I do my best to be responsible with resources in my life. I drive a fuel-efficient car, I recycle all of my cans and bottles, and I do my best to conserve water. For these tangible items, it is an easy choice to make a deliberate choice to be efficient because it is clear that “stuff” can run out. But my most valuable resource, one that is entirely finite and disappearing at a consistent rate, is one that I waste far too often and regularly take for granted. This resource is one in which I can largely impact and invest how I best see fit, but that I often incorrectly treat as if it is out of my control. This resource, which is our greatest gift but that disappears forever once used… is TIME.
For me, time management is easily my greatest weakness and an area in which I desperately want to improve. Don’t get me wrong- I get a lot done. I have managed to navigate a pretty successful career, to start raising three amazing, young kids, and to still achieve some personal accomplishments along the way… but it isn’t pretty. I am blessed to have a high capacity, through a combination of God-given talents, work ethic, and sheer will. I am cursed, however, with a low efficiency, through an over-ambitious nature, poor prioritization, and low discipline for distraction. So while I manage to accomplish a lot, it comes at a price.
That price comes in many forms. Clearly there are physical ramifications, such as sleep deprivation, poor exercise/eating habits, and increased anxiety, but the total impact can go far deeper than what shows on the surface. The over-extension that results from a high capacity/low efficiency cocktail can impact my ability to be fully invested as a husband and father. By stretching myself too thin and trying to do too much, I may check more total boxes at work, but not allow the time to make sure that the 1 or 2 truly important projects get my best attention. Additionally, by always stretching beyond a reasonable means, I am always deficient or behind on something, which can lead to feelings of failure or even depression- despite all of the positive things that might be getting done. And what’s worse… this “cocktail” is intoxicating, and it is hard to break this addiction of over-extension once it starts.
Below I am outlining some of the principles of time management that I have learned over the years. Some of these I successfully practice, some I have tried but have not maintained consistently, and some I have not yet had the discipline to implement. I am committed to working to break my own poor time-management skills, regain the control that is rightfully mine, and to stop the late night “binges” that I currently employ to get my important work done. I hope there are some things here that are helpful, and would appreciate any further perspective that any of you might have in helping to best utilize the critically important resource of time…
1) Set one to three over-arching goals at the beginning of each year and actively prioritize time against them. This seems like an obvious one, but it is not only critically important but incredibly difficult to do. Why else does almost every New Year’s Resolution fail? I had a success here last year when I decided that I wanted to complete a triathlon to help me get back into shape. I didn’t own a bike and had never swum competitively (so why I chose this particular event as a goal is another story in itself!), but proactively prioritized my time to get this done. I signed up and paid for the triathlon, bought a bike, and blocked off the necessary time on my calendar each week to train and prepare. (I also told several people I was doing it to help make it “real” beyond just a goal in my mind.) Essentially, I committed and invested and thus was able to successfully complete my goal last summer in Pittsburgh. However, for this one success I could tell the stories of 10 failures… this takes a lot of discipline and choices, but when done successfully helps to insure that you can do the things that are truly important to you.
2) Set realistic goals each and every day and be deliberate about not only what you WILL do, but also what you WON’T. Setting big goals for the year is important for the “big picture”, but doing so each day is what ultimately enables success. Waking up each morning and deciding the tasks that you critically must complete that day is the first step in insuring you address your most critical goals. That being said, deciding what you will complete is actually the easy part… it’s deciding what you will not complete that is the real challenge. For me, I can easily highlight my priorities each day and set out to achieve them. However, I am not good at proactively choosing to not do certain activities, and thus allow the new events of a given day to distract me from my key goals. I have often gotten to the end of the day wondering how I failed to complete the only task that was truly important. It wasn’t the failure to set the right priorities, but rather a failure to have the discipline to avoid things that can get in the way.
3) Learn to use a big 2-letter word… NO. If you are around small children often, you know that they are the masters of this… “No, No, NO!” rolls easily off their tongues if someone tries to turn their energy from what they want to be doing. But somewhere along the way, we tend to lose either our ability or our license to exercise this concept that we so easily had mastered as children. In the workplace, we often feel so much external or self-inflicted pressure to say “yes” to everything that we take on too many responsibilities… and the truly important ones end up lost in the mix. Simple in concept, but hard in execution… we have to use more 2-letter words to focus on what is really important.
