Minimalist Lifestyle & Time Management

I got a question last week over email that I realize I’ve never answered publicly on the web before:

Whenever I hear anybody in the office say “I don’t have time to do that” I usually refer to you. That you manage to write blog posts, tweet, answer Q&As, participate in forums, email people back, plan and give talks, you’re informed on current issues in the industry and make time to think and analyse them, plus loads more, as well as run a successful company with a great culture.  So my story usually finishes with “if Rand has time to do it, then we do” (so if you ever get hate mail from a bunch of <redacted>, apologies that’s probably my fault – only kidding)…

…I’d would love to know if there are any posts, articles, books, tools or systems you use and recommend? It would be great to try them out here. Unless, you recommend drinking large amounts of coffee – we’re already pretty good at doing that.

I tossed back a short answer, but the question’s a great one and deserves more attention.

Strangely, I think of myself as a total slacker. I constantly feel either A) like I’m not pushing myself or getting enough done or B) like I’m overwhelmed because I’ve left myself too little time to accomplish all the obligations I have. In order to compensate for these emotions and the relatively sizable quantity of tasks and communication on my plate, I have a number of tactics developed over the years:

  • Run my entire life through my email and calendar – anything that’s not in one of these two areas doesn’t get addressed, and I combine both personal and professional obligations onto these.
  • Use a modified version of Inbox 0 philosophy – I answer email as it comes in, and if I’m busy, it starts to pile up. At that point, I address the most critical ones (often via my Android if I’m on the road) and let the rest wait until I get lots of un-interrupted hours at my computer.
  • Hire folks who can handle specific parts of my job – as the company grew, my role scaled from handling a lot to handling a very narrow band of tasks (strategy, hiring/managing the exec team, blogging, evangelism, etc). Everything else I’ve internally sourced to others and though I remain a communication conduit to many outside the company, I can simply funnel these to the appropriate team member. This means my high email load can often be quickly eliminated with lots of forwarding and intros.
  • Leverage an executive administrator – my EA, Jessica, handles about 20% of all my emails, taking care of scheduling, errands and lots of random tasks that would ordinarily consume a bunch of time (e.g. getting my Passport renewed or proofreading an interview).
  • Have a relatively strict hierarchy for what gets addressed first – SEOmoz team members and internal requests take priority over almost everything else. Next comes our board of directors/investors, then friends and important industry contacts, Moz members, press, potential hires, and the long list of others who email/tweet.
  • Have a great network – participation across the web marketing and startup fields over the last decade has given me a great network of folks on whom I can call for advice, help or referrals. I also leverage this network strongly to help the “random” emails from folks I receive who have questions or requests I can’t answer. Providing help to thousands of others over many years has built a lot of goodwill, which comes back in tons of ways, probably many I don’t see.
  • When I’m home, have a very specific schedule – wake up between 8-9am, do email for an hour or two, walk to work, no meetings before 11am, leave between 6-7pm, spend time with Geraldine until 9:30-10:30pm, do most of my “real work” between 10pm-2am.
  • When I travel, stay on top of email – if I can get through a few dozen emails while waiting at an airport or at a hotel before a conference, I’ll do it. This keeps my inbox from getting overwhelmed, a dangerous proposition that has caused lots of nastiness and snafus in the past.
  • Sleep 7.5+ hours nightly – unfortunately, if I don’t, I can’t function very well (maybe one or two days, but never more than three).
  • Limit overseas trips – flights longer than 6 hours to destinations in far-flung timezones are horrific productivity killers (particularly since these don’t yet have wifi, and access in other countries can be spottier, along with the pull to do more touristy-stuff, which I love). Thus, I try to keep these limited.
  • Never go “off-the-grid” – I haven’t been unplugged for more than 12-18 hours at a time since my wedding in 2007 (when things were much less busy at work). This helps me stay on top of things and ensures I never fall too far behind to recover. That said, I’ve had one declaration of email bankruptcy in the last couple years, and I’m constantly striving to prevent that from happening again.

These tactics, however, wouldn’t be enough on their own to handle the quantity of work I try to do. That requires a philosophy I’ve taken to calling my “minimalist lifestyle.” I try to keep all my obligations limited to just two things – Moz and Geraldine. This means no hobbies, no expensive habits, no ownership of hard-to-maintain possessions (homes, cars, beer brewing kits), no children (probably the most time-additive choice) and very few extracurricular requirements (no gym membership, no weekly lessons, no participation in anything that’s not Moz or Geraldine-related).

When I tell people about it, some are saddened, but I don’t feel any keen loss. I have a remarkably rich and lucky life – I think of myself as one of the luckiest people ever, and I try not to forget that luck means an obligation to accomplish as much as I can. I also find that if/when I consider varying from this approach, an overwhelming sense of guilt holds me back. For example, I’ve thought a few times about wanting to join more boards of directors or take up ukulele lessons or learn to speak Italian. But, with each of those comes an additional demand on my time that’s untenable, especially when I look at my flooding inbox each morning.

Eventually, this may become unsustainable, but for now, I continue to achieve efficiences that scale up with the demand – I’m faster than ever at answering email quickly, at scouring the web to keep up on what I need to be aware of, at participating in the social media channels I use, at blogging, preparing presentations and contributing to Moz’s success. There will be new challenges and roadblocks ahead, but hopefully, I keep getting better at handling the “regular” stuff and leveraging my team to help.

Certainly, there are those who accomplish far more than I do (writing books, blogging every night, running a company, making investments, etc) while simultaneously taking on much greater quantities of obligations (kids, houses, family issues, hobbies, etc). Someday, I hope to learn their secrets, but I suspect I’m just lazier and not as driven.

Oh, and as for posts, articles or books on time management – I’ve read a few, but never loved anything enough to adopt it fully, and I don’t have any I’d strongly recommend right now.