Productivity budgeting: the missing personal productivity component

Limitatons of personal productivity tools

Modern productivity methods and tools go a long way towards optimizing our focus on areas and things that really matter to us. GTD, for example, provides us with an elaborate basis for identifying what we need to do next, depending on our context but also on our overall priorities, expressed in projects in areas of focus which roll up to an overall vision of what we want to be or do.

But there is a nagging gap in all productivity approaches I’ve read and used so far … each of them, if not used with due care, will devolve into a to do list of mythical proportions, creating unreasonable expectations on what can be done by us. Remember, we are mere humans.

Confrontation with an unplanned expense

Whenever I do my weekly review, especially the part where I go through my projects list and look at all the intended tasks I have yet to execute, I am always amazed and honestly a bit terrified at how much there is left for me to do. I often feel like a person who is being confronted with a significant unplanned expense. The feeling is dread. I’m observing myself developing a resistance to my weekly review to avoid being confronted with that feeling every single week.

And it’s not just that. The effectiveness of the “incompletion trigger list” leads to a situation where I find my creative mind generating at least two additional actions for every action I have cleared the week before. My sense of accomplishment tends to suffer. For everything I do, more remains to be done.

Balancing what we want and can get done

Some of you may call this life, but in my mind, life should not just be about what remains to be done. Productivity and its cousins effectiveness and efficiency are – to me at least – all about the balance between what can be done and what is being done. What can be done is not just limited by our imagination and our ability to stick it on a to-do-list, it is also, in a major way, limited by our available capacity, by our real availability … by our available time.

The time budget problem

I can see the broad strokes of what is missing in my understanding of current productivity methods. I fail to approach productivity as the fundamental budget problem it is. Not a money budget problem, but a time budget problem. Let me explain with a parallel to budget approaches:

Wanting things or experiences without having either unlimited funds or a structured approach which maps out how we will use our available funds to accumulate to get to the amounts necessary to acquire these things or experiences will get us exactly nowhere. The approach where we label money we have available for expected future expenditure is called budgeting.

Now, in money matters, there are two important aspects to budgeting, expertly described by YNAB and quickly and incompletely recapped here:

  • You can only budget what you are sure to have available to you. If you budget dollars or euros you don’t have available to you, you are creating an illusion. You cannot spend what you don’t have available to you. Not understanding that simple rule has led a lot of people into credit card debt.
  • Once you are sure about what you have available to you, you need to give each dollar or euro a job. If you do not, it is sure to get wasted on something irrelevant, and it does not honor the idea that a lot of small savings can really lead up to overall important savings.

The challenges of time budgeting

Now, the same goes with time. I can only really spend the time I am sure to have available to me. Anything that I put on my to-do list is an implicit commitment to my time. Overcommitting is easy when I don’t know what I can reasonably commit to. Overcommitment, or not being able to do what I expected to do leads to disappointment with myself and with my approach, over time leading to abandoning an otherwise excellent way of identifying what I need to work on to remain focused.

The flip side of this is that I need to give all my available time a purpose, even if that purpose is relaxing. If I don’t, those unassigned hours are likely to be spent in a zombie-like stupor in front of the TV, watching yet another reality series or even a good show, not really being here, being somewhere and somewhen else. That is not participating in life, that is wasting time.

Components of a time budget approach and link to GTD

So, what I am looking for is a budget approach to life. I need to:

  • truly know what I will have available in terms of time … getting to really know what I can do with available time is likely to be an iterative process, and;
  • assign that time to realistic purposes, for which my GTD-established task list will be a great starting point.

This is one way to make sure that the to-do list does not create undue stress and lead to unfulfilled expectations it intended to alleviate.