging for him arms spread wide. The bum’s eyes both asked and implored, “Would you let me hold your baby?” There was no need for me to answer since Erik propelled himself from my arms to the man’s. Suddenly a very old man and a very young baby were involved in a love relationship. Erik laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder. The man’s eyes closed and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes, his aged hands full of grime and pain and hard labor gently, so gently cradled my baby’s bottom and stroked his back. I stood, awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms for a moment and then his eyes open and said squarely on mine. He said in a firm commanding voice, “You take care of this baby.” Somehow I managed “I will” from a throat that contained a stone. He pried Erik from his chest unwillingly, longingly as though he was in pain. I held my arms open to receive my baby and again, the gentleman addressed me. “God bless you, ma’am. You’ve given me my Christmas gift.” I said nothing more than a muttered thanks. With Erik back my arms, I ran for the car. Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly and why I was saying, “My God, my God, forgive me.”
I’ve shared this story many times and each time it feels like a wake up. We think society’s thoughts. We forget to look past the coverings towards the human heart. And in our current world, friends, where there’s so much dividedness and trauma, seeing others as different, as bad, as inferior creates such violence. There’s so much trance. One of the great gifts we bring to the world is the dedication to see the gold in ourselves and in each other and that’s the meaning of namaste. I see the sacred in you. It allows us to be part of the healing. It allows us to bridge divides and bring forward the goodness, the potential. This capacity to see gold is the blessing of radical acceptance, of learning to meet our moments with open-hearted presence. It lets us truly live from love.
I’d like to close with a short prayer. This is written by the poet, Diane Ackerman. You might sit back and close your eyes and just take it.
“In the name of daybreak and the eyelids of morning and the wayfaring moon and the night when it departs, I swear I will not dishonor my soul with hatred, but offer myself humbly as a guardian of nature, as a healer of misery, as a messenger of wonder, as an architect of peace. In the name of the sun and its mirrors and the crowning seasons of the firefly and the apple, I will honor all life, wherever and in whatever form it may dwell on Earth, my home, and in the mansions of the stars.”
Thank you for your attention, friends. Blessings.
Hi, I’m Ryan Holiday, the author of 13 bestselling books and the creator of The Daily Stoic. In this episode, I’m going to break down some of the most important questions that I’ve gathered from some of the wisest philosophers, most incisive thinkers, greatest leaders, and most awesome badasses that have ever lived. The concept was actually inspired by something that Tim taught me. Tim’s love of asking questions which change how you think about things. These particular questions had a big influence on my life and career. Also, you can check out my new book, Discipline Is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control, which is out now, and you can buy it anywhere books are sold. You can also buy a signed copy from me in The Daily Stoic Store at DailyStoic.com, or in person at my bookstore, The Painted Porch, here in Bastrop, Texas.
Ryan Holiday: Who are you spending time with? Goethe says, “Show me who you spend time with and I will tell you who you are.” Right? Seneca talks about spending time with people who make you a better person. My dad said to me as a kid, “You become like your friends.” Well, the question is, are you spending time with people who are averaging you towards where you want to go, or are they averaging you away from where you want to go? This is a question that can lead to some hard decisions, people that you’re going to spend less time with. Who are you seeing after work? Who are you reading? Who are you talking to? The people we spend time with are either going to make us better, they’re going to make us worse, or they’re going to keep us exactly who we are, which is either a good thing or a very bad thing.
Is this in my control? Epictetus says this is the key question. This is the chief task of the philosopher in life, which is separating the things that are up to us, and the things that are not up to us. And so much of the time and energy we spend in this life are on things that are not up to us, that are not in our control. It just started raining. I don’t need to have an opinion on the fact that it’s raining because it’s not in my control.
But what is in my control is what I’m going to do, right? What’s in our control is our actions, our thoughts, our opinions, right? And so a Stoic learns to tune out what’s not in our control and it focuses on what is in our control. And so we ask ourselves about everything we experience, everything we’re feeling, everything we’re working on. Is this up to me, or am I throwing good energy after bad? Am I beating myself against a wall that’s never going to move?
What does your ideal day look like? “A life,” Seneca says, “is made up of days.” Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our lives is of course how we spend our days.” Right? What does an ideal day look like for you? How are you trying to design your life? If you don’t know what a good day is like, what your ideal is, then you’re just going to be working on making more money, acquiring more fame, getting more power or influence.
You have to ask yourself, “Is this getting me closer or further away from the life that I want?” I’ve talked about how I know exactly what my ideal day looks like. It’s a Saturday where I wake up early, I work out, I do a little bit of writing, I spend lots of time with my family. I have time to think. I haven’t signed myself up for a bunch of pointless obligations or phone calls or meetings. I spend time outdoors. I’m connected, I’m present. And so I have to look at each opportunity then that comes along any day and ask myself, “Is it getting me closer or further away from the kind of life I want to lead and the kind of person that I want to be?”
