In 1995, I joined the video sales department at my local Circuit City, a national consumer electronics and appliance retailer that shuttered in 2009 and is spoken of (by some) with nostalgia similar to Blockbuster Video stores. As part of my sales training, I was educated in the concept of “time-shifting.”
Time-shifting sounds like sci-fi, but it had been going on since the 1980s when people became able to schedule their Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) to record a specific time period and channel in advance. They could come back and watch the recording when it was convenient instead of when the content was being broadcast. It allowed us to make TV accommodate our personal schedules.
As remote work and a flat-world economy have grown, more people have gotten used to time-shifting with work. It’s allowed us to have more flexible work schedules that can be adjusted around our lives. But it doesn’t “just work” without keeping a few tips in mind.
Tip 1: Assume you need 40 hours (or more) to do 40 hours worth of work.
How much can you get done in an hour? Some hours are better than others, aren’t they? In the end, you have an average rate of productivity (ARP). At “peak” productivity, your ARP might be 60% above normal during that period. At “fighting off a cold” productivity, your ARP might be 60% below normal during that period. But your true ARP averages all periods.
In a moment of overconfidence you can tell yourself “I’ll work at 111% ARP for 36 hours this week so I can take off four.” Can you really keep up a sustained 11% increase for the entire rest of the week? With diet, exercise, and meditation, you can do things to keep yourself “in the zone,” but our bodies still have cycles and our distractions don’t care how much we want to get done.
Assume you’ll need to replace each hour you shift with at least an hour you’ll work.
Tip 2: You still need a schedule
When you shift on the fly, you can fall victim to procrastination. If you can always push off one or two of those time blocks until it’s convenient, you might find that you never get to them. Many an all-nighter can be traced to owing yourself time you shifted, but never scheduled.
You need to schedule your time-shifting and keep to the schedule. Even if you have a last-minute need to shift, schedule the replacement hours to ensure you get them in.
Tip 3: Temporary location-shifting can reduce ARP
This is a variation on Tip 1, because this is where the “(or more)” comes into play.
Part of time-shifting is location-shifting. You’re not simply spending different hours at your desk, but possibly doing it from different locations. How many hours at ARP can you really get on a five-hour flight, a one-hour commuter train ride, or two hours poolside at a resort?
Each of them has a different soundscape, landscape, and workspace layout than your desk(s). Unless you’re an absolute machine, all of those settings will produce irritants and distractions you’ll have to learn to deal with. Over time, you can develop mechanisms and routines to help you be more productive in those spaces, but they’ll likely still lag your ARP in a dedicated workspace.
If you want to time-shift hours from a dedicated workspace to a commuting or traveling ad hoc workspace, you can’t do a 1:1 shift because the location-shifting may mean you need seven or eight hours to accomplish 5 hours of normal ARP. Go into those time-shifts fully aware it may mean two hours working on the train only lets you shift one hour at your desk.
Anyone who had a VCR back in the day or uses a DVR now has had stuff they recorded back up until you wonder how you’re going to find time to watch it all.
Time-shifting your work can be a great convenience, but if you go into it only thinking about the convenience, you may be setting a productivity trap for yourself. When you plan to shift your work time and/or your location, be mindful of the time you’ll really need to get your work done, the need to set a schedule, and the impact of shifted locations on your productivity.