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15 Ways to Find an Hour a Day of Extra Time…for Focused Learning

The human mind is wired to be learning all the time – even during significant parts of the time when we are asleep – but with all the noise, distractions, and interruptions of modern life, it can be hard to find time for truly focused learning.

How can you carve out the hours needed to learn Swahili, master delta blues guitar, understand Aristotle’s view of ethics, or _________ (fill in one of your current areas of learning)?

One of the easiest ways to find more time is by by stealing pockets of time from other areas of your life.

The following are some ideas for reclaiming minutes and hours that you might then apply towards your focused learning efforts. You can look at these as temporary fixes – something to try over a 30-day period. During that time, pay attention to what works for you and what doesn’t – and come up with other ideas for reclaiming time.

  • Television. I’m not an enemy of television. There are shows I like enough to tune into weekly or order on Netflix. But one show can easily lead to another, and before you know it, you’re watching  150+ hours a month like the average American. Want to open up a big chunk of “cognitive surplus,” as Clay Shirky has put it? Drop the TV !
  • Internet. This one is tougher for me – and probably for you, too, if you are here reading this post. I practically live on the Web, and a lot of what I do here is learning related, But, of course, a lot of it really is not. Cut the random surfing, tweets and other non-essential activities by even just 30 minutes a day and you free up a few hours a week for focused learning.

Early to bed, early to rise
makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

– Benjamin Franklin

  • Get up earlier.  I’m not convinced that getting up earlier has made me any wealthier, but Benjamin Franklin had it right on the “wise” part. Early morning tends to be a great time for solitude – particularly if you have kids in the house. I find I am at my most creative and productive in the morning, but even if that is not true for you, the time can be spent for review and reflection. Try getting up 30 to 60 minutes earlier. Or if that doesn’t work for you, stay up an hour later. Either way works.
  • Email. Maybe this belongs with “Internet,” but I think e-mail is enough of a time sink on its own that it needs to be mentioned separately. Try taking the advice of Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, and check e-mail only once or twice a day at a specific time. I haven’t been able to stick with this habit so far, but it is one I truly hope to make permanent going forward. The world really doesn’t stop when you don’t check e-mail every ten minutes, and aside from freeing up more of your time,  your ability to concentrate shoots up when you aren’t jumping from one e-mail stream to the next. (For a great resource on this one, see Tim’s Change This manifesto on e-mail elimination.)
  • Cut back on shopping. And plan when you do shop. I’m not a big shopper in general, but I know a lot of people are. And even with the little bit of shopping I do, I find that I often end up making multiple trips for shopping that might have easily been handled in one trip if I had taken the time to make a list, review it thoroughly, and plan out my time. If you can, cut back to shopping only for essentials and plan those essential trips well.
  • *Leave work early. If your work allows it, see if you can leave work earlier. If you have a smart boss, the only thing that will matter is if you’re getting your work done — not how long you’re in the office. So really focus on getting the essential work done within the time you have, and leave an hour earlier. Or, go to work late. The flip side of the above suggestion. Again, this is if your work allows it.
  • *Take a longer lunch. Sometimes it’s easier to squeeze out extra time for your lunch break than it is to come in early or to leave early. If you can take 90 minutes for lunch, use the first 30 for eating (pack a lunch if possible) and the other 60 for reading, practice – whatever applies to your learning.
  • Go on a news diet. How much time do you spend reading a daily paper (online or off), checking in on CNN or ESPN, or tuning in to NPR news in the car? I don’t advocate living in ignorance of what’s going on in the world, but try cutting out news for 30 days and see how much you really miss. Probably not a great deal, and in the meantime you free up a lot of time. If you go back to daily news, try cutting down to 20 minutes or less.
  • *Don’t do anything after work. If you make social commitments after work, or business meetings, or whatever, stop making these plans for 30 days and use this time for focused learning.
  • Trim civic commitments. Do you volunteer or serve in an organization or are you a member of some group? That’s a great thing – and I don’t advocate dropping these activities. But often those who volunteer over-extend themselves and commit to doing more than is reasonable. Are there things you are doing that someone else could easily do? Perhaps you could recruit a new volunteer to share or take over an activity. You’ll strengthen the organization in the process and also free up some time.
  • Minimize housework/yardwork. Do these chores take up a large part of your day? See if you can minimize them, just for a month. Relax your standards a little. Or do a speed-cleaning stint once a week for two hours, and don’t clean the rest of the week. Do your laundry once a week rather than multiple times. For yardwork, hire a teenager to do it for a month. Reassess after a month and consider how you might keep these activities to a minimum going forward
  • Cut out non-essential reading. To even talk about cutting into reading pains me, but I do a lot more unfocused, undisciplined reading than I really should, and I’m betting you do too. Cut out magazine reading and most book reading (unless it’s essential) to give you some extra time. This will also include cutting out newspaper and Internet reading, as mentioned above.
  • *Minimize recreation. Partying, drinking, playing sports, playing video games … however you spend your free time, see if you can cut into that time.
  • Use car time efficiently. Cut off the music and NPR and plug in an educational podcast (like Leading Learning) or CD. The car can be a great place for listening to books or practicing a foreign language. Be sure to pay attention to the road, though!
  • Take a walk. Sometimes just dropping everything, putting on a good pair of shoes, and heading out the door can be the surest way to cut the distractions and free up time for focused learning. I try to make this as much of a daily habit as possible. Take a long your phone loaded with some educational content if you like (I’m a fan of The Great Courses), or just use it as a time for reflection. Aside from learning a little, you will also be contributing to your physical well-being (which, in turn, can help your memory.)

