I am slowly re-watching some of my favorite episodes from The West Wing. In the episode 365 Days, Leo – after his heart attack, no longer chief of staff – is called in to “help out.” It is the day after President Bartlett’s final State of the Union address. At the end of the episode, in a very busy day, with the staff depleted (they are off trying to help the next President get elected), and a dawning realization that ”time is running out,” Leo meets with President Bartlett and his now smaller circle of key advisors, and he writes these three numbers on a White Board:
and then he says:
“…Busy day around here today…. Problem is we’re running out of them.”
Leo looks at the board and then goes and erases the ‘5’ of ‘365’ and replaces it with a ‘4’ and adds the word ‘days’ and circles it and says,
“That’s how much time we have left. We have the ability to effect more change in a day in the White House than we will have in a lifetime once we walk out these doors. What do you want to do with them?”
This is always the time management question – what will you do, what will you accomplish, with the days you have left?
And remember Alan Lakein’s timeless question:
“What is the best use of my time right now?”
I don’t manage my time well enough. Do you?
The answer, almost certainly, is “no.” Not many of us do. Spock did – and, I suspect David Allen does. And Peyton Manning. But most of us are mere mortals, and we are: off focused, easily distracted, lazy, following the wrong priorities, following no priorities… We are, to put it simply, world-class time wasting human beings. That’s why the time management section has so many best sellers. It’s kind of like the “diet” section. The reason there are so many best-sellers is that there are so many of us who have so little control. (By the way, as close as I can tell, there is only one way to lose weight – take in fewer calories than you burn – over the long haul! And that is really, really, really hard).
Bob Morris has already reviewed the newest book in the field, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam. (Read his review here).
This morning, Slate.com has a terrific article about this book/this problem: A Time-Management Book Changed My Life! (Again.) — A review of Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by KJ Dell’Antonia. But it’s not a “review.” It’s a confessional – for all of us. It is filled with honest, revealing paragraphs. Like these:
Did I, with Vanderkam’s help, come up with a radical new way of thinking about time?
Not even close. What’s remarkable about my experience with 168 Hours isn’t that I gained an extra two hours—it’s that I gained them by following essentially the same advice I could have found in any of the other dozen books in my stack. Every one starts with measurement: The 25 Best Time-Management Tools and Techniques demands that you “Find Out What Time Means to You!” by tracking what you’re doing every five minutes for a week. Sarah Susanka gently encourages seekers of The Not-So-Big Life to “understand our relationship with time” through the use of a multipage time-usage questionnaire. The advice that follows, too, is the same: Eliminate the waste and cease the frittering. “Get rid of non-core-competency work,” says Vanderkam; “Prioritize the important over the urgent,” Time Management for Creative People tells me. Make a list of the things you should do, and the things you have to do, James T. McCay told the Greatest Generation in The Management of Time, published 50 years ago. Now take the list of things you “should do” and throw it away.
Time management is like an American form of Buddhism: a complete and graceful ability to do everything you want to do in precisely the time you’ve been given is our nirvana. Seekers (like me) are happy to read and apply the same advice again and again, because a systematic approach makes that feeling of having as much time as you need seem within reach. “Numbers,” said Gary Wolf, writing about the urge to track our lives for the New York Times Magazine, “make problems less resonant emotionally but more tractable intellectually.” And that’s the sucker punch of the time-management approach: It turns the question of “not having enough time” into a math problem, and allows the real issue to slip under the radar.
And the article ends with this:
The call of 168 Hours is the call of the brief spiritual check-in. “Are we putting enough of ourselves into the stuff that’s most important?” is a question everybody asks once in a while. Some people ask it in church, some in post-yoga Savasana. Millions of Type-A Americans, list-makers and time-trackers all, cloak it in the guise of making the most of our time. But the real issue is the same for everybody: We’re here, and then we’re not. Whatever comes in between those clauses takes more than a little time to figure out.
I have taught time management. I have read so many books. The article lists all of these: 25 Best Time Management Tools and Techniques; The Not-So-Big-Life; Addicted to Stress; Getting Things Done; Never Be Late Again; Managing Life With Kids; The Four-Hour Workweek; Time Management for the Creative Person – and left off the classic How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein.
I have tried the ideas, implemented the steps – and I still have not come close to mastering this challenge.
If you manage your time really well, you don’t need this book. And I envy you. If you don’t manage your time well, this book is probably a great new book to read.
But actually doing it – well, good luck!
The time management problem – for must of us, it is the ultimate knowing-doing gap.