Being intentional about personal effectiveness

I manage my time and balance the activities in my life perfectly so that I can achieve my goals.

Does the above statement ring close to true for you? It certainly doesn’t for me.

Despite that, I found myself in front of 30 or so professionals last week talking about time management. It’s funny how we become expert at things, isn’t it? Not in a thousand years did I ever think I’d be the expert in the room when it comes to using time effectively. If those in attendance could see the amount of wasted time in my daily life, they’d have demanded the impostor leave the room. 

Why couldn’t it be seen that I’m not the best time manager in the world? The details of our time management — our efficiency — are essentially visible only to us and perhaps those who spend a lot of time around us. What others have a clear view into is the product of our time spent — our effectiveness.

Effectiveness is that thing on which we build our reputations as professionals. Does efficiency matter? Of course it does. The less time we spend on a particular task that leads to our effectiveness, all other things being equal, the better. But it’s our effectiveness that really counts.

Bennis Balloon

Leadership expert Warren Bennis writes about where most of us find ourselves, though.

“I had become the victim of a vast, amorphous, unwitting, unconscious conspiracy to prevent me from doing anything whatever to change the … status quo.”

When I put that quote up in front of the audience in my workshops, I see heads start to nod. It’s easy to feel like the world, organizational bureaucracies, and the countless distractions in our days are working in unison to disrupt our flow and prevent us from getting anything done. How common has feeling ineffective and powerless become in our lives? Just think about how great those super productive days feel — because they’re the exception to our daily rule.


Before the crowd turns into surly mass of conspiracy theorists, I ask them to consider how much of their ineffectiveness is their own doing. I’ve grown fond of saying, if life keeps biting you in the rear, make sure you don’t have bacon in your back pocket. In other words, the first look for effectiveness obstacles should always be inward.

Everyone has bureaucracy to overcome. Everyone has unavoidable and unpredictable distraction in life. Removing the bacon requires a deep look at the choices we make, the priorities we set, and the extra distraction we invite into our lives.

I began thinking of time management differently when introduced to the work of Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours,  Time is currency. Each week we have 168 hours to spend, and our effectiveness hinges on how we spend them. We can talk about what we want to accomplish — our priorities — until we’re blue in the face, but until we spend our time on them, they’re little but hollow words.

I challenged the participants to think about their desired life priorities and how their 168 hours are ideally spent in pursuit of them, then to track their days in 15 minute increments for two weeks to see how well their time spent aligns with their desired effectiveness. When we’re honest in this exercise, we see the bacon in our pockets. We’re not too busy to be effective. We’re simply not choosing the right ways to spend our 168.

Up to this point, I’m just on my stump proselytizing and philosophizing. Where are the practical ways to use your time more effectively? These are the ones that work for me.

  • Weekly planning and defensive calendaring. Take time (30-60 minutes) at the beginning of each week to decide what tasks are necessary that week to make progress on your major life goals. Then block time on your calendar to accomplish those tasks. We often think of our calendars as meetings only, but if you’re not putting it on your calendar, it’s less likely to get done.
  • Save unrelated items of interest for later. If you’re the type of person that sees in interesting email or Facebook post float by and find yourself an hour later immersed in a topic unrelated to your goals, use tools like Pocket or Facebook’s Save for Later feature and designate a separate time to go through everything you’ve saved.
  • Tame your email. If you’re always responding to email the second it arrives, not only are you constantly taking yourself out of focus, but you’re creating expectation for future response time. For 99% of the email we receive, responding within 24 hours is more than adequate. I’ve found that moving those emails I have to do something with into a task manager (like Asana) and quickly archiving the rest has greatly reduced the amount of time I spend in my inbox.
  • Take intentional breaks. If you’re like me, social media is a huge attraction — and thus distraction. I’ve found my most productive days are those where I allow myself 15-20 minutes in the morning and afternoon to focus just on social media, rather than trying to juggle it all day long. On days when I know I need to focus deeply on priorities, I’ll remove social media apps from my phone so there’s no temptation to just check.

What’s the common thread in all of this? All of these things take disciplined intention. We have to intentionally identify the bacon in our back pockets and those ways in which we waste our 168. These are the first steps toward being more personally effective.

I was certainly feeling a bit of impostor syndrome while presenting last week, because I haven’t considered 2017 the most effective of my life. Looking back, it’s precisely because I’ve been carrying too much bacon and my 168 is severely out of alignment.

Sometimes getting on the pulpit is the best kind of reminder.