If you find any of the above particularly effective – or not – in your life, or if you have other ideas for reclaiming time, I’d really appreciate it if you would comment and share with other readers.

Some notes on the origins of this post:

I am a fan of Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits and have been thinking for some time that I would like to take him up on his “uncopyright” and create a series of Zen learning habits.  This post is based on Leo’s 15 Ways to Create an Hour a Day of Extra Time … for Solitude. For me, solitude and focused learning go hand-in-hand, so it seemed like a great starting point. I have kept nearly all of Leo’s original 15 points, though have consolidated some of them into single points and added two of my own – Use car time efficiently and Take a walk. I have also re-written all of them except for the four with stars. In other words, I haven’t completely lifted Leo’s writing – I’ve mostly just used it as inspiration.


Title photo licensed from 123rf

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Jeff Cobb says

Annabel – Great comment. I think you just need to cut and paste from here, add a graphic, and you’ve got your post! – Jeff

Annabel Candy says

Great article. Here’s a hint about the shopping one. It takes a bit of time to set up but will save you a lot of time in the end.

First make a list of meals you can rotate over a two week period. Now create a shopping list on your computer with all your basic items like laundry powder, kitchen roll, cereal, bread etc and the ingredients for these meals. Organize it according to the aisles where the products are stocked in your supermarket with a box by each item that you can tick if you need to buy it. Just print out a copy of the list and check the boxes for things you need before your supermarket trip, or do it over the week as you run out of things.

As I said, it will take you a while to get in the swing of it and you’ll have to keep adding things that you forgot to put on the master list for the first month.

I like doing this because not only does it free up my time but also my thoughts. No need to ponder what to feed the kids in the evening, I just look at my master menu list, add the items to my shopping list and that’s it.

I hope this makes sense! I’ve been meaning to write a post about it for months but just in case I never do this is a start. The idea is out there is busy parents can get to grips with it they’ll be glad they did!

Jeff Cobb says

Angela – Funny, I had a blog post in mind this morning when I woke up, and as you suggest, the thought of getting going on it definitely made me “spring” out of bed. Thanks for commenting and good luck with that extra time freed up from Netflix! – Jeff

Jeff Cobb says

Dave – Thanks so much. And thanks to Leo for inspiring the clarity. It was a great learning exercise to riff off of some of his writing. – Jeff

Angela says

I couldn’t agree more that it’s always possible to find a little time for something that matters! It’s amazing how I spring out of bed when I plan to do things I really enjoy first thing in the morning. I just put my Netflix account on hold to cut a little more time from that category for other better uses! Thanks!

Dave - LifeExcursion says

Great Post!

I feel the same but you have been much clearer in your post. Thanks for the info!


Jeff Cobb says

Monica – Thanks for commenting. Internet and email are definitely my two biggest as well. Not always time “wasters” as you say – I think spending some time just exploring is also extremely valuable for learning, but like anything else in life, you have to set priorities if you want to reach whatever goals you set for yourself. “Switching off the mental racket” sounds like a great idea for another post! Personally, that’s one of the main reasons I have become a fan of walking. I find that when I set myself in motion with something specific to think about or listen to, it’s much more effective sometimes than remaining at my desk – where there are som many potential distractions. It’s also one of the main reasons I like to get up early and focus specifically on writing or some learning activity before the “noise” of the day starts seeping in. Those are two things that work for me, though I am now looking forward to brainstorming some others. If any other commentors who show up here have ideas, please share them! (Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Zen Habits has all sorts of great advice on how to focus, concentrate, cut off the noise, etc.)

Monica says

Thanks for this great post. I must confess that my biggest ‘distractions’ (not entirely time-wasters but definitely time-consumers) are Internet and email. And daydreaming – you know, when your mind just drifts off like a helium balloon? I’m not entirely sure however if this should also be considered ‘time-wasting’ or rather ‘time-savouring’.

The big question, however, is how to get focused in these tiny ‘stolen’ chunks of time. It’s easy to focus when you have an hour or two set aside for studying, but how do switch off the mental racket when you really need to concentrate immediately – so as not to waste time?

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