If you had a completely free “extra” hour every day, how would you spend it?


That is the question Gretchen Rubin used the other day on her podcast as a way to gauge what it is she ought to be doing. It’s such a simple trick.

Ask yourself, if you had one extra, completely free hour each day that sat somehow outside of the regular rules of time, how would you spend it? If you didn’t have to worry about it interfering with other things, or getting tired, or any other considerations, what would you do?

Essentially, the question asks, what do you most want to do?

Often, as she indicates, the thing we want to do is a thing we rarely do at all. It makes no sense. Why would we not do the one thing we want to do the most?

By identifying that one thing, it tells us a lot about what we want. More importantly, it begs why we haven’t made the adjustment to do that thing already. While freeing up an extra hour a day might not be completely possible, identifying the thing that you want to do with more time can help you prioritize the things you do when you make the time.

Freeing up an extra hour a day for a hobby isn’t always possible for me. However, I’ve found that I can find those extra hours during the early mornings on most weekends. Instead of forcing the extra hours into an already crammed workweek, I’ve built the time into the weekend at a time that I can control.

It’s worth re-evaluating how you would spend that one hour from time to time, as priorities change. It’s a great tool for seeing where you are and what’s missing from your life, and often provides a quick way to patch up a hole.

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Time Hacks and Parkinson’s Law

Patrol Base

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

I stood in the middle of the patrol base. It was completely dark, and I was giving orders to my team leaders. I told them to have the men pair up, and one at a time, pull off the line. One would clean his weapon while the other maintained security.

They dutifully nodded and made it happen, tired soldiers crawling a few meters back from their position to lazily wipe carbon and oil out of the guts of their rifles. They droned on.

I sat in the middle of the patrol base and worked on a sector sketch, feeling good about having given out orders.

The military trainer approached me and kneeled. I could barely see his face in the darkness.

He asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m working on my sector sketch,” I responded.

“No, what are your guys doing?”

“Oh, they’re cleaning weapons,” I said, looking over my shoulder at dark figures, barely moving.

“How long have they been doing that for?”

“Uh, about thirty minutes,” I responded.

“Listen, when you give out orders you need to give a task, condition, standard, and a time hack. Otherwise, they’ll just go on doing whatever it is you told them to do forever.”

This small piece of advice would be forever etched in my mind. I was 19 years old in the the woods of Fort Bragg, North Carolina and it was right there that I learned the importance of giving clear orders with an associated time hack. In this case, instead of simply telling the guys to to “clean their weapons” I should have said something like “pull out the bolt, wipe off the oil and carbon, dump some oil on it, put the bolt back in and then swap out with your buddy. You have five minutes to have both rifles clean. Go.”

The “time hack” is a leadership technique used to great effect by both small unit military leaders and field grade officers. If you tell a soldier to do something – whatever it is – without giving specific guidance on how to do it and more importantly, when to do it (or when to have it completed), you are leaving the task to the individual leisure of that soldier. If he or she is motivated and a go-getter, they may tackle it immediately with fantastic results. If he or she is a shammer, it will always be the task that they are right about to get to, as soon as they finish this other thing.

Years later, after I left the Army, I became really interested in “lifehack” blogs and “GTD” articles. Somewhere along the way, I came across “Parkinson’s Law,” which states “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” That is, if you give someone a big chunk of time in which to accomplish a task, it is likely that they will use that time to its fullest. This is related to procrastination, in the way a student can knock out a paper they were assigned a month ago on the night before it is due, simply out of necessity.

The original essay was meant to be humorous and a jab at the British Civil Service – specifically, the British Colonial Service, which incidentally I recently mentioned in another post. Funny as it is, Parkinson’s law makes sense, and can be applied to both organizations who duplicate jobs and create “busy” work as well as individuals, for whom, as Gretchen Rubin recently posted about – nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.

Parkinson’s article is worth reading in its entirety. The manner and style is outdated, which is why I think boiling down the law to assigning “time hacks” is more digestible. Schedule a task and limit the amount of time you give yourself (or someone else) for completion, and you are more likely to see it to completion. Leave it floating out there in the ether to be completed at leisure, and it will never get done, becoming an exhausting nag that stares at you for days and weeks and months on end.

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Military Meditation

Around the time I started to transition out of the Army, I started to get very interested in “productivity.” I followed blogs like lifehack and 43 Folders. I kept reading articles about and by people like David Allen and Merlin Mann. I developed my own system for “getting things done” and have revised and revised over the years to get to where I am now (it’s still a monster,  but it’s my monster). Somewhere along the way I came across Gretchen Rubin. I found her through her blog, The Happiness Project, which later became a best-selling book. In it, she describes her journey on finding happiness through self-experimentation. It’s a fantastic book which I eagerly read when it came out and have given as a gift a bunch of times.

