Tag Archives: time management

Using the time you have

Trent at The Simple Dollar posted today yesterday two days ago (It appears I’m behind on my RSS feeds) a story about a guy he knew in college, who had a dead-end low-paying job as an overnight cashier at a gas station. But when Trent went to visit him, he wasn’t bemoaning his sad situation: he was using his sketchpad and pencils to practice his skills drawing perspective, lighting, shading and so on. Now he’s a graphic designer.

I’ve been talking to one of my friends who’s in high school right now, and thinking how much of a waste (US) high school is. Since the teachers have to assume that students are only paying attention about 20% of the time, they repeat everything 5 times. Which means that there’s really no point in paying attention more than 20% of the time, even if you really do care. So out of the 6 hours of the day you have to spend in class, you only get about an hour and a quarter of useful information. The other 4.75 hours are just wasted. Unless….

What could you do in your situation?

My sister wrote her first novel in high school (the teachers thought she was taking notes). I practiced my writing (primarily in the form of satire, aimed at our teachers, but hey, practice is practice.) But you could also practice:

  • Focus Being able to pay attention to what you choose is a useful skill, and one that most of us lack. Don’t believe me? Play this game:

    1. Get a stop watch
    2. Hit the start button

    3. Think about lemons
    4. As soon as you think about anything other than lemons, hit the stop button
    5. See if you can get over 10 seconds.

So the next time you’re stuck in a pointless lecture or a useless meeting, practice your focus. Try to listen to what the speaker’s saying, and see how long you can go before you get distracted.


  • Proactivity Another highly-useful skill — the #1 habit in Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — is the ability to decide what to do, instead of letting other people and events dictate it for you. Whether in a dead-end school or a dead-end job, look for places to do stuff on purpose. Ask your teacher or your boss for permission to do something different — a different focus for your assignment, or a video blog instead of an essay, or something more advanced than what you’ve been doing. Even if they turn you down every time, you’ll still get the benefit of having learned to think and choose for yourself, which will serve you well when you get out of here. And you’ll be surprised by how many times your proposal gets accepted.


  • Vision Questing This one takes some outside work, but may be one of the most useful things you can do. I wrote a while back about our culture’s lack of a vision quest or initiation to adulthood: we’re graduating high school, college, grad school, our first job, our second job, our last job… without ever learning what we could offer the world, and what we would like to offer the world. Nobody helps us identify the talents and skills that would help you find a successful niche. Nobody gives you the opportunity to think about what “success” means to you and how to achieve it. Nobody asks you what your goals are. Of course we all live lives of quiet desperation!

    But you could start. The process will take years, so you’d best start quickly. Brainstorm stuff you like to do, and stuff you find easy to do, and stuff people ask you to do. Jot down connections between them. See if any vocations suggest themselves to you, and test them out to see if you really like them as well as you thought. Journal your findings. Brainstorm some more. There are no easy answers, but if you keep asking the questions, you’ll find that the answers eventually take shape.

  • Courage I’ve written about the need for courage already, so I won’t bore you by repeating it again. But no matter where you spend your days, there are opportunities to increase your courage. Ask a cute member of your preferred sex for their phone number. Speak up in a group discussion when you don’t agree with the direction the conversation is going. Stand up to the local bully on behalf of someone else. Don’t act like everyone else around you, just for a few seconds.

    Don’t be irresponsible

    Please note, I am not advocating doing these things at the expense of what you’re supposed to be doing. You really are going to have a hard time if you graduate high school without knowing basic math, and you’re getting paid to do the work your boss gives you. So do what you have to do.

    All I’m saying is…if there’s some time left over after that… don’t let it go to waste.

    The link to 7 Habits is an affiliate link. If you’re interested in buying the book (which is an awesome book, and I would recommend it to everyone), and if you have found my blog interesting and/or helpful, you can help me out by purchasing the book through that link. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but it helps me keep posting stuff despite my dead-end, low-paying job. Plus you give a boost to world literacy. What more could you ask? Learn More.

  • Step 7: Choosing Metrics

    This step is new to the annual planning process: we added it in this year when we realized that “number of objectives achieved” was a crude and inaccurate measure of our accomplishments: some projects weren’t expected to be completed (they were clearly multi-year projects from the start); some objectives were started in February and could be expected to be completed; some were such micro-projects that completing them was no big achievement. We wanted to be able to more accurately measure what we had done.

    Enter Metrics

    I wrote earlier about the benefits of metrics in your business (just not competitive metrics!), why not use metrics for the rest of your life as well? Especially since our goals this year were process oriented, providing direction but not distance, we needed a way to measure how far we’d come, so we could compare our accomplishments year to year.