4) Learn to ignore the CLUTTER. This is a big one for me- I have a tendency to put off working on the big things until I can clear some of the smaller, distracting ones out of the way first. For example, “I will put that presentation together as soon as I clear out my email inbox” is something I tell myself in the hope that it will help me focus. The reality is that there never is a time in which the “clutter” is eliminated and I ultimately end up either compromising the quality of the “big thing” or, more likely, end up giving up an evening at home to address it. There will always be clutter that can’t be totally eliminated… so it must be allowed to fade to the background.
5) If you aren’t going to add or receive true value from a meeting… don’t go. I could spend every minute of every day attending meetings if I accepted everything that came across my desk. “Let’s have a meeting” is commonly the proposal to address an issue, but more than often these meetings fail to produce a solution… often because we jump too quickly to the perceived “action” of a meeting without the forethought of an agenda. I recommend avoiding any meeting that does not have a clear and stated objective- there is very low probability that a meeting without a clear agenda will be a good use of time. And if there is an agenda, I look to determine if there are topics that either require my unique perspective or expertise or will help provide me with knowledge to further my own work. If I am going to be redundant or if I am going to be getting information that may be interesting but ultimately not useful, I try and avoid the meeting and to use the time more productively.
6) Keep one calendar for your life… not a separate one for work and home. This is another concept I strongly believe in, but don’t effectively practice. There is a lot of talk about work/life balance as if there are two separate things. In reality, in today’s world the line between where “work” ends and “life” begins is blurry (if not non-existent). Being connected through iPads, Blackberrys and Computers 24/7 means that we are never truly disconnected from work. And even if we could disconnect, the stresses of work will inherently have an impact at home and vice-versa. For me, I have always tried to keep things separate and the result has been that I have far too often compromised my home life and my family. Work produces a lot more “urgent, but not important” requests that can easily trump “important, but not urgent” items at home. When I have been able to maintain my calendar holistically, it has been far easier to make choices that are better in the long-term rather than defaulting to doing what is best only in the short-term. There isn’t “work life” and “home life”- there is just “life”, and we should manage our time as such. (Matthew Kelly has a great book on this topic called “Off Balance”)
7) Never forget that PERFECT is the enemy of AMAZING. For the perfectionists out there, this one may hit home more than some of the others. To complete a “masterpiece”, the first 80% of the work can take 20% of the time, while the last 20% of the work can take 80% of the time. When we want things to be perfect, investing the time in every last detail does take a lot of extra time… and for the truly important projects, the time can be well worth it. The trouble comes when we treat every project, even the small ones, with the same quest for perfection. If we demand perfection out of ourselves in everything that we do, we are taking a lot of extra time and capacity that could be invested in bigger and more important endeavors. For most things, “good enough” really is “good enough” and we should stop at the 80/20 principle. This allows us to still get the little things done, but to allow us to invest our time making our big priorities “Amazing”. (If you find any typos or grammatical errors in this post, assume I used the 80/20 editing principle!)
8) Don’t entirely delegate your calendar. Despite the fact that time is our most valuable and precious asset, we often abdicate the responsibility of managing it to someone else. Don’t get me wrong, there are an immense amount of benefits in following a good program manager or partnering with an administrative assistant to manage the logistics and details of our complicated schedules. Personally, I have been truly blessed over the years to partner with some amazing people who have been key to my day-to-day survival at work! That being said, while there are a lot benefits at the micro level, we need to maintain ownership at the macro level to insure success. How much time do we want to spend each week on the things that are most important? What time must we hold onto for ourselves no matter what “crises” emerge each week? If we don’t own this time for ourselves, then there will always be someone or something that is more than willing to take it… and we will lose control of our most treasured resource.