To be or to do? This is a key question that comes to us from the great strategist John Boyd who, as he mentored young men and women in the Pentagon, would see that you kind of can go down two paths in life. There’s the person who wants to look important, that wants to achieve a high rank, that wants to be in the newspapers or on TV. Then there’s the person who wants to quietly get things done. I think it was Truman who said, “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t care about who gets the credit.”
To be or to do is largely about credit. Do you care about accomplishments, or do you care about impact? Do you care about credit, or do you care about getting things done? You have to ask yourself, “Am I trying to be an important person? Am I trying to accomplish important things?” And this question is critical, “To be or to do?” How are you measuring your life?
Hillel said, “If I am not for me, who is?” And then he said, “If I am only for me, who am I?” This, I think, is related to the idea of to be or to do. What’s motivating you? Is it external accomplishments or is it making a difference in this world? Yes, you have to fight for yourself. You have to stand up for yourself or you get walked all over. But if all you care about is protecting yourself, if all you care about is attention, who are you?
I think about someone like George Marshall who accomplished so much and perhaps his greatest accomplishment is turning down the command at Normandy. He didn’t want his personal feelings to be taken into account. Again, to be or to do. But also, who am I for? And who am I? Yes, he fought really hard to get where he was, to make a difference, but then he also knew that ego didn’t matter in the end. What mattered is the team effort. There’s a great expression I heard that says, “If you play for the name on the front of the jersey, they’ll remember the name on the back.”
What am I missing by choosing to worry or be afraid? One of my favorite books is The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. And he says, “When you worry, ask yourself, ‘What am I choosing not to see right now?'” Right? We only have so much in the way of cognitive resources, or time, or emotional energy. How are you going to spend it? And then often by being anxious, by being worried, by taking things personally, by being afraid, we’re taking our eye off the ball. And so I want you to see those emotions not just as unpleasant, but actively destructive because they are. Stuff’s going to happen in life that makes us emotional. But we have to realize that we’re only compounding that by acting on those emotions.
Are you doing your job? This is a key question. When Sean Payton was suspended from the NFL for a year, he put up a big picture of himself in the Saints facility, and three words that said, “Do your job.” This is a thing. I think it comes from Bill Belichick, but the idea is that everyone has a job in every moment. Sometimes that’s a little job, sometimes it’s a big job, but everyone has to know their job in an organization, in life. You’ve got to ask yourself, are you doing it? I think in the end we end up focusing on everyone else’s job than our own because it’s easier than doing our own. And that’s why I like this question so much. Are you doing your job? And if you aren’t, why not? And if you are, good, keep doing it.
What is the most important thing to you? What do you actually value? If you don’t know what’s important, how do you know that you’re putting it first? And so to me, all the other questions of life come after you have asked and answered what the most important thing to you is in life. If you told me I could sell 10 times as many books, but it’d come at the expense of my marriage or my relationship with my kids, I’d say screw that. Right? Because I know the most important thing to me is how those things are in balance with each other. Yes, my work is important, but it’s not the most important thing.
Seneca talks about this idea of euthymia. He says knowing the path that you’re on and not being distracted by the paths of the people whose crisscross yours. He says, especially the people who are hopelessly lost. When you know it’s important, when you know what you value, and know where you’re going, it makes it easy for you to ignore what doesn’t matter and focus on what does matter.
Who is this for? This is a question as a creator you always have to know. Who are you making this for? I’ve talked to so many entrepreneurs, business people, creatives who have no idea. They’re just making stuff. They just hope it will find an audience. They go, “Oh, this is a book for smart people.” You have to know who you’re making this for. You have to know your audience. You have to know the market. You have to know human beings. This is why empathy is so important. Who are you making this for? Who are they? Where are they? What do they want? You have to know who this is for. So I always ask myself, whether making a video or putting out a tweet or writing a book, “Screw your hunches. Who is this for? Who are they?”
Does this actually matter? So many of the things we’re upset about, that we hold onto, that we focus on, they don’t matter, not to you, to anyone at all. They just don’t matter. Marcus Aurelius says, “Ask yourself in every moment, ‘Is this essential?'” This is because most of what we do and say is not essential. He says when you eliminate the inessential, you get the double benefit of doing the essential things better. Stephen Colbert loses his father and several siblings in a plane crash as a young man. And he said what he took out of this was a question from his mother. She said, “Can you look at this in the light of eternity? Does this matter in the big picture?” Right? Because so many of the things we trivially get upset about, that we focus on in moments of crisis, we get real clarity about. We realize they didn’t matter at all. People matter. Your loved ones matter. Doing your best matters. Everything else is irrelevant. And yet that’s where we focus so much of our time and energy.
Will this be alive time or dead time? That’s something Robert Greene asked me when I was thinking about becoming a writer. I had like a year to kill before I could go do it. And he said, “What’s this year going to be for you? Is it going to be alive time or dead time for you? Are you going to use every second? Are you going to sit around and be passive and wait?” That came flooding back to me in the pandemic when we went into lockdown. “Is this going to be alive time or dead time? What am I going to have to show for this, whether it’s two weeks or two months or two years? What am I going to have to show for this period?” Alive time, treat every moment like alive time. Because while you have it, you’re alive. But after it’s gone, it’s dead. Right?
