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3 Threats to Building Effective Life Management Skills

Executive Summary

Seneca once said, “Life, if well lived, is long enough.” The problem is that most of us feel like we don’t have enough time between our jobs and professional commitments to live well.

  • John Maxwell urges leaders to look at time as the nonrenewable resource that it is, and developing life management skills to utilize it wisely.
  • Successful people ask themselves if their time is being expended on worthy efforts or not.
  • Threats to your time stem from what you are doing with it. Consider if you do what you want to do, if you do important things, and if you do things you’ve been trained to do.

Early in my leadership years, I realized that my ability to maximize my time would be essential to my productivity and my effectiveness as a leader. As Peter Drucker said, “Nothing else distinguishes effective executives as much as their tender loving care of time.”

Because I knew I needed to improve in this area, I attended a time-management seminar. I learned many valuable lessons that day. One of the things that struck me and that has stuck with me for more than thirty years was the analogy the presenter used to describe time. He said that our days are like identical suitcases. Even though they are all the same size, some people are able to pack more into them than others. The reason? They know what to pack. We spent most of that day learning about what to pack in the time allotted to us.

Time is Currency 

I left that seminar with two impressions: First, time is an equal-opportunity employer; everybody gets twenty-four hours a day—no more, no less—but not everybody gets the same return on their twenty-four hours. Second, there really is no such thing as “time management.” The term is an oxymoron. Time cannot be managed. It cannot be controlled in any way. It marches on no matter what you do, the way the meter in a taxi keeps running, whether you are moving forward or standing still. Everyone gets the same number of hours and minutes every day. Nobody—no matter how shrewd—can save minutes from one day to spend on another. No scientist—no matter how smart—is capable of creating new minutes. Even with all his wealth, someone like Bill Gates can’t buy additional hours for his day. And even though people talk about trying to “find time,” they need to quit looking. There isn’t any extra lying around. Twenty-four hours is the best any of us is going to get.

You can’t manage your time. So what can you do? Manage yourself! Nothing separates successful people from unsuccessful people more than how they use their time. Successful people understand that time is the most precious commodity on earth. As a result, they know where their time goes. They continually analyze how they are using their time and ask themselves the question, “Am I getting the best use out of my time?”

Even though most people would acknowledge that time is finite, I think the majority of them don’t really understand its value. In his book What to Do Between Birth and Death: The Art of Growing Up, Charles Spezzano writes, “You don’t really pay for things with money, you pay for them with time. In five years, I’ll have put enough away to buy that vacation house we want. Then I’ll slow down. That means the house will cost you five years—one-twelfth of your adult life. Translate the dollar value of the house, car, or anything else into time, and then see if it’s still worth it.”

Good Leaders Can’t be Bad Self-Managers

People squander their time when they do things that bring them little or no positive return. That’s bad enough when followers do it, because they waste their lives and squander their potential. But when leaders do it, they not only hurt themselves—they squander the potential of their people!

I’ve noticed that people who manage themselves poorly often are guilty of the following three things:

  1. They Undervalue Their Uniqueness Doing What Others Want Them to Do

Poet Carl Sandburg advised, “Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent. Be careful that you do not let other people spend it for you.” As I mentioned in chapter 7 [of Leadership Gold], early in my career I allowed others to influence how I spent that “coin.” As a result, I was busy but terribly ineffective. I was fulfilling others’ expectations instead of doing what I was gifted to do!

As a leader, I want to make a difference. I want to make an impact. Don’t you? My leadership went to a new level when I focused more on fulfilling my vision than fulfilling other’s expectations. I believe I have been put on earth to do some specific things. I can’t do those if I’m trying to be what others want me to be— and doing a poor job of it at that. I need to make my own unique contribution. No one else can do that for me.

People sometimes don’t understand why I protect my calendar so fiercely and why I refuse some requests. I’m not just being contrary. I am very mission-minded. I know what I do well and what I don’t. My time is limited, and I want to make the most of it. I won’t let others put me in the box of their expectations. If you want to be an effective leader, you need to keep others from doing that to you!

  1. They Ruin Their Effectiveness by Doing Unimportant Things

Essayist Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is not enough to be busy. The question is, ‘What are we busy about?’” How do you judge whether something is worthy of your time and attention? For years I have used this formula to help me know the importance of a task so that I can manage myself effectively. It’s a three-step process:

Step One: Rate the task in terms of importance:

Critical = 5 points

Necessary = 4 points

Important = 3 points

Helpful = 2 points

Marginal = 1 point

Step Two: Decide the task’s urgency regarding when it must be done:

This month = 5 points

Next month = 4 points

This quarter = 3 points

Next quarter = 2 points

End of year = 1 point

Step Three: Multiply the rate of importance times the rate of urgency. 

