When I was about 10 years old, I heard a friend of my parents say: “There is more than enough time. What there isn’t enough of is life.” And that has always stuck with me because it is the first time I understood something so simple yet philosophical. He meant that time is infinite, of course, but our lives and finite, and we decide how we spend it, which also applies to work and our project lifecycles.
I have been hired by my clients many times to provide consulting and training on managing time. That fact in and of itself is not surprising, but what I always do find surprising is that my clients and their staff want me, and themselves, to perform miracles. They literally look for ways to “create” or “carve-out” more time from their schedules. In other words, they try to manipulate time instead of trying to use the time they had more efficiently and, at times, eliminate tasks and activities, which were consuming too much time without providing any commensurate amount of benefits.
It is part of human nature to seek the path of least resistance, which translates to the way we use our time. For example, we gravitate towards activities and tasks we like, know how to do, or know that they will not challenge us too much. However, some of these tasks and activities are often not on our critical path, at best, or are genuinely superfluous, at worst. Yet, we hold on to them and ignore the higher priority tasks as long as we can. And this behavior is at times conscious, and other times subconscious, to basically get to the point where these higher-order activities are jeopardizing our work, then we go into panic mode and use this as a motivation to get the necessary job done; instead of addressing the high priority items from the start.
For example, I have a client who loves to market her work. She is a digital media consultant, smart, and very knowledgeable, which is why she is in high demand. And although she knows her profession inside and out, the novelty has worn off since a long time ago, and she is now more interested in selling the work, schmoozing clients, and having the thrill of winning new work. However, she also hast to get the work done. Still, she focuses on what she likes, which is marketing, then falls behind in her actual billable work, goes into panic mode, works nights and weekends with her staff, and finally gets the work done. Intellectually she knows that what she is doing is neither efficient nor effective, yet she has trouble changing this pattern.
So, how did we help her get over this cycle of inefficiency? First, we had to find all the parts of her work that motivate her, which had to be more than just getting her invoices paid in the end. In her case, she is very reward oriented, which is why she likes marketing. She puts in the time and effort and wins new work. Therefore, the new motivator we used was to think of herself as another employee. And the reward for finishing her billable work was to be able to market, write proposals, visit clients, etc., but not until her other work was done. It took some time, but she was able to change her pattern of behavior; even though there were times when she regressed and went back to ignoring her work to follow something “shiny,” which is typical for most people, but eventually she was able to learn to reward herself with “fun” work once her billable work was done.
The above example is very specific, but we all have things in life that distract us: the activities and tasks we would rather do. Therefore, the challenge for us is first to identify 1) how we would rather spend our time? 2) What we absolutely must do? And 3) How can we reconcile the two? The answer to no. 3 could lead to a career change in some extreme cases, but, ideally, this exercise will help us identify the difference between “wants’” and “musts” and what approach we have to take to complete the latter before we move on to the former.