Stop Managing Your Time, Start Aligning It

Countless well-meaning books, articles and websites have been dedicated to the issue of time management. I don’t know a single CEO, founder or executive who doesn’t feel that they have more to do than there are hours in the day. So, it’s only natural that we’d want to better manage our time. The issue with most of the time management advice and tips I’ve seen out there is that they tend to be like band-aids – helping you manage the symptoms of an underlying problem that persists. Most time management tools start with the premise that you’re generally clear about how you should be spending your time and eager to do so, but just need help doing those things more efficiently. Within that premise, there are a lot of helpful tools and tips out there. But if what you’re really looking for is to spend your time on this planet as best you can and get the most out of each day, I recommend you stop managing your time, and starting aligning it.

What is Time Alignment?

I’m defining Time Alignment as a process of ensuring you spend your time on the things that are actually most important to you and most critical to realizing your grand vision for yourself and/or your company.  Sounds simple enough, right?

The Obstacles to Time Alignment

Most people, if they’re really honest with themselves, do a terrible job at time alignment. There are a few major reasons for this:

  1. They’re not clear about what’s most important to them
  2. They’re scared to do the things that are most important to them
  3. They don’t have a system that links their insights about what’s important to them to what they actually do everyday
  4. They don’t have the mental tools to catch themselves in the act of making choices that are not aligned with what’s most important to them

The Process of Time Alignment

I’ve outlined below four steps to Time Alignment that are designed to overcome each of the natural obstacles listed above. They include:

  1. Set aside time and space to figure out what’s most important to you ON A REGULAR BASIS
  2. Make a list of the important actions that scare you the most, and start doing them
  3. Sync your To Do list with your Calendar
  4. Learn to catch yourself in the act of making misaligned choices

Let’s take a look at each of these steps and how you might put them into practice:

1. Set aside time and space to figure out what’s most important to you ON A REGULAR BASIS

 

What’s most important to spend your time on is a function of your values and your vision. In previous posts, I’ve shared tips for how to discover your own personal values and how to define your company’s values. Values are just a succinct way of describing what’s most important to you, and I believe that living a life based on your values, and operating your business based on a shared set of values is the key to success and fulfillment in both realms.  So if you haven’t taken the time to figure out your own personal values or to define your company’s values, that’s a great place to start.

In addition to values, it can be helpful to take the time to write down a vision for the future that you’re working toward (how you want the world to be different as a result of your efforts), and some of the key objectives along the way to that vision. This vision and objectives should encompass only the most important things you’re trying to achieve, rooted in what you believe to be your primary purpose as an individual or company. In Martin Seligman’s new book Flourish, he talks about Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, one of the most accomplished women in the US military and Director of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, and her philosophy on life. Her e it is:

“Prioritize.

A.

B.

C.

Discard C.”

Once you’ve taken the time initially to clarify your values, vision and most important goals, it’s important to put in place some kind of process or routine to examine the values and goals on a regular basis to ensure that the tasks that you’re doing each day, week and month are aligned with those values and goals – and drop the ones that are not aligned.

Here, I’ll provide a personal example. My wife Karine and I have a meeting each Sunday evening. In one of our initial meetings, I walked her through the process of discovering her values and we’ve created a google doc that includes a prioritized list of each of our 5 – 7 most important values. Each Sunday, we go through each of our lists, value by value, and answer the question: ‘What are you going to do this week to honor this value?’ This gives us both the chance to reflect on our values and make sure we’re proactively adding and removing things from our calendars to align how we spend our time with what matters most to us.

Clients of mine have adopted similar processes in their businesses, incorporating into their weekly executive team meetings time dedicated specifically to discussing their stated values, and what actions they can take and practices they can put in place to honor them.

2. Make a list of the important actions that scare you the most, and start doing them

In Tim Ferris’s The Four Hour Work Week, he reiterates the notion of 80/20 and challenges readers to think of the 20% of things they do that account for 80% of the results. This is a concept that is well understood by most people and sounds easy and logical. In practice, however, few people ever achieve this goal of eliminating the ‘other 80%’ of things that account for a mere 20% of the results. I believe the primary reason for this is that other 80% is the easy stuff, the stuff they already know how to do, that’s comfortable, requires no conflict and involves no risk-taking.

Of course, those of us who have taken risks in life (and who hasn’t?) know that the actual experience is rarely as bad as we envision it beforehand. But our subconscious minds are quite good at keeping us in the comfortable, risk-free, but highly inefficient realm of the ‘easy stuff.’   Therefore, to counteract this force, we need to proactively, consciously and courageously focus our minds on the things that most scare us to do that would honor our values and serve our objectives. You don’t have to do everything on the list, but if you start consciously doing just one or two of the things that most scare you each week, you’ll find your productivity and results, as well as your sense of confidence and courage, greatly improved.