Now is now. Can you use this time? What can you use it for? If you always choose alive time, then you’re always getting better, then you’re always moving forward. You’re not wasting time. Seneca says, “It’s not that life is short, it’s that we waste a lot of it.” We kill time as time is killing us. And the truth is, you always have the ability to make the most of this moment. So often we choose not to because we don’t ask ourselves this question.
Is this who I want to be? Is this representative of the person that I see myself as? That I am trying to become? Or am I giving into my lower self here? Am I taking a shortcut here? Am I doing something that the person that I see myself as wouldn’t do?
Cheryl Strayed says, “You’re becoming who you’re going to be, so you might as well not be an asshole.” When you do things, you have to ask yourself, “Is this representative of my character, of my priorities, of my values, of what I said is important to me?” If the answer is no, you have to not do it. How we do anything is how we do everything. So you have to ask yourself this question: “Is this who I want to be?” Every interaction, every situation, big or small, because it adds up in the way that nothing else can.
If I could give you one more question, a last question, bonus question if you will. It comes to us from Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust, who wrote the amazing book Man’s Search for Meaning. He says, “We ask what is the meaning of life?” But he says, “Actually, it is life that is asking us that question. And it’s our actions, it’s our decisions that provide the answer.” Meaning is something we create from our actions, from our decisions, from our choices, from who we choose to be. These are the kinds of questions that if you ask often enough, you will provide, as Viktor Frankl says, “the kinds of answers that make you who you’re capable of becoming.”
Tim Ferriss: What follows is a clip from my interview with the incredible Maria Popova. So who is Maria? Maria Popova—you can find her on Twitter @brainpicker and on Instagram @mariapopova, P-O-P-O-V-A—is a reader and a writer who writes about what she reads. This is all a huge understatement. Her website is The Marginalian, formerly known as Brain Pickings, and it is included in the Library of Congress permanent web archive of culturally valuable materials. She’s the author, also, of Figuring and the editor of A Velocity of Being, subtitle, Letters to a Young Reader. You can find The Marginalian at TheMarginalian.org. For 15 years, it has remained free and ad free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I am one of her loyal readers. Her work is incredibly insightful, incredibly prolific. I don’t know how she does it. And if this labor of love of Maria’s has made your life more livable in the past year or the past decade, consider a one-time or loyal donation to The Marginalian. Your support makes a difference. And I want to see Maria—as do millions of people—continue her amazing work for many, many years to come. Please enjoy.
Tim Ferriss: Your schedule, so I’ve read of your schedule, but I’d love to hear the current iteration of that. It seems like you have a fairly regimented schedule which would make sense if you’re putting the number of hours into reading and writing that you do. So, what is your current day look like?
Maria Popova: Well, I’ll answer this with a caveat. The one thing I have struggled with or tried to solve for myself in the last few years—a couple of years, maybe—is this really delicate balance between productivity and presence, especially in a culture that seems to measure our worth, or our merit, or our value through our efficiency, and our earnings, and our ability to perform certain tasks as opposed to just the fulfillment we feel in our lives and the presence that we take in the day to day. That’s something that’s become more and more apparent to me.
So I’m a little bit reluctant to discuss routine as some holy grail of creative process because it’s just really—it’s a crutch. I mean, routines and rituals help us not feel this overwhelming massive mess of just day to day life would consume us. It’s a control mechanism, but that’s not all there is. And if anything, it should be in the service of something greater which is being present with one’s own life.
So, with that in mind, my day is very predictable. I get up in the morning. I meditate for between 15 to 25 minutes before I do anything else.
Tim Ferriss: What time do you wake up, typically?
Maria Popova: Exactly eight hours after I’ve gone to bed. So it varies.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Maria Popova: I’m a huge proponent of sleep. When I write or when I try to think, what I do is, essentially, make associations between seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts. In order for that to happen, those associate of change need to be firing. When I am sleep-deprived, I feel like I don’t have full access to my own brain which is certainly, I’m not unique in that in any way. There’s research showing that our reflexes are severely hindered by lack of sleep. We’re almost as drunk if we sleep less half the amount of time we normally need to function.
I think ours is a culture where we wear our ability to get by on very little sleep as a kind of badge of honor that speaks work ethic, or toughness, or whatever it is, but really, it’s a total profound failure of priorities and of self-respect. And I try to enact that in my own life by being very disciplined about my sleep. At least, as disciplined as I am about my work because the latter is a product of the capacities cultivated by the former.
So, in any case, I get up eight hours after I have gone to bed. I meditate. I go to the gym where I do most of my longer-form reading. I get back home. I have breakfast and I start writing. I usually write between two and three articles a day, and one of them tends to be longer.
When I write, I need uninterrupted time. So I try to get the longer one done earlier on in the day when I feel much more alert so I don’t look at email or anything, really, external to the material I’m dealing with which does require quite a bit of research usually. So it’s not like I can cut myself off from the internet or from other books, but I don’t have people disruptions, I guess, so anything social.