    I wasn’t really paying attention to the process while we did this; I was focusing on making metrics. So I’m kind of reconstructing it; please bear with me.

    Decide what’s important to you

    Look down your list of goals, and decide which of them want metrics. (For some goals, the best measure of success might be “Did I achieve it?” In those cases, you don’t need separate metrics — you’ll already be able to measure accomplishment next year.) For others, where achieving it is unlikely to happen within a year, or where “did I achieve it” is a question without a clear answer, you’ll want to make metrics.

    Decide how to measure them

    Some examples:

    As I mentioned previously, my partner and I decided that maintaining and improving our relationship was our #1 priority. This isn’t really a project… we’re not making to-do lists and checking off tasks to accomplish it… but we do want to have some way to measure what we’re doing.

    One such measure is simply subjective assessment: do we think we’re doing better or worse. We’ll grade ourselves each day, and try to keep our “better” days as high a percentage as possible.

    Another way to measure it is average duration of a fight: the time elapsed from when the fight begins, to when it’s resolved (both of us understand and accept the other’s position, and we have arrived at a decision that neither resents, and made up). We want to “fight” productively, respecting each other’s opinions, communicating effectively, and making decisions that work for both partners and for the relationship. So keeping that as low as possible will help us measure our success there.

    Another objective is to be healthy… but what does that mean?

    To me it means eating right, so I’m going to rate my diet each day on a scale of 1 – 10, and try for as high a score as possible by the end of the year.

    It also means being able to do things without wearing down so fast or running out of breath, so I Googled a test for aerobic capacity, that measures how quickly I can cover a mile and how much it raises my pulse to do so. I will measure this monthly, and want to maintain or improve my score on this test over the year.

    And finally, I want to be able to lift more, and to not injure myself doing everyday chores like gardening. So I want to measure how strong I am, and aim to maintain or improve my lifting capacity over the year.

    Decide what the best way is to measure the things that matter to you.

    Decide when to measure them

    Different metrics make sense at different intervals: I need to eat healthy almost every day, but measuring my aerobic capacity on a daily basis would be a waste of time and drive me crazy. So decide how to measure your progress, and how often you want to do so.

    Set up a system to remind you to measure your metrics on the appropriate schedule; use mine if you’d like — it has a tab for daily goals and a tab for monthly measurements, and they’re both printable.

    And… you’re ready!

    That was quite a process. You analyzed where you’re at and what’s going on, put together long-term goals and short-term goals, and assembled projects and metrics to help you get there. You deserve a reward. My partner and I usually go out to dinner and see a play at the local theatre, but pick something that works for you (guys). And enjoy the year!

    Resources for Further Reading
    Annual Planning
    Using Metrics

    Step 5: Goal Setting

    Goal setting is step 4 of the Annual Planning process if you’re doing it for the first time, but in subsequent years you need to add in a step (review last year) that bumps it back to step 5. As we discovered at our second annual retreat, you also need to modify this step some.

    We weren’t sure what to do about this step. I was thinking to just re-do the whole goal-setting process, because I was afraid that re-using the same goals year after year would lead, eventually, to growing disconnected from our own goals. I wanted to be sure that our objectives grew and changed as we did. But my partner felt (quite accurately), that it would be silly and wasteful to just duplicate all the effort we went to last year, and that we’d be so busy trying to remember what we said last year that we wouldn’t think about new stuff. What we came up with, to answer both of our concerns, was this:

    Write down last year’s goals

    Just like last year, write down each goal on a separate piece of paper or an index card (or if you happened to keep last year’s cards, you can just pull them out again.)

    Write down any new goals

    A friend of mine is opening a business this year, and I’m helping him out – that obviously wasn’t on our list last year. You might have discovered something new you want to try doing, or a new event to which you’d like to travel. Or you might have thought of something you forgot last year. Whatever the reason, write down any new goals you may have, each on a separate piece of paper.

    Sort them

    This process is the same as last year: take all your goals, draw them out one at a time, and put them in order of priority. (They’re on separate pieces of paper so you can easily rearrange them.) This is likely to be faster than last year, because you already have a feeling of how these goals compare to each other, but you should still discuss why the goals are important to you as you decide where to place them.


    You now have a prioritized list of what’s most important to you, and if you did this with a partner, you guys are now on the same page about where you want to go. That’s pretty sweet!

