When you work for yourself, it’s easy to spend a whole day at your desk and accomplish nothing of value. This almost always happens when you aren’t really clear about what it is you’re trying to do. In the moments when you regain your awareness, ask yourself, “What exactly is it that I’m trying to accomplish here?” You must know your destination with as much clarity as possible. Make your goals specific, and put them in writing. Your goals must be so clear that it would be possible for a stranger to look at your situation objectively and give you an absolute “yes” or “no” response as to whether you’ve accomplished each goal or not. If you cannot define your destination precisely, how will you know when you’ve arrived? This is where time management becomes very important.
The key period I’ve found useful for defining and working on specific goals is ninety days, or the length of one season. In that period of time, you can make dramatic and measurable changes if you set crystal clear goals. Take a moment to stop and write down a snapshot description of how you want your life to be ninety days from now. What will your monthly income be? How much will you weigh? Who will your friends be? Where will you be in your career? What will your relationship be like? What will your web site look like? Be specific. Absolute clarity will give you the edge that will keep you on course.
Just as an airplane on autopilot must make constant corrections to stay on course, you must periodically retarget your goals. Reconnect with your clear, written goals by re-reading them every morning. Post them on your walls, especially your financial goals.
If you aren’t yet at the point of clarity, then make that your first goal. It’s a big waste of time to go through life being unclear about what you want. Most people wallow way too long in the state of “I don’t know what to do.” They wait for some external force to provide them with clarity, never realizing that clarity is self-created. The universe is waiting on you, not the other way around, and it’s going to keep waiting until you finally make up your mind. Waiting for clarity is like being a sculptor staring at a piece of marble, waiting for the statue within to cast off the unneeded pieces. Do not wait for clarity to spontaneously materialize — grab a chisel and get busy!
There’s a key difference between knowing your destination and knowing the path you will take to get there. A typical commercial airplane is off course 90% of the time, yet it almost always arrives at its destination because it knows exactly where it’s going and makes constant corrections along the way. You cannot know the exact path to your goal in advance. I believe that the real purpose of planning is simply so that you remain convinced that a possible path exists. We’ve all heard the statistic that 80% of new businesses fail in their first five years, but a far more interesting statistic is that nearly all of the businesses that succeeded did not do so in the original way they had intended. If you look at successful businesses that started with business plans, you will commonly find that their original plans failed miserably and that they only succeeded by trying something else. It is said that no business plan survives contact with the marketplace. I like to generalize this to say that no plan survives contact with the real world.
Renowned author and business consultant Stephen Covey often uses the expression, “integrity in the moment of choice.” What that means is that you should not follow your plans blindly without conscious awareness of your goals. For instance, let’s say you’re following your plans nicely — so far so good — and then an unforeseen opportunity arises. Do you stick to your original plan, thereby missing the opportunity, or do you stop and go after the opportunity, thereby throwing yourself off schedule? This is where you have to stop and reconnect with your goals to decide which is the better course. No plan should be followed blindly. As soon as you gain new knowledge that could invalidate the plan, you must exercise integrity in the moment of choice. Sometimes you can reach your goals faster by taking advantage of shortcuts that arise unexpectedly. Other times you should stick to your original plans and avoid minor distractions that would take you further from your goals. Be tight on your goals but flexible on your plans. I believe that having a clear goal is far more important than having a clear plan.
Failure Is Your Friend
Most people seem to have an innate fear of failure, but failure is really your best friend. People who succeed also fail a great deal because they make a lot of attempts. The great baseball player Babe Ruth held the homerun record and the strikeout record at the same time. Those who have the most successes also have the most failures. There is nothing wrong or shameful in failing. The only regret lies in never making the attempt. So don’t be afraid to experiment in your attempts to increase productivity. Sometimes the quickest way to find out if something will work is to jump right in and do it. You can always make adjustments along the way. It’s the ready-fire-aim approach, and surprisingly, it works a lot better than the more common ready-aim-fire approach. The reason is that after you’ve “fired” once, you have some actual data with which to adjust your aim. Too many people get bogged down in planning and thinking and never get to the point of action. How many potentially great ideas have you passed up because you got stuck in the state of analysis paralysis (i.e. ready-aim-aim-aim-aim-aim…)?
Understand that failure is not the opposite of success. Failure is an essential part of success. Once you succeed, no one will remember your failures anyway. Microsoft wasn’t Bill Gates’ and Paul Allen’s first business venture. Who remembers that their original Traf-o-Data business was a flop? The actor Jim Carey was booed off stage while a young comedian. We have electric light bulbs because Thomas Edison refused to give up even after 10,000 failed experiments. If the word “failure” is anathema to you, then reframe it: You either succeed, or you have a learning experience.
