By Steve Pavlina
When going to college many years ago, I decided to challenge myself by setting a goal to see if I could graduate in only three semesters, taking the same classes that people would normally take over a four-year period. This article explains in detail all the time management techniques I used to successfully pull this off.
In order to accomplish this goal, I determined I’d have to take 30-40 units per semester, when the average student took 12-15 units. It became immediately obvious that I’d have to manage my time extremely well if I wanted to pull this off. I began reading everything I could find on time management and putting what I learned into practice. I accomplished my goal by graduating with two Bachelor of Science degrees (computer science and mathematics) in just three semesters without attending summer school. I slept seven to eight hours a night, took care of my routine chores (shopping, cooking, etc), had a social life, and exercised for 30 minutes every morning. In my final semester, I even held a full time job (40 hours a week) as a game programmer and served as the Vice Chair of the local Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) chapter while taking 37 units of mostly senior-level computer science and math courses. My classmates would add up all the hours they expected each task to take and concluded that my weeks must have consisted of about 250 hours. I graduated with a 3.9 GPA and also received a special award given to the top computer science student each year. One of my professors later told me that they had an easy time selecting the award recipient once it became clear to them what I was doing.
I wasn’t considered a gifted child, and this was the first time I had ever done anything like this. I didn’t have any personal mentors helping me, I didn’t know of anyone who’d done anything like this before, and I can’t recall a single person encouraging me to do it. In fact, most people were highly discouraging of the idea when I told them about it. This was simply something I decided to do for myself. If you want a better understanding of where I was at this time in my life and why I decided to attempt such a crazy thing, you might enjoy reading The Meaning of Life: Intro, which includes the full background story and more details about my motivation for doing this.
It took a lot of convincing to get the computer science department chair to approve my extra units every semester, and my classmates often assumed I was either cheating or that I had a twin or that I was just mentally unstable (I get accused of that last one pretty much every week, so maybe there’s some truth to it). Most of the time I kept quiet about what I was doing, but if someone asked me how many units I was taking, I didn’t deny it. I was perhaps the only student at the university with a two-page class schedule, so it was easy to prove I was telling the truth if anyone pressed me, but rarely did I ever do so.
I didn’t tell you this story to impress you but rather to make you curious as to how I did it. I pulled this off by applying time management concepts that most people simply didn’t know but that were readily available in books and audio programs at the time (1992-93). The time management habits I learned in college have served me very well in building my business, so I want to share them with you in the hopes that you’ll find them equally valuable. They allowed me to shave years off my schooling while also giving me about $30,000 to start my business (all earned in my final semester as a game programmer, mostly from royalties). Without further ado, here’s the best of what I’ve learned about mastering time management:
Clarity is key.
The first step is to know exactly what you want. In a Tae Kwon Do studio where I used to train, there’s a huge sign on the wall that says, “Your goal is to become a black belt.” This helps remind each student why s/he is going through such difficult training. When you work for yourself, it’s easy to spend a whole day at your desk and accomplish nothing of value. This almost always happens when you aren’t really clear about what it is you’re trying to do. In the moments when you regain your awareness, ask yourself, “What exactly is it that I’m trying to accomplish here?” You must know your destination with as much clarity as possible. Make your goals specific, and put them in writing. Your goals must be so clear that it would be possible for a stranger to look at your situation objectively and give you an absolute “yes” or “no” response as to whether you’ve accomplished each goal or not. If you cannot define your destination precisely, how will you know when you’ve arrived?
The key period I’ve found useful for defining and working on specific goals is ninety days, or the length of one season. In that period of time, you can make dramatic and measurable changes if you set crystal clear goals. Take a moment to stop and write down a snapshot description of how you want your life to be ninety days from now. What will your monthly income be? How much will you weigh? Who will your friends be? Where will you be in your career? What will your relationship be like? What will your web site look like? Be specific. Absolute clarity will give you the edge that will keep you on course.
