01 Sep 2016 17:41 IST

Of ants, whales, termites and tigers

How these four terms can help you manage your time — and life — better

Imagine you had only one year to live. How would you spend it? What would your goals be? What would your tasks and projects look like? What if you had only a month? What if it was just a day?

Tough thought experiment, I know, but revealing nevertheless. The answers you give to those questions would force you to prioritise and focus on activities that you really want to pursue.

One of the biggest complaints most leaders have is, “I don’t have time”. In the previous column , we saw that all of us have the same amount of time. While we can’t manage it, we have to lead and manage ‘ourselves’ to become more productive and use that same quantity of time meaningfully.

One of the really powerful ways I handle the “I don’t have time” excuse is by re-phrasing that sentence. What we really mean when we say “I don’t have time” is, “This thing or person is not a priority”.

Take a moment to reflect on the enormity of what that could mean for you. It will change your view and helps you make wiser decisions on what to say ‘Yes’ to and what to say ‘No’ to. As Gandhi put it so insightfully, “Action expresses priorities”. So what hinders or helps this focus?

Whales

This is when the decisions we make lead to poor results and a massive loss of time — sometimes years, sometimes a lifetime. These could be choices that take only a few minutes to take, but they cast long, ugly shadows.

A wrong career choice is a huge, burdensome whale for a person to lug around his whole life. Every work day will then be a torture. Joining a company whose culture clashes with your own value systems? Another bad whale. Marrying the wrong life-partner? Big bad whale and doom for both partners, personally and professionally.

These are decisions that call for serious thinking. They must be made only after weighing the pros and cons, using both head and heart to think through possible consequences, and after seeking wise counsel.

Termites

These are the little but dangerous things in life that don’t seem very threatening at face value, but they eat into the insides of your lives. These are often unseen. Before you know it, they would have eaten away large chunks of time in your life!

It could be as simple as a key bunch you use daily, but haven’t labelled or organised. This means checking every key, every time you have to open a drawer or a door. A complete waste of time.

Or the multiple times (every waking hour) that you look at WhatsApp chats or Twitter timelines. Unchecked TV watching, endless fiction reading are all part of this termite, which hinders our focus. It is akin to eating sugarcane — it’s all sweet juice when you chew it, but sooner or later, you have to spit it out because you can’t digest and gain anything else from it.

One way of checking this is by maintaining a log so you become aware of these termites and measure their cumulative impact on your time. Once you see that impact, you will find the clarity and impetus to change. You can then replace these time-bleeding habits with time-building ones. Termites can become ants.

Ants

These are what I call power-packed decisions — small decisions that can gift you large chunks of valuable time. Much like an ant that carries many times its body-weight, these decisions offer pleasantly disproportionate benefits.

When I found that my day was being clogged with meeting after meeting, leaving me with no time to get some of the more important things done, I made an ‘ant’ decision. I decided to shave 15 minutes off each of meeting and conference call I had lined up in a day.

Was it tough? You bet! But soon, my team and I realised our engagements were crisper and more outcome focussed. The bigger benefit, however, was that I literally created new time for myself! Let me explain.

On an average, I had four such fairly consistent engagements in my work day. The 15 minutes off, for each of these meetings, meant I gained an hour each day. In a working month of 22 days, that’s an extra 22 hours. Which translates to 264 hours in a year, and, if you divide that by an 8-hour work day, an extra 33 work days!

Presto! That became the thirteenth month in my calendar! Over a working span of even 30 years, you could add 30 extra months. In effect, you could live 2 ½ years longer by just making a 15-minute cut in a recurring activity. How’s that for a power-packed ant decision?

These also include habits that take a short time every day, but result in big benefits to the rest of your day or life. For example, 15 minutes of meditation time creates a reservoir of both energy and calm to power your day.

A commitment to setting aside time for learning-oriented reading either daily or weekly, creates huge benefits for your personal and professional growth. Ditto for time set aside to review the week that went by and plan drawn up for the week ahead.

Tigers

These are the big things that give you big results. They take time, energy and focus, but you reap the reward in more productive and meaningful way. This could be a self-development project or picking up a highly valued skill such as public speaking or analytics. It could even be spending quality time with your family or starting a project to address a root-cause rather than waste time on dealing with symptoms.

For example, a General Manager recently told me he was seeing senior management time eaten into by escalations on customer complaints. Rather than build a process for senior management to handle the high volume of complaints, he chose, instead, to invest it on training his operational staff so that they can resolve customer complaints effectively, making escalations an exception rather than norm. What a great tiger to pick!

Tigers need focus. And you give power to what you focus on. This cuts both ways. When you choose to focus on less meaningful or low performance activities, they grow in power. But if you choose to focus on high-impact, high-meaning projects, then they’re the ones that gain power. You increase the impact you make and the growth you experience.

Deciding on a tiger also means consciously not choosing a cheetah or a hippo. Every yes has several ‘no’s within it. If you want to write that book and you know you have within you, you might have to skip watching some cricket matches. If you want to learn an extra course during your MBA, it may mean eliminating some of the long gossip sessions with classmates.

The choice is clear: am I going to run my life or let my life run me?

If we do not practice me management, whales and termites can suck up most of our lives. But it takes a disciplined leader to focus on ants and tigers. You will rarely ‘find time’ to spend on them, but if you believe in it strongly, you will make time for it.

And that will make all the difference.

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