I love airlocks.
This probably comes from my childhood love of the Alien movies. Ever since I was a kid …airlocks in my mind are just cool.
An airlock is a buffer between the breathable air on the spaceship and the vacuum of space. It is handy for dispatching aliens, which is cool. What’s cooler about a buffer is it’s also handy for dispatching doubts, fears, vagueness, frustration, poor assumptions and inefficiency. As well as aliens.
The idea is that before any task – before you begin – before you even “Start Messy” (we’ll discuss this idea later) – the single best thing you can do is to just stop.
You already know this at some level.
You may have been given one of those tests in school that has like, ten questions, you have just 2 minutes to finish the test and that it is deliberately designed to be not long enough. The real test is to see who read the instructions at the top – clearly printed – that says Read through this entire test before you begin. The last thing you would read at the bottom of the page is Ignore all question except 9 and 10.
So the smart kids all finished well within the 2 minutes with little effort. The not-so-bright (or perhaps over-caffeinated) ones rushed out maybe 4 or 5 entirely unnecessary answers before the time was up.
The principle here really is slow down to go faster (which I’ll get into later) – but this is a special case with a specific technique to achieve it that I want to talk about.
For me, it all started when I noticed that sometimes a task – sometimes even as simple as an email – would end up taking something like fifteen minutes when it should really only take two. Sure, there are a lot of valid reasons that a two minute email might blow out. Perhaps you realise half way through the email that you have to verify something and that will take a while. Perhaps you realise you have to call someone first. Perhaps this is an important email and you are having trouble getting it just perfect.
One thing’s for sure: if you just leap right into your task you are bound to encounter frustration as the task at hand gets more and more complicated (as any task invariably does) and eats further and further into your day.
You think you’re busy. You think stopping is the last thing you should be doing. And you are wrong. When you stop, you’ll see how busy you really aren’t, just below the veneer of your own self imposed haste. Haste is not pace in the same way that chocolate is not a meal. And in the long run, haste will sustain you about as well as chocolate will.
In order to stop, we need a habit. A little ritual that is to be done – or at least considered before every task.
I chose an egg timer. Why not? It’s visible, it’s physical, it’s an actual thing – a barrier – between me and stupid me.
I went looking for an egg timer but I couldn’t find one that didn’t go all the way up to ten minutes. I didn’t necessarily want ten minutes. Besides, they all looked like eggs. Or chickens. And they were all pretty ugly.
In the search however, I managed to find something that I could use – I found this:
What a score! $2.95 on sale at Victoria’s Basement in the QVB, Sydney. It said on the package “three minutes” but I timed it and it lasts for about two minutes and fifty seconds. Not perfect, but perfectly serviceable.
Right up to today, it’s perhaps the greatest productivity tool that I own. But there’s a reason for that. There’s a golden rule that I take care to remind myself every time I flip it over and set it running.
The rule is this: I only ever use it to slow down. NEVER to speed up.
The temptation when you have one of these nifty little guys in your hand is to think “Well, maybe I could race it and get ‘x’ done in less than three minutes”. But that’s not the point. Actually…that’s the opposite of the point. That will reinforce that bullshit busy-ness veneer you love to tell yourself about in your head and your acquaintances about in the street when they bump into your and say Hi, how have you been? / Oh, really busy… As if that’s something to boast about. This little object has an idea behind it that can separate you from all the trappings of haste, and blow all of that stuff – as Ripply would say – Out the goddam airlock!
I use this little device will put three minutes between me and any task I am about to do. The magic is in what I do in those three minutes: Strictly Nothing.
You can try this at home. In that three minutes, take your hands off the keyboard, or camera, or microphone or whatever tool you happen to be using for this task. Take those three minutes (you would have wasted them anyway) and put yourself in the airlock.
Now, in your mind rehearse what you are about to do. Think about the point of what you are about to do. Is it even necessary? What do you want to achieve? Think about what went wrong when you have attempted this same thing in the past. Remind your self to not fall into those old traps again. Meditate on every little point of the process. Picture yourself at the end of the process looking back – but whatever you do – don’t actually do anything.
Instead there is something you need to see: See how not busy you are. Right in this moment as you sit there watching sand fall through an hourglass. That’s right: You are not busy at all.
You will notice, as you do this that along the way things will occur to you. Maybe you’ll make a note to spend a small, limited amount of time on this task. You might realise that it would be just as easy to include something extra in the task without much extra effort. Good, make a mental note about that.
You might realise that now is not a good time to do the task after all. You might realise this is better done in a batch of similar tasks later. Good. Then decide not to. Well done, you saved yourself a whole lot of trouble by catching it before it happened.
You might realise that you don’t even need to do this task at all. You just thought you did, but you don’t. Great. Delegate it. Or delete it. Some things seem important until you think them through. It’s just we don’t always think them through.
Run a mental simulation of what you about to do, including what tools you are going to use (and how you’re going to use them). Picture yourself getting the tools out – and putting away unnecessary ones. Run through it in your mind and only your mind – do it with your hands relaxed and empty. In this way, when you come to do the task it will be for the second time. First simulated, the second time for real.
And now consider this; Meanwhile, in some parallel universe stupid you rushed right into this task and went hastily and fretfully through a tangle of unnecessary side streets, detours, back alleys and roundabouts… all the while convincing yourself that “you really are busy” and although that task took 5 times longer than it really should have at least it was done and now you can plunge brainlessly into the next thing. The result? At the end of the day you have done 3 of the 10 things that you imagined you wanted to and you have robbed yourself of the satisfaction of any of the things you did complete; a classic case of Intentionitis (…a little thing we’ll get to later).
Think of these moments as a mini-vacation in your day. It’s less effort than simply rushing into it – and more efficient to boot. It’sWin-win, like a diet of chocolate biscuits that results in weight loss. The most difficult thing for most of us would be dropping that part of our ego that has invested it’s identity in being ridiculously busy. Let go of that part of you, the busy martyr. It’s a veneer designed for other people’s consumption made sinister because you too easily begin to believe it yourself.
Finally, if you have taken 3 minutes run through the task completely in your mind and you have done so with 60 seconds to go, then just enjoy it. Listen to the birds outside your window for a change.
Let it all go.
Why an egg-timer or an hourglass? Won’t your smartphone timer do? Or your computer? Or a clock? Yes. Yes to all that, but I like my dedicated physical object. It’s always visible and it feels like a tool, which reminds me that it is. Eventually, though I expect to not need anything at all. And in fact that has started to happen already. I’ll be out of the house or in another part of it without my timer, so instead I just stop anyway and put a few moments between me and my task without the timer. I can see that becoming second nature soon enough.
Should I seriously do this before each and every task? In truth, the answer is, mostly. If you can do a task in less than three minutes, go ahead and do it but only once you have considered using your time buffer. In merely considering using a time buffer you will approach the task more efficiently. You will remind yourself that this is a simple brief task. If three minutes turns to six, then stop. Reach for the timer and meditate and what you are doing.
Three minutes of nothing before each task in your day may feel excessive, or even indulgent but it isn’t. It’s just smart.
If it helps, remember that dozens of three minute blocks of time whizz by you every day. So just catch a few, and use them as barrier that stops you striding blindly into several wasted hours.