9) It’s OK to schedule “spontaneity”. This one is counter-intuitive and is another area in which I struggle. While I accept that my life is far busier that I like, I truly value having the time to be spontaneous and to do something exciting and unplanned. On the surface, it sounds ridiculous to “schedule spontaneity”, as it feels like an oxymoron. However, at the pace of life today it is becoming increasingly difficult to have time magically open up to do something outside the demands of work and home. Essentially, deliberately blocking off some space on our calendar to walk the halls and chat with co-workers, to call a friend or colleague we don’t see very often, or to have a night out with a significant other or our kids is a way to insure that we make the time to do it. We don’t need to pre-program the time and can be spontaneous within that window, but blocking of the time insures that there is even a window at all.
10) Don’t answer emails if you don’t want to engage further. I once read that for every email you send, you get 8 in return. I don’t have any hard data to support that but it feels about right- when I feel like I am making progress in responding to the flood of email, I actually end up creating a typhoon of work for myself. As I look at my emails on a given day, the majority are either “information only”, can be better answered by someone else on the distribution, or can be easily solved with a 30 second conversation. In these cases, I try to have a “one touch” policy and either file it, forward it, follow-up in person, or do nothing. In all cases, when finished I delete it and forget about it. I reserve my emails for the issues and conversations that can truly benefit from an exchange of data and perspective- often for working issues with individuals and teams outside of my office and/or time zone. Email can become a 24-hour, 7 day/week job if we respond to everything. Be selective, communicate to your teams that you prefer conversation to email, and don’t be afraid to push “Delete”!
Again, the majority of these are tools that I am aware of and support… but I unfortunately don’t consistently practice what I preach. This is my biggest growth area and I am committed to trying to improve and to invest more time in the truly important places in my life. Just taking the time to write this blog is in part an effort to make my need for time management “real”, and to start making better choices with my time (so I don’t, say, write a blog on time management at one in the morning!). Life, as they say, is short and gets shorter everyday. William Penn once said, “Time is what we want most but use worst.” Let’s take the most precious resource that we have at our disposal, and be deliberate about investing it wisely each and every day.
Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com
Do you currently use technology to handle those big and small goals or paper? I have heard good things about Microsoft One Note but currently use old school pen and paper to track and prioritize goals. I currently do everything schedule-wise through icloud integration with my work exchange server and I have often wondered whether it makes a lot of sense to track goals in a non-digital way when everything else is so connected.
Mike- thanks so much for posting. I totally agree with the single calendar approach (too challenging to manage work v family calendars separately (there’s enough challenge there already!) and I’m thankful for the ability to mark calendar invites as “private.” Also a huge fan of scheduling spontaneity! One thing that has helped in time prioritization is not only understanding what my core mission is (just like a company would) and then documenting imperatives (quarterly or annually)so that I can prioritize accordingly when decisions come along as to where/how I spend time. Great book for families to do this called “3 questions for the frantic family.” It was cool to sit down with my wife and not only identify our family mission (longer term) but also what imperatives (rally cries) we had as a family. Since that time we’ve been able to more easily make decisions- especially saying “no” even to good things that just didn’t support one of our current rally cries. Just wanted to share that….thanks again Mike for posting!!
@nate: for goal tracking (including capturing work/personal/family mission statements, rally cries, etc I know a lot of folks who use OneNote on their PC’s and now with iPads, etc and like it. Personally I have had good luck with cloud-based Evernote. Simple to use (not as and usable on my PC, iPad, Droid phone)
James- great feedback and I love the idea of establishing a family mission and rallying cry. Somehow, “Survive parenthood and do as many crazy things as possible” has surprisingly not been an effective approach. It really is backwards how much emphasis we place on setting clear goals for work, but don’t maintain the same discipline at home. It seems obvious that we should work to live and not live to work… but we often get it wrong.
Also, love the book idea- am going to Amazon now to pick it up!
Nate- good question. For as much crazy technology that we use at work, work plans and goals are still largely “pen and paper” (or more frequently these days just a game of “whack-a-mole”). For “small goals”, I am still largely a pen and paper “to do list” guy. For big goals, I don’t have a great technical solution, but I try to 1) turn them into a rallying cry, that is inspiring, easy to remember, and compelling to my organization, 2) commit publically to them via presentations, memos, meetings, etc… both the mission and the timing (when applicable), and 3) block off time on my calendar specifically to work on them. I don’t always maintain the discipline for #3, but when I do, bigger things get done in a better way.