Time management techniques from Dennis Mortensen, CEO of x.ai, an AI driven personal assistant who schedules meetings for you.
For many startup founders, 14-hour days aren’t just necessary to get a new company off the ground, they’re a badge of honor, proof that you deserve any future success that might arrive. Time is the enemy. To win you must conquer it. Daily, though, you can feel like you’re losing battle after battle, with too few hours to get the work done.
I know these feelings well, since I’ve only ever been an entrepreneur. I also know that the feeling of time being in short supply is not one you need to accept, even when you’re working around the clock to bring your new vision into reality.
How To Leverage Time To Our Evolutionary Advantage
Recent brain science suggests that perceiving events in time requires some pretty complicated neurological gymnastics, since our senses operate at different speeds.
In his essay “Brain Time,” neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the problem: “The brain must account for speed disparities between and within its various sensory channels if it is to determine the timing relationships of features in the world.” Despite the complexity of processing stimuli at varying speeds of brain activity, we manage to perform this feat thousands, if not millions, of times a day with a remarkable degree of accuracy.
If we take Eagleman seriously, it wouldn’t be crazy to conclude that it’s to our evolutionary advantage to temporally map events. In fact, our brains have gotten quite good at this; however, time is not what it seems. Time is a perceptual artifact, no more “real” than the color blue or a C flat, which suggests that there may be other ways to experience time.
Time, Technology, And A Little Trickery
Well, you argue, but isn’t life speeding up? Isn’t technology impinging upon our brain in new and uncomfortable ways? After all, our brain evolved to escape tigers in the Savannah, not hunt down customers in the digital slipstream.
Not so fast. The notion that technology is accelerating life at an intolerable rate dates back to at least the 19th century, so it’s not specific to our time-pressed, always on, 21st century moment. Some consider the feeling that technology is outpacing humanscale time a hallmark of modernity itself.
So perceived time is a function of some high level neurological trickery. And our feeling of being overwhelmed by the speed of life has been a constant for at least the past two centuries. The solution then can’t only be more technology or managing your to do list more efficiently (though both can certainly help). The solution really boils down to changing your perception of time—which begs the question: how do you possibly do that?
Time Management Techniques: A Roundup
Some of the time management techniques I’ve found to counteract the chronic state of time-paucity familiar to any startup founder or, really, most any 21st century knowledge worker, are very pragmatic. Some, paradoxically, require a bit more time and effort.
Let’s tackle the “easy” ones first.
1) Inbox 0. I’m religious about this. I get to inbox 0 every night. (And once I do, I don’t randomly open up my inbox; that’s it, I’m done!) Partly, I do this by ruthlessly culling my inbox. I never use received emails as reminders. Instead, I insert reminders of tasks that I need to complete by a specific date into my calendar. For tasks with no immediate deadline, I create a Google doc of “To Dos.” I realize none of this is particularly innovative. The real trick is getting to inbox 0 one night. Then you know you can do it again.
2) Keep a complete and proper calendar. Everything I need to do is in my calendar—from executive team meetings to dance lessons with my daughter. This removes the cognitive stress of having to remember what I’m supposed to be doing at any given moment. It’s now the job of the calendar to remember, not me! I add everything. I even add spontaneous events like promising to give a friend from back home (Denmark) a call that same evening. That way, I also know when I have free time.
3) I keep a running list of ideas. Any idea which I have, from great to kinda crappy goes onto this list. None are for me to pursue right now, but rather could inspire a future venture a decade from now, shape my “retirement” plans, or could be a simple idea for how to impress a potential new hire for x.ai when we hit a certain milestone.
4) I depend on our AI personal assistant to schedule all of my meetings, which helps enormously with #2.
These simple steps really serve a much greater aim: to clear my head of useless junk. I deploy all of my core tools—inbox, lists and calendar with the help of Amy—to free up my mind. Knowing your inbox is empty, that your meetings are being tended to and properly recorded, that all your good ideas are listed and not vanishing come your next thought allows for you to think, really think, and time expands.
Tackling Time Can Be A Walk In The Park
There is one additional technique which I use to stretch time. I walk the full length of Manhattan, which takes me short of three hours. No iPhone, no music, no tech, just me and the city. There is nothing to do during this time but mull over the bigger challenges that I’m facing and let my mind take in the changing scenery. I aim to do this walk once a week and succeed at it at least once every other week ;-)
The science says walking works. A recent Stanford study showed that walking increases creativity, doubling the number of creative responses in some experiments. By increasing creative thinking, walking wrests more out of the same amount of time. And the effects persist even after your walk has ended.
You don’t necessarily need the length of a city to conquer time. Any form of meditation free of interruptions will do. A daily 20-minute meditation while you commute to or from work can achieve most of the head clearing effects of my biweekly walk. Bonus: meditators actually perceive time differently; for them, time passes more slowly, which is another way of saying you feel like you have more of it.
Using these few techniques, I rarely feel pressed for time, despite being in the trenches building an AI autonomous agent with a team now 93 strong.
What are your time-hacking tricks?
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