I was inspired today by a @FastCoLead article about the importance of protecting your time. Productive people, they point out, jealously guard their time and are masters of saying “no.” The example they use is Warren Buffett, who they said in a meeting with Bill Gates pulled out a date book that he carries in his pocket. It was practically empty. “You’ve gotta keep control of your time,” Buffett says, “and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.”
Reading this made me realize I’d love to understand his life, to determine if he’s been this way his whole life or if it kicked in at some stage in his life. I think it’s a marvelous philosophy and something that I need to better instill in my life. But I don’t know if it’s a universal lesson that can be applied to general productivity improvement for anyone. I look at my day today and the first half of the day is consumed in meetings that have to occur to get work done. If I say “no” to these meetings there are some account executives at my agency that are going to be really, really angry. And yet, it’s cutting into my ability to think strategically today about some important issues. What to do? I think the key is examining the stage you are in life, the responsibilities you’ve accepted and your ultimate aspiration(s).
Probably the most important of these three is really understanding your aspirations. Not some vague desire or wish to “be happy,” but figuring out what you really want to do. Do you want to own your own company? Do you want to just create beautiful things? Write novels? Be a good, steady provider for your family? This is critical because knowing and accepting this impacts how you actually go about “protecting” your time .
If you are driven toward more autonomous or entrepreneurial endeavors, then I would say yes, anything that you commit to that doesn’t move you toward that self rule needs to be jettisoned. There needs to be a lot of “no” and a lot of focus on building and creating your dream. But there are consequences. Your income and stability will be a roller coaster ride. Family? Probably not much at first. But the thrill and exhilaration of the ride makes it all worth it.
But what about those with different aspirations? Working to live, not living to work. Building a family and providing a dependable source of income and presence. Does this same “just say no” model work? Not really. Because the price of this more stable life is doing what others tell you what to do. Your job is to deliver, to be a dependable “go to” team player that everyone knows they can count on. Start saying no too often and you’ll quickly be looking for another job. The key to protecting your time in this role is time management - making sure you are getting things done to protect your time outside of your work.
Neither one of these approaches to life and work is better than the other. It all depends on your personality and aspirations. But here’s a critical point. You have to be honest about yourself and accept and embrace your life path. Working in a predictable job, but feeling completely stifled and constantly dreaming of being your own boss is a setup for unhappiness. Likewise, thinking you have to start a company to be respected, when all you want to do is hang with your kids on the weekend is an equally fast path toward unhappiness.
Take some time for some self reflection, be honest and then make a choice. If you discover you made a mistake, you can always change. But most important is you should choose the way you approach protecting your time that will best help you live the type of life you want. And unfortunately, there is no simple solution that does this for everybody.