Just as an airplane on autopilot must make constant corrections to stay on course, you must periodically retarget your goals. Reconnect with your clear, written goals by re-reading them every morning. Post them on your walls, especially your financial goals. Years ago (during the mid-90s), I went around my apartment putting up signs in every room that said “$5,000 / month.” That was my monthly business income goal at the time. Because I knew exactly what I wanted, I achieved that goal within a few weeks. I continued setting specific income goals, even amidst occasional setbacks, and I found this process very effective. It wasn’t just that it helped me focus on what I wanted — perhaps even more important is that it made it easy for me to disregard those things that weren’t on the path to my goal. For example, if you set a goal to earn $10,000/month, this can help you stop doing those things that will only earn you $5000/month.
If you aren’t yet at the point of clarity, then make that your first goal. It’s a big waste of time to go through life being unclear about what you want. Most people wallow way too long in the state of “I don’t know what to do.” They wait for some external force to provide them with clarity, never realizing that clarity is self-created. The universe is waiting on you, not the other way around, and it’s going to keep waiting until you finally make up your mind. Waiting for clarity is like being a sculptor staring at a piece of marble, waiting for the statue within to cast off the unneeded pieces. Do not wait for clarity to spontaneously materialize — grab a chisel and get busy!
There’s a key difference between knowing your destination and knowing the path you will take to get there. A typical commercial airplane is off course 90% of the time, yet it almost always arrives at its destination because it knows exactly where it’s going and makes constant corrections along the way. You cannot know the exact path to your goal in advance. I believe that the real purpose of planning is simply so that you remain convinced that a possible path exists. We’ve all heard the statistic that 80% of new businesses fail in their first five years, but a far more interesting statistic is that nearly all of the businesses that succeeded did not do so in the original way they had intended. If you look at successful businesses that started with business plans, you will commonly find that their original plans failed miserably and that they only succeeded by trying something else. It is said that no business plan survives contact with the marketplace. I like to generalize this to say that no plan survives contact with the real world.
Renowned author and business consultant Stephen Covey often uses the expression, “integrity in the moment of choice.” What that means is that you should not follow your plans blindly without conscious awareness of your goals. For instance, let’s say you’re following your plans nicely — so far so good — and then an unforeseen opportunity arises. Do you stick to your original plan, thereby missing the opportunity, or do you stop and go after the opportunity, thereby throwing yourself off schedule? This is where you have to stop and reconnect with your goals to decide which is the better course. No plan should be followed blindly. As soon as you gain new knowledge that could invalidate the plan, you must exercise integrity in the moment of choice. Sometimes you can reach your goals faster by taking advantage of shortcuts that arise unexpectedly. Other times you should stick to your original plans and avoid minor distractions that would take you further from your goals. Be tight on your goals but flexible on your plans.
I believe that having a clear goal is far more important than having a clear plan. In school I was very clear about my end goal — graduate college in only three semesters — but my plans were in a constant state of flux. Every day I would be informed of new assignments, projects, or tests, and I had to adapt to this ever-changing sea of activity. If I tried to make a long-term plan for each semester, it would have been rendered useless within 24 hours.
Use single handling.
Instead of using some elaborate organizing system, I stuck with a very basic pen and paper to-do list. My only organizing tool was a notepad where I wrote down all my assignments and their deadlines. I didn’t worry about doing any advance scheduling or prioritizing. I would simply scan the list to select the most pressing item which fit the time I had available. Then I’d complete it, and cross it off the list.
If I had a 10-hour term paper to write, I would do the whole thing at once instead of breaking it into smaller tasks. I’d usually do large projects on weekends. I’d go to the library in the morning, do the necessary research, and then go back to my dorm room and continue working until the final text was rolling off my printer. If I needed to take a break, I would take a break. It didn’t matter how big the project was supposed to be or how many weeks the professor allowed for it. Once I began an assignment, I would stay with it until it was 100% complete and ready to be turned in.