Then I take a short break. I’m a believer in pacing, creating a rhythm where you do very intense focused work for an extended period, then you take a short break, and then cycle back. I deal with admin stuff like emails and just taking care of errands or whatnot. I resume writing, and I write my other article or articles.
Through the evening, I try to have some private time just later in the day either with friends, or with my partner, or just time that is unburdened by deliberate thoughts—although you can never unburden yourself from thought, in general. Then, usually later at night, I either do some more reading or some more writing, or a combination of the two.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. So a number of follow up questions. What type of meditation do you practice currently?
Maria Popova: Just guided vipassana, very basic. There’s a woman named Tara Brach who, she’s a mindfulness practitioner.
Tim Ferriss: How do you spell her last name?
Maria Popova: B-R-A-C-H.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Maria Popova: She’s based out of DC, and she was trained as a cognitive psychologist, then did decades of Buddhist training, and lived in an ashram, and now she teaches mindfulness, but with a very secular lens. So she records her classes and she has a podcast which is how I came to know her. Every week, she does the one-hour lecture and the philosophies, and the cognitive behavioral wisdom of the ages. Then, she does a guided meditation. So I use her meditations and she has changed my life, perhaps, more profoundly than anybody in my life.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Maria Popova: So, I highly recommend her.
Tim Ferriss: Tara Brach.
Maria Popova: Brach, yes. And all—her podcast is free. She has two books out, too. She’s really wonderful, very generous person.
Tim Ferriss: I will have to check that out. You’re listening to audio while you meditate?
Maria Popova: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Maria Popova: And it’s interestingly, I mean, she puts one out every week, but I’ve been using the exact same one from the summer of 2010. It’s just one that I like and feel familiar with. It helps me get into the rhythm. So, every day, I listen to the exact same—
Tim Ferriss: Summer 2010, how would people recognize it? How does the audio sound?
Maria Popova: It sounds cheesy, but it is not cheesy. I think it’s called Smile Meditation. I’m sure she has repeated it in various forms through the years in other recording. It just happens to be the one that I have on on my broken 3G iPhone without any internet or cell service which I just use as an iPod. That’s on it.
Tim Ferriss: Awesome. That’s a great answer. God, I love digging into the specifics. So when you go to the gym, then, to work out, are you still using an elliptical for that?
Maria Popova: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: You are? Okay.
Maria Popova: I do sprints, high intensive on the elliptical. I go for cardio, and I do a lot of body weight stuff, too.
Tim Ferriss: You do? All right, but when you’re reading, is that on the elliptical?
Maria Popova: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And what type of device, if any, are you using for that reading?
Maria Popova: Well, I prefer electronics. So I use the Kindle app of iPad or any PDF viewer because I read a lot of archival stuff. The challenge, of course, is because I read so many older books that are out of print, let alone having digital versions, that’s not always possible; in cases, rarely possible unless I’m writing about something fairly new. So, in that case, I just go there with my big tome and my sticky notes, and pens, and sharpies, and various annotation, and analogue devices, and I just do that.
Tim Ferriss: Cool. So that leads perfectly into the next question, which is, what does your note-taking writing system look like? How do you take notes? So, for instance, you’re really good at using excerpts or quotations—pull quotes. And I found myself asking as I was reading this, like, how are you gathering all this so that you can use it later? What does your note-taking system look like in the case of digital and in the case of a hard copy?
Maria Popova: Hmm, so with digital, it’s very simple. I just highlight passages, and I write myself little notes underneath each that have acronyms that I use frequently for certain topics or shorthand that I have developed by myself. Understanding, really, which is what reading should be a conduit to, is a form of pattern recognition. So, when you read a whole book, you walk away with certain takeaways that are thematically linked. They don’t usually occur sequentially. So, it’s not like, you walk away with one is like from the first chapter, one is taken from the second chapter. It just those pattern of the writer’s thoughts that permeate the entire narrative of the book.
Especially, if you read as a writer, so somebody who not only needs to walk away with that, but ideally wants to record what those patterns and themes are, that sort of reading is very different. So, what I end up doing with analogue books—in particular, that sort of hacked some systems of doing it electronically, but they’re imperfect—is on the very last page of each book which is blank, usually, right before the end cover, I create an alternate index.
So I basically list out, as I’m reading, the topics and ideas that seem to be important in recurring in that volume, and then next to each of them, I start listing out the pages numbers where they occur. And on those pages, I obviously highlighted the respective passage and I have a little sticky tab on the side so I can find it, but it’s basically an index based not on keywords which is what a standard book index is based on, but based on key ideas. And I use that, then, to synthesize what those ideas are once I’m ready to write about the book.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. I have to geek out on this because I’m so excited now. So, as it turns out, with analogue books, I do exactly—literally exactly—the same thing. I usually start with the front inside cover, but I create my own index. Of course, they don’t have to be in order. So you can list them—in my particular case—in any order. I also will have a couple of lines dedicated to PH, and PH just refers to phrasing. So, if I find a turn of phrase or wording that I find really—
Maria Popova: Oh, I do that, too.
Tim Ferriss: Really?