    The next step is to make it tangible and turn it into a plan for the year, so move on to Your Projects: Assembling the Plan

    Step 1: Review Last Year

    This post is an addendum to the Annual Planning series written earlier this year. That series was written after I’d done my first annual planning retreat, but before I’d done my second, and it was clear that someadditions to the process needed to be made. First off, you probably want to review how last year went before you charge headlong into planning next year the same way.

    Step 1: How did it go?

    Look over your planning notes from last year. What did you hope to accomplish? Write those down in the left column below. Did you accomplish them? If you only accomplished partway, put down a fraction: ½ accomplished, ¾ accomplished, or whatever. Also jot down whatever notes you think might be helpful – project changes and so on.

    Objective Completeness Notes

    Now with your partner (if you have a partner) or in a notebook (if you’re doing this alone), talk about the year overall, and your objectives in particular. Do any patterns emerge that you should take into account when planning this year? For example, the first time I did this, I determined that I tried to tackle WAY too many projects in my first year. For my second year, I decided to limit myself to five projects at a time.

    Highlight, circle, or in some other way indicate which unfinished projects you would like to roll over into consideration for next year’s plan. Then you’re ready for step 2 (which used to be step 1): External Analysis

    Annual Planning Addendum: Notes from year two

    Last week I had my second annual planning retreat — it marked the first time I’d done my annual planning process when I’d already done it the year before. So I can now speak to the benefits of the process from actual experience, and I thought it would be worthwhile to do so.


    Last year I set 25 objectives. I intended to achieve them by working on 7 projects (things you can work on with a definite endpoint, like “Make a website”), and 9 policies (things you do all the time, like “Run 3 times/week”).

    Of those, I achieved 9 objectives, or 36%; I completed 4.75 projects, or 67%, and I stuck to 4 policies, or 44%.

    Interpretations and Inferences

    The first thing we did after our review was to celebrate. Despite the low percentages – a clear failing grade in any educational institution, which is another way that life differs from middle school – we were both proud of what we had accomplished, and we both agreed that it had been one of our most productive years ever. Goal-setting is useful even when you don’t accomplish your goals, because it give you focus.

    The low percentages indicate that we still need to “dial in” how much can be accomplished in a year. I actually suspect that my 2014 self would be able to accomplish everything I’d set out to do, but my 2009 self wasn’t that disciplined or organized yet. This caused something of a depression as we compared our “most productive year” to the things we’d hoped to do in a year, and how big that discrepancy was. And yet I don’t want to scale my goals down, because I think I can learn to do that much.

    What we did instead was to set goals that are more process-oriented. My boyfriend proposed to me while we were up there – we both agreed that our top priority was to keep our relationship strong and to improve it further. We both want to have more peace in our lives and to become the best possible version of ourselves — that was the second priority. I want to help people learn how to monetize themselves; he has his own vocation. What all of these goals have in common is that they set a clear direction, without specifying how far in that direction we must travel. If I don’t make it as far as I thought I could, that’s OK. If I make it much farther than I thought I could, that’s OK, too. I don’t have to make arbitrary guesses about how far I can go

    I could do that this year, because I’d had a year to shake out which goals were vocations, and which were just projects. Last year’s objective list was a jumble of

    • vague goals,
    • of projects that would be nice to complete someday,
    • of projects that would clearly take multiple years (maybe a lifetime),
    • and of projects that were vocation-worthy, but aren’t my vocation.

    This year I have it pared down to several overarching lifetime-projects, and have selected less-than-one-year projects to support those objectives.

    But I don’t think I could have done that last year, because I didn’t have the data I needed. My first year of annual planning was kind of a data dump, that gave me a chance to list every daydream and career-like notion and impractical fancy that I’d ever had. I wrote it all down, and tried it all out. And over the course of the year, I was able to learn what really mattered to me. It was obvious in the list of projects that I’d worked on (because they’d excited me enough to receive sustained energy) and the ones that had died out from lack of interest. When compared to other, new items on the list this year, it became obvious that several of last year’s objectives were really sub-projects of another lifetime-project – a connection I couldn’t see until I’d spent a year experimenting. I think this kind of focused, pared-down planning can only be done in the second year of this process.

    Recommendations for Future Work

    The original Annual Planning post was written during my first year of planning, and was written for people who have never set out to do this kind of thing before. And I think that’s a fair assumption in most cases – I’d never done that kind of thing before, and people look at me funny when I explain it. But obviously some things need to change for the second time around: we added in a review of the previous year, and modified the goal-setting process to accommodate 2nd-year planners. I’ll discuss those changes in the next few posts.