I have half a dozen tubes of toothpaste in my shaving kit. It’s not because I’m some sort of toothpaste connoisseur. The problem developed gradually.
I use the shaving kit when traveling. I don’t want to have a full-size tube in there; that would be too big. Instead, I use the little trial size tubes the dentist hands out on every visit. They’re small. Sometimes, when I’m checking the kit before a trip, they hide. So I throw another one in. Or I figure I’ve got to be getting close to finishing up the one that’s in there, so I throw another one in. Or I don’t like the specific variety that’s in there, but my wife does, so I leave that one for her to use and I add one for me that isn’t so ghastly.
As small as they are, they seem to never run out. They’re in their own separate pocket, and when I need toothpaste, I grab one. It’s a different one each time. A little here, a little there. I know I’m using toothpaste, but it seems like I never manage to actually finish one up before another one gets added.
If we aren’t careful, we can do the same thing with tasks, projects, and goals. If we work a little here and a little there, we’re never going to make the meaningful progress necessary to finish something before we need, have, or want to take on more.
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High-performance cars have a special mode called launch control. When launch control is turned on, the car takes over the details of accelerating from a standstill (usually at the start of a race or timed trial, but sometimes when you just want to feel the G-force pushing you back into your seat). The brakes, accelerator, and clutch are all controlled automatically to ensure that the car launches with the maximum possible acceleration under the conditions.
Many cars limit the number of times you can use launch control, requiring a cool-down period between launches and/or limiting the number of launches you can make over the lifetime of the vehicle. That kind of performance takes its toll on the car. Even Teslas with their simplified drivetrain will pull back so you don’t cause permanent damage to the car.
High-performance individuals like you and me have a launch mode, too. When we’re starting a project or a goal, we start off strong. We lay out a plan, identify a bunch of next actions, and schedule milestones. We want to go from zero (where we’re starting) to sixty (goal achieved) as fast as possible.
Like a high-performance car, we, too, need a cooling down period after we launch to preserve our performance. Otherwise, that kind of performance takes its toll on us. If we push ourselves too hard, it can damage our capacity to get work done.
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One of the greatest enemies of productivity is perfectionism, not procrastination. (Procrastination can be a good thing if you do it right.)
Perfectionism hits us in two ways:
- We’re afraid to get started.
- We’re afraid to finish.
Great one-two punch, no? Perfectionism gets you both ways. We’re afraid to start because we don’t want to make mistakes. We’re afraid to finish because it’s not perfect yet.
The point of being productive isn’t to be perfect. There is no right time to start; there is only now. There is no perfect outcome; once it’s good enough you’re wasting your time. Waiting for everything to be perfect before we move (or move on) is a guaranteed way to set yourself up to fail. If you want to start a change, you do just that: you start.
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We are all connected. No matter how independent we are, we still interact with coworkers, family members, friends, neighbors, and complete strangers. These relationships range from outright pleasant to downright obnoxious.
Any given relationship can vary. We’re emotional. We have good days. We have bad days. So does everybody else. When the relationship account balance is high, it feels like the good times stretch on and on. Things are clicking. You’re getting along great. Life is grand.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When the balance is low, it feels like an ordeal that’s never going to end. Transactions that would have been neutral or a minor thing start getting amplified and everything starts feeling like a huge withdrawal. Pretty soon, the account is overdrawn.
It’s easy (and extremely seductive) to put all the blame on them. “They’re so difficult to work with!” “He’s such a jerk!” “If only she’d see things my way.” The truth is, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Relationships are two-sided. You are proactive. You can choose whether you’re going to handle the situation with grace or make things worse.
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When the lenses in a telescope aren’t properly aligned, it’s not worth much. The images are distorted and blurry. When they’re properly aligned—or collimated, to use the vernacular—you get beautiful images of comets and nebulae. Everything is in crisp focus.
Even when we have checked off all the boxes, we might end the day no closer to where we want to be than we started. The best way to kill our productivity isn’t to spend the day slacking off—it’s to be so busy dealing with gravel that we don’t have time for the big rocks.
The problem is that we aren’t focused. Our day-to-day actions aren’t aligned with our goals, dreams, and deepest values. Big changes don’t happen all at once. The small actions we take (or should be taking) every day add up.
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If you were alive in the 80s, then you know The Karate Kid. Our hero, Daniel, moves across the country, doesn’t quite fit in with the new crowd, and after spending countless hours doing chores for the gardener—Wax on! Wax off! Paint the fence!—he wins the day.
My friends and I spent countless hours that summer knocking soda cans off of fences with awkward crane kicks. Occasionally, we managed to hit the can more than we hit the ground.
Daniel didn’t understand the importance of mastering wax on, wax off. He thought Miyagi was stalling or even a fraud. He felt the pressure of the deadline. He was scared. He wanted immediate results without paying the price.
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In the movies, you know that moment when the bad guy goes down with one shot and the good guy turns his attention away too soon? You know what’s going to happen. It was just a flesh wound. Now the bad guy’s back, and he’s madder than ever. Our hero could have won once and for all if he’d just kept fighting a little longer.
Quadrant 1 happens. It’s not ideal. It’s not where we want to spend our time, but it happens. When a fire breaks out, it has your attention. You need to put it out before it spreads and causes more damage.
Once the fire is out, don’t leave it at that. If you go a little further, you’ll never have to face that problem again.
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There are four Quadrants of Time Management:
- Crisis Management. When fires crop up, you need to put them out. You can’t ignore them. They won’t go away on their own without leaving significant damage.
- Growth, Actualization, and Renewal. This is where you want to spend as much time as possible. You have time to solve problems creatively and turn them into opportunities. You change things so fewer fires crop up. Your time spent offstage is rejuvenating and energizing, helping you to return to the stage stronger and more skilled.
- Gravel. Some activities don’t contribute to our goals, but they still need to be done. No matter how much you eliminate, automate, or delegate, some of it will still fall to you.
- Waste. We only have 24 precious hours in a day. When we’re in Quadrant 4, we’re wasting our time. We’re avoiding something.
We go to Quadrant 3 because we have to, Quadrant 1 because we have to now, Quadrant 2 because we want to, and Quadrant 4 because we’re trying to get away from 1–3.
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Do you ever feel frustrated that you didn’t get everything done on your list? It’s a common feeling for high achievers. We have grand ambitions for the day: Many books will be written about it, paintings will be painted to capture it, and statues carved to immortalize it. Songs will be sung in fire-lit taverns as steely-eyed men gather ’round to tell their tales. “Where were you that day?” “Lad, I was there. I knew him.”
You may not go so far as casting the movie adaptation, but admit it—you have plans for the day. You have plans for your plans. And yet the day never goes quite the way you want it to.
It’s frustrating. We had a vision in place, a dream we were working towards, and now it feels like it will never happen.
Take a deep breath. You’ll get there, even if you have to write the books yourself.
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What were you doing one year ago today? (This question is easier to answer if you keep a journal.)
Since then, have you made any progress towards being the man you want to be? Read any good books? Switched to a more fulfilling job? Gotten out of debt? Or do your dreams seem all the farther away because here you are, a year later, and you’re no closer to living the life you dream of?
You’ve had three-hundred-sixty-five days to work on it. Eight thousand, seven hundred and sixy hours. Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes you could have used to shape yourself into the embodiment of your personal mission statement.
Did you seize the opportunity? Or did you sacrifice the wildly important on the altar of the whimsically immediate three-hundred-sixty-five times over?
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