Maria Popova: But I spell it BL for beautiful language.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s so cool. Okay, so there’s that. Then, I have a Q if they’re quotes. So, for instance, many books will have quotes attributed to other people or just header quotes, in some cases. So, I’ll have quotes. I’ll just write that out, and then colon. I’ll list all the page numbers for that particular category that I’m collecting, in the case of quotes. So, when you’re gathering, as you mention, acronyms and shorthand, so besides beautiful language, what are some of the other acronyms that you use?
Maria Popova: Oh, they wouldn’t make sense. They’re just very private. It’s like too long to get into what they stand for; basically, my own system.
Tim Ferriss: Is there one other example? If you can just indulge me.
Maria Popova: One, I guess, that is not so much about the contents of that passage as about its purpose is LJ which is— I have a little sort of labor of love side project called Literary Jukebox, right.
Tim Ferriss: Sure, I’ve seen it. It’s awesome.
Maria Popova: Thank you, but yes, so I do these parings of passages with literature with thematically matched song. Sometimes, as I’m reading a book, I would come across a passage that I think would be great for that and, maybe, a song comes to mind, and so I would put LJ next to it.
But I want to go back to what you said about the external quotes, I guess, after quoting another work. I think those are actually really important and that goes back to your question about how I find what to read. I mark those types of things. For the annotations that are specific to that particular book, all of my sticky tab notes are on the side of the pages. But when there’s an external quote, something referencing another work, I put a tab at the very top with the letter which stands for find if I am not familiar with the work or just no letter if I just want to apply the quote to something else that I know of.
I think that’s actually very important because the phenomenon itself—not my annotations of it—because literature is really—and I say this all the time—it is the original internet. So all of those reference and citations, and allusions even, they’re essentially hyperlinks that that author placed to another work. That way, if you follow those, you go to this magnificent radical where you start out with something that you’re already enjoying and liking, but follow these tangential references to other works that, perhaps, you would not have come across directly.
In a way, it’s a way to push one’s self out of the filter bubble in a very incremental way. I’ve often found amazing older books that were five or six hyperlink references removed from something I was reading which led me to something else, which led me to something else, which led me to this great other thing. So I think that’s a beautiful practice.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, the serendipity of it is so beautiful when it works out. I’ll give a confession. This is really embarrassing, but since no one is listening. I came across Seneca— So, Seneca, the Younger, who’s had probably more impact on my life than any other writer—originally because I was perusing a number of anthologies on minimalism and simplicity, and Seneca kept on popping up. Quote, Seneca. Quote, Seneca. And because it was always one word like “Madonna” or, and this is really going to be really embarrassing, or like, “Sitting Bull,” I assumed that Seneca was a Native American elder of some type for probably a good—
Maria Popova: That’s so lovely, actually.
Tim Ferriss: I assumed he was a Native American elder for probably a good year or two before I realized he was a Roman. I was like, man, you got to do your homework, pal. Got to dig in. And then, at that point, is when I really jumped off the cliff into a lot of his writings which I still, to this day, revisit on an almost month to month—
Maria Popova: I just revisited his On the Shortness of Life.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, so good. So good.
Maria Popova: Which is perhaps the best manifesto and I had hate this modern word, sort of buzz word, but I use it intentionally. So, the best manifesto for our current struggle with the very notion of productivity versus presence. How much are we really mistaking the doing for the being? And it’s amazing that somebody wrote this millennia ago, before there was internet, before there was the things we call distractions today, and yet, he writes about the exact same things just in a different form, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: The exact same things. If I’m trying to use Seneca as a gateway drug into philosophy, I won’t use the P word, first of all, with most people because I think it calls to mind for a lot of people the haughty, pompous college student in Good Will Hunting, in the bar scene. He was like reciting Shakespeare without giving any type of—
Maria Popova: See, I completely disagree.
Tim Ferriss: No, no—
Maria Popova: I agree with the notion that those are its connotation today, and people have a resistance, but I think that’s all the more reason to use it heavily, and to use it intelligently, and to reclaim it, and to get people to understand that philosophy—whatever form it takes—is the only way to figure out how to live.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah.
Maria Popova: Everything else that we take away from anything is a set of philosophy, essentially.
Tim Ferriss: I agree. No, I totally agree. But usually, if I’m going to lead people there, I try to—
Maria Popova: Lure them?
Tim Ferriss: Lure them in with Seneca because I think he’s very easy to read compared to a lot of, say, at least the Stoics—or that’s not even fair; compared to a lot of philosophers who have been translated from Greek. Most of his writing, I believe, is translated from Latin which tends to be just an easier jump from English. So it’s very easy to read. What I tell people is, start off with some of his letters and you’ll find that you could just as easily replace these Roman names like Lucilius and so on with like Bob and Jane, or pick your contemporary name of choice and they’re all as relevant now as they were then.
I’m Cal Newport. I’m a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, where my research focuses on the theory of distributed algorithms. I’m also, however, a New York Times bestselling author who writes about the intersection of technology, productivity, and the quest to live and work deeply in an increasingly distracted world.
