In many ways, time is the great equalizer. At the start of our lives, an imaginary hourglass gets flipped and the sand starts falling. Immediately, three things become true:
- We don’t know how much sand is at the top.
- We can’t stop the sand from falling to the bottom.
- Once the sand hits the bottom, it’s gone forever.
Now, we inherently understand these facts, but considering how central they are to our existence, how well do we live by these principles? We say time is precious but very few people truly act that way. Knowing that your time is finite and making the most of it are two very different things. The difference between what we know and what we do is called our performance gap and it is central to my work and message.
A key element of tackling stress is to recognize the limits of time (which is not replenish-able) and energy (which is). Time and energy are the currencies of performance and we are in control of how they are used—and misused.
I am 45 years old. I have a crystal-clear vision of who I want to be twenty years from now. The 65-year-old Alan Stein Jr. will be physically, emotionally, and mentally fit, closely connected with his children, family, friends, colleagues, and clients, and doing meaningful work in service of others. When I’m presented with any decision – small or large – I ask myself: Does this get me closer or further away to that version of myself? I monitor my time and energy based on this single question.
Tim Ferris argues that “being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.” Plenty of people boast about how overworked they are, as if it were something to hold up as a badge of honor. Besides contributing to a dangerous and escalating ‘arms race’ of who can work more, it isn’t even relevant.
The stress that we feel at not having enough time is self-imposed. How we are managing the time we are given is completely in our control.
Time-wasting at work is rampant, as “business professionals now spend half their working hours simply managing their email and social media in-boxes.” Half! Of course, we all have to check email and some of our careers have a social media component, but seriously, this number is staggering.
This kind of activity is referred to as “structured procrastination.” We often waste our time on minor things in order to put off what we should be doing. During the first two hours of the day we are at “high cognitive capacity” and yet we often waste those key hours on email, web surfing, or social media.
High performers use their mornings, when their willpower is full and optimism is highest. If you put it off to the end of the day, you’re risking never doing it all. You never have more time and energy and openness to newness than in the morning. For as long as I can remember, I’ve maximized my morning routine because it’s when my mood is best, my energy is full, and the soil for growth is most fertile. In fact I feel like I get far more productivity out of my early mornings than the rest of my day combined.
As far as my own situation, I can sum up one of my biggest challenges in one word: Yes. For most of my life I have been a people pleaser who loves saying yes, even when I probably shouldn’t! I’m aware of this limitation and trying to course correct. I now give myself permission to say no to the things that aren’t in full alignment with my core values and vision.
You are no good to the people in your life that matter most if you are indiscriminate with your yeses. You may not realize it but every time you say yes to one thing, you are actually saying no to something else. Sometimes it’s a no to an option you know about, while other times it’s a no to something you’re not even aware of. When you say no to things, new opportunities will show up because you will be available to receive them.
In this day and age, we tend to romanticize those who “have a lot of things cooking.” I used to admire and even try to emulate these people, but I have stopped doing so. I now know that if you have too much going on, you are wildly inefficient, and not fully serving anyone, much less yourself. Part of making use of our time is deciding where to stop spending time. It means closing doors. This is where no becomes your most efficient tool.
Put simply: trying to do everything is actually doing nothing. You don’t gain opportunities by keeping all doors open, you lose them. Keeping every door open means going through none of them.
Keep in mind, “High achievers aren’t completing more tasks. They’re accomplishing the ones that matter most.” Have you wondered why a prolific colleague or role model seems to have so many more hours in their day? It’s because their hour is not your hour, not really. They use the hour in ways that you don’t. Remember: You will never find the time; you have to make the time for the things that are most important.
I’ve made my bed every morning since my mid-20’s. It is one of my most ingrained habits and though it seems minor, that’s exactly why I do it. Starting each day with a small act of discipline strengthens my discipline muscle. It sets the tone for what’s to come and builds momentum, pointing me in the right direction first thing in the morning.
Routines decrease stress by bringing predictability and organization to our days. A routine tells us what we have to do, decreases our doubting and worry about what we could or should be doing. If you’re routine is going to the gym after work, then you just go. Routine is a time and energy saver because you don’t waste time arguing with yourself. Take your waffling, wavering, and rationalizing off the table. If you have a routine and you stick to it, the effort vanishes. It’s automatic and you get to the point when the routine does you… which is vital in maximizing your time and energy!