In another installment of our Productive Reading series, we look at some key takeaways from The Free-Time Formula, by Jeff Sanders.
Another suggestion for productive reading
This week, we are continuing our Productive Reading recurring series. In Episode 133, we talked about lessons from Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing. In Episode 147, we talked about lessons learned from The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. In Episode 166, we covered 3 books written by Brené Brown, and in Episode 182, Soulful Simplicity, by Courtney Carver. This time I’m sharing some of my most important takeaways from Jeff Sanders’s newest book, The Free-Time Formula: Finding Happiness, Focus, and Productivity No Matter How Busy You Are. (Quotes below are from the book.)
Who is Jeff Sanders?
Jeff Sanders is a productivity expert. I was a guest on his podcast, the 5 AM Miracle Episode #123, in late 2015. Jeff is an author, podcaster, coach. He and his wife Tessa had their first baby, a little girl, this summer. He and I were panelists, with Nick Snapp, at a podcasting conference early last year, talking about productivity for podcasters. Find out more about Jeff by visiting his website.
What is this book about?
Jeff starts by sharing how, shortly after he’d signed to contract to write this book, he found himself in the hospital emergency room suffering physical effects of an overloaded life, and how that experience affected his focus on managing his commitments to allow for a better quality of life.
I love how he summarizes his book on page 11:
“The Free-Time Formula is a seven-step system to help you find happiness, focus, and productivity no matter how busy you are. It is a path to high achievement without the burden of slaving away 24/7 to get there.”
The subtitle of The Free-Time Formula is “Finding Happiness, Focus, and Productivity No Matter How Busy You Are.” He is committed to this message, and to providing tools and ideas to help you achieve it.
The book is inspiring and motivating, but also practical. Each chapter ends with a brief summary of the chapter’s key points, followed by a specific action plan – things you can do to put into practice the ideas discussed in that chapter, and I really like this practical element. He ends the book with a very specific 7-day action plan.
The book is divided into 7 parts, corresponding to each of the 7 steps, with 2 chapters focused on each step.
- Find out what’s really going on.
This is about becoming aware of how you’re spending your time by doing a self-evaluation and a time audit.
- Clarify what matters.
This is about identifying what he calls your “vital few priorities” and what you should be doing next to make sure you’re staying focused on them.
- Flex your muscles.
This is about staying healthy enough to pursue your goals.
- Cut the nonsense.
This is the step where you purge your calendar and to-do list of activities and commitments that don’t serve you and your key priorities.
- Schedule what matters.
This is about putting on your calendar the actions and activities that will move you forward in accomplishing your key goals.
- Prevent future nonsense.
This is about identifying what your primary distractions are and developing strategies to combat them so you can stay focused on what matters.
- Solidify your ideal rhythm.
This is about developing a daily/weekly schedule that works for you and incorporates times of focus and times of rest.
What does free time mean to me?
“Defining what free time means to you is the most important first step to ensuring you get as much of it as you want.”
Jeff’s quote above got me thinking about what I want time for in my life. We talk about wanting more free time, but what does that mean? Does it mean doing nothing staring out the window, or time away from your job to do something else that matters to you? As we often talk about on this podcast, being intentional about what we do is the key to success and being productive in all the best senses.
You can't manage time itself, only what we do with it
“You can never actually manage time because it moves forward at its own pace, regardless of what we do.”
We talk about managing time but the truth is we can’t manage it. It is what it is and the minutes tick by regardless. But we can manage our activities, energy, and attention to accomplish what we want to and make the best use of the time we have. We can’t manage time itself as it moves forward at its own pace, but we can manage what we do with it.
You can only do one thing in a given moment
“Having more than one priority is a lie. . . . We can truly only ever do one thing at a time, and in any given moment we only have one task that is at the top of the list. We may have many tasks we would like to accomplish over the course of the next twenty-four hours, but only one task is the supreme task right now.”
There may be several important areas of our lives, but Jeff is saying that as we’re deciding what to do with our time in any given moment, that there can only be one task. When we’re putting our to-do list together, it is important to keep that in mind. We may have lots of things we want to accomplish over the course of time, but as you’re trying to decide what to do next, one thing should rise to the top.
In this section of the book, he offers a list of 5 questions to assess our to-do list and focus in on what’s the most important task to do today:
- Are there any tasks on the list that I already know could be eliminated forever?
- Are there any tasks on this list that I already know could be rescheduled for another day?
- How many of these tasks are due today and could not be rescheduled without a phenomenal effort on my part?
- Are there any tasks on this list that could be quickly and reasonably delegated to someone else?
- If I had to pick just ONE task on this list to accomplish today, which one would it be?
“You cannot do it all, and you should not do it all.”
The “Green Pen” approach
“You and I both know where we need to improve. We hear it from our boss, our spouse, our preacher, the television, and even our best friends. What we often miss is what makes us remarkable. Our successes are so often overshadowed by our mistakes that we use the vast majority of our brain (and spend the vast majority of our time) consumed with negativity.”
I thought this idea was so profound and kind of novel in a way. We all know how red pens are used: to mark up what's wrong. Jeff's “green pen” approach, on the other hand, is about looking carefully at our lives for what works, what we do well, our strengths, where we shine, and building our goals around those things instead of creating goals around trying to improve our weaknesses.
Health is key to pursue your goals successfully
“Your health is more important than your resume, checklist, bucket list, or achievement ranking system. . . . Adopting a health-first approach is a sure-fire strategy to guarantee you can achieve your most ambitious goals far into the future.”