Now, you might know me from some of my recent books such as Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and A World Without Email. You might also know me from my writing for The New Yorker, where I am on the contributor staff. The clip you’re about to hear comes from my podcast Deep Questions with Cal Newport. Now, on this show, I take written questions and voice calls from my readers. They ask questions about the various theories I write about, and I help them put it into practice in the messy reality of their actual lives.
If you like what you hear, you can subscribe to the podcast Deep Questions with Cal Newport on all of the standard podcast platforms. If you prefer video, you can go to youtube.com/calnewportmedia. There you will find full episodes as well as clips of popular questions and segments.
All right, so anyways, here comes the clip. I hope you enjoy it.
Cal Newport: Today, I want to do my first core idea deep dive. I should say, my first core idea deep dive, and the topic I want to do it on is time management. So, my goal here is to give a brief summary of my thinking about time management. And what that’s going to consist of is let me define for you what I mean by time management. Let me give you the three principles in my writing, and on this podcast we always talk about that any good time management system should probably satisfy. And then I will briefly talk through my particular system, which we can think of as one example of a time management system that satisfies these principles. So you can do something else, but you see what a real, fully-fledged time management system that satisfies these principles look like.
And then I’m going to have a bonus fourth principle I want to talk about that debatably is not really about time management. It lives right outside time management, but it’s related. So I’m going to talk about that briefly at the end. So that is my agenda for this core idea discussion on time management.
So let’s start, What do I mean by time management? For me, at least in the context of this discussion, I’m thinking about work. So time management in work. The way you deal with your time outside of work is a little bit different, and so I’m going to put that aside. And in the context of work, I’m going to define time management to be whatever philosophy, process, systems, or rules that you deploy to make decisions about what you’re going to do right now with your time. How do you figure out it’s 12:26 on a Friday, what do I do next? In the end, that’s what a time management system is, a way to help you answer that question in as useful a manner as possible.
Now, everyone who works has some sort of time management system they’re using. If you don’t know what it’s called, if you can’t tell me the details of it, if you’ve never thought about that, it’s just a really bad one probably, but you still have one. One way or the other, you’re making these decisions. The question is just how do we want to make these decisions? What is going to work better?
So I’m going to give you the three properties I think any good time management system should have. I love alliteration. Long-time listeners of the podcast know this. I love Cs in my alliteration, as long-time listeners of this podcast know. So I name the three key properties here with three Cs, Capture, Configure, Control. I talk about these each briefly in the abstract, and I’ll tell you about my system that satisfies these.
Number one, Capture. I believe a good professional time management system needs to have some place in which you store all the information that’s important to making decisions about what you need to be doing and what you should be doing that is trusted. It’s a place that you are going to look at. Things that go in there will not be forgotten. These ideas get out of your head and into a system so you are not wasting brain cycles on trying to remember or keep fresh stuff that you need to do.
Now in the context of tasks, we can give credit to this idea to David Allen. So David Allen and his seminal post computer time management book. And I mean that very specifically because as I’ve written about before, time management goes through big evolution. So post computers, computer networks, and email, time management went through a big revolution. And David Allen was there at the beginning. He had this idea of full capture where he said all of your tasks should be a trusted system that you review regularly, not in your head. He actually adapted that idea from a previous business thinker named Dean Acheson, unrelated to President Truman’s Secretary of State, same name, different person, who had first developed, I believe in the 1970s, this notion of full capture and David Allen expanded it.
So that’s really the core of this. And David Allen’s articulation of full capture said, “Don’t waste mental energy remembering things. Have it in a system so your brain can be clear to actually focus on working.” This also reduces a lot of stress because your brain gets stressed when it’s worried about forgetting things you need to do.
I generalize capture though beyond what Allen talks about. In addition to each of your commitments being somewhere you trust, I want your plans to also be somewhere you trust. So any thinking you’ve done about what you’re working on, on all sorts of different time scales, that should be written down somewhere you trust and review regularly as well. I think that’s often overlooked. But the planning process of what’s going on? How do I want to get my work done? What needs to be done this semester? What do I have to get done this week to hit this goal? That’s a really important part of time management. I don’t want that all in your head. That also gets captured.
All right, second property, Configure, right? This is a twist that I’ve become increasingly a loud advocate for, which is care more about how you actually organize this information that you’re capturing. I think you really need to think through, once I have this information written down somewhere, where do I put it? How do I organize it? Is it in categories? Is it broken up by role?
Equally important, getting the relevant information consolidated. I’m really big on this. So not only do you have a really smart organization for all the stuff on your plate, you’re also gathering in one place all the relevant information. You’re not searching through your email inbox to try to remember what does this mean and where are we? And what do I owe this person? I’m supposed to get back to Derek about the program codes. What does that mean? Let me go through my inbox. All that should be in one place.
So these are our two goals with organize. A, that the information is organized well. What you want to have happen here is that you can very quickly get the gestalt of what’s on your plate, what’s due, what’s not, who you’re waiting to hear back from. The information is put aside in such a way that it’s not just a list with a hundred things. And two, all the relevant information is there. I’m not scrambling around to figure out what I need to know to do this thing. All the information is there.
