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Keep Time on Your Side

I’m a little depressed. I just finished reading “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” an excellent book by Brigid Schulte. This is the passage that got to me:  People now tell pollsters that they’re too busy to register to vote, too busy to date, to make friends outside the office, to take a vacation, to sleep, to have sex. As for multitasking, one 2012 survey found that 38 million Americans shop on their smartphones while sitting on the toilet. Another found that the compulsion to multitask was making us as stupid as if we were stoned.

Later she adds, “People compete over being busy; it’s about showing status.”

I agree with her, but it has to be asked: Of all the things to aspire to, why would people choose “busy”? Why not “admired” or “fulfilled” or even just “caught up on their work”?

If people are supposed to take pride in being out of time, we should be surrounded by the proudest of the proud. Instead, as Ms. Schulte exposes, we are surrounded by the miserably overwhelmed.

So I have two sets of questions for business people. And how you answer the questions to yourself will say a lot about how much satisfaction you will gain from your work and how much happiness and fulfillment you will find in life.

First set: What is your view of time? Do you view it as a commodity to be filled with as many activities as you can? Or do you view it as something precious and finite?

You know what people do with commodities. They take them for granted. Sometimes they squander them, assuming they will never run out. For sure they don’t husband them jealously, saving them for when they are most needed for critical purposes.

If you see your time as precious and finite, you’ll plan carefully for how you will use it. You will first decide on the most important things you want to accomplish. Then you will carve out plenty of time in your plan for those things – I call them your Critical Few. Then you will think through all the other obligations you have – it will be a long list which I call your Minor Many.

You will teach yourself to dispose of your Minor Many in efficient ways, especially by batch processing them. That means, you won’t just answer an email here, make a phone call there, do your time sheet first thing in the morning, then file your expense report at the end of the day. No, you’ll find a time when maybe you’ve depleted your energy for your Critical Few, and you’ll group similar tasks (time sheet, expense report, etc.) and swiftly process them.

And of course, you will be miserly about permitting interruptions. Instead, you will politely arrange to take care of the interrupter’s needs at a mutually agreed upon time. You will practice techniques for concentrating in a world of distractions, so that you don’t interrupt yourself!

In every way, if you view time as precious and finite, you will be intentional and thoughtful about how you spend it. But if you see time as a commodity of infinite availability (Tomorrow – surely tomorrow there will be time for my important stuff…), there’s no reason to plan how you will use it.

My second set of questions: Who owns your time? Do you think of time at work as belonging to your boss or company? Or does it still belong to you? Do you still feel proprietary about those eight or so hours? Or do feel like you just hand them off impersonally to be allocated the way somebody else chooses?

One of my best salesmen ever always made it clear that he owned his time. I don’t mean that he indulged his personal whims at work. I mean that when it came to allocating his 40 or so hours a week, he did the allocating. He planned his day, his week, and his month to accomplish what his daily, weekly, monthly goals dictated. If anybody wanted him to change his plan, or even interrupt him, they had to have a good reason. He wasn’t difficult, but he was firm.

Another of my favorite employees of all time was infinitely generous and selfless about “her” time. I put that in parentheses because she didn’t appear to consider it hers. If she heard of somebody needing something no matter whose job it was, she would drop what she was doing to pitch in.

Forget about who got the most thank-yous. Who do you think accomplished their goals with the least amount of frustration? And who do you think made it home on time for dinner more often?

Giving up ownership of your time is not the path to fulfillment. It’s the path to frustration. The most common example is interruptions. Whether it’s your colleague sticking his head in when you are trying to concentrate or your own self-interruption to check email or WhatsApp or the football score, indulging interruptions is another way of saying, My time belongs to whoever or whatever shows up.

The fact is, we are each granted only so much time in our lives. It is up to us how we allocate it – to work, to leisure, to duty, to children, to health, to contemplation – it’s our choice. But when do we so, we still own that time – we don’t hand it over (unless you are a parent of a newborn or a new Army recruit). How can people hope to find fulfillment if they let other people make those decisions for them?


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About Edward G Brown

Edward G. Brown had no time to write this book, which is exactly why he wrote it. Bronx born and bred, he co-founded the #1 firm in culture change management consulting and training for the financial services industry, Cohen Brown Management Group, now in 50 countries and 12 languages. Its past and present clients include…