Up Your Business is an exclusive GEARS Magazine feature in which I share stories, insights, and reflections about real business and life challenges.
Most of you have probably heard the phrase “highest and best use.” It’s usually used for determining the value of a piece of real estate.
For instance, how many times have you seen perfectly good buildings torn down and replaced by a restaurant, a strip mall, an office building, or a hotel? It’s because the property simply became too valuable to justify its previous use.
This article is about the wisest and best use of time. It could just as easily have been the highest and best use because, just like the real estate example, we need to think of time in terms of value. Just as the value of real estate is a function of its highest and best use, how we use time determines its value. So we want to make sure we make the wisest and best use of our time to increase its value.
Some Thoughts About Time
Time is limited. Of course, on a day-to-day basis, we all have an allotment of 24 hours per day. But, in the bigger picture, we’re also limited by how many days we have left on this planet.
Our days are numbered. You may not have reached this point in your life, but at some point, you’re going to stop thinking about how old you are and start thinking about how much time you have left. In my case, that occurred when I turned 50, but it’s different for everyone.
Time — there never seems to be enough of it. Regardless of the amount of time each of us has, the fact that it’s limited makes it a scarce commodity. While scarcity is a factor in determining value, when it comes to time, it’s not scarcity itself that provides its value. Time’s value comes from how it’s used… the value produced by the expenditure of your time.
How Are You Spending Your Time?
Take a few minutes and ask yourself, “What am I doing with my time?” Are you spending your time wisely?
While we each have 24 hours to invest every day, the quantitative and qualitative results are varied. Some people are productive and maximize their capacity, but are frustrated and exhausted by day’s end. Others are less productive and still meet the end of the day with frustration and exhaustion.
On the other hand, many people have found the secret to greater capacity as well as peace of mind. They’ve learned how to differentiate between urgent and important things. They know that the key to getting more done is prioritizing and focusing as much of their attention as possible on what’s important and to avoid the tyranny of urgency.
Tasks and activities that are important are those associated with meaningful goals or desired outcomes. In business you might think of it as “why we get paid.” Those that are urgent may or may not have anything to do with achieving a goal or desired outcome but they often appear as important. These two constructs provide us with categories.
Everything we do every day — even sleeping — fits into one of these four categories. How much time you spend in each of these categories determines your capacity and quality of life. In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey discusses the relationship of urgent and important things. Below is my interpretation of Covey’s wise advice.
- Important and Urgent — Reactive Activities
- Crises / fires
- Pressing matters / problems
- Deadline-driven projects or tasks
- Some phone calls, texts, and emails
- Administering employee reprimands and praisings
- Minor directional corrections
- Important but Not Urgent — Proactive Activities
- Preparation and planning
- Goal setting
- Training and coaching
- Establishing rewards and consequences
- Building and strengthening employee, customer, community, and supplier relationships
- Communicating and clarifying company values, culture, and goals
- Quality recreation to improve your mind and body
- Getting plenty of rest and sleep
- Category 2 activities are where many people fail. They are important but not urgent. Think of it like a school paper (or magazine article) where you have a month to complete it. You put it off until three days before it’s due. All of a sudden it’s out of category 2 and into category 1. You might think of this as “crisis mode”. Important activities will eventually get into category 1 if they’re not addressed while in category 2.
- Not Important but Urgent — Other People’s Problems or Assignable Tasks
- Social media, phone calls, texts, and emails
- Solving or working on other people’s problems
- Spending too much time with mail and reports
- Some meetings
- Unimportant interruptions
- Doing popular activities
- Not Important and Not Urgent — Escapism
- Trivial busy work
- Some phone calls, texts, and emails
- Gossiping and idle chit chat
- Surfing the net
- Time wasters
- Reading junk mail
Notice that nothing in categories three and four have anything to do with meaningful work. Category 4 activities are obvious to most everyone that it’s just a waste of time and so we avoid it. The problem is category three. These activities have the appearance of being important because they get our attention and we feel we need to address them. A biggie these days is social media. For example, If you find yourself on Facebook during the day you’ve just been sucked into an urgent activity that is not important. People skilled at time management have learned to avoid urgent but not important activities.
Can you think of anything you do that doesn’t fit into one of these four categories?
So, armed with this information, here’s how you can become more effective. Keep in mind that your focus should be on important activities.
- If you feel you don’t have any extra time to spare, start looking in category number 4. These are obvious time wasters and easy to discard.
- Category 3 is the next place to look to capture more time. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking these activities are essential and even fruitful because you get a sense of accomplishment as you complete them. But remember, they aren’t important, so either don’t spend time with them or assign them to someone else. In any case, take the time you spent in this category and invest it into category 2.
- Category 2 activities will make you more effective, increase your capacity, and improve the quality of your life. As you increase the amount of time you spend in category 2 activities, you’ll automatically decrease the amount of time and energy you spend with urgent matters and hopefully eliminate the time wasters altogether.
- Category 2 activities directly reduce urgency by addressing their root causes with planning, training, prevention, and preparation. This will free you to do the other important leadership functions that are vital to your health and that of your business.
- You can’t ignore category 1 activities because they’re both important and urgent. But you want to reduce the amount of time you spend in this category because reactive urgency zaps your energy and reduces your quality of life.
What You Ought to Know
Here are some things you intuitively know about time but you probably tend to ignore, and when you ignore them, you may even feel guilty. It’s been written in much of the great wisdom literature, “When you know you ought to do something but you choose not to, you’re unwise (a fool).”
- There’s a cumulative value to investing small amounts of time over a long time. The best example is exercise, but there are so many other examples: playing a musical instrument, playing a sport, learning a foreign language or a new skill… the list would be inexhaustible. The rhetorical question is, would you benefit more from exercising 30 minutes a day, four days a week over a long period or from busting your hump one time?
- There’s no immediate benefit to making a single investment of time, so because there’s no immediate reward, we tend to stop too soon.
- There’s no major consequence to skipping putting in the time occasionally. But this leads to developing the habit of skipping it regularly and eventually your commitment fizzles out.
- Neglect also has a cumulative effect over time. Eating an unhealthy meal one time is no big deal… it takes weeks, months, and years, but eventually there’s a point of no return.
- There’s no cumulative value to doing the random urgent things we choose to do over the things we know are important.
Some Questions to Get You Started
What’s one thing you’re not doing now that, if you started doing it consistently and doing it well, would make a significant improvement in your business?
Where do you need to begin making small consistent investments of time?
What’s your biggest obstacle… what’s stopping you?
What are you willing to do about it?
In future articles, we’ll look at how to integrate wisdom into other key areas of your life, such as handling conflict and dealing with ethical challenges.
In the meantime, consider applying the principles discussed in this article to begin making the wisest and best use of your time.
Someone far wiser than me offered this guiding advice, “Be careful how you live; not as the unwise but as the wise, making the most of every opportunity.” If you’d like to know who said it, please feel free to give me a call and we’ll talk about it.
Thom is always eager to help you improve your business and your life. You can contact him by phone at (480) 773-3131 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.