All right, Control, the third property of a good time management system. Control says instead of being reactive in your decisions about what you want to do with your time. And by reactive I mean just saying, “Okay, it’s 12:23 on Friday, what do I want to do next? I don’t know. Let me see what seems relevant. Let me look at my inbox. Let me look at Slack. Maybe I’ll look at a to-do list and try to choose something off of it.”
Control says, don’t be reactive. Don’t wait till you get to the moment to say, What should I do next? Instead, be proactive. Make a plan for your time in advance that makes the most of the time that you actually have available. So you think ahead. You look at the time you have available and you say, “What do I want to do with this?” I’m planning the whole picture at once. I’m not waiting till the moment to say what happens next.
Now on the podcast, I talk often about doing this control at multiple time scales. You’ll hear me talk about multi-scale planning. This is where that actually applies. And what I recommend is that you should be doing this type of planning on three time scales, quarterly, weekly, daily.
So quarterly you have a plan for what you want to try to get done that quarter. What’s important? What are the big projects you’re working on? There could even be daily work that you want to really emphasize like, look, I got to get my cold calls up. So every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I spend the first hour doing cold calls, whatever it is. But you’re making this plan for the quarter. Looking ahead at the quarter, is this a busy quarter, not a big quarter? What are the big deadlines this quarter? Is there a huge trade fair halfway through it? That means the first half of the quarter has to be really focused on preparing for that trade fair. You’re looking at the whole picture of the quarter, and at this pretty big granularity coming up with a plan.
Every week, you then look at that quarterly plan and produce a plan for the week ahead of you. Now you’re doing weekly planning. And when you’re doing weekly planning, what you really want to do is get a sense of what’s going to happen which day. And then finally you get down to the daily scale where you say, “What am I actually doing during hours of the day?” So where in weekly planning you were looking at what am I going to do the different days of this week, at daily planning, you’re saying, “Here’s my day. I have a meeting here. I have a call here. I have two meetings here. Here’s the time that’s free. What do I want to do during that time?” So multi-scale planning I think is the right way to think about control. You’re giving your time a job as opposed to asking in the moment, “What should I do next?” And so I think any good time management system should do Capture, Configure, Control.
Let me talk briefly about my specific instantiation of these properties, what my time management system looks like at the moment. So for Capture, there is where I actually store the things I need to do. And I use Trello, which is a task board software system. So it gives you a visual metaphor for cards on a board arranged vertically and columns. I use Trello to keep track of tasks and commitments, and I use Google Docs to keep track of plans, the plans I have about various things.
So Trello’s where all my tasks are. Google docs are where my plans live. So that’s where in multi-scale planning my quarterly plan lives. That’s where other plans live. Jesse and I, for example, have a Google doc where we have our plans for the podcast, et cetera. Trello for tasks. Google docs for plans. In addition to the storage systems, you have to have the Capture tools. So the tools you use to capture things during the day on the fly, that will then get later moved into those storage systems. Now for me, I use two main ones. I have my time block planner. I am in a lucky situation where I was able to design and publish my own planner. So you can obviously find out more about that @timeblockplanner.com. But that planner has for every day a page in which you can capture stuff. So I capture stuff right in that planner.
On my computer I also have a text file on my desktop. I call it working memory.txt because I think of it as like an expansion of my actual working memory. And I use that when I’m on my computer to capture things, especially when I’m cleaning out my email. I can just type much faster than I can write, and I capture all sorts of notes in this document. I work through ideas on the document. It really is like an extension of my working memory. So a lot gets captured in there. If I’m in a meeting on Zoom, things are popping up I have to do, I’m writing it probably right there in that working memory.txt.
At the end of every day I do a shutdown. My planner even has a box I check that says shut down complete. That indicates I’ve done my shutdown. As part of that shutdown process, I look through everything in that planner, everything in working memory.txt, and I get it into one of those more systems. It goes on the Trello or I update my Google docs. So those things get pushed back down to zero. They’re temporary tools to capture and then they get moved into the more stable systems. The one addendum I should add there is the calendar. Obviously some of these things are appointments, so that goes right to the calendar.
All right, Configure. I mentioned I use Trello for my tasks. The way I actually use Trello is I have a separate board for each of my different professional roles. I keep a separate board as a writer, a separate board, for example, as a teacher, which I keep as a separate board, as a researcher, et cetera. Those are then split up into columns. There’s a few standard columns that every one of these boards have. I typically have a column where I put tasks on there that’s called “to be processed,” where it’s a pretty complicated thing I need to do, and I don’t quite understand all the details of it, but I don’t want to keep track of it in my head. But also it’s five o’clock and I’m shutting down. I don’t have time to spend 20 minutes figuring out what does this mean? What are the actual actions here? So I’ll just throw that in the “to be processed” column.