Letting go of the fear of failure will serve you well. If you’re excited about achieving a particular goal, but you’re afraid you might not be able to pull it off, jump on it and do it anyway. Even if you fail in your attempt, you’ll learn something valuable and can make a better attempt next time. If you look at people who are successful in business today, you will commonly see that many of them had a string of dismal failures before finally hitting on something that worked. And I think most of these people will agree that those early failure experiences were an essential contributing factor in their future successes. My advice to anyone starting a new business is to begin pumping out products or devising services and don’t worry much about whether they’ll be hits. They probably won’t be. But you’ll learn a lot more by doing than you ever will by thinking.
Do It Now!
W. Clement Stone, who built an insurance empire worth hundreds of millions dollars, would make all his employees recite the phrase, “Do it now!” again and again at the start of each workday. Whenever you feel the tendency towards laziness taking over and you remember something you should be doing, stop and say out loud, “Do it now! Do it now! Do it now!” I often set this text as my screensaver. There is a tremendous cost in putting things off because you will mentally revisit them again and again, which can add up to an enormous amount of wasted time. Thinking and planning are important, but action is far more important. You don’t get paid for your thoughts and plans — you only get paid for your results. When in doubt, act boldly, as if it were impossible to fail. In essence, it is.
Too often people delay making decisions when there is no advantage to be found in that delay. Usually delaying a decision will only have negative consequences, so even if you’re faced with ambiguity, just bite the bullet and make a decision. If it turns out to be the wrong one, you’ll know it soon enough. If you can speed up the pace of making decisions, you can spend the rest of your time on action.
The state of indecision is a major time waster. Don’t spend more than 60 seconds in that state if you can avoid it. Make a firm, immediate decision, and move from uncertainty to certainty to action. Let the world tell you when you’re wrong, and you’ll soon build enough experience to make accurate, intelligent decisions.
Get rid of everything that wastes your time. Use the trash can liberally. Apply the rule, “When in doubt, throw it out.” Cancel useless magazine subscriptions. If you have a magazine that is more than two months old and you still haven’t read it, throw it away; it’s probably not worth reading. Realize that nothing is free if it costs you time. Before you sign up for any new free service or subscription, ask how much it will cost you in terms of time. Every activity has an opportunity cost. Ask, “Is this activity worth what I am sacrificing for it?”
Ask yourself this question: “Would I have ever gotten started with this project, relationship, career, etc. if I had to do it all over again, knowing what I now know?” If your answer is no, then get out as soon as possible. This is called zero-based thinking. I know a lot of people that have a limiting belief that says, “Always finish what you start.” They spend years climbing ladders only to realize when they reach the top that the ladder was leaning against the wrong building. Remember that failure is your friend. So if a certain decision you’ve made in the past is no longer producing results that serve you, then be ruthless and dump it, so you can move onto something better. There is no honor in dedicating your life to the pursuit of a goal which no longer inspires you. This is another situation where you must practice integrity in the moment of choice. You must constantly re-assess your present situation to accurately decide what to do next. Whatever you’ve decided in the past is largely irrelevant if you would not renew that decision today.
Identify and Recover Wasted Time
Instead of watching a one-hour TV show, tape it and watch it in 45 minutes by fast-forwarding through the commercials. Don’t spend a half hour typing a lengthy email when you could accomplish the same thing with a 10-minute phone call. Batch your errands together and do them all at once.
Trying to cut out time-wasting habits is a common starting point for people who desire to become more efficient, but I think this is a mistake. Optimizing your personal habits should only come later. Clarity of purpose must come first. If you don’t have clarity, then your attempts to install more efficient habits and to break inefficient habits will only fizzle. You won’t have a strong enough reason to put your time to good use, so it will be easy to quit when things get tough. You need a big, attractive goal to stay motivated. The reason to shave 15 minutes off a task is that you’re overflowing with motivation to put that 15 minutes to better use.
For example, you might have a career you sort of like, but most likely it’s not so compelling that you’ll care enough about saving an extra 15 minutes here and there, even if your total savings might amount to a few hours each day. But if you’ve taken the time to develop a sense of purpose that reaches deep into your soul, you’ll be automatically motivated to put your time to better use. If you get the highest level of your life in order (purpose, meaning, spiritual beliefs), the lower levels will tend to self-optimize (habits, practices, actions).
Guard Thy Time
To work effectively you need uninterrupted blocks of time in which you can complete meaningful work. When you know for certain that you won’t be interrupted, your productivity is much, much higher. When you sit down to work on a particularly intense task, dedicate blocks of time to the task during which you will not do anything else. I’ve found that a minimum of 90 minutes is ideal for a single block.
You may need to negotiate with the other people in your life to create these uninterrupted blocks of time. If necessary, warn others in advance not to interrupt you for a certain period of time. Threaten them with acts of violence if you must. If you happen to work in a high interruption environment that’s negatively affecting your productivity, change that environment at all costs.
While for some people it’s helpful to block off a specific period of time for a task, I find that I work best with long, open-ended stretches of uninterrupted time. I’ll often allocate a starting time for a task but usually not a specific finishing time. Whenever possible I just allow myself to stick with a task as long as I can, until I eventually succumb to hunger or other bodily needs. I will frequently work 6+ hours straight on a project without taking a break. While frequent breaks are often recommended to increase productivity, I feel that suggestion may be an artifact of industrial age research on poorly motivated workers and not as applicable to high-motivation, purpose-driven creative work. I find it’s best for me to maintain momentum until I can barely continue instead of chopping a task into smaller chunks where there’s a risk of succumbing to distractions along the way.
