Jerry sat across from me, frustrated and discouraged. He’d been doing everything right, he said, and was still spinning his wheels.
He had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish. He knew what steps he wanted to do next. But every time he got started on one of them, something got in is way.
“I think I’m just going to have to face the fact that it’s not going to happen right now. Maybe another day, when I have more time.”
By the look on his face, I could see that Jerry didn’t really want to give up his dream.
“Maybe not,” I said. “Tell me, exactly, what kind of things are getting in your way?” I asked him. “Where is your time going?”
I listened as Jerry told me about all the things that were interrupting and distracting him and pushing him off course.
“I see,” I said. “I think I know what you need. Would you like me to tell you?”
“Sure!” he said, reaching for the shred of hope I was offering. “Anything!”
“I think you need a Won’t List.”
Time’s Not the Enemy
Here’s a hard truth: It’s never time that’s lacking. The top achievers in the world have no more hours in their days than you do.
The real problem lies in not having clarity about the choices you’re making.
Sometimes your vision of what you want to accomplish isn’t clearly defined. Sometimes you haven’t framed the vision well. You might be saying, for example, what you don’t want any more instead of aiming for what you do want. You may not be clear about what steps you can take next to move closer to the outcome you want.
But none of these were Jerry’s problem. He knew exactly what he wanted to achieve and what he could to start making it happen.
What he lacked was clarity about how he would—and wouldn’t—spend his time. Making firm decisions about what you won’t spend time on, I explained, is what a Won’t List is for. It’s an idea that executive consultant Peter Bregman shares with his Fortune 500 clients.
A Won’t List It frees you from having to make the same decision over and over every time a potential distraction crosses your path. And that in itself reduces your stress, giving you more energy to spend on the things that mater and reminding you of your focus at the same time.
Setting Time Boundaries
That’s why I told Jerry that he needed a Won’t List. He needed to get clear about what he wouldn’t give his time to any more so he’d have more time for the things that count.
Our lives are made up of the minutes and hours of our days. Either we’re deciding how to live them, or someone else is. If you want to live a self-directed life, you need to be clear about how you want to spend those minutes and hours.
You need to identify the things that aren’t supportive of the things that matter to you and to decide not to give them you time.
When Jerry and I took a close look together at where his time was going, we identified several places where he could recapture some hours.
The Techno Time Trap
