Sally Schneider

Improvisation requires focus and time, two commodities few of us possess. And when you’re waist deep in alligators, it is hard to remember you came to drain the swamp. How can we get focus and time?

Many people we know have read The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. The title appeals to our inner escapist; we dream of an easier life where the focus is on what we really want to be doing, on our family and friends, on what matters most in our lives. The book describes how anybody can be a Lifestyle Designer, and fund their life with only four hours of work a week. That seems a stretch at best. If you have a “hot cakes” book and an online supplement business like Ferris does, maybe it’s plausible. But we’re too distracted and exhausted to start a business. Is such a radical shift necessary to be happy?

We think the real value of this book is as a set of tools that can help you make time to improvise a more enjoyable, less stressful life. Here are our favorite, truly do-able ideas to fight off the alligators and keep focus on what matters:

from ‘The Alligator People’ via Cryptlogic

1. Turn off automatic email updates and keep your email program closed until you decide to check it. Ferriss recommends doing email twice a day, at noon and 4 pm. While twice a day email seems impossible to us, every two hours reduces stress dramatically. Even once-an-hour helps. The result? You’ll find it easier to focus on what matters for today, which is the next improvisational tool.

2. Do only one essential “must do” thing a day. On any day, we all have half a dozen pressing things to do. Often every task feels equally important. However, if you pick one thing as most essential, most likely to make you happy if it is done today, then you will be more productive. If you complete your one must-do task for the day and have time left over, then pick the next most essential thing to get done. Instead of feeling you have to do everything today, or almost everything, reverse the problem. Assume you only have to do one thing today: what would it be? You also might find your one task is several tasks: break up the task and pick the first step as your must do task for today.

3. Set impossible deadlines. Give yourself an artificially small amount of time to get #2 done, perhaps one hour to create a presentation. You’ll discover one hour is enough. Or it will only take two hours. Ferriss believes we fill up the time we have (and procrastinating is part of it). Drastically limit your time available to complete a task and you’ll find work often gets done in the shorter time allowed.

4. Read fiction as you fall asleep. We didn’t believe Ferriss when he claims people who read fiction sleep better than people who read non-fiction because our brains process fiction differently than non-fiction. We were addicted to catching up on news reading magazines before falling asleep – all real world stuff. Switching to reading fiction made a huge difference; we discovered that it IS more relaxing and leads to more restful sleep.

5. Plan goals for a day, a week, or a month. We’re fond of annual goals, aka New Year’s resolutions, backed up with monthly checks and a flexible path to get goals done. But we never realized one-day or one-week goals are a great way to break up your normal routine in small dramatic ways. We like to add in things that we often put on the back burner, even though they’re really important, like having fun and relaxing. A one day goal might be to visit the zoo with your kids. Or spend a Saturday afternoon stretched out on your bed reading by the window. Everybody has small pleasures they enjoy. Make time for them.

One idea that helps organize #2 and #3 is a weekly worksheet…

This simple worksheet works for us (just click on the link to download and print…tailor it to suit your needs…)

The common threads in all these techniques are:

The breathless boosterism in The Four Hour Work Week feels odd today, even quaint. (It was published in 2007 as the economy began to implode.) But the ideas in the book make great tools to help make your life more spontaneous, to have less stress and more control. To benefit from the book, you don’t have to achieve a four hour work week, or buy a Lamborghini, or run away to Argentina for a year to learn the tango. Instead, just tweak a few small bits of your life.

(If you work on a computer most of the time, you also might want to test a low-cost service like which, when installed on your computers, will tell you exactly what you do each day. Sometimes that can help get control of your life, too.)

–Tim Slavin

Related post: Guest Blogger Tim Slavin on American Pickers

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6 replies on “5 ways to make time to improvise

  1. Thank you for this terrific post. Your ideas touched a chord in me and reaffirmed some very valuable lessons that I’m awakening to right now.

  2. I borrowed the book from the library before I bought it, after realizing I had renewed it a couple times. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. This is exactly what I needed to see today… thank you.

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