Fortunately, Gretchen maintains her blog and posts pretty regularly. She frequently posts interviews with people in the field of whatever it is she is researching at the time. Right now, she’s writing a book on ‘habits.’ Back in February, she posted an interview with ABC news correspondent Dan Harris. Now, if you are a very close reader of this blog or you know me personally, then you are already aware of my fascination with early morning news television. Wherever I am, I’ll always watch the local news, mostly because it is often extremely awkward, and then if I’m around, I’ll stick around for the highly-polished national news. It’s hardly news anymore – it’s more like BuzzFeed – just a mashup of some news items with some celebrity stuff and viral videos. It’s supposed to wake you up, I guess.

Anyway, my preference is Good Morning America, and I usually only get to see it on weekends, when Dan Harris is on. I have always liked Dan Harris. He’s done some good war reporting. He’s also pretty dry and can be sarcastic. So when Dan Harris popped on Gretchen Rubin’s blog, it was, for me, one of those weird intersections in life of people I admire. In the interview, I learned that Dan Harris meditates and just wrote a book aggressively titled “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.” As someone who has flirted with meditation before (more on that below), I pre-ordered the book and shortly thereafter, shipped off to the National Training Center. After returning home, I finished up one book and then jumped into Dan’s book.

I’m not reviewing the book here. I’ll just say that it was really good. Funny, well-written, and practically helpful. If you’re interested in meditation, mindfulness, or the drama that goes on behind the scenes at ABC news, you will enjoy the book. In it, he refers to the Marine Corps’ experiments with teaching meditation to marines as a way to make – better marines. For its part, the Army has embraced “resiliency” as not just a thing you should be, but an entire methodology for teaching and living (meditation in the classic, Buddhist tradition is not currently part of the instruction, though).

When I was going to college in New York, I learned about a guy named David Wagner who was offering free meditation sessions to veterans. At the time, I was organizing the City College Veterans Association and wanted to see what it was all about. Like Dan says in the book, meditation’s biggest problem is bad public relations. The stereotypical meditator is the touchy-feely hippy who is lost in his own world. There is probably no subculture of people that might be more skeptical of meditation than the military – with your “dip and velcro and all your gear.”

I met David in his Manhattan office. He was about my height, with a full beard and dark, wavy hair. He smiled widely as he greeted me, but wasn’t overly friendly. As we walked into his office, I looked around the room and saw a sticker that read “Fuck the Naysayers.” We sat down, and he excitedly shared with me a theory he had about war veterans, based on things he has read and his own study of meditation. I’m paraphrasing here – it’s been over five years since this conversation – but he explained that there is a deep inner understanding that meditation practitioners work to achieve through years of patient work. He spoke about Greek mythology and the notion of the warrior achieving enlightenment through combat. We discussed the overwhelming feelings that overtake a person the first time bullets fly overhead. His theory, is that at that moment, a person is fully present – which is one of the goals of meditation, after all. The fear and excitement of combat supercharges a person into the here and now by necessity. That soldier has touched that deep inside ‘thing’ for a moment, and then the adrenaline goes away and Dan’s ‘voice in the head’ comes back and takes over.

You know that half second of chest-constricting terror that happens when you see the demon’s faces for the first time in The Devil’s Advocate? That’s apparently how war feels, constantly. –@babyballs69

David believes that through meditation, veterans can recapture that feeling of being completely present – the exhilaration of combat (without the fear) through meditation, and ultimately, be a better person. I liked what he was saying, and it made sense. What I especially liked is that David wasn’t approaching help for veterans as a charity case to address PTSD – which I’ve seen over and over again when it comes to doing anything for veterans.

While meditation might help veterans with PTSD (I haven’t seen the research), David was more interested in using meditation as a way to build the next-greatest generation.

To put it plainly, his thought was that through the crucible of combat, veterans achieved something that most people will never achieve – a kind of self-enlightenment that was actualized, and then locked away, deep inside the body. Through meditation, that “thing” could be unlocked. The classes were free, so what did I have to lose?

I met with David over the course of a couple of months and began meditating. It was a frustrating process, because it takes real discipline and buy-in. Over those months, I sometimes meditated regularly and sometimes stopped for long periods of time. David was always nice about it when I said I hadn’t meditated in awhile, pointing out that if I looked at a chart of my life, I was still meditating a lot more than I had over the past twenty seven years. During that time when I was meditating regularly, I felt good, and strangely, it manifested itself in the gym – I was working out harder than ever.

In my last year at City College, I tried connecting more veterans with David and meditation. I pushed, but it was too hard a sell at the time and required a lot more energy from me than I could give to make it happen. It’s unfortunate, because I think David is really on to something. As Dan’s book points out, the research is there. Meditation is not just some lovey-dovey cosmic thing – it’s proven by science to improve a number of things. In Dan’s case, he claims to be at least 10% happier. Not a bad return on the investment. So, I leave this all here for you to pick through and think about. I know I’m convinced.

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