This was such a good reminder that caring for your physical and mental health is key to having the energy and focus you need to pursue your goals. But we tend to think and act as though we have to choose between our health and our other goals.
I’m guilty of this myself. For example, I neglect physical movement to sit in my chair and work on client matters in pursuit of my professional goals. This is a false choice.
“It is not only possible to remain healthy while pursuing your goals, but it is also the only way you will be able to pursue them long term.”
“Exercise time does not replace productivity time; it enhances it.”
“Ideally, you should have time on most days for three essential activities: physical fitness, working on your craft, and enjoying the fruits of your labors. If you do not have time for all three of these on a recurring basis, you are too busy, or your priorities are out of order.”
Pause and slow down
“There is immense value in the pause, in intentionally slowing the pace of the day, or in simply stopping to consciously take a breath after an intense and productive session.”
We tend to think being productive is about going all the time (or as much as possible), checking things off our to-do list, but Jeff encourages us to consciously pause and offers some practical ideas on how to build pauses into even your busiest days: e.g., just after the alarm goes off, between meetings or appointments, just after a workout, when sitting in traffic, just before falling asleep.
Cut the Nonsense
“Anything that is a distraction to your vital few goals is nonsense.”
Jeff offers the idea of cutting the nonsense from our lives to make room for what really matters. Some practical ideas he suggests is to create your “Must-Do List”: “a simple index of items near and dear to your heart, tasks that you are fully committed to accomplishing every week.”
Sit down with a beverage of your choice and a notepad to think about what activities you really want to be a part of your week. Is it taking a walk outside, spending time with your spouse, working on an art project, or getting to bed by 10 pm every night? Whatever it is that is really important to you, write them down, and get it into your schedule. The point is to use this list as a barometer whether your life is getting off-track and recognize when you’re not getting to those activities, and take that as a wake-up call.
“When your Must-Do List is not getting done, this is a warning that you need to make a change, and it needs to happen right away. Continuing at the current pace will lead to increased stress, fatigue, mood swings, and burnout.”
Create your red-carpet calendar
- What matters most is scheduled first
- Leave plenty of margin for surprise tasks, unexpected challenges, and downtime
- Make sure it’s synchronized across all your devices so it’s available to you no matter where you are. Even if I’m away from my computer and phone, the next event/appointment/commitment shows up on the screen on my Apple Watch.
- Schedule similar tasks in batches to eliminate the friction of task switching.
Run errands together and plan an efficient route. Make calls sequentially. I try to record more than one podcast episode at a time to reduce the time spent setting up my recording gear.
- He talks about several obstacles to the good use of your calendar and offers ideas for addressing them.
Make good use of your free time
“To take advantage of free time that shows up unexpectedly, be prepared with your “Free Time? Do This Now” list. This is a collection of tasks, projects, or ideas, varying in length, that you could pursue when you discover an opening in your schedule.” [pg.142]
Make a list of ideas for things you can do with 15 minutes, 1 hour, half a day, etc., of unexpected free time. You can avoid the “waste” of time when a meeting is canceled or maybe there’s a weather-caused work cancellation. Without a plan, you might just surf the net or binge on Netflix.
Honestly, maybe that’s what you want to do with that time. But if you have some other things you’ve been wanting to do but “never have time,” maybe put those on the list.
“Focus is a skill, and you can improve with intentional practice.”
Jeff suggests creating a “focus checklist,” which is a list of things to do in preparation for a session of focused work. It's based on the sorts of things that tend to distract you, so you’re planning to get around those. His list includes:
- Get a snack and drink.
- Restroom break.
- Hang up a Do Not Disturb sign (if you often get interrupted by others).
- Turn off your devices.
- Set a timer.
- Light a candle.
- Turn on focus music.
“The key is to preempt what normally causes you to go off on a tangent and stop working, even for a moment. Brainstorm a list of your greatest distractions that arise when you want to work. Using that list as a guide, create your focus checklist to ensure you can begin your next session as ready as can be.”
The importance of periodic sabbaticals: Take time away from work
“Systematically taking time away from your work on a regular basis is paramount to your ability to stay fully engaged when you are working, and totally unplugged when you are not. . . . Consider when, and for how long, you could guarantee quality time for recurring sabbaticals in your current season of life and work.”
- Daily – How could you guarantee an hour or more for “me time”?
- Weekly – When is it best to take a step back to pause, reflect, and regroup? Can you guarantee a work-free zone for one or two days each week?
- Semi-Annually/Annually – an extended vacation or retreat to fully decompress from your normally busy schedule
- “There is more to life than work, and there is an ideal rhythm to life that can sustain your soul.”
Taking action on what you know is more valuable than learning new things
“The smallest and seemingly most insignificant actions are inherently more valuable than the eighteen new things you learned but did nothing about.”
There is nothing groundbreakingly new in The Free-Time Formula, but what Jeff does is assemble it all, express it in a clear and usable way, and remind us of the concepts that we may have heard before but haven't taken action on. So I’m going to come up with an action for each of my takeaways.
All in all, I found this book to be a very practical, solutions-oriented book about productivity and I encourage you to check it out.
What do you think?
Have you read The Free-Time Formula? What spoke to you most strongly? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- Episode 133 – Productive Reading: The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller
- Episode 147 – Productive Reading: The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
- Episode 166 – Productive Reading: 3 books written by Brené Brown
- Episode 182 – Productive Reading: Soulful Simplicity, by Courtney Carver
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