This simple practice saved me a significant amount of time. First, it allowed me to concentrate deeply on each assignment and to work very efficiently while I worked. A lot of time is lost in task switching because you have to re-load the context for each new task. Single handling minimizes time lost in task switching. In fact, when possible I would batch up my assignments within a certain subject area and then do them all at once before switching subjects. So I’d do all my math homework in a row until it was all done. Then I’d do all my programming assignments. Then I’d do my general education homework. In this manner I would put my brain into math-mode, programming-mode, writing-mode, or art-mode and remain in that single mode for as long as possible. Secondly, I believe this habit helped me remain relaxed and unstressed because my mind wasn’t cluttered with so many to-do items. It was always just one thing at a time. I could forget about anything that was outside the current context.
Failure is your friend.
Most people seem to have an innate fear of failure, but failure is really your best friend. People who succeed also fail a great deal because they make a lot of attempts. The great baseball player Babe Ruth held the homerun record and the strikeout record at the same time. Those who have the most successes also have the most failures. There is nothing wrong or shameful in failing. The only regret lies in never making the attempt. So don’t be afraid to experiment in your attempts to increase productivity. Sometimes the quickest way to find out if something will work is to jump right in and do it. You can always make adjustments along the way. It’s the ready-fire-aim approach, and surprisingly, it works a lot better than the more common ready-aim-fire approach. The reason is that after you’ve “fired” once, you have some actual data with which to adjust your aim. Too many people get bogged down in planning and thinking and never get to the point of action. How many potentially great ideas have you passed up because you got stuck in the state of analysis paralysis (i.e. ready-aim-aim-aim-aim-aim…)?
During college I tried a lot of crazy ideas that I thought might save me time. I continued reading time management material and applying what I learned, but I also devised some original ideas. Most of my own ideas were flops, but some of them worked. I was willing to fail again and again for the off chance I might stumble upon something that gave me an extra boost.
Understand that failure is not the opposite of success. Failure is an essential part of success. Once you succeed, no one will remember your failures anyway. Microsoft wasn’t Bill Gates’ and Paul Allen’s first business venture. Who remembers that their original Traf-o-Data business was a flop? The actor Jim Carey was booed off many a stage while a young comedian. We have electric light bulbs because Thomas Edison refused to give up even after 10,000 failed experiments. If the word “failure” is anathema to you, then reframe it: You either succeed, or you have a learning experience.
Letting go of the fear of failure will serve you well. If you’re excited about achieving a particular goal, but you’re afraid you might not be able to pull it off, jump on it and do it anyway. Even if you fail in your attempt, you’ll learn something valuable and can make a better attempt next time. If you look at people who are successful in business today, you will commonly see that many of them had a string of dismal failures before finally hitting on something that worked, myself included. And I think most of these people will agree that those early failure experiences were an essential contributing factor in their future successes. My advice to anyone starting a new business is to begin pumping out products or devising services and don’t worry much about whether they’ll be hits. They probably won’t be. But you’ll learn a lot more by doing than you ever will by thinking.
Do it now!
W. Clement Stone, who built an insurance empire worth hundreds of millions dollars, would make all his employees recite the phrase, “Do it now!” again and again at the start of each workday. Whenever you feel the tendency towards laziness taking over and you remember something you should be doing, stop and say out loud, “Do it now! Do it now! Do it now!” I often set this text as my screen saver. There is a tremendous cost in putting things off because you will mentally revisit them again and again, which can add up to an enormous amount of wasted time. Thinking and planning are important, but action is far more important. You don’t get paid for your thoughts and plans — you only get paid for your results. When in doubt, act boldly, as if it were impossible to fail. In essence, it is.
It is absolutely imperative that you develop the habit of making decisions as soon as possible. I use a 60-second rule for almost every decision I have to make, no matter how big or important. Once I have all the data to make a decision, I start a timer and give myself only 60 seconds to make a firm decision. I’ll even flip a coin if I have to. When I was in college, I couldn’t afford to waste time thinking about assignments or worrying about when to do them. I simply picked one and went to work on it. And today when I need to decide which article to write next, I just pick a topic and begin writing. I believe this is why I never experience writer’s block. Writer’s block means you’re stuck in the state of thinking about what to write instead of actually writing. I don’t waste time thinking about writing because I’m too busy writing. This is probably why I’ve been able to write hundreds of original articles very easily. Every article I write spawns ideas for at least two more, so my ideas list only increases over time. I cannot imagine ever running out of original content.
