Keeping busy is easy. Achieving something meaningful is much harder.
When you’re focused on a to-do list, it’s easy to keep creating more to-do items to fill up the day.
But when you are focused on creating results, then the game becomes doing as little as possible in order to achieve it effectively.
This is where the art of time management comes into play.
So from now on, you’re paid for results! Whether it’s true in your career or not, it’s true in your life. And to do that, you must have a written time management system in place.
Get yourself a good planner – whether it’s paper or digital – and start using a system that works for you. It must be able to capture all your action items in written form and any additional items during the day, on the fly and in real-time.
1. Create Life Categories
If you’re like most people, you’re busy with many tasks but also being pulled in many life directions that you consider important, such as your health, finances, relationships, and career. Rather than creating an endless daily list of tasks, break them up into life categories, or areas of focus.
Each category will have its own list of related tasks that will be more digestible and allow you to devote time to only those tasks that are relevant. Having a block of time to focus only on your health, finances or relationships means making major progress in your life area, rather than just being busy and accomplishing several unrelated tasks.
Having a block of time to focus only on your health, finances or relationships means making major progress in your life area, rather than just being busy and accomplishing several unrelated tasks.
- Run 5k
- Buy Vegetables for the next 5 days
- Watch a YouTube video on how to perform progressive weight lifting
- Signup for mint.com to watch weekly spending
- Join a credit union to refinance auto loan
- Buy anniversary card for my wife
- Brainstorm romantic gift ideas that she won’t expect
- Reach out to my network and ask for referrals
- Research online classes related to my MBA
2. Binary Prioritization
Going further, prioritize each task using a binary system. Either it has a star next to it or it doesn’t. If it has a star, that means it absolutely must get done by the end of the day in order for you to be successful in that life category. If it doesn’t have a star, then it’s optional.
Let’s take the 3 task items under your health category above that’s due for tomorrow:
- Run 5k*
- Buy Vegetables for the next 5 days*
- Watch a YouTube video on how to perform progressive weight lifting
While watching a video on improving your exercise routine is helpful, you decide it’s more important to do the exercise and buy vegetables for the week.
So those two tasks have a star next to it, because it means working out and buying greens is what will make tomorrow a success. While the YouTube video is optional and can be moved to the next day if it doesn’t get done, you still made maximum progress in your health.
It doesn’t matter what time you do the task or how long it takes to finish it, which gives you flexibility in how you get there. And it’s simple, so it means you don’t spend hours trying to decide “is this a 2 in priority or a 1… and if it’s a 2 does that mean it absolutely has to be done today?”
It either has a star next to it or it doesn’t. A star means it must happen that day to be a success in that life area.
On days when everything has a star next to it that include multiple meetings and careful planning so it all gets done, it’s appropriate to schedule exact times for every action item due that day. If you have a full schedule, you’d ideally factor in overtime for anything that may likely take longer than anticipated (i.e., every meeting ever) and prepare as much as you can on the prior day.
That means everyday you’re asking yourself “what’s the most important thing I can do today that will make this area of my life a success?”
Often you’ll find that there’s another step you’re missing before you can complete the action item. Or you might be missing an important distinction and it requires another step that you don’t know about yet. In that case, you’ll have to add that in after the fact to be done later or the next day.
This way, you’re constantly improving and adjusting how you get to a goal and the most important key to the whole system is the fact that you’re writing down the added adjustments and improvements along the way.
3. Choose The Right System
There are many really great systems that are paper based or use online websites or apps. Some of the most popular systems today are David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Franklin Covey’s Planner, or Tony Robbins’ Rapid Planning Method. Not all will necessarily translate very well to an app or an online website account.
There are some excellent websites and apps that you can find, but the one that most easily adapts to the system discussed here is Toodledo.com. It runs online and offline and makes capturing tasks quick and easy. This is important because capturing tasks is the first step and if you find it too cumbersome to perform the first step, your system will fail.
Don’t make the mistake of having a dozen different life-categories to manage. If you have too many, it becomes counter productive because not enough focus and effort will go into any one category. Unless you can delegate tasks, keep it simple.
When it comes to long-term focus, it’s more sustainable to do more with less.
4. Plant seeds every day
If you can consistently take action towards your goals, no matter how small or incidental, the momentum you create will eventually build into a tsunami of success – even if that moment of success is fleeting.
