This article is an abridged version of a talk I wrote to present at Adobe Imagine this year, I did not get a chance to submit it, and even if I had, it was canceled. I thought I would write a quick summary here for readers of my blog to see.
When I was a young man, I was told that time was the essential thing in my life; this was usually in the form of a discussion about me not doing anything productive with my portion of it. About three years ago, I started taking this very seriously. I used to think of buying land as the best investment because we were not making any more of it. This statement is inaccurate as the world changes, but the amount of land never goes down. Instead, I know now that time is the one thing each person is not getting any more of because the only thing time does it move forward.
Today I am a bit of a time management evangelist. When I do interviews even for a developer, my first question is not technical; it is about time. How do they manage their time? Do they have a system? How to handle things that come up unexpectedly? Time is the great equalizer. We all have the same amount of it every day; there are no guarantee’s that there will be more tomorrow, so what we do with our time today is more important than tomorrow.
Highly successful people all have different roads to success. One thing many of them have in common, however, is that they manage their time very carefully. They guard their time like it is more precious than any metal or gemstone, more valuable than money.
The purpose of this article is to discuss how I manage time and how I think other professionals should manage their time if they want to be successful. Success comes in many flavors. For this discussion, I am talking about professional success in your career.
To keep this broadly applicable, I am not talking about any specific career. Instead, I am talking general rules to follow to help you be successful.
Rule Number One: Get up early
You have to be hungry if you want to be successful. When I was a live-in student for Aikido, my sensei used to tell me, “Everyone trains better when they’re hungry, be hungry.” You have to want it. You need to charge out of bed every morning with purpose. So why is getting up early helpful? Many people say they do their best work late at night, which is fine, but they still need to get up early in the mornings.
When you get up early, everyone else is asleep. You cannot control the day ahead of you. Time is the biggest cheater in the world; it sneaks up on you like a predator in the night and snatches away your best moments. The only way to defeat that enemy is to surprise it. Getting up early in the morning means you are ahead of the game. No matter what happens that day, you have a chance to prepare for it because you were up early.
Lincoln said, “Good things come to those who wait.” Jimmy Carter said, “A bad decision today is better than the right decision tomorrow.” I am not sure which is correct, but I think good things happen to those who show up, which is a rework of a line written by Aaron Sorkin. Getting up early in the morning is the first step in a set of actions to be successful, it is also the easiest one to control.
I get up at 4:30 in the morning, five days a week. I let myself sleep in on the weekends; I get up at 7:00 AM. During the week, by the time other people are starting their day, I have already accomplished many things. I go to bed at 10:00 PM, and I get eighteen hours to be successful a day. I am very hungry.
Rule Number Two: You have to get organized
You cannot plan your way to success, but you can organize your way there. Get a system (I will share mine on another day) stick to it every day on how to organize what needs to get done. Only when you have thought through what must get done can you be prepared to do it. You are thereby more successful. Time can and must be managed; you must be the guardian of your time. If not, someone will steal it from you.
I spend fifteen minutes every morning organizing my day between 5:30 AM and 5:45 AM. Getting up so early allows me to manage what I must get done today. Anything else that comes up gets marked as either “Unplanned” or “Unplanned and Urgent.” The first group gets scheduled or put on the list to plan tomorrow, and the second group gets fit into today, I either bump a commitment or fit it in.
Did you have someone throw a meeting with a client on your schedule at the last minute? That is unplanned and urgent, did your assistant tell you that you need to call a client back? That is unplanned, figure out when a good time is, and set a commitment to get it done (see Rule Number Three). Nothing in my life is considered planned until it has time set to start it. I do not work in deadlines; I work in start times. This system is a preference, not a rule. Some folks like deadlines better, but I like to know when the next thing begins.
Plan your day, plan to succeed. Ray Kroc said, “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” That one I know is correct because I have experienced it time and again. I keep mentioning these quotes because successful people have already figured these things out, do not waste time trying to figure it out again someone already did.
Rule Number Three: Set and Keep commitments
“You are only as good as your word.” That one belongs to my dad but likely he did not invent the phrase. When I worked at Classy Llama, Jonathan Hodges was big on commitments and I think the more successful you are the more important they are. If you make a commitment, you are not only giving your time its respected value, but you are valuing the time of the other person.
Occasionally, a commitment needs to get bumped, I call this, “Setting proper expectations.” When I have to do it, I always note the original commitment because when I evaluate in my journal the next day, I know that I did not set a realistic commitment the first time. Do not be afraid when someone comes to you to tell them I do not have time right now to do that, but I can do it at another time. In the professional world, people know time is not unlimited, and even being up eighteen hours day (and you are because of Rule Number One), you still have things that just do not fit in the day.
Rule Number 4: Take time for the little things
Time may be valuable, but that is why you have to reserve some of it for you. Spend time with your family, do some self-care, read a book, listen to music, take your significant other out to dinner. When you do those things, focus on them, make them the essential element in the world because, at that moment, it is.
When my daughter comes to me and wants to play, I always take a few moments to do it if I can. One day, those opportunities will not happen anymore. Being successful does not mean working all the time. The reason for getting up early, for organizing the day, for making commitments is so that you can have more time. It is only fair you reward yourself every day with a little time back for yourself.
For me, I use Pomodoro’s during work so every half hour I get five minutes and every two hours, I get fifteen minutes. I take an hour lunch. I meditate in the mornings, go work out for forty-five minutes six days a week, write in my journal, and write this blog. On Wednesdays, my day off from the gym, I read for forty-five minutes. Those breaks I take? During a five-minute break, I walk away from the desk and out onto my back deck. During the fifteen-minute breaks, I spend with my family but always out of my office. Those are self-care, little moments I take for me.
No matter how busy you are, always take a little time for yourself every day. Otherwise, you missed the point in managing your time.
Lastly, but not less important.
Rule Number 5: Reflect
Every morning I write in my journal. What did I do yesterday? What did I learn? This process is a fifteen-minute window every morning after meditation that I spend reflecting on how did it go yesterday? Anything I am proud of having done yesterday? What about things I wish I did better, that is always a couple of items. Yesterday, for example (at the time of writing), I wish I had communicated better with a co-worker. When this happens, I reflect on what Stephen Covey says, “Seek first understand then to be understood,” if I can remember that at the moment, I know I will be more successful.
The work is never done if you want to be successful. You have to be hungry remember? That means you have to charge every day like it the last one you will ever see; you have to fight like its the final round of your life because it might be. What do you want your legacy to be? I want to be remembered for what I did with the little “-” in the middle of the dates on my tombstone.
I wanted to a sixth rule, but Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sixth rule exists, “Give something back,” he and I (though we have never met, yet) agree on several things this one is chief among them. When you are successful, do not forget to look behind you at the long line of others who want to be successful and remember to reach back and pull someone else forward. It is lonely at the top, so do not be afraid to share the spotlight; nothing will bring you more joy than seeing someone else gain success when they worked hard for it.
The next article in the series will expand on my Todoist/Time Management process.