I usually have a column on each of these boards for “waiting to hear back from.” So if I’ve sent someone a note and I need information from them, and that information is critical for me to keep making progress, I like to put a card on my Trello board under “waiting to hear back” that says, “Here’s what I’m waiting to hear back from, and here’s what I’m going to do once I get that information.” I don’t want to remember that in my head, so I put it on there. I typically have a column for “things I’m working on this week,” and I’ll typically have a column for if there’s specifically persistent initiatives within that role, I’ll give it its own column so I can really quickly see, for this thing I’m working on, what are all the different things that need to be done? So as a researcher, there might be a column for a paper we’re preparing for publication. In my administrative role at Georgetown, there might be a column for a search committee that I’m on. Here’s the relevant tasks.
The time that I really get into and clean this up and look at it and move things around and check in on it is when I do my weekly plan. So once a week, as part of my commitment to configure, I really go through these systems and I update it. Once a week when I’m building my weekly plan is also when I’m reviewing the Google docs that capture these other types of plans that are going on and update them and remind myself what’s on them. So the weekly scale is when I’m really getting my hands dirty. Throughout the week, I’m just throwing stuff into here at the end of each day. But each week I really go in and clean things up.
All right. Finally, there’s Control. I already talked about multi-scale planning. I think it’s the best way to do control. You could do it other ways, but for me it’s semester instead of quarterly. But semester, weekly, daily planning. Semester plans in a Google doc. Weekly plan, I actually type it up in a text document and print it out, and I keep it with me in the back of my time block planner, and then I’ll update it and reprint it as I need to throughout the week.
And then for my daily plan, I’m time blocking, like I talked about. Here’s my day. Let me block off everything on my calendar. Here’s the time that remains. What do I want to do during that time? Well, let me look at my weekly plan to remind myself of what my big picture plan is for this day. And then I’m blocking off actual hours of time and saying, “Here’s what I’m doing here. Here’s what I’m doing there.” And I fill in all that information. I do that right in my time block planner. But you can do this in any type of notebook. There’s a whole video at my site timeblockplanner.com that walks through the details of how time blocking works. So that is how I do the daily piece. You put those all together, there’s my commitment to control.
All right, So stepping back, Capture, Configure, Control. You do those three things, you’re going to be making smart decisions about what you want to be doing with your time professionally. Now, I know people get concerned. They say, “Well, I might be injecting too much structure into my life and this is going to make my work life more rigid and I’ll be less creative.” I call nonsense on all of that. Just because you’re in control of everything doesn’t mean you need to schedule every seven minutes of your time like a crazy person. I mean, when you’re in control of your time, you can now start to make decisions like, “Thursday afternoon, starting at 12, I want to do no work. I’m going to go to the woods and just think about this problem I’m working on.”
When you’re doing Capture, Configure, control, you could do that with confidence because you know what’s on your plate. You’ve cleared out that time. You know things aren’t being forgotten. You made sure that you had time on Wednesday to catch up on things people need to hear about Thursday. Because you’re in control, you can aim that control at more breaks, more free time, more creativity, less stress. You can significantly, like a lot of my listeners do, reduce the amount of time it takes for you to get your normal workload done. And because you’re in complete control of things, move it into certain days and keep whole days free to basically do phantom part-time jobs. There’s a lot you can do that makes your life more interesting and creative and less stressful once you have an intentional way of making these decisions about what do I want to do next with my time?
All right, now I promised you a bonus property that arguably has to do with time management. Arguably it’s something different. So I’ll just mention it briefly and that is Constrain. So circling this whole idea is how you figure out what gets on your plate to be managed in the first place, and how you actually manage that work. Now, I’m just going to plant the seed here because this is a bigger conversation. But we need to be very careful about how we decide what we say yes to and what we say no to. We would really like to avoid the situation where we have so much work on our plate that, yeah, we can control it and be organized about it, but we still don’t enough time to get it done. We want to avoid that situation. So having clear rules in place about how do I decide what I let on my plate? That’s really important.
Processes is the second thing that I think is really important when it comes to constraining, figuring out how do I want to do this work? The stuff I let on my plate, can I put a process in place that will reduce the footprint this has on my schedule? There’s a lot of different things this can mean. And again, because we’re just seed planting here, I’m just going to very briefly skim the surface. But there may be automation you’re doing here. You know what? We have to produce this same client report every week. I don’t want to just send emails back and forth and kind of figure it out at the last minute. Here is our process for doing it. And you figure out a whole process that’s the same thing. The same things happen at the same times every week. You can rely on it. You’ve taken that burden off of your planning system to have to figure out from scratch.
For small questions and back and forth, you might push that all towards office hours. Three days a week for one hour, well-publicized, I’m in my office, Zoom is on. Come to that office hours if you have a small question for me. Come to that office hours if there’s a little bit of information you need. Come to that office hours if there’s something we can figure out in two minutes of back and forth. When people bother you with that email or Slack like, “Hey, what are we doing again about this? Or can you explain to me again what this thing means?” just say, “Yeah, come to my office hours.”
These type of processes are all about reducing what it is that you actually do have to manage with your Capture, Configure, Control system. You want to simplify that. Simplify what’s on your plate. Simplify how the things that are on your plate are executed. The easier you can make the planning version of yourself’s job, the better you’re going to do at your actual job. All right, so let me summarize it there. That is my thinking on this core idea of time management.
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