Time craters (or: Why I’m saying “no” more often)

14 May 2021

reading time:  minutes

I’m sharing a lot about my own situation for illustrative purposes. Read this article and think about how the key messages relate to your own circumstances.

 

Lately, I’ve been far too busy. This is despite my best efforts to plan and be on the front-foot regarding my commitments and obligations.

For the last couple of months, I’ve said I’m not taking on new clients. In fact, in the past month or so, I haven’t been taking client enquiries. Yet I still feel as busy as ever.

The purpose of this article is to step back, see the bigger picture of what is going on, and create a framework for reducing the amount of “time craters” in my life.

When you say “yes” to something, you’re saying “no” to other things

When it comes down to decision-making, it’s trade-offs all the way down. A personal motto has become: “when you say ‘yes’ to something, you’re saying ‘no’ to other things”.

The tricky thing is that when you say “yes”, you may not know what you’re saying “no” to. But every decision involves opportunity costs.

When you say “no” to something, you’re saying “yes” to other things

The corollary to this is that when you say “no” to something, you also say “yes” to other things – even if you don’t know what you’re saying “yes” to.

This has informed quite a few of the decisions I’ve made recently:

  • I said “no” to fast food at the start of 2020, and have gone 450 days without McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc.
  • I said “no” to Alcohol after surviving the Ohau fires, and have gone more than 200 days without. (FWIW, I didn’t have a problematic relationship with alcohol.)
  • I said “no” to Facebook and deactivated my account a long time ago. (I’ve had to reactivate it so I can try out an Oculus Quest 2, but I refuse to use Facebook.)
  • I’m currently experimenting with saying “no” to meat.

In each case, I haven’t missed any of these things. And I’ve said “yes” to better health through better nutrition, sleep and mood, not to mention extra time.

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What I say “yes” and “no” to in relation to how I spend my time is what I’m especially interested in at the moment.

What works for everyone is different

If I picked a single refrain that characterises this blog, it’s “you do you”.

What is appropriate for me may not be appropriate for you, and vice versa. What’s appropriate for your friend, family member, neighbour, colleague, isn’t necessarily appropriate for you, and vice versa. All of our circumstances, needs, objectives, values, and priorities are idiosyncratic and this should create a lens for the advice we receive, and inform the decisions we make.

This philosophy goes further: “you do you” at this part of your life might be very different to “you do you” at another phase of your life.

In the context of time management:

  • What might work for you before you have children, or when you are an empty nester, might be very different to what works for you when you have infants, which might be very different to when you have children who are at primary school.
  • From a professional perspective, the commitments you say “yes” or “no” to can vary massively depending on the stage of your career.

The stage of your career makes a big difference

Early in your working life, it’s generally good to be someone who says “yes” to as many things as possible. It builds social capital, it exposes you to opportunity, and it gives you a chance to see what you like and what likes you. (It also helps that you tend to have more energy and less obligations elsewhere.)

However, there comes a point where you have to start saying “no”. The benefits of saying “yes” to things reduces, and the opportunity costs – in terms of high-value, high-impact work you could be doing, or personal obligations you could focus on – starts to become even higher.

A good situation to be in is where you are saying “no” to good opportunities.

In the past few weeks I’ve spoken with two very successful people who have said “no” to terrific opportunities:

  • A successful entrepreneur who said “no” to a business opportunity that would almost certainly have been very lucrative. They said “no” because they wanted to have time for their personal life, and because this specific opportunity probably wouldn’t have been great for their long-term health.
  • Someone with a public persona who was asked to participate in an event with several hundred people attending. They said that at an earlier stage of their career, they would have jumped at it and rearranged any other commitments to be able to attend. But at this point, they’ve developed their persona, and have many other commitments that that younger version of themselves didn’t have. The cost/benefit calculus is different: for them, the benefits are lower and the costs are higher than they used to be.

And so it goes for me.

I’ve been extremely transparent about my journey running Fairhaven Wealth so far. Some of my more candid comments have been via my mailing list. However, some relevant blog articles are here:

Prior to starting Fairhaven Wealth, I was in a decent place professionally. But in a lot of ways, I was starting from scratch, so I was in a position where I was saying “yes” to a lot of things, and the opportunity costs of my time weren’t as high.

I’ve been operating for four years now. For pretty much the entire time I’ve had paying work on my “to do” list. I’ve become extremely busy. Even though I increased my fees substantially at the end of the year, I still can’t keep up with demand.

I’m at a point where I’m not just taking on new clients. I’m not taking on client enquiries.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but as I wrote the first draft of this article, I was in a hotel room five minutes down the road from my home. On multiple occasions, I’ve literally holed myself up with my desktop computer and my big monitor, and tried to work – and reflect – without interruption for two days.

There’s no way I can say “yes” to everything. In fact, even now I’m saying “yes” to too many things, and need to start saying “no”.

Time craters

One of the frameworks that is helping guide me through this process is the idea of “time craters”.

I recently finished reading Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. The fact I finished it speaks volumes – I don’t get this far through most “productivity”-type books because they rub me the wrong way.

What I like about the book is that it isn’t prescriptive. The two authors share tactics that sometimes work for one and not the other. It’s refreshing to read suggestions as merely that – suggestions, not prescriptions.

In the book, the authors refer to “time craters”. They talk about how meteors that hit a planet are always much smaller than the craters they create. In fact, meteors can create a crater that is 30 times its size.

Small objects can leave big holes.

And so it goes with distractions and certain types of commitments: they create much larger holes in our day than they seem.

For me, time craters are meetings.