3. Sync your To Do list with your Calendar

This is one of my all-time favorite tactics for aligning your time. Many people intuitively understand steps 1. and 2., and they go as far as to set aside time on a regular basis to reflect on their most important, most courageous actions and add them to their To Do list. Lots of people have read ‘Getting Things Done’ (or the derivative Zen to Done) and make lists of their Most Important Things for the week, feeling energized and excited about the week or even day ahead. And then the day or week will actually start…

If you’re like most people, your calendar is filled with meetings and calls. The minute you get to the office you’re bombarded by requests, emails, and problems to be solved. Between scheduled meetings, your time somehow ‘gets away from you’ as you follow email trails, web links and get caught up in side conversations.

Here is the fundamental problem for most people: Your To Do list represents your fantasized, most optimistic reality. Your Calendar represents your actual, frenzied, demanding day-to-day reality.  And the two are completely, totally independent from one another.

To Do List, meet Calendar.

The solution is simple. Add one column to your To Do list. Head that column with the words “In Calendar?” If and only if you have scheduled in your calendar all the time you believe is required to complete that task by the due date you’ve specified on your To Do list, then mark ‘Yes’ in that column next to the task in question (this assumes you have due dates for each item on your To Do list, which I highly recommend). To reiterate, this does NOT mean that you put the task in your calendar on the due date, but that you’ve actually allocated all of the time required to complete the task BEFORE the due date.

This will create the bridge from the optimistic, best case scenario world that you’re in when you’re planning your day, week or month based on your most important values and goals to the harsh, foggy, confusing world that is your day-to-day existence.  Then your job becomes simple: actually do what you have scheduled on your calendar to do.

You wouldn’t miss an important client meeting scheduled on your calendar (or if something more important came up, you would promptly let them know and reschedule). Treat all scheduled tasks the same way. Of course, your calendar is a tool for you, so you are always free to move tasks around, but having your most important tasks scheduled in your calendar forces you to make tradeoffs consciously.  One of the most valuable results of syncing your To Do list to your calendar is that it makes you more realistic about your time. When you go through the process of scheduling your most important tasks on your calendar sometime between now and the due date you’ve specified, you’ll usually notice that you have other stuff filling your calendar that’s preventing you from having enough free hours and minutes to allocate your tasks. During this process is a perfect time to move less important meetings and tasks out to later dates, or remove them altogether.

4. Learn to catch yourself in the act of making misaligned choices

Learning to ‘catch yourself in the act’ of making bad choices (or better yet, being about to make bad choices) is one of the most underestimated and critical leadership (and life) skills. All the knowledge in all the leadership and self-help books and all the MBA classrooms in all the world won’t make a bit of difference if they don’t impact what you actually do moment-by-moment.

The average US adult makes over 30,000 choices each day, and most of them affect how we spend our time. So a critical step in Time Alignment is learning to catch ourselves in the act of making misaligned choices about how you’re spending your time.

How to Catch Yourself in the Act

One of the best ways to catch yourself in the act is to develop a set of ‘gotcha’ questions you can ask of yourself ‘in the moment’.  Here are a few that you can try:

Is this the highest and best use of my time right now?
Is this really important?
Is there something scary I’m putting off doing by doing this?
Will this have a meaningful impact on achieving my goals?
Does this honor my values?

You could even try writing one or two of these questions on a post-it note and putting it on your screen or somewhere visible as a constant reminder.  Another way to catch yourself in the act is to set up times during the day to ‘step back’ and evaluate how you’re spending your day. Schedule a time mid-day to pause and reflect on what you’ve been focusing on and what you’re about to do. Review your values and goals, and use this ‘step back’ time to ask yourself one of the ‘gotcha’ questions above. That way, even if you waste some portion of your day, you’ll have a chance to course correct before it’s too late.

Summary

Instead of trying to better manage the tasks you’re already doing, start aligning the way you spend your time with your most important values and goals. The key is to overcome the most common obstacles of lack of clarity about what matters most, fear of doing the things that would have the biggest results, disconnection between your planning process and your actual day, and going through your day unconsciously doing stuff so that by the time the day ends you wonder where all your time went and why none of the important stuff got done. The process of Time Alignment will enable you to overcome these challenges and make the most of each day by (1) regularly reflecting on what’s most important to you, (2) forcing yourself to do the things you’re afraid to do (and see that they’re not as scary as you thought), (3) bridging your planning process with your doing process, and (4) creating structures to catch yourself when you’re off track so you can get back on track.



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