In the book Fight Club, Tyler Durden spends a long time positioning driftwood on the beach. During what seems like an hour of positioning the various pieces, Tyler periodically asks his alter ego “do you know what time it is?” Finally, after the sun drops and the sun is positioned in the sky just so, the logs in the sand casts a giant shadow and the image of a perfectly proportioned hand is revealed. Tyler Durden then sits himself cross-legged in the very center of that shadow for a few minutes, in a palm of perfection he created for himself.
Within a few minutes, the fingers and palm of his shadow become completely distorted as the sun continues to move through the sky. In confusion, his alter ego wonders what’s all this effort for? “One minute was enough, Tyler said, a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”
No matter how much it takes or how long it may take, that’s what we all strive for … all for that one perfect moment. In fact, our lives are defined by these kinds of moments. Remember that when you’re planting your seeds of action.
5. Regroup, Remix & Reconnect
Every Sunday, sit down and plan your week. Include what wasn’t completed the prior week and add your tasks for the coming week that will help you achieve your goals in each life category. Every night thereafter, plan out the following day with adjustments from what you didn’t do during the current day. Setup is always the hardest part but once it’s done, execution is a breeze. Measure twice, cut once.
Some people prefer using paper to write down goals and tasks every day or every week, because it reconnects them with the actions they plan to take and find it mentally connects them more intimately with their purpose.
There will be many times when you’ll lose motivation and the harder you work, the less motivated you’ll feel. Instead of fighting this uphill battle, stop.
Mark Twain would sometimes work on 5 different books simultaneously. He said doing this allowed him to circumvent writers block because if he ever found he couldn’t think of what to write next, he’d simply turn to another book and write there.
When he hit a roadblock on that one, again he’d turn to another book and keep writing. Eventually, ideas would come to him and he’d turn back to the other books and never experience any downtime. He was very prolific this way.
Like Obi Wan fighting the Dark Sith at the end of Star Wars Episode II, anytime a force field would come between them during battle, Obi Wan would simply sit, meditate and wait until his window of opportunity returned… then he’d spring back into action with renewed strength and focus.
Sometimes stopping action and simply meditating on your goals is exactly what’s called for.
It could be reading a spiritual or inspirational book, talking with a good friend about what you hope to accomplish, drawing out your goals on paper, or coming up with a new, clever idea that jolts you into furious planning.
Giving yourself this freedom to stop and regroup is just as important as the actions which help you achieve it. Create your own rituals that help keep your goals fresh and alive.
Achieving the most impressive goals means nothing if it lacks inspiration while you are achieving it. It means you spent 95% of your time being miserable on the uphill climb and enjoyed only that 5% upon reaching the peak.
In his book The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes a story that runs through every culture, every myth and every time period known to mankind since the beginning of recorded time. It’s universal.
It’s the story of everyman who follows his own heart, encounters great personal strife and overcomes. And at the end of his journey the hero learns it was the experience he was after and that the path he took and the obstacles he overcame were simply a vehicle to mastery. The message behind this universal story that appears over and over again is that you’re meant to live with this transforming sense of experience and the path you choose to get there is incidental.
Similarly in the East, there are several stories about how monks have reached enlightenment. But my favorite is a Taoist anecdote by Osho, where the monk goes to meditate where Buddha once did and sits under a Bodhi tree for 6 years to reach enlightenment.
For 6 years he tries every form of meditation, every mental trick, talked to every guru, every master and every average joe and nothing worked. Finally, he became very frustrated and decided it was all futile.
Then one day, he swam into the river and remembered a teacher who once said that one should be like the river, because it follows the path of least resistance and yet it always finds its way back home without any effort. Back to the ocean from which it came.
So the monk let go and floated…
And in that moment, he laughed. Because he was now enlightened and although he spent the last 6 years working hard to achieve this point, he had only to do nothing and all along it was always there for him. Of course, he could’ve just let go 6 years ago and attained enlightened consciousness, right?
But what’s more important to note is that he would never have reached his higher consciousness if it weren’t for those 6 years of hard work and preparation for this single moment. Like Tyler Durden and Joseph Campbell’s hero, the monk’s patience, discipline and focus is what finally led him to his moment of perfection.
Be the monk.