The state of flow, where you are totally absorbed in a task and lose all sense of time, takes about 15 minutes to enter. Every time you get interrupted, it can take you another 15 minutes to get back to that state. Once you enter the state of flow, guard it with your life. That is the state in which you will go through enormous amounts of work and experience total connection with the task. When I’m in this state, I have no sense of past or future. I simply feel like I’m one with my work.
Work All the Time You Work
During one of these sacred time blocks, do nothing but the activity that’s right in front of you. Don’t check email or online forums or do web surfing. If you have this temptation, then unplug your Internet connection while you work. Turn off your phone, or simply refuse to answer it. Go to the bathroom before you start, and make sure you won’t get hungry for a while. Don’t get out of your chair at all. Don’t talk to anyone during this time.
Decide what it is you should be doing, and then do nothing but that. If you happen to manage others, periodically ask them what their #1 task is, and make sure they’re doing nothing but that. If you see someone answering email, then it should be the most important thing for that person to be doing at that particular time. If not, then relatively speaking, that person is just wasting time.
If you need a break, then take a real break and do nothing else. Don’t semi-work during a break if you feel you need rest and restoration. Checking email or web surfing is not a break. When you take a break, close your eyes and do some deep breathing, listen to relaxing music and zone out for a while, take a 20-minute nap, or eat some fresh fruit. Rest until you feel capable of doing productive work again. When you need rest, rest. When you should be working, work. Work with either 100% concentration, or don’t work at all. It’s perfectly fine to take as much down time as you want. Just don’t allow your down time to creep into your work time.
Everyone is different, so what works for you may well be different than what works for everyone else. You may work best in the morning or late at night. Take advantage of your own strengths, and find ways to compensate for your weaknesses.
Whenever you come up with a wacky new idea for increasing your productivity, test it and see what effect it has. Don’t dismiss any idea unless you’ve actually tried it. Partial successes are more common than complete failures, so each new experiment will help you refine your time management practices. Even the ongoing practice of conducting experiments will help condition you to be more productive.
Cultivate Your Enthusiasm
The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek entheos, which means literally, “the god within.” I really like that definition. I doubt it’s possible to master the art of time management if you aren’t gushingly enthusiastic about what you’re going to do with your time. Go after what really inspires you. Don’t chase money. Chase your passion. If you aren’t enthusiastic about your work, then you’re wasting your life. Switch to something else. Consider a new career altogether. Don’t beat yourself up if your current career has become stale. Remember that failure is your friend. Listen to that god within you, and switch to something that excites you once again. The worst waste of time is doing something that doesn’t make you happy. Your work should serve your life, not the other way around.
If you’re like most people, you can get yourself motivated every once in a while, but then you get caught up and sink back down to a lower level of productivity, and you find it hard to continue with a project. How easy is it to start a new project when your motivation level is high? And how difficult is it to continue once your enthusiasm fades? Since most people are negative to one degree or another, you’ll naturally lose your positive charge over time unless you actively cultivate your enthusiasm as a resource. I don’t believe in pushing myself to do something I really don’t want to do. If I’m not motivated, then getting myself to sit down and work productively is nearly impossible, and the work is almost painful. When you’re highly motivated though, work feels like play.
If your enthusiasm level is high, you can work so much more productively and even enjoy the normally tedious parts of your work. I’ve always found that whenever I want to take my business to a new level, I must take my thoughts to a new level first. When your thinking changes, then your actions will change, and your results will follow. Unless you’re a naturally hyper person, your enthusiasm is going to need daily reinforcement. I recommend either listening to motivational tapes or reading inspiring books or articles for at least fifteen minutes every day. Whenever I’ve stopped doing this, I’ve found that self-doubt always returns, and my productivity drops off. It’s truly amazing how constantly feeding your mind with positive material can maintain your enthusiasm indefinitely. And if you multitask, you can get this benefit without investing any extra time into it.
I don’t think it’s easy to sustain long-term productivity, health, and happiness if your life is totally unbalanced. To excel in one area, you can’t let other areas lag behind and pull you down. To focus exclusively on your primary work at the expense of every other area of your life will only hurt you in the long run. Maintain balance by paying attention to every area of your life. As you grow in your career, be sure that your personal life grows as well.
I believe the main goal of time management is to give you the power to make your life as juicy as you want it to be. By getting clear about what you want and then developing a collection of habits that allow you to efficiently achieve your goals, you’ll enjoy a much richer, more fulfilling life than you would otherwise.
If you wish to become more productive, then do so with the intention of improving the totality of your life from top to bottom. The reason to master time management is to take your good life and transform it into an exceptional one. Time management is not about self-sacrifice, self-denial, and doing more of what you dislike. It’s about embracing more of what you already love.