“I have been thinking a lot about time management and adding some more structure to my life,” a friend asked me via Facebook. “Any ideas or resources you would suggest?”
With this post and the others that will follow I might be giving my friend a bigger answer than he was looking for. He may have just been looking for a book recommendation or two. But that’s how it goes with me–ask a question, get a big, fat blog post.
I think about time management and life structure a lot, because like many of you I struggle with controlling my own life. I struggle with food, exercise, competing priorities, and managing my time, amongst other things. Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of the lessons I’ve learned and resources I’ve found that help. I’ve broken my thoughts into chunks to make them bite-sized. Part I focuses on desire, metrics, and strategy, or you might say this post is about wanting to change things, choosing the outcomes we want, and coming up with a plan.
Everything Starts With Desire
We aren’t very good at anything we don’t want to do. When I was in grade school I didn’t want to learn math. I was going to be an artist when I grew up, so what did I need math for? Turns out math can be quite helpful to an artist, but I was ignorant of this fact at the time.
I was bright enough that through 6th grade I had no problem with math, even though I didn’t enjoy it. It was easy and I was considered to be advanced. But in 7th grade I encountered algebra. Whereas before I could simply do the math without any preparation or study, I suddenly needed to do homework, and I didn’t like doing homework. Because I didn’t study, I couldn’t understand the material, and I started to fail at math.I started to hate math. Instead of seeing myself as advanced, I saw myself as stupid. This thinking spread from math to other subjects and I became convinced I wasn’t good at anything academic. Nor did I see the point in doing well in school. I was going to be an artist, so what did it matter? Why work to learn things I didn’t enjoy and would never use?
Everything changed my senior year of high school when my sister gave me a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Although the book didn’t change my mind about the usefulness of what was being taught in high school, it did show me that I could enjoy the learning process. As a result, my grades improved substantially that last year, and I left grade school once again seeing myself as capable of learning or doing anything. But I still didn’t want anything but to be an artist.
I attended a year at BYU-Idaho, loved my classes there (although I still avoided math), and then went on a two-year stint as a missionary to Brazil for my church. During my mission, I decided I wanted to pursue business at school, rather than art. There was just one problem–getting into business school required good scores in math, and I didn’t have them.
Thankfully, BYU-Idaho offered remedial math classes where I could progress at my own pace. My first semester back I took Pre-Algebra, the same class that had made me so miserable in 7th grade. I finished the class in a matter of weeks, getting near-perfect scores on the exams. I went on to the next class, then the next, and the next. In one semester I re-took all the math classes I had failed during junior high and high school and aced them all. Together with my other classes I completed 25 credit hours that semester (the norm is to take around 15, as I recall) and only received one A-, which the teacher said he would change to an A after I asked him why I hadn’t received a perfect score. Not only did I get perfect grades in math the second time around, I enjoyed it.
My post-mission experience with math was so completely the opposite of my experience in grade school that I’ve thought about it for years, trying to understand how something that was so difficult could become so easy. The only conclusion I’ve been able to reach is that desire made all the difference. When I didn’t want to learn math it was impossible. When I wanted to learn math it was easy.
That isn’t to say that developing self control or adding structure and organization to life is a piece of cake if you want to do it, but if you don’t want to have control you won’t even get started. Anything is easy compared to the impossible.
But what then? “I want to get more control over my life, but how?” Desire comes from having a “why,” and knowing “how” is important, but in between we need to answer the question of “what.” If you aren’t sure what you want, it will be hard to get it.
Choose the Right Metrics
I’m at the tail end of interviewing 30 top CMOs from companies like PayPal, The Home Depot, Spotify, GE, and Target for my first book entitled Chief Marketing Officers at Work: How Top Marketers Build Customer Loyalty. In almost all of these interviews I’ve asked the question “What metrics are you judged on?” You might call metrics by the names key performance indicators, goals, objectives, or numbers, but the point is that CMOs measure their own performance and that of their teams, and they are also measured by the CEO. Every CMO I’ve interviewed has had an immediate answer to this question that has been clear and concise. They know the metrics they need to focus on to excel–and keep their jobs.
What metrics are you using for yourself? That’s the question posed by Harvard Business School professor and best selling author Clayton M. Christensen in his book How Will You Measure Your Life? Christensen explains that nobody sets out in life with the goals of being divorced and hated by one’s children and yet it happens as though the person had charted just such a course on purpose. How closely do you track your stocks and investments? The balance in your bank account, or your net worth? Awards and other professional recognition? Not that there’s anything wrong with these things, but do you pay just as much attention to your relationships with your friends? Are you more focused on work than your health? Do you spend more time thinking about the condition of your house than the condition of your family?
