Why Are Elites Always Time-Oriented

Recently started a morning routine (just a week ago), and it reminded me of this book I read last year. Some of its points have provided me with inspiration (like how chewing gum aids alertness, and sunbathing produces serotonin for clarity). I’ve personally experimented with some of these and found them quite helpful. So, I wanted to reorganize my thoughts and write it down as a reminder.

What kind of book is this?

“Why Are Elites Always Time-Oriented” by the author Hua Ze Zi Yuan is a neuroscientist, so many of the viewpoints in the book are explained from the perspectives of neuroscience and psychology. The overall style is quite systematic and comprehensive, reflecting the author’s decade-long summary, which adds credibility and practical value. The book discusses scientific methods for controlling time to maximize efficiency.

I remember a friend telling me the reason he stays up late is to gain more time every day. After reading this book, I think he’s just making excuses for staying up late, haha. Because the value of each time period varies (though individual differences may exist), much like in the story of Tian Ji’s horse race. Using prime-time for trivial tasks is very inefficient; using average or lesser times for challenging tasks undoubtedly yields better results.

Four Principles of Time Management

First Principle (Use good steel on the blade)

  1. Differentiate between “focused work” and “non-focused work”
  2. The value of morning time is four times that of nighttime
  3. “Focused work” should be done in the morning

In essence, it’s about using good steel (morning or one’s most alert time) on the blade (challenging, mentally demanding tasks). I deeply resonate with this because I don’t allow interruptions in the morning (no chatting, phone on silent, exit from WeChat on computer, wearing noise-canceling headphones, etc.). I reserve this time for creative or challenging tasks instead of doing them in the drowsy afternoon, and it has proven effective.

Second Principle (Create time)

  1. View time in two dimensions rather than one

  2. Take appropriate breaks

  3. Reboot the brain with “aerobic exercise”

  4. Do not compress “sleep time”
    The one-dimensional versus two-dimensional mindset refers to this illustration, not a line. According to the author’s understanding, two variables (focus & time) in this formula—when combined—provide two methods to boost output:

  5. Doing high-focus tasks during high-focus periods (usually mornings).

  6. Enhancing one’s focus during specific periods.

The first method is straightforward; typically, mornings exhibit higher focus.

But how can one enhance focus during specific periods? The author mentions two methods.

First is timely rest. Many people have experienced this—taking a short nap around noon (about 20 minutes) refreshes the mind, a habit prevalent in Chinese schools and companies. Yet, in Japan, I noticed they dislike napping; overall, they seem diligent but not necessarily efficient (laughs). Consider China’s 996 culture—working all the time, but what’s the real productivity behind it? Unknown. You’ve probably seen those students who study hard all the time, yet their grades don’t stand out (like me in the past).

The second method is aerobic exercise. During aerobic exercise, the brain releases a substance called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), crucial for neural growth and function. Additionally, dopamine—a neurotransmitter—is released, enhancing mood and happiness. As a fitness enthusiast, I strongly relate. For example, I started writing this article at 8 PM but couldn’t focus, so I went for a run. After a shower, I suddenly feel energetic.

Third Principle (Master American Work Efficiency)

Everyone says Japanese are diligent and excellent. Where do you think Japan’s labor productivity ranks among OECD countries? According to 2016 statistics, Japan’s labor productivity ranks 22nd out of 34 OECD member countries. Among the world’s seven major developed countries, Japan ranks last. Japan has held this last position for 22 years since 1994. That is, among developed countries, Japan’s labor productivity is the lowest! Japan’s labor productivity is only 42.1, while Americans score 68.3, 1.6 times higher than Japan’s.

At the beginning of this chapter, the author mocks Japanese work efficiency, which I also deeply understand. When I first arrived in Japan, it took me over half a day just to get a bank card. Working with them later on, I found their pace quite slow. What takes an hour or two in China can take them a day or even two. (OECD official website (https://www.oecd.org/), feel free to check it out if interested)

So the author proposes American work methods:

  1. Think for others (ASAP), as soon as possible
  2. Act 30 minutes ahead of time
  3. Strict punctuality
  4. Not “until what time” but “when to do”
  5. For temporarily undecided matters, deem them “undecided” for future judgment
  6. Other

I don’t find much inspiration for me, so I omitted it…

Fourth Principle (Invest Time in Self-Improvement)

The author here explains the logic of not using extra time for work, falling into a cycle of continuous work. Instead, use extra time for self-improvement. Through self-improvement, work efficiency and capabilities can be enhanced, thus achieving more output in the same time, freeing up more time, forming a positive cycle.

In simpler terms, sharpening the axe won’t delay the cutting of wood. Don’t blindly cut wood (work), but sharpen the axe (improve skills). This way, more wood (work output) can be cut in the same time, freeing up more time, forming a virtuous cycle.

What is the most perfect day designed according to neuroscience principles?
I sometimes refer back to this image because it has greatly helped me increase my work time utilization.

Canned Work Technique

Locking oneself in a jar isolates external disturbances, allowing deep concentration on work. Once you find your jar, develop this habit, and your brain will subconsciously remember this space. In fact, many tech companies (like Google) have such spaces to help employees increase work efficiency. In the morning, I also actively block external information (silent phone, no WeChat on computer, etc.). I know important matters will find me no matter what.

Serotonin

In our minds, the work of “switching” ideas is done in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is also deeply connected to a neurotransmitter called “serotonin.”

To clear distractions and keep the brain alert, enhance the vitality of serotonin. There are three ways to increase serotonin vitality:

Sunbathing

  1. Rhythmic exercise (after running, people are particularly alert)
  2. Chewing (that’s why some people like to chew gum while driving to stay alert)
  3. Adrenaline

In emergencies, the brain secretes a substance called “adrenaline.” Adrenaline can greatly enhance concentration and learning ability, making the mind alert. Hence, DDL (deadline) is the first productivity.

Oxytocin

When people communicate, the pituitary gland secretes a hormone called “oxytocin.” Oxytocin is known as the “substance of love.” When oxytocin is secreted in the brain, people feel “love and being loved.” Moreover, oxytocin also has positive effects such as repairing cells and improving immunity. Therefore, oxytocin can help us repair the body and internal organs, providing a real healing effect.

Spiritual exchange (communication with others) and skin contact (kissing, sex, petting cats, etc.) can promote the secretion of oxytocin, which has a healing and relaxing effect.

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