We all have a large list of things that we need to do. We need to exercise, we need to eat right, we need to work productively. Our to-do lists grow more and more each day, until personal development and striving for a better life becomes just another check box right next to taking out the dry cleaning and cleaning the garage. As this list grows into monumental proportions anything that doesn’t demand our immediate attention is shoved aside. We immediately recognize the things we have to do, but perhaps there is a subtler question that needs answering. What do you need to stop?
Time is a finite and inelastic quantity. You can’t get more or less than you already have. Properly managing your time is critical to being effective. If you waste your time on things of little importance, you can often find yourself years later looking back at how little you have grown. But if you take your time and manage it wisely like a successful investor, you can achieve things far more rapidly and grow far more than everyone around you. Others appear to move in slow motion as you move quickly towards the goals, dreams, the person you want to become.
Managing time is basically a series of decisions. You must decide what is most important and then you must decide how to do it. Most people recognize that this decision involves setting priorities about what you need to do. Unfortunately, few realize that with each decision about what to do, you are also deciding to cut yourself off from all other routes. The Latin root for the word decision actually means ‘to cut’.
In the book Six Disciplines for Excellence , Gary Harpst lists the steps needed for managing a successful business. One of the first, discrete steps is deciding what you need to stop doing. It isn’t enough to simply decide to start a habit, you also have to decide what you are going to stop doing to compensate. Time, unlike other resources, cannot be stretched or squeezed. If you want to fit something in you have to take something out. If you were managing your time poorly, you may be able to easily remove some waste. However, for most people whose lives are already stretched thin, every decision about what to do will require an equivalent decision about what not to do.
Every Yes Requires a Thousand No’s
A few months ago I completely gave up television. The response I got from some people was disbelief. Why would you want to give up television? Don’t you need to take time to relax? Unfortunately, these people don’t realize that their decision to watch television is a decision not to do other things. I love blogging and working on my projects far more than television, so a decision not to watch television was a decision to do things I found more important and fulfilling. I could also think of numerous leisure activities I found more entertaining then television such as painting, reading, games, socializing and sports.
Another decision I made was the decision to stop eating animal products. Again, people unaware of the impact that a diet with meat does to your body, were stunned that I would make a decision to do this. Why would you want to do that? But steak is so tasty, they would point out. Once again, these people don’t recognize that every decision has an opposite side. The decision for me not to eat meat isn’t a limitation. It just means I am deciding to eat healthier vegetable products and meat substitutes instead. For every yes there must be an almost infinite amount of corresponding no’s as you cut yourself off from the other options.
Zig Ziglar  makes this point so eloquently when he uses the analogy of a cafeteria line. “I don’t care how prodigious your appetite is, you cannot eat some of everything on a cafeteria line,” he says. “In that sense the cafeteria is exactly like life,” he finishes. Because every decision has two sides, you need to carefully consider both sides when making them. Realize also that whether you are aware of it or not, you are making decisions about how to use your time and energy. Sitting in front of the television is a decision just as going to the gym is. You can’t not make decisions so you might as well make them deliberately.
Important VS Urgent
In expending our resources we ultimately have to make decisions. As I have mentioned previously, most people incorrectly assume that the only decision to be made is the decision of what to do, without realizing that the decision of what to stop is equally important. Our minds are constructed to compel us to work on the effects with immediate consequence. When you were a hairy caveman living in the wild, a decision about your major life goals wasn’t nearly as critical about how you are going to keep from being eaten.
Most people still live like cavemen. Driven by biological urges to focus only on the things of immediate consequence they spend most their time doing fairly pointless activities over the investments that could shape their lives. By making the decision to choose the urgent over the important, they are removing any possibility for growth. True growth can only come from those things that have long range consequences. By making long term investments you build a foundation to improve. Short term results will fade faster than you can stack them, leaving you worn thin with little to show for it.
You need to challenge the assumptions given to you by society for how you have to behave. A good example of this happened to myself recently. As a recent high school graduate, a lot of importance is given to the grad ball at the end of the year. Fund raising, organizing and countless hours are put into what is essentially a big party. Being a member of the graduating class, a lot of pressure was put on me to go to meetings, fund raise and help organize. In the end it is just a party. It was fun, but afterwards we went back to our lives. I didn’t go to a single grad meeting and I did very little fund raising.
Some people thought I was being selfish or lazy. But with the time I saved from doing that unimportant activity I invested elsewhere. I created this website and had more time to write dozens of articles that have reached thousands of people across the globe. I volunteered to coach soccer, helping instill teamwork and physical activity in the minds of young people. When I get an e-mail from a reader telling me how much my articles have helped them, I can only think of how selfish it would have been of me to make that decision any differently.
Some people have asked me how to find time for personal development. The answer is simple, have the courage to say no to things that have no long term significance. By choosing to invest your time, energy and money into the aspects of your life that have long range consequences you are making the mature decision to better your future and better the future of those around you. One of my favorite quotes sums up what I want to say on this point, “What matters most must never be at the mercy of what matters least.”
Good VS Great
So what if you are already focusing on the important and you still feel like you are missing too many opportunities. In these cases you need to look at the quality of that importance. Too many people make the decision to do something good without realizing they have also made the decision not to do something excellent. Notice how my tagline isn’t, “Get a good amount out of your life.”
Start looking at how you are currently investing in personal development. Are you focusing exclusively on one area while neglecting sore spots. While some authors profess to the importance of focusing on your strengths, I believe the opposite is true when running your own life. Unless you can somehow remove the influence of a particular weakness you have in running your life, it will negatively affect you. Being extremely productive in a business setting doesn’t make up for the fact that you are overweight and unhealthy.
I notice many people will focus exclusively on one aspect of personal development at the cost of another. Some people may buy a lot of business books and read a lot into finance, career and improving their productivity. But these same people might be completely at a loss when it comes to their health, personal relationships or lateral growth. Having passionate interests in a particular area of your growth is a good thing but you must also realize when you need to stop pursuing some activities to shore up a weakness in another area.
Pursuing greatness over just the good is a hard discipline to master. Whenever we feel happy and content with our progress, it is hard to then abandon that route to try and venture into something better. But you can never settle into complacency. You must always be trying to maximize the content of your experience. To quote Jim Collins from Good to Great:
“We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life. … Good is the enemy of great.”
When you go to make your to-do lists, consider making a to-stop list as well. Understand that you will ultimately have to stop doing one thing in order to do another. By making a to-stop list on the path to one of your goals you may really discover what your true priorities are, and how much of your resources have been wasted up until then. Change can only come when you make a decision. A decision, that is both a choice of what to do as it is what you need to stop.