I get much more jazzed about a day without a single scheduled meeting or commitment than a day with even one single “20 minute” conversation.

That’s not because I don’t enjoy these conversations (I love having conversations with people… and I often find that I am in a better mood during and after the chat than I was beforehand!). But on reflection, it’s because in my heart of hearts, I know it’s not just a 20 minute blip in the day:

  • A 20 minute meeting almost always goes for much longer than 20 minutes.
  • I have to get ready for the meeting. I have to make sure I’m wearing suitable clothes. I might need to travel. I might need to tidy my office. I might need to make sure my camera and lighting are set up for a Zoom call. If they’ve emailed me with some information I need to read through it so it’s fresh in my mind. In most cases, I’ll also see what I can find out about who I’m talking to online. I need to make sure I’m fed and watered, etc.
  • After the meeting, I can’t just pick up where I left off. I’m not a Tesla with ludicrous acceleration. I’m not even a base level Porsche Cayman. I’m your average second-hand family sedan. It takes me time to get from 0 to 100km. There is a world of difference between having 1 hour to concentrate on work and 4 hours.

The last point is the most important one. The most important – and valuable – parts of my day are where I can sit down and focus. Almost everything I do – whether that be writing reports, publishing articles, or doing almost anything else I enjoy – requires deep concentration.

It takes me a long time to get the wheels spinning, and anything that disrupts me has a disproportionate impact on my productivity (not to mention my mood and general sense of well-being).

What are the implications?

Reflecting on this, I am going to make some immediate changes to how I run Fairhaven Wealth:

  • The “free 20 minute consultation” I offer is a bit of a joke. In practice, it is often more like 1+ hours. Once I start taking on new client enquiries, I am going to increase the advertised length of time for these meetings. However, I am going to keep conversations within the time allotted, and perhaps create a small barrier to entry to ensure there is a decent commitment to having a proper conversation (eg a quiz/questionnaire).
  • Both my INSIGHT and full planning services have evolved so that they take place over at least two conversations. Historically, these services were provided over a single conversation, but I found them to be extremely demanding. I thought that spreading these conversations over two 2-hour conversations would work better. From an in-the-moment perspective, that is the case. However, when I think about the effect of doubling the number of meetings/conversations I have to provide from a bigger perspective, the overall effect on my life is worse. The feedback I’ve received from clients isn’t any different, either. I’m going to try to reduce the number of meetings for the services I offer. (That’s IF I keep both services, which is currently a question mark.)
  • I am going to limit my availability to meet during evenings. To date, I’ve been pretty flexible. But going forward, I am only going to be available to meet one evening a week. If I can’t fit someone on that evening, then it will have to be another evening when there is time.

These aren’t driven by financial considerations. They are driven by personal sustainability considerations.

Make the right decisions, not fast decisions

As a financial planner, I’m extremely fortunate. The decisions I help people make are important, but they are very rarely about life or death. Also, the key is to make the right decisions, not fast decisions. In most cases, taking an extra week or month or two isn’t likely to move the needle in terms of long-term outcomes.

If you’re the sort of person who wants an immediate turnaround time, then I’m not for you.

Exceptions are red flags (a-hole filters)

I try to operate my business as equitably as possible. I prepare reports on a first-in-first-out basis. To the extent I’m collecting client enquiries, I will contact people on a first-contact-first-contacted-back basis.

Unless there are extraordinary circumstances, I’m not going to make exceptions to these rules. As I mention above, most decisions are not time-critical and I don’t want people imposing false urgency on me.

If I make exceptions, not only does that mean I’m treating people inequitably, but I run the risk of running an a-hole filter – ie, attracting a-holes into my life. Which isn’t to say that people who ask for exceptions are a-holes. A-holes are a small part of the population, and most people who ask are unlikely to be a-holes. But a-holes are disproportionately likely to ask for an exception, meaning that I’d end up talking to a disproportionate number of a-holes.

One of the best things about running Fairhaven Wealth is that I haven’t had to deal with any a-holes. In fact, I don’t have a lot of a-holes in my life in general. I want to keep it that way.

When you say “no” to something, you say “yes” to other things

This is a public commitment/declaration that I’ll be saying “no” to a lot more people.

Going forward, I am going to be a lot more firm about how I use my time. Historically, I have been fairly flexible, and to the extent anyone has been inconvenienced, I’ve thought of it only as me being inconvenienced.

In reality:

  • A lot of these things I’ve characterised as “minor inconveniences” are not, in fact, minor inconveniences. In fact, they’re pretty significant commitments. Time pressure is consistently one of my major sources of stress. I also put off things I know I should do (dental checks, eye checks, etc) because I have work that “needs” to be done, which has flowed from how generous I’ve been with my time.
  • It impacts the service I can provide to my other clients. What seems like a minor disruption to my day could be seen more like missing a train. It’s not a 20 minute disruption. When looked at objectively, it’s more like missing a train and having to wait quite a while for the next one. A meeting that is ostensibly 20 minutes long could result in a report not being ready for another day or more.
  • Most importantly, it reduces my availability, and my ability to be fully present, for my wife, children, and friends. And that is my real source of wealth.

How mindful are you of how you spend your time? Is the way you spend time a good reflection of your values and priorities in life?

 


Tags

Fairhaven Wealth, productivity, time, time craters, time management


About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

Sonnie provides financial planning services via his business, Fairhaven Wealth (www.fairhavenwealth.co.nz). Fairhaven Wealth provides independent, advice-only, fixed-fee financial planning services. Sonnie is also a “recovering lawyer”: he has specialised in financial services, trusts, and estate planning.

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