Too often people delay making decisions when there is no advantage to be found in that delay. Usually delaying a decision will only have negative consequences, so even if you’re faced with ambiguity, just bite the bullet and make a decision. If it turns out to be the wrong one, you’ll know it soon enough. Many people probably spend more than 60 seconds just deciding what they’ll eat for dinner. If I can’t decide what to eat, I just grab an apple or a couple bananas and start eating, and sometimes I’m full of fruit before I figure out what I really would like to eat. So my brain knows that if it wants something other than fruit, it had better decide quickly. If you can speed up the pace of making decisions, you can spend the rest of your time on action.
One study showed that the best managers in the world tend to have an extremely high tolerance for ambiguity. In other words, they are able to act boldly on partial and/or conflicting data. Many industries today have accelerated to such a rapid pace that by the time you have perfect data with which to make any decision, the opportunity is probably long gone. Where you have no data to fall back on, rely on your own personal experience and intuition. If a decision can be made right away, make the decision as soon as it comes up. If you can’t make a decision right away, set aside a time where you will consider the options and make the decision. Pour the bulk of your time into action, not deciding. The state of indecision is a major time waster. Don’t spend more than 60 seconds in that state if you can avoid it. Make a firm, immediate decision, and move from uncertainty to certainty to action. Let the world tell you when you’re wrong, and you’ll soon build enough experience to make accurate, intelligent decisions.
Get rid of everything that wastes your time. Use the trash can liberally. Apply the rule, “When in doubt, throw it out.” Cancel useless magazine subscriptions. If you have a magazine that is more than two months old and you still haven’t read it, throw it away; it’s probably not worth reading. Realize that nothing is free if it costs you time. Before you sign up for any new free service or subscription, ask how much it will cost you in terms of time. Every activity has an opportunity cost. Ask, “Is this activity worth what I am sacrificing for it?”
In college I was downright brutal when it came to triage. I once told a professor that I decided not to do one of his assigned computer science projects because I felt it wasn’t a good use of my time. The project required about 10-20 hours of tedious gruntwork that wasn’t going to teach me anything I didn’t already know. Also, this project was only worth 10% of my grade in that class, and since I was previously acing the class anyway, the only real negative consequence would be that I’d end up with an A- in the course instead of an A. I told the professor I felt that was a fair trade-off and that I would accept the A-. I didn’t try to negotiate with him for special treatment. So my official grade in the class was an A-, but I personally gave myself an A+ for putting those 10-20 hours to much better use.
Ask yourself this question: “Would I have ever gotten started with this project, relationship, career, etc. if I had to do it all over again, knowing what I now know?” If your answer is no, then get out as soon as possible. This is called zero-based thinking. I know a lot of people that have a limiting belief that says, “Always finish what you start.” They spend years climbing ladders only to realize when they reach the top that the ladder was leaning against the wrong building. Remember that failure is your friend. So if a certain decision you’ve made in the past is no longer producing results that serve you, then be ruthless and dump it, so you can move onto something better. There is no honor in dedicating your life to the pursuit of a goal which no longer inspires you. This is another situation where you must practice integrity in the moment of choice. You must constantly re-assess your present situation to accurately decide what to do next. Whatever you’ve decided in the past is largely irrelevant if you would not renew that decision today.
Identify and recover wasted time.
Instead of watching a one-hour TV show, tape it and watch it in 45 minutes by fast-forwarding through the commercials. Don’t spend a half hour typing a lengthy email when you could accomplish the same thing with a 10-minute phone call. Batch your errands together and do them all at once.
During the summer between my second and third semesters, I found an apartment across the street from campus that was slightly closer to the engineering building than my on-campus dorm room. So I moved out of the dorms and into that apartment, which saved me some walking/biking time every day. I was also moving from a two-bedroom dorm which I shared with two roommates into a smaller single-person studio apartment. This new apartment was much more efficient. For example, I could work on programming assignments while cooking dinner because my desk was only a few steps from the stove.
