The Search For Time Lost


The Search For Time Lost

William Porter lost his job at the First National Bank of Austin in 1894 for accusations of embezzlement. In 1896, when a federal case opened against him, he changed trains on his way to the courthouse and fled the country. Porter returned to Austin a year later when his wife was too sick to meet him in Honduras. Upon his return, he surrendered to the court and started serving his five-year sentence shortly after his wife’s death. As a licensed pharmacist, Porter took on the duty as a night druggist at the prison hospital where he also continued pursuing his life’s passion: writing. During his time in prison, he began publishing short stories under a pen name—the household name we all know him by today: O. Henry.

Prison gave Porter a structure that forced him to be disciplined and time-oriented. He was a notorious procrastinator, always waiting until the last minute to complete a project and cutting it close to deadlines with newspaper & magazine editors; this, however, is possibly the reason for his staple plot twists and surprising endings. The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry’s most popular story and one of the most widely read short stories in the world, was written last minute after Porter had ignored the deadline for several days. John J. Miller writes: “Several legends surround the writing of ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ but all agree that Porter cranked it out under deadline pressure in just two or three hours.”

For the rest of us who have never served time in a 1900’s prison, we have to create our own time structures with self-imposed deadlines. If you gave me 25 hours in a day, I would find a way to need 26. When the clock strikes midnight, I just barely fit in all I need to do before the day ends—but somehow, I always seem to pull it off in the eleventh hour. Despite new projects I take on or events I opt out of to recover lost time, I wind up in the same place every night towards the end of the week before a deadline.

Using this same logic, what if you only had a 23-hour day? What if you were recovering from a surgery and for next six months you could only work for two hours a day? How productive would you be with these limitations and what would you do to get everything done you need to accomplish?  For too long we have been asking the wrong question; what if it’s not time that needs fixing? Rather: what if we have been cramming too much and we didn’t need to pack half the stuff in our suitcase anyways?

We need to redefine our relationship with time. Instead of time being a limiting factor of what we cannot do, time should be an encouraging factor for all of us to assess what is most important in our lives. Too often we get caught up in doing things that mean very little to us, we should be asking: what am I able to do with the time I have? Here are some ideas to help you reframe how you use your time.

Unnecessary priorities: What is the one thing you need to get done today? This should be the first thing you think about in the morning. You should also be aware of any discrepancies between what you spend time thinking about doing and what actually takes up most of your time. A dangling task you never get to day after day can be a drain on your mental energy. The beginning of the day is a good time to take inventory of what motivates you and what is soaking up mental space so that you can nip what you don’t need in the bud.

Unnecessary lists: Too often people make a to-do list that fills up the entire page and carries on to the back. This is imposing and cripples your motivation. Schedule your daily to-do list as if you only have two hours to be productive. This will cut the unnecessary fat from your list and help focus on what is really important. A good trick is to make two lists: the first one with everything you need to do and the second one with what you need to get done in your self-imposed two-hour time block. Circle the overlapping tasks on the long list. Take a long look at what you didn’t circle and ask yourself if these are worthwhile. Will cutting them out of your life allow you to spend more mental energy on the important tasks?

Unnecessary time: When you don’t have time to spare, do the minimum for all things you absolutely need to get done. “Good enough” is sometimes all that is expected (and needed). It takes me the same amount of time to finish a task with “good” quality as it does to critique and polish something from “good” to “excellent”. Here is an example: Does your co-worker deserve a 10-minute email, or will a 5-minute email be just as effective? Multiply this by ten emails and you’ve saved nearly an hour.

Unnecessary fluff: Do you need to write a long document or give a long presentation, or do you need to give the right information? Sometimes length can hide your message. Keep it short. In fiction writing, we ask, “Does this sentence pay its rent?” This means that if the sentence is not providing anything to the reader or the story as a whole, it is taking up space and not offering anything in return. By cutting the sentence, you are leaving more space for the important ideas to shine through. If you keep it brief, you will save time and your audience will better recall your main points.

Unnecessary distractions: Separate your distractions from work time. If you know you get caught up in social media or texting, turn off your phone and silence email/social media notifications. The idea is to create a physical and mental workspace where you can be productive and creative. My vice is research: specifically, Wikipedia. I catch myself falling into the black hole of related links and snazzy trivia facts (did you know O. Henry coined the term “Banana Republic”?). My remedy for this is to turn off my Wi-Fi. By turning off the possibility of distraction, I am able to focus in on my work without falling down the internet’s rabbit hole.

William Porter was a procrastinator until his early death in 1910. Despite pushing off deadlines until the last minute, he still managed to publish over three hundred stories (and wrote many more). This was largely due to his habit of doing important tasks efficiently. Crunch time was met with a skilled precision for writing the right thing at the right time in the right place. Porter may not have been the best at time management, but he always finished what mattered most.

Ask yourself: what is the best use of my time right now?


Andrew J. Wilt 
SEI Analyst
Apprenticeship Program