The story goes that a time-management expert was speaking to a class of ambitious young business students. To drive home a point, he used an illustration they would never forget. As the man stood in front of the group, he said, "Okay, time for a quiz." Then he pulled out a one-gallon wide-mouth jar and sat it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-size rocks and carefully placed them one at a time into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, "Is this jar full?" Everyone in class said, "Yes." Then he said, "Really?" He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in it and shook the jar, causing the pieces of gravel to work themselves down the spaces between the big rocks. Then he asked the group once more, "Is the jar full?"
By this time the class was on to him. "Probably not," one of them answered. "Good." He replied. He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in, and it went in all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question. "Is the jar full?" "No!" the class shouted. Once again he said, "Good."
Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, "What's the point of this illustration?" One eager beaver raised his hand and said, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you really try hard, you can always fit some more things into it." "No," the speaker replied. "That's not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is if you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all."
What are the big rocks in your life? A project that you want to accomplish? Time with your loved ones? Your faith? Your education? Your finances? A cause? Teaching or mentoring of others? Remember to put these big rocks in first, or you'll never get them in at all. So tonight or in the morning, when you're reflecting on this short story, ask yourself this question, What are the big rocks in my life or business? Put those in your jar first. And the key to doing that is learning to manage your time.
Time management is the critical skill for effective living. As Peter Drucker pointed out, time is basic. Unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed. Despite all the books, CDs, and seminars on the topic, the key to making good use of your time consists of practicing just three simple steps. First, decide what's most important. Second, set goals and priorities to do what's most important. And third, develop good habits to do what's most important most efficiently.
It doesn't matter if you're a student, an employee, a small-business owner or a Fortune 500 CEO. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about an hour, a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime. It doesn't matter how much you have to do and how little time you have to do it. If you habitually practice those three simple steps, you'll make excellent use of your time. As the journalist Sydney Harris so aptly put it, "Winners focus; losers spray."
The first step is learning how to set lifetime goals. Those are the big rocks in your life and the first step. You also need to set intermediate goals and write a project plan to help you achieve one or more of your lifetime goals. That's the second step. The final important step is learning the techniques and tactics for achieving those goals efficiently, without being hassled, rushed, or constrained. We'll get to that shortly.
But right now, let's answer a very important question: Why are so many of us pressed for time? The short answer is because we try to do too much and spread ourselves too thin. A number of major changes have converged to create a world where we perceive time as the scarce resource.
First, there's the changing role of women in society. In earlier days, men's and women's roles were well defined. Dad was the wage earner, and Mom was the homemaker. Today's women are wage earners, homemakers, soccer moms, cooks, community volunteers, and a litany of other roles. All those roles compete for time and energy. As one time-starved corporate executive jokingly told her husband, "We sure could use a wife."
Another change has been corporate restructuring, where the workforce has been downsized and the workload has not. Those left to do the work have to work longer hours to get the work done.
A third major change is the blurring of the line between work and the rest of our lives. Thanks largely to technology, the distinction between work time and non-work time is much less clear. More of us are working from home with every passing year. Cell phones, beepers, digital assistance, voicemail, and laptops keep us continuously on tap for those at work who need to reach us. Welcome to the workday that never ends.
Finally, there's the emergence of the free-agent economy. Instead of steady employment, work comes without a guaranteed future income. This creates a make-money-while-you-can mentality. Sure you want to see your daughter in the school play or attend the ball game your son is playing in, but you've been offered an incredible amount of money to work on a project out of town for the next two weeks. It's just too good to turn down. It could lead to more work. And another opportunity this good may not come along for a long time.
Yet, despite all the changes, one overwhelming truth still remains. None of those changes and circumstances can enter your life without your permission. All the roles you feel compelled to fill are there because you chose them. All the things you have to get done are there because you agreed to do them. All the high-tech gadgets that make you always available are there because you allow them. All the long hours you put in at work are put in with your cooperation. With all the economic, societal, and technological changes, it's still a free country. In the final analysis, how you choose to spend your time is up to you.
The truth is that time is totally unmanageable and uncontrollable. It plods along at the same unfaltering pace of 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, regardless of what we do. What we call time management is really self-management. The paradox of time is that nobody has enough, but everybody has all there is. While life is unfair about many things, it's unquestionably fair when it comes to time. We all get the exact same 24 hours in a day.
There's a paradox of self-management, too. The way to get more done is to do less better. The more you try to be all things to all people, the greater are the odds you'll end up being nobody to everybody. The more things you try to do, the less are the odds of your doing any one of them extremely well.
Don't scatter your efforts like buckshot; concentrate them and be a big gun. Remember the 80/20 rule, and invest the bulk of your time in the few activities with the highest payoffs.
Here are two traps you need to avoid in order to make good use of time. I assume you've made the commitment to invest your time actively. You've decided what's most important and are working to achieve your lifetime goals. In the shuffle of daily activities, you need to be alert for these time traps because they'll cost you dearly if you let them.
The first trap is confusing activity with productivity. There's an enormous difference between being busy and getting results. People have a tendency to be busiest when they're least secure about what they should be doing. An old saying from the French Foreign Legion says, "When in doubt, gallop."
In my university teaching days it amazed me at how those who were seen in their offices late at night or who busily rushed from meeting to meeting were perceived as highly productive. One semester I shared an office with a faculty member who came in every day at 9 a.m. and didn't leave the office until 9 p.m. Many considered him to be a dedicated scholar simply because he put in a lot of face time. In fact, he spent most of that time poring over the stock market pages of The Wall Street Journal trying to pick hot stocks for his portfolio. As Lawrence Peter told us, "An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance." Focus on getting results, and make it your business to work for people who reward you for the results you produce. If your boss rewards you for working long hours or being busy, you've got the wrong boss.
The second trap is confusing urgency with importance. Every day we have things to do and things that happen. Some are urgent; some are important. Some are both, and some are neither. Here's a very important point to remember: Urgent things are seldom important, and important things are seldom urgent. When we confuse the two, we end up responding to everything that's urgent as if it's important. And what's truly important gets ignored. Speeding to get to a luncheon appointment on time is urgent. Getting there safely is important. Rushing to finish a job under a tight deadline is urgent. Doing a quality job is important. Working endless hours to get your career or your business off the ground is urgent. Making time to exercise, eat properly, and get enough rest is important. Making the sale is urgent. Building a business on great service and repeat customers is important. Feeling compelled to own that hot new sports car or take an expensive vacation is urgent. Saving and investing to get to the winner's circle is important.
Responding to the tyranny of the urgent is a surefire recipe for less wealth and more stress. It's a key reason why so many of us are in a time/money trap. We passively allow what's urgent to dictate how our time and money are spent, while the less urgent and more important items get neglected. Sooner or later, important items left unattended become urgent and important. They're called crisis. Health crisis, money crisis, family crisis. Most can be prevented with a little planning, forethought, and preventive action. Problems rarely rise to the crisis level without warning.
Choose to spend your time doing what's really important, and shield yourself from urgent but unimportant distractions. As General and President Dwight Eisenhower warned us, "The more important an item, the less likely it is urgent. And the more urgent an item, the less likely it is important."
People who reach the winner's circle don't work harder, they work smarter. Success doesn't hinge on how much you work; it depends on how intelligently you work. Making effective use of your time isn't running around with a stopwatch or becoming a compulsive time nut. Rather, it's a way of managing your life to achieve fulfillment and personal freedom.