Trying to cut out time-wasting habits is a common starting point for people who desire to become more efficient, but I think this is a mistake. Optimizing your personal habits should only come later. Clarity of purpose must come first. If you don’t have clarity, then your attempts to install more efficient habits and to break inefficient habits will only fizzle. You won’t have a strong enough reason to put your time to good use, so it will be easy to quit when things get tough. You need a big, attractive goal to stay motivated. The reason to shave 15 minutes off a task is that you’re overflowing with motivation to put that 15 minutes to better use.
For example, you might have a career you sort of like, but most likely it’s not so compelling that you’ll care enough about saving an extra 15 minutes here and there, even if your total savings might amount to a few hours each day. But if you’ve taken the time to develop a sense of purpose that reaches deep into your soul, you’ll be automatically motivated to put your time to better use. If you get the highest level of your life in order (purpose, meaning, spiritual beliefs), the lower levels will tend to self-optimize (habits, practices, actions).
Apply the 80-20 rule.
Also known as the Pareto Principle, the 80-20 rule states that 20% of a task’s effort accounts for 80% of the value of that task. This also means that 80% of a task only yields 20% of the value of that task. In college I was ruthless in my application of this principle. Some weeks I ditched as many as 40% of my classes because sitting through a lecture was often not the most effective way for me to learn. And I already noted that I would simply refuse to do an assignment if I determined it was not worth my time. There was one math class that I only showed up to twice because I could learn from the text book much more quickly than from the lectures. I only showed up for the midterm and final. I would pop my head in at the beginning of each class to drop off my homework and then again at the end of each class to write down the next assignment. I actually got the highest grade in that class, but the teacher probably had no idea who I was. The other students were playing by the rules, not realizing they were free to make their own rules. Find out what parts of your life belong in the crucial 20%, and focus your efforts there. Be absolutely ruthless in refusing to spend time where it simply cannot give you optimal results. Invest your time where it has the potential to pay off big.
Guard thy time.
To work effectively you need uninterrupted blocks of time in which you can complete meaningful work. When you know for certain that you won’t be interrupted, your productivity is much, much higher. When you sit down to work on a particularly intense task, dedicate blocks of time to the task during which you will not do anything else. I’ve found that a minimum of 90 minutes is ideal for a single block.
You may need to negotiate with the other people in your life to create these uninterrupted blocks of time. If necessary, warn others in advance not to interrupt you for a certain period of time. Threaten them with acts of violence if you must. In school I would lock my bedroom door when I needed to work, so my roommates would know not to disturb me. While each individual bedroom in the two-bedroom dorm suites was designed for two people (four people per suite), I paid a bit extra to have a bedroom all to myself. This way I always had my own private room to work. When I had time to be social, I’d leave the door open, sometimes playing computer games with one of my roommates. If you happen to work in a high interruption environment that’s negatively affecting your productivity, change that environment at all costs. Some people have told me that giving their boss a copy of this article helped convince him/her to take steps to reduce unnecessary interruptions.
While for some people it’s helpful to block off a specific period of time for a task, I find that I work best with long, open-ended stretches of uninterrupted time. I’ll often allocate a starting time for a task but usually not a specific finishing time. Whenever possible I just allow myself to stick with a task as long as I can, until I eventually succumb to hunger or other bodily needs. I will frequently work 6+ hours straight on a project without taking a break. While frequent breaks are often recommended to increase productivity, I feel that suggestion may be an artifact of industrial age research on poorly motivated workers and not as applicable to high-motivation, purpose-driven creative work. I find it’s best for me to maintain momentum until I can barely continue instead of chopping a task into smaller chunks where there’s a risk of succumbing to distractions along the way.
The state of flow, where you are totally absorbed in a task and lose all sense of time, takes about 15 minutes to enter. Every time you get interrupted, it can take you another 15 minutes to get back to that state. Once you enter the state of flow, guard it with your life. That is the state in which you will go through enormous amounts of work and experience total connection with the task. When I’m in this state, I have no sense of past or future. I simply feel like I’m one with my work.
