18 Aug 2016 20:28 IST

Forget time management. Learn ‘me management’

Time can’t be managed. But you can manage yourself

How do some leaders get so much more done than the rest of us? We all have the same 24-hour-day cycle. Yet, they make it so much more productive. Most of us tend to look up time management tips or books, hoping to find the magic answer.

But the magic begins with understanding that there’s no such thing as ‘time management’. There is only ‘me’ management. Time can’t be managed. But I can manage myself. I can gain and give so much more — personally and professionally — by doing that better.

We’ll reflect on different aspects of this dictum over the next few columns but for now, let’s reflect on some of the twin choices leaders must grapple with on the inside, before focusing on the assignments or organisations they lead on the outside.

From telescope to microscope

Most of us lose control of our days, months and years because we start with the wrong instrument, the microscope. We’re ruled by tasks and to-do lists. We get onto a daily treadmill — running all the time but not getting anywhere. We’re doing a lot, but not getting much done.

Effective leaders begin with the telescope. They ask: “What would I like to achieve with my life?”; “What difference would I like to make?”, “What is the purpose of my life?” This is the most important ‘me’ management principle.

It’s also one of life’s most difficult questions. But if we don’t answer it first, we risk living lives that merely amble along aimlessly.

Whatever our answer, it’s important to write it down, discuss it with a mentor, a trusted relative or friend, and use their inputs to clarify and validate this purpose. This then becomes our North Star. We must therefore choose wisely, and not squander it on a trivial purpose.

Every day we can then ask ourselves — “What did I get done today that moved my life towards its purpose?”

However, keep in mind that not all days will be successful. There may be wasted days, days when things go off-course and we take side-roads that lead off the main path. But the leaders’ eyes are set on their purpose — they uses that compass to course-correct, and get back on track.

This works both in our personal and professional roles. Indra Nooyi transformed Pepsi’s purpose into being an organisation that makes healthy foods and beverages. Not an easy purpose to define — the stock market was critical, activists clamoured against it, but she was able to stay the course because of the clarity and conviction of her purpose.

She used this telescope to guide some of the everyday microscope decisions she and her team needed to make, right from product launches to advertising spend.

Sign boards and destination

The next step is to set up goals that will be milestones in your journey to your purpose. A higher education degree? A specialisation within that? Joining a particular industry or company? Performing a particular role? Whatever they are, your goals must align with your purpose.

Here it’s worth considering one of the dangers with regard to goals. Let’s assume you decide to head to Goa for a picnic. You pack the car with all the essentials and hit the road. On the highway, you see a sign that reads: Goa — 100 km.

You whoop with joy, park right under the signboard, open your picnic basket and start to have a great picnic under the signboard. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Yet, many of us end up doing just that — mistake signboards for destinations.

In ‘me’ management terms, we confuse goals for purpose. This is the agony of the student who, after years of preparing for a competitive exam, fails to get into the institute of his choice. Crushed, he decides to commit suicide.

While not all take that extreme step, several give up when they miss their goals. If you don’t get that offer letter from the coveted company; if you miss out on a promotion, or your entrepreneurial experiment flames out, don’t think of it as the be all and end all. Each of these goals is not an end in itself. It’s not a tragedy if you don’t meet some of them.

A good leader will be clear that the signboard is not the destination; it merely points to it.

Bill Gates, who pledged to donate almost all his wealth, made that distinction when he said: “Money has no utility to me beyond a certain point. Its utility is entirely in building an organisation and getting the resources out to the poorest in the world.” Money may have been his goal, but its usage is the fulfilment of his purpose.

From rear-view mirror to windshield

Leaders look ahead; they don’t waste time regretting things that have gone wrong or wallowing in the misery of past mistakes. When you drive with your eyes on the rear-view mirror, you can veer off the road or worse, crash.

A glance now and then to learn from past mistakes and to guide future decisions is fine. But a habit of dwelling on the past wastes time — time that would be better invested in the present and the future.

Adam Neumann, co-founder of WeWork, a co-working space start-up that is the eighth most valuable venture private-backed company in the world, reflects on this forward-looking quality. “WeWork is my fifth venture. I failed in my first, second and third, had mediocre success in my fourth,” he said. But because he looked ahead, WeWork is today a ‘decacorn’ — a company that is valued over $10 billion.

As Bill Clinton put it so well, “When our memories outweigh our dreams, it is then that we become old.”

Try this exercise.

Time-travel into the future and write your retirement speech — either the one you’ll deliver or one that someone else will deliver about you. What would you like to have it say? What will you be most proud of? How would you have disturbed the universe?

Live your purpose and your goals. Make that speech worth listening to.

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