David Heinemeier Hansson

March 31, 2023

How to have buckets of time

One of the most important techniques I've embraced for managing my time is to direct related tasks to a bucket, let that bucket accumulate until full, then empty it all in one go. This in contrast to trying to catch every task the moment it lands from the myriad of interruption pipes that'll drip-drip-drip your day away if you let them. Nowhere is this more evident than with email.

I used to take such pride in inbox zero when I was still using Gmail. I'd check email continuously throughout the day, and I'd get back to almost everyone immediately. Whether it was urgent or not. Just so I could see that sweet zero. It felt very productive. It was not.

Every email is a drop, and every drop ripples the surface of your mind. It's careless to let them hit without a filter. Your attention will have a hard time finding a still moment to focus like that.

This is what being busy often feels like. Like drops pelleting your brain with tasks from a dozen sources at once. Thus leaving you entirely incapable of finding the flow that'll actually take you somewhere. So many movements, so little progress.

Rejecting this way of working is why I usually feel very content about the progress I'm able to make on the things that matter, without feeling overwhelmed or busy all the time. Because it really just isn't that busy most of the time! It's focused, sure. But not busy.

Again, let's look at email. I use HEY's Focus & Reply feature to get back to people who don't need an urgent reply (which is almost everyone). I let the bucket fill up with 30-40-50 emails over a week or two, then I knock out replies to all of them in less than an hour. Just make that contrast. Letting your attention be disturbed 30-40-50 times over a week or two vs accepting a single interruption in the form of a focused hour. It's a monumental difference.

I do the same with GitHub issues for the many open source projects I'm involved in. They'll accumulate for weeks in the notifications box, and then I'll take the time to clear it all out at once every now and then. This is key to avoiding maintainer's fatigue. I'm happy to look at your suggestion or your feedback, but I'll do it on my own schedule, thank you very much.

Same too at work. I don't spend, say, every week reviewing our expenses. But I do like to be up to speed on where the money goes. So maybe once a month or once a quarter, I'll do a deep dive, kick off a handful of inquiries on how we ought to save on the frivolous, and then forget all about expenses until next time.

This is an intentional and sequential way to live and work.

Too many people delude themselves into thinking they can parallelize a million things at once, but they can't. Multitasking is a mirage. Humans run single-core CPUs. All they can do is swap context in and out, losing ever more to switching costs as they do.

There's enough time. Time isn't the scarce resource, attention is. Find your buckets, develop the patience to let them fill, then empty them one at a time. There's your 10x productivity hack.


About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.