While sometimes I suffer from the problem of the task expanding to fill the allotted time (aka Parkinson’s Law), I often find that it’s worth the risk. For example, when I do optimization work on my web site, I’ll frequently think of new optimization ideas while I work, and I’ll usually go ahead and implement those new ideas immediately. I find it more efficient to act on those ideas at the moment of conception instead of scheduling them to be done at a later time.
Work all the time you work.
During one of these sacred time blocks, do nothing but the activity that’s right in front of you. Don’t check email or online forums or do web surfing. If you have this temptation, then unplug your Internet connection while you work. Turn off your phone, or simply refuse to answer it. Go to the bathroom before you start, and make sure you won’t get hungry for a while. Don’t get out of your chair at all. Don’t talk to anyone during this time.
Decide what it is you should be doing, and then do nothing but that. If you happen to manage others, periodically ask them what their #1 task is, and make sure they’re doing nothing but that. If you see someone answering email, then it should be the most important thing for that person to be doing at that particular time. If not, then relatively speaking, that person is just wasting time.
If you need a break, then take a real break and do nothing else. Don’t semi-work during a break if you feel you need rest and restoration. Checking email or web surfing is not a break. When you take a break, close your eyes and do some deep breathing, listen to relaxing music and zone out for a while, take a 20-minute nap, or eat some fresh fruit. Rest until you feel capable of doing productive work again. When you need rest, rest. When you should be working, work. Work with either 100% concentration, or don’t work at all. It’s perfectly fine to take as much down time as you want. Just don’t allow your down time to creep into your work time.
The amount of new knowledge in certain fields is increasing so rapidly that everything you know about your line of work is probably becoming obsolete. The only solution is to keep absorbing new knowledge as rapidly as possible. Many of the skills I use in my business today didn’t even exist five years ago. The best way I know to keep up is to multitask whenever possible by reading and listening to audio programs.
When watching TV, read a computer magazine during commercials. If you’re a male, read while shaving. I use an electric shaver and read during the 2-3 minutes it takes me to shave each day. This allows me to get through about two extra articles a week — that’s 100 extra articles a year. This habit is really easy to start. Just grab a couple magazines, or print out some articles you wouldn’t otherwise have time to read, and put them in your bathroom. Whenever you go out, carry at least one folded up article with you. If you ever have to wait in line, such as at the post office or the grocery store, pull out the article and read it. You will be amazed at how much extra knowledge you can absorb just by reading during other non-mental activities.
Listen to educational audio programs whenever you can. When you drive your car, always be listening to an audio program. One of the best ways to save time is to learn directly from people who already have the skills you want to master. Audio programs often contain more practical material than what you would learn by taking classes at a university. Whereas people with degrees in marketing or business have been taught by college professors, you can learn about these subjects from millionaires and billionaires who’ve learned what works in the real world.
Multitasking was perhaps the most important low-level skill that allowed me to go through college in three semesters. My average weekday involved about seven or eight hours of classes. But on Tuesdays during my final semester, I had classes back to back from 9am until 10pm. Because I was taking about a dozen classes each semester, I would have several tests and projects due just about every week. I had no time to study outside of class because most of that time was used for my job. So I simply had to learn everything the first time it came up. If a teacher wrote out something on the board, I would memorize it then and there; I couldn’t afford to learn things later and risk falling behind. During my slower classes, I would do homework, work out algorithms for my programming job, or refine my schedule. You can probably find numerous opportunities for multitasking. Whenever you do something physical, such as driving, cooking, shopping, or walking, keep your mind going by listening to audio tapes or reading.
The idea of multitasking may seem to contradict the previous piece of advice to work all the time you work. But whereas the previous tip refers to high intensity work where you must concentrate all your mental resources in order to do the best job you can, this tip addresses low intensity work where you have plenty of capacity to do other things at the same time, like standing in line, cooking dinner, flying on a plane, or walking from point A to point B. Multitasking shouldn’t be used where it will significantly degrade your performance on a crucial task, but it should be intelligently used to take advantage of excess capacity. Take real breaks when you need them, but don’t waste time in a state of partial effort. It’s more efficient to cycle between working flat out and then resting completely.
