Input, Output, and Invest

2020-05-25

The biggest thing on my radar this year was the coming birth of my daughter. Since having my second I've learned a thing or two. And so the last few quarters have all had similar goals: 'Build resilient systems and habits'. Previously my goals would focus on one or two 'big-push' items that would take me most of the quarter to complete. But with another child coming, I want to ensure I can maintain a level of excellence in my delivery, personal care, and family duties. I needed a way to use my time now, to protect, and improve the effectiveness of my time in the future.

Now, investors have long extolled the importance and power of Compound interest. That incremental value added to an investment over time. The more you have the more the interest, which contributes to the value you have. If it works for your money, is there any reason it shouldn't work with your time? Around the time I started thinking about budgeting, well..., my time, The question 'How can I invest with my time' came up. I already know I have to spend it, cause I can't keep it. But that makes investing it in the sense of 'saving money' difficult. You save money by taking what you get, and putting it in a bank to spend later. While the bank pays a small portion of interest. But the other side of investment, where you buy something which increases in value might be a better analogy.You can use time to buy good things. After all we call it 'spending time' right?

As I mulled these ideas over, certain kinds of time expenditure revealed themselves. For example, I write a blog on a somewhat consistent basis. The blog post is the output, or the thing purchased directly with that time spent in writing, editing, and posting it. Generally these Output moments produce a direct product. Sometimes they'll produce something a little more nebulous. When I write my own thoughts become clearer. Sometimes I learn, or am inspired to do something new. These nebulous things are also a benefit from the time spent writing. but they aren't certain every time, whereas the blog post usually is. (Every once in a while I'll write a dud, that I don't publish ;) )

But thinking of risk, 'stuff' isn't always the best thing to buy. After all, 'stuff' can decay or get lost. Knowledge and skills tend to be far more durable. Taking a training, listening to a lecture, or reading an instructive book all provide the inputs to develop skills a knowledge. Sure the time spent getting the Input may not immediately have a return. But sharpening your axe improves the speed of your work. New skills can lead to new opportunities. And it helps you work past the Peter Principle.

With the thoughts of Input and Output in mind, I set out to build a system. I wanted to do the good but often forgotten things, without dropping my work, chores, and spending time with my children. Further I realized that I hadn't put as much time as I ought into the Input category. This is where I turned to those potent little tomatoes. What I needed was a mechanism that would allow me to track and plan against time spend in a particular category. A Pomodoro is perfect. Already designed for focused work, and since I already use them in my daily work, I am familiar with the system. These new planned categories would fit in easily.

As a first pass, I thought to plan for 2Pomos in each category for the week. Over a week, I'd plan out 4 30minute blocks to take Input, and to produce Output. That first week went pretty well. I was able to spend 3 or 4 Pomos exactly as expected. My blog post took the two Output Pomos to complete, and offered little resistance. If anything it got done earlier in the week and with less fuss than usual.

It was the Input Pomos which were the challenge. You see, I had a list of things I'd been interested in learning, digesting, or reading. But... I'd lost that list in my Evernote system. I couldn't remember what I'd called it, or how I'd tagged it. Worse still, when I found it, I realized the list had been fragmented. I had my reading list in one note. There was a partial list of recorded Conference talks in another. And some scattered notes of 'learn-by-doing' project ideas in a handful of others. So in short, it was a mess. I spend that first Pomo curating my lists, rather than on taking in a new lesson. But in a manner of speaking that first Pomo had it's own lesson to teach.

That failed Pomo showed me a category of time I hadn't thought of. But the category but represented a class of time I knew I needed to increase my investment in. You see, in my head, time spent maintaining a system isn't strictly Input or Output time. Nor is time spent curating lists for later use as inputs to Input time. For that matter, I'd failed to consider where time spent evaluating and considering changes to existing systems should go. In hindsight I was targeting a reflective and adaptable systems. But I'd failed to account for time specifically dedicated to improving my own systems.

This third category, I've chosen to call Invest. When you maintain a system, you are investing in the system itself, by maintaining the value it brings to the users. Further, when you consider whether to pivot and change the system entirely, you are Investing in the future. A Pivot helps to ensure old systems, and old rules do not become too rigid. Adaptable systems are resilient, but left alone too long every system breaks down. And it's only while doing maintenance, that you see where the machine is coming out of line.

So the second week, I applied the same rule, but this time with 3 categories. And the results were greatly improved. Since my lists were curated, both Input Pomos succeeded. With a shorter blog post, the Output Pomos were also spent creating some training material. That left me time to Invest in my Evernote system. I spent one pomo completing the curation for Inputs. I spent the other considering why the existing structure had fallen into disrepair.

Since implementing this weekly practice, I've invested about 18 hours in total in the ways I know to be valuable to sustained excellence. I am more relaxed with my Output cadence. I am learning at a consistent pace again, no longer having book sit idle on the shelf for weeks. And I've got a new idea to try for my Evernote system, which is showing some promise. All this from applying a handful of concepts about time, budgeting, and a sense of urgency from the birth of a new child.

I hope this series has offered you some new tools to consider, and perhaps even to use. For my part, I have had such success from the Input-Output-Invest, or I O I, practice that I am adopting it as a core habit. Having the category names and declaring the intent to spend track-able units in them has really improved my daily work. In a sense the interest is already starting to compound, wouldn't you say?