You may instantly agree that family is more important than money, but acknowledging this isn’t the same as choosing the right metrics. Chances are you don’t even have metrics for your family. Don’t feel bad, it’s a lot harder to identify and track those metrics, compared to tracking your bank account. With a bank account we can say “I want to have $100 million in my account by the time I’m 50 years old.” That’s a very clear and simple goal. What’s your goal for your family by the time you’re 50 years old? It’s harder to come to such a clear answer, but it’s not impossible to find one that works. You might say you want your spouse and children to be happy. You’ll then need to figure out what “happiness” means to you as an outcome. With this ultimate goal in mind, we can talk about “how” to get it, or what we need to do to get where we want to go.
The word “strategy” often comes up in a business context, but is as applicable to anyone and anything in any field, whether it’s a man digging a ditch in his backyard or an executive considering marketing options for a new gadget at Apple. We often think of strategy as what a business or person does in order to accomplish an objective, but in the book Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters author Richard Rumelt explains that strategy is as much about what we choose not to do as what we choose to do.
Good strategy requires leaders who are willing and able to say no to a wide variety of actions and interests. Strategy is at least as much about what an organization does not do as it is about what it does.
This sounds easy enough, we just need to do good things and not do bad things, right? But the challenge arises when we have to choose between options that are all good. Although presented within the context of religious faith, anyone can find value in the talk Good, Better, Best by LDS Church Apostle Dallin H. Oaks. In it he says:
We should begin by recognizing the reality that just because something is good is not a sufficient reason for doing it. The number of good things we can do far exceeds the time available to accomplish them. Some things are better than good, and these are the things that should command priority attention in our lives.
When I moved to Hong Kong I was presented with not just many good opportunities, but many amazingly good opportunities. My struggle for the past three years has been figuring out how to say “no” more and focus on which of the amazing opportunities is best, or most important. You might say this is a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem.
Perhaps “problem” is the wrong word. Having many good choices to make only becomes a problem when it leads to one or more of these results:
- It leads to indecision and inaction that paralyzes us
- We scatter ourselves across too many choices and attempt to “have it all” and therefore achieve mediocrity in everything and excellence at nothing
- We choose what is good rather than what is best and fail to maximize our potential
Do you feel like life is something that happens to you, rather than something you bend to your will? Do you feel overcommitted, overworked, and overstressed? Do you wish for a 36-hour day? Do you have trouble turning down opportunities and then wonder why you told so many people you would do so many things? Do you struggle with all the amazing opportunities in front of you because there isn’t time for all of them? Do you ever feel like it doesn’t matter so much what you choose to do because they’re all good choices?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions perhaps you have a lack of a clear strategy in your life, even if you have clear objectives. It’s not enough to know that I want my family to be happy. Happiness is an outcome, and it requires outputs to produce the outcome. What are those outputs? How should I go about them? By breaking the larger outcome down into small steps, or outputs, I can identify activities I believe will lead to the kind of happiness I want for my family. In your case, perhaps you’ll come to the conclusion that to have a happy family (outcome) you need to spend more time with your children (output). Achieving that output might require changing careers, turning down a promotion, homeschooling, or smaller changes like turning your phone off after 5 p.m., reading together instead of watching TV, having a family night each week, and going on more trips together.
To get started taking control of your life ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I want?
- How will I know once I get it?
- What do I need to do (and not do) to get what I want?
It may sound simple, but in this busy world how often do we step back and look at the big picture? How often do we question our assumptions? How often do we ask ourselves “Do I really need to be working 60 hours a week to get what I want?” or “Are my actions today going to produce the long term consequences I want?” It’s worth taking some time to think about the answers to these questions. Answering them is more important than a few tips on how to manage one’s time better.
But perhaps you and my friend have already answered these questions. You know what you want, you’re measuring the right metrics to get there, and you feel like you’ve got a good strategy, but you’re still looking for some tips on execution. If that’s so, I think you’ll enjoy my next post where I focus on specific systems, processes, and practices (like “shadow time”) I’ve found that help me get more done in less time. I’ll go beyond things you already know like “Goals need to be simple, have a deadline, and be written down,” and give you tips like “If you want to get in shape, sign up for an event and listen to audio books while working out–here’s why…” I’ll include a bunch of books and links I’ve found helpful.
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And please let me know your thoughts on this post in the comments below. I want to know your story. How did asking yourself the three homework questions lead to changes in your life?Liked it? Share it!