How to Filter Your Time for What’s Important

The Gist:

  • There are always going to be more demands on your time than time to meet them.
  • Success and productivity require that you establish and spend time on your priorities.
  • Tighter filters provide more time for what’s important and help eliminate future regrets.

Without filters, you allow everything in. This is true for water, something you would not want to consume before it’s been carefully filtered. Nor would you want your heater and air conditioner to continually circulate harmful particles like mold spores throughout your home and into your lungs. Even your car has air and fluid filters in the engine and dashboard, allowing it to run well by eliminating anything that’s thick, sticky, and prone to friction.

A closed door is a filter. So is a closed browser and a closed email inbox, or a smartphone in airplane mode. Any of these filters will provide you the opportunity to do good work—work of higher quality and greater importance. But the hard part is filtering out the merely important to reach the essential, especially when much of what shows up in your world creates additional friction.

Everything is important, but not everything can be most important. Spending time on one task, project, or initiative means depriving all the other tasks, projects, and ambitions of your time and your focus. While you might busy yourself with an enjoyable task, especially one that provides novelty and a sense of accomplishment, you often sacrifice attention to the other things you need to do—many of which would be a greater use of your time.

The value of completing a task lies somewhere on a continuum between “a pure waste of time” and “incredibly valuable to my future.” However, even the most blatant wastes of your time, attention, and energy try to convince you that they should be a priority, like the little chirp your smartphone makes every couple of minutes. Without a hierarchy of value, every to-do looks essential, even though only one outcome can be the most important.

a salesperson goes through their inbox and filters out unnecessary things

Tightening Up Your Filters

Let’s say you wake up in the morning, browse your unread email, and then read the news headlines, making sure you are up to speed on what has happened over the last seven hours. Now you know what other people need from you and what other people think you should know, but I hope none of your life goals include “stay on top of my email and the news headlines.” Both tasks offer you information, though realistically you can’t do much about that information. In fact, there are no real rewards for checking your inbox or reading the news first thing in the morning, since they allow no progress on your goals.

These loose filters all but guarantee that you’ll start your day feeling overwhelmed and pessimistic, especially if you read news sources that believe “if it bleeds, it leads.” By filtering out email, social media, and the news, you make room for something more important to you and your long-term success. I wake up a little before 4:30 AM because it’s a nearly airtight filter on my mornings. It eliminates anything or anyone from taking my time, except the Ulysses app and a cup of coffee.

A man looks at a lightbulb

Choosing Your Regrets

You won’t have time to pursue every opportunity or complete every potential project, especially when the world has so many easy paths through your filters. The more things you filter out, though, the more time you’ll have for what’s genuinely essential to you and your future. In doing so, you are not only being intentional about building the results you want, but you are also choosing your future regrets with the same care.

You missed out on all the clever posts on Facebook and Instagram, and you were unable to talk about the controversy on this week’s episode of The Bachelor. Because you were busy chasing down the results you want and becoming the person who comes after the person you are now, you missed out on all kinds of clickbait and viral videos. You couldn’t quite follow the latest batch of pop culture references. And in a shocking twist, you were even slightly slower getting back to people by email than you would have liked, because you prioritized what’s most important instead of what is most recent.

a man looks at a large magnifying glass of tasks

Clearing the Deck

The reason people feel overwhelmed and complain about not having enough time because their filters are too loose. The way you clear the deck for what is most important is by refusing to give your time to all the things that are not essential.

First, evaluate the value each potential task creates for the pursuit of your goals, your initiatives, and the future version of you (the one that hopes you are making good choices and not creating future regrets). If a task won’t create any real value or will lead to future regrets, reject it outright.

Next, instead of blindly following the patterns you have burnt in over the last decade, filter each task or potential project by critiquing its longer-term value in terms of the time and energy you would need to commit to it. When something contributes nothing to your goals and the future you are building, your filters should remove it from consideration. You have to impose a hierarchy of value by allowing you to recognize that one possible use of your time is not as valuable as something else.

Rich or poor, everyone gets the same twenty-four hours. The difference in your results and overall happiness comes down to how you spend that time.

Do Good Work:

  • What do you do that steals your time and makes no contribution to your goals, initiatives, or the life you want?
  • What should you say “no” to because it’s too small?
  • What filters do you need to create or tighten up to improve your results and your happiness?

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