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Your Most Precious Resource—Are You Spending It the Way You Want or Just Staying Busy?

When asked “How are you?” do you reply “Busy”?

Is busy-ness a symbol of your importance?

Is it a badge of honor you wear and shine to impress others?

Let me ask you this: How many times in the last three weeks have you thought to yourself “I’m too busy for this?” Do you hate to say “no”? Do you feel like you’re letting somebody down if you can’t meet their needs immediately?

All of us, we’ve been conditioned to be helpers, supporters, givers. We’re made to feel guilty for saying “no” to anyone’s request to take on a task. We’re taught that important people are busy, and that turning down a request take something on indicates a lack of initiative, of laziness—practically a moral failing.

As a result, we all end up on this never-ending hamster wheel of things to do, hurrying to accomplish this or that, running harder and harder, growing more and more exhausted, but never getting anywhere.

They don’t call it “the rat race” for nothing.

I was on that wheel. And then I took on leading a team at a professional services organization where “contribution” was measured in fifteen-minute increments and the question to everything I did was, “Were you billable?”

They set my target utilization rate at 80%, which didn’t sound hard. But after the first six months, I was running at about a 72% and it felt like no matter what I did, I couldn’t get to the 80% utilization mark. I felt like I was busy—I was burning at least 60 to 65 hours a week and just couldn’t hit that 80%. So I started doing a daily analysis of my time. Just like most every employee at in professional services, I argued the amount of time it took me to keep track of my time took more time than doing the actual work. And to be honest, I was resistant to doing it mainly because, more often than not, it showed how I was coming up short. I was not going to fail. I became determined to figure out how to become more productive.

Not that I really wanted to.

Rather, it just seemed like the thing I was supposed to do. From my project management experience I understood how defining scope, schedule, and budget all revolved around the mighty hour. My plan was to define super-clear expectations, put together a spreadsheet, and schedule things better—then I would be able to reach my goal.

But the journey to reach my goal took me down a much different path than I expected.

Mapping out my expectations on a spreadsheet and discussions with my manager for clarity about his expectations started an entire process of really defining what it was he wanted me to do—and I cannot recommend that enough! For employees and managers, it’s a great opportunity to write down clearly articulated goals so that both of you know exactly what success looks like for you, and there are no questions, misunderstandings, or surprises when it comes to your work. Bosses, you can say exactly where you want your employee’s time to go. Employees, you can now have it clearly defined for you where your boss want your time to go.

Everyone’s informed, everyone’s clear, we have a document to refer to when there are questions, and there are no surprises.

For me personally, by charting out my day now, I recognized there were times throughout the day where my personal life stuff was creeping in and cutting in to my productivity. And I also saw how I was beginning to sacrifice the things I always said were important outside of work, like dinner with my family.

So I used the same approach I did with my manager and wrote it all down to find clarity. I listed all the things I’ve told myself were important to my own values. Then I listed all the work things and mapped them all, so I could see where all my “should-do’s” aligned with my values and where they didn’t.

I also started tracking my actual hours against my plan. It was a ridiculously detailed process that required staggering honesty with myself about how I used my time (because of the amount of time this takes, I recommend you do this for no more than three days; because of the downright ruthless honesty it requires, I recommend you never show it to anyone else—with no one else looking you can afford to be completely candid with yourself).

It was eye-opening.

So eye-opening, that I began to feel overwhelmed. My list was ridiculously long. And where my lists didn’t align—my boss’s expectations versus my values—how was I going to deal with that?

Watch on a wrist.

I realized than that the only way any of this work was if I had a system, otherwise I was doomed to fail. I spent a lot of time—years in fact—working it all out so I could take charge of my time and my destiny (I’ll detail the system and approach I finally developed in a future post). I can already hear some of you protesting my coming up with my own system for managing my time: “But my boss, my boss would never let me…”

Let me tell you this: yes, if you have an employment agreement and in it your boss has specified ways you’re to get certain things done, you’re obligated to do them that way. But as a manager myself I can assure you that 90% of the time I had no concept of what all my staff had going on outside of what I’d given them, or which the other seventeen thing I’d already given them each had to have clear priority. As their manager, I really would appreciate when someone on my team came back to me and asked for clarification and prioritization: “Based on my calendar and these other things you’ve assigned me, where does this one fall in importance?” Then we can open calendars, compare, and organize, reprioritize, and maybe even juggle some assignments among the team.

To a good manager, one who’s interested in getting the work done at the best quality we can, there’s nothing wrong with moving things around when necessary. But you have to be able to concretely show your manager what you have on your plate and how long it’s going to take to get through it all.

Doing this, goals are set so everyone involved understands the expectations. You can work together toward achieving them and you aren’t left feeling angry and frustrated that there aren’t enough hours in the day to meet your boss’s demands.

Time, they say, is our most valuable resource—once it’s gone, you cannot buy more at any price. Managing your most valuable resource, then, is something you should pay close attention to. Now, I’m not going to lie: looking at how you use your time—looking closely and honestly—sucks. It’s painful because you’ll see who you are, who this person is that’s using your most precious resource, and you’ll see things you don’t like. And you’ll have only yourself to blame.

For me, I found that title and money were getting my time. Getting it more than family and God. I’d worked hard, for years, to climb the ladder only to find it was leaning against the wrong building. It was hard to take, but I was glad to figure it out then instead of even later, when it would have cost me even more time.

Align how you spend your time with what you value. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on career and income, if that’s what you truly prize. For me, and for a lot of people, God and family are number one. Both are okay.

But whatever you do, don’t become busy just because society seems to value it or because it makes you feel important and impresses others.

Your time is way too precious.