Black and white time


“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” ― Zen Proverb

I realised a few weeks ago that I was spending “grey” time for many years now. Let me explain.

Let’s assume the time you spend on work, profession, intellectual goals, basically everything serious and important in life as Black time. And the time you take off from work, relax, vacation, rest, recharge as White time.

What I was doing was I was never spending any time completely in the Black zone and neither completely in the White zone but in some confusing middle area - let’s call it the Grey time. Meaning that I was never completely locked in to my work - I’d keep drifting away in thoughts about what to do to relax, what and where to eat, where to travel and would long to get out of my work mode.

And when I would be off from work, vacationing or lavishly spending time doing nothing, I’d still keep thinking about work, making plans about what and how to get my work done, creating mental todos. I’d also feel guilty for wasting so much of my time when taking my scheduled time off.

I’d not be completely off from work even on weekends and would be kind of available for work and would never be completely relaxing and would have a lukewarm attitude towards my time off.

The Grey zone

Living in the grey zone leads to an experience and results that are the least common denominator of both black and white zones.

Just like multitasking gives you less effective results compared to when you do one thing at a time, not shuffling quickly between black and white time and not being in the grey time would be the most effective. Grey zone, just like multi-tasking, is like half-assing both work and play. And nothing of value ever comes out of half assed, shallow efforts.

The irony here is that the better you get at completely plugging out from your work, the better job you’ll do when you finally come back to your work.

People who are the most effective are the ones who are good at toggling their work and non-work states. The one’s who don’t think about their work while sipping cocktails on their vacations and the one’s who don’t think about their favourite distractions while they’re sitting and working at their desk.

To prevent marginal returns on your attentions, focus intensely on one thing at a time and be in one mode at a time.

The entire world is distracted, focusing is all you have to do to stand out.

The fetishisation of long working hours

Working 100 hour work weeks is almost treated as a badge of honour, being an honourable member of the hustle culture or the productivity cults. Doing anything less is seen as you not being serious enough about your goals.

Being physically present for 12 hours at your job is not the same thing as being mentally present for 12 hours.

Henry David Thoreau, author and philosopher, wrote this about work efficiency and working hours in his journals more than 150 years ago(!):

“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.”- The Journal of Henry David Thoreau

Remember: Long working hours and burnouts are not a badge of honour, they’re a sign of having no control over your priorities and boundaries in life. Long working hours don’t automatically ensure success and might be a very poor indicator for productivity.

Rules to avoid the Grey zone

It all really boils down to making good use of your time. When you’re working, no time or energy is wasted. When you’re not, you’re completely present with your family or just chilling out.

Here are a few rules that have helped me make progress on this problem:

  • Hell yes or no Whatever I work on, I should either be very excited to do it and be saying “Hell Yes!”, otherwise I’d simply say no and move on. (Hat tip: Derek Sivers )

Don’t work on the grey things.

These things, no matter how much and how hard you work, will always give marginal returns. These are the things you’re not stoked about and these are the things that are making your black and white time not as effective and enjoyable as they should be.

  • Have a cut off time Have a time of the day after which you’ll not work at all and practice this boundary religiously. At first you might feel uncomfortable and you’d want to check into your work or do something more, but if you stay disciplined with this boundary, you’ll start making more out of your work time.

When you realise that you don’t have the entire day to work but only a few hours, you’ll be more conscious of your time and be more efficient (Higher work/time ratio). As stated above:

“Those who work much do not work hard.” - The Journal of Henry David Thoreau

With increasing remote work and the nature of work of many knowledge workers, this is the precise line that gets blurred. When does work stop and when does leisure start. And it’s difficult to maintain this line partly because we don’t know how to and partly because people won’t let us. We would be made to feel guilty or feel guilty ourselves for stopping work after the work has ended. That’s crazy.

One more thing that helps here is to give more importance to your after-work hours and dedicate it to something you’re very interested about.

  • Don’t spread yourself too thin. Don’t try to work on everything and try to make everyone happy. Ironical but when you’re totally dialled in in only a few but important things, you’ll end up making everyone happy including yourself.
  • Don’t try to be productive all the time The entire purpose of taking rest or taking some time off is to recharge your batteries. If you’re still checking your mail or trying to be productive in your time off, your down-time will be affected. And if you’re not completely relaxed when you get back to your work, your work quality will suffer the next day because you weren’t well rested and you will try to compensate for it by working even longer, distracted hours.

Instead, work for a few, fixed number of hours but be completely focused. Be efficient with your time and energy and not laborious. When you’re done, don’t try to force productivity out of yourself and be completely off. Come back to your work well rested and ready to focus.

Step away from your problems, they also need time and space to breathe.

Famous examples

You might think that this is not applicable to you because you just have many responsibilities and obligations, but one look at some of the most busiest people in the world will drive the point home that you’re not THAT busy to justify poor management of your time and boundaries.

  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella leaves work at the door whenever he comes back to his home after work and is adamant about being ‘present’ when he is with his family.
  • Jeff Bezoz had this to say when asked how to improve productivity and performance:

    ″If I’m happy at work, I’m better at home — a better husband and better father. And if I’m happy at home, I come into work more energized — a better employee and a better colleague,”

Source: Thrive Global

  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg reportedly leaves work each day at 5:30 to be home for dinner with her family at 6.
  • Richard Branson makes sure to completely disconnect when on a vacation and tries to leave his smartphone at home or at the hotel room and keeps a notebook and pen instead.
  • LeBron James sleeps 12 hours a day to ensure proper rest, recovery and performance to be able to perform at the peak level.

Conclusion

Your productivity and efficiency is not saved from the rule that less is more, that quality of your work/time/focus/energy matters much more than the quantity.

The irony is hidden but true: the better you get at completely disconnecting, the better you will be at focusing on your work when the time comes.

Be more mindful, efficient and intentional with your time and focus.

Multitasking has people believing that they can get way more done when juggling 2-3 things at a time which is a fallacy, our brains are not only bad at multitasking but they are built to handle one thing at a time. Spending “grey” time is not any different from this.

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“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray." - Rumi