I will never be able to finish all of the books I want, because I am dying.
Don’t feel too bad for me, so are you. We all are, from the moment we take our first breath. It just sort of sank in for me recently. This is probably a fact that people my age have been grappling with for some time now, but I’ve never been what they call an early adopter. The reason I’m sharing this fact is that I think mortality salience might be the key to effective time management. If you are one of those people who believe they operate best under pressure, this is the post for you.
I looked at the stack of precariously perched books on my nightstand and extrapolated the average number of books I read per year times the number of years I have left (assuming the average lifespan), and I arrived at a shockingly finite number. I will have to prioritize, be choosier. If I find myself perusing social media a little too long, I panic – am I really going to squander my precious time left watching stupid cat videos?! Never have I been more focused and productive.
Maybe you don’t have to keep a clear sight on your mortality to prioritize effectively, but we all do need to have something that encourages us to use our limited time wisely. Time passes in such an inexorable and continuous fashion that we have the illusion that it is unlimited. You have 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week, about five thousand in a month. But those hours can slip through your fingers if you don’t mind them carefully. What are you spending your time on? What criteria do you use when making decisions about how to spend it? That was a trick question – because while the average person makes thousands of decisions each day, when it comes to how we spend our time, too often we don’t decide how we spend it, we just get swept along. Our decisions aren’t anchored in the awareness of the finite amount of time at our disposal for achieving our aims.
We all have short-term and long-term goals and higher-order priorities. Today I want to write a blog post that people find helpful and engaging. Bigger picture, my goal is to nudge people to be more thoughtful about their work in ways that enables them to be more successful and thereby build high-performing organizations. But ultimately, I want to reach the end of my life and have found that I both enjoyed myself immensely and was to at least a small degree a net positive to the world. But do I live my life according to those goals and priorities? Sometimes. And sometimes I get derailed by cat videos. The problem is that we have lots of distractions – things that are important to others but not to us; things that aren’t important to us but to which we are mercilessly drawn anyway; and things that unimportant but necessary. And sometimes, it seems hard to know which is which. It’s infinitely harder if you don’t take time to think about it.
You need to operate like a business. Organizations do better with aligned mission, vision, and values and so do we. Your life is your enterprise and you are the prized human capital. What is your guiding purpose for existing? What values guide your decisions? Who do you exist to serve? Who do you want to partner with? Do you spend sufficient time on long-term planning in order to answer these questions? Without knowing what you are about, you can’t make informed decisions about how to use your time. Take the time to answer the big questions and then flow down the answers to help you fit the smaller pieces together – from does that lateral move support your long-term career goals, to whether to delegate or retain control over a job task, to whether to take three minutes and enjoy a crazy cat video. The real secret to time management is awareness and choice.
“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” –Michael Altshuler
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