Example: 5 (critical) X 4 (next month) = 20.

I then judge when I should complete the task according to the following scale:

A = 16–25 Critical task to be finished by end of month

B = 9–15 Important task to be finished by end of quarter

C = 1–8 Low priority to be finished by end of year

One of the things you’ll notice about this system is that there are no tasks that must be completed by the end of the day or week. Why? Because I am always trying to plan my time at least a month in advance. Leaders should be looking farther ahead than others in the organization. If leaders are always reacting to crises in the moment, the people and the organization will suffer.

  1. They Reduce Their Potential by Doing Things Without Coaching or Training

Anything worth doing is worth doing better. I am always amazed when people try to accomplish anything without benefiting from the wisdom of someone who is ahead of them in the journey. Training, coaching, or mentoring can make a huge difference in how productive people can be with the time they have.

Robert Zemsky and Susan Shaman of the University of Pennsylvania did a study of 3,200 U.S. companies. What they found was that a 10 percent increase in spending on capital expenditures led to only a 3.8 percent increase in productivity. However, a 10 percent increase in spending for training led to an 8.5 percent increase in productivity. If you want to make the most of your time, make the most of yourself. Find someone to help you improve your abilities and those of your people. As communicator and friend Zig Ziglar says, “The only thing worse than training employees and losing them is not training them and keeping them.”

There really is an art to managing your life and making the most of your time. It’s something you have to grow into. I don’t meet many people who start out life doing it well. Most people don’t ever learn it. Those who do develop it over time. Life management begins with an awareness of time and of the choices we should make to be a good steward of it. Those who do well at it do things that

  • Advance their overall purpose in life—this helps them grow.
  • Underscore their values—this brings them fulfillment.
  • Maximize their strengths—this makes them effective.
  • Increase their happiness—this gives them better health.
  • Equip and coach others—this compounds their productivity.
  • Add value to others—this increases their influence.

They understand that there is no such thing as time management—just life management. When you have a strong sense of purpose, enjoy life, and possess an awareness of how brief life really is, the days always seem too short. That’s why you have to manage yourself effectively. Everything you do—in your career, in your personal life, and in your leadership—depends on it. That’s a lesson I hope you learn earlier rather than later.

Applying Life Management Skills

Assess your life management skills by asking yourself the following questions.

  1. Are you squandering your time? Review the things you are currently doing on a regular basis. Are any of them driven by others’ inappropriate expectations for you? Are some things unimportant? Or is everything you’re doing driven by your priorities and strengths? If it is not, you need to change what you’re doing. If your current position or profession prevents you from making changes to your activities, then consider changing your position or profession.
  2. Are you getting help where you need it? If you are doing important tasks, but you are getting no help or training to improve your performance, you’re not managing your time as well as you could. Take some time to figure out what you need: training, mentoring, or coaching. Stephen Covey calls this process “sharpening the axe.” If your employer is willing to help you get these things, great. If not, pay for them yourself. Improving your abilities in high-priority areas is always a good investment in yourself that will pay off in the long run.
  3. How do you decide how to spend your time? What criteria do you use? Do you do whatever you feel like in the moment? Do you create a daily to-do list? I want to challenge you to plan your time more effectively and to do so further ahead.

Adapted with permission from Leadership Gold by John Maxwell, copyright John Maxwell.

Bring It Home

I don’t know about you, but I resonated with the suitcase analogy. When I’m preparing for vacation, I raid my closet until I find 16 different outfit combinations for a 3-day trip. How I pack my suitcase is how I plan my days. Instead of allowing myself time to breathe, think, and look forward, I cram as many tasks into my to-do list thinking that one day, I might actually get through them. Not only is this a demoralizing approach, but oftentimes I find that the outcome of it is less productivity. The life management skills that Maxwell proposes forces us to consider if we are directing our efforts towards the activities in which we truly excel. Describe a time when you realized you were striving towards a goal you didn’t really desire. How did you diagnose the disconnect, and what steps did you take to gain control of your calender, clock, and life? Comment with your story below.

John Maxwell

John C. Maxwell is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, coach, and author who has sold over 19 million books. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP and the John Maxwell Company, organizations that have trained more than 5 million leaders worldwide.

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