Multitasking allows you to take your productivity to a new level. You might think it would be draining, but many people find it has the opposite effect. For me it was tremendously energizing to be getting so much done. The harder you work, the greater your capacity for work, and the more restorative your rest will be.
Everyone is different, so what works for you may well be different than what works for everyone else. You may work best in the morning or late at night. Take advantage of your own strengths, and find ways to compensate for your weaknesses. Experiment with listening to music while you work. I use the free WinAMP player, which can stream commercial-free radio directly to my computer all day long with a variety of channels to choose from. I find that classical and new age music, especially Mozart, is terrific for web development work. But for most routine tasks, listening to fast-paced techno/trance music helps me work a lot faster. I don’t exactly know why, but I’m twice as productive when listening to really fast music as compared to listening to no music. On the other hand, music with vocals is detrimental to my productivity because it’s too distracting. And when I really need to focus deeply, I’ll listen to no music at all. Try a simple experiment for yourself, and see if certain forms of music can increase your productivity. For me the difference was dramatic.
Whenever you come up with a wacky new idea for increasing your productivity, test it and see what effect it has. Don’t dismiss any idea unless you’ve actually tried it. Partial successes are more common than complete failures, so each new experiment will help you refine your time management practices. Even the ongoing practice of conducting experiments will help condition you to be more productive.
Cultivate your enthusiasm.
The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek entheos, which means literally, “the god within.” I really like that definition. I doubt it’s possible to master the art of time management if you aren’t gushingly enthusiastic about what you’re going to do with your time. Go after what really inspires you. Don’t chase money. Chase your passion. If you aren’t enthusiastic about your work, then you’re wasting your life. Switch to something else. Consider a new career altogether. Don’t beat yourself up if your current career has become stale. Remember that failure is your friend. Listen to that god within you, and switch to something that excites you once again. The worst waste of time is doing something that doesn’t make you happy. Your work should serve your life, not the other way around.
If you’re like most people, you can get yourself motivated every once in a while, but then you get caught up and sink back down to a lower level of productivity, and you find it hard to continue with a project. How easy is it to start a new project when your motivation level is high? And how difficult is it to continue once your enthusiasm fades? Since most people are negative to one degree or another, you’ll naturally lose your positive charge over time unless you actively cultivate your enthusiasm as a resource. I don’t believe in pushing myself to do something I really don’t want to do. If I’m not motivated, then getting myself to sit down and work productively is nearly impossible, and the work is almost painful. When you’re highly motivated though, work feels like play.
While in college I could not afford to let my enthusiasm fade, or I’d be dead. I quickly learned that I needed to make a conscious effort to reinforce my enthusiasm on a daily basis. I always had my Walkman cassette player with me (there were no portable MP3 players back then), and while walking from one class to the next, I would listen to time management and motivational tapes. I also listened to them while jogging every morning. I kept my motivation level high by reinforcing my enthusiasm almost hourly. Even though I was being told by others that I would surely fail, these tapes were the stronger influence because I never went more than a few hours without plugging back in.
If your enthusiasm level is high, you can work so much more productively and even enjoy the normally tedious parts of your work. I’ve always found that whenever I want to take my business to a new level, I must take my thoughts to a new level first. When your thinking changes, then your actions will change, and your results will follow. Unless you’re a naturally hyper person, your enthusiasm is going to need daily reinforcement. I recommend either listening to motivational tapes or reading inspiring books or articles for at least fifteen minutes every day. Whenever I’ve stopped doing this, I’ve found that self-doubt always returns, and my productivity drops off. It’s truly amazing how constantly feeding your mind with positive material can maintain your enthusiasm indefinitely. And if you multitask, you can get this benefit without investing any extra time into it.
Eat and exercise for optimal energy.
During the summer before my last semester in college (1993), I became a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and I noticed a decent boost in my energy and especially in my ability to concentrate. Four years later (1997) I became a complete vegan (no animal products at all), and this yielded an even bigger boost. For details on why I made this change, see the article Why Vegan?
What you eat can have a profound effect on your productivity. Animal products take significantly more time and energy to digest than plant foods, and when your body must divert extra energy to digestion, it means you have less energy available for productive mental work. Effectively your work will seem harder while you’re digesting meals containing animal products, and you’ll be more inclined to succumb to distractions. So if you find yourself having a hard time focusing on mentally intense work after lunch, your diet may very well be the culprit. Even Benjamin Franklin credited eating lightly at lunch time as being a significant factor in his productivity. While his colleagues were sluggish and sleepy in the afternoon, he could continue to work productively the rest of the day.
Regular exercise is also necessary to maintain high energy and mental clarity. In college I would go running for 30 minutes first thing every morning before breakfast. And of course I’d be listening to motivational and educational tapes at the same time. This daily renewal kept me in good physical condition and helped me maintain my ideal weight. Furthermore, my class schedule kept me zigzagging around campus each day to attend all my classes, and I’d usually have to carry a 20-30 pound backpack full of textbooks with me. So even though I spent most of my weekdays sitting in classrooms, I still got plenty of daily exercise.
If you want to master time management, it makes sense to hone your best time management tool of all — your physical body. Through diet and exercise you can build your capacity for sustained concentrated effort, so even the most difficult work will seem easier.
If you currently find yourself overweight, take a trip to a local gym or a sporting goods store, and find a dumbbell (or two) that weighs as much as the excess fat you’re carrying around. Pick it up and walk around with it for a while. Become aware that this is what you’re carrying around with you every day. Imagine how much lighter and easier everything would be if you could permanently put that weight down. Carrying some extra weight for training purposes is one thing, but if that weight is in the form of body fat, then you’re never able to put it down and enjoy the benefits of that training. Make a committed decision to shed those extra pounds, and enjoy the lifelong benefits of living in a more efficient physical vehicle.
I don’t think it’s easy to sustain long-term productivity, health, and happiness if your life is totally unbalanced. To excel in one area, you can’t let other areas lag behind and pull you down. While in college I made an effort to take off a full day each week to have a personal life. I exercised, went to parties, attended club meetings, played computer games and pool, and even had time to vacation in Las Vegas during my final semester. The high turnover rates at the end of “death march” projects are caused by a lack of balance. To focus exclusively on your primary work at the expense of every other area of your life will only hurt you in the long run. Maintain balance by paying attention to every area of your life. As you grow in your career, be sure that your personal life grows as well.
Probably my biggest regret about going through college in three semesters is that I never had a girlfriend during this time. While I had plenty of good friends (both male and female), got involved in clubs, and enjoyed fun social activities every week, I didn’t have enough time to pursue an intimate relationship on top of everything else. I remember one instance where a girl I knew was clearly interested in pursuing a relationship with me, and she started machinating to spend more time alone with me, but I couldn’t take the bait because I just didn’t have time for dating. I wouldn’t have made a very good boyfriend at the time.
If I had to do it all over again, I think my college experience would have been even better if I’d stretched it to four or five semesters and allowed myself time for a girlfriend. It would have been great to have someone else to share my life with, not to mention all the other benefits of intimacy. At least I had plenty of time for dating after graduating. Within a few months I had a steady girlfriend, and four years later we were married. She and I actually went to the same college at the same time, but we never happened to meet while we were there, although it turned out we had a few mutual acquaintances.
I believe the main goal of time management is to give you the power to make your life as juicy as you want it to be. By getting clear about what you want and then developing a collection of habits that allow you to efficiently achieve your goals, you’ll enjoy a much richer, more fulfilling life than you would otherwise. When I look back on my college days from more than a decade in the future, I feel a sense of gratitude for the whole experience. I set an enormous stretch goal and grew tremendously as a person in the pursuit of that goal. It was one of the best times of my life.
If you wish to become more productive, then do so with the intention of improving the totality of your life from top to bottom. The reason to master time management is to take your good life and transform it into an exceptional one. Time management is not about self-sacrifice, self-denial, and doing more of what you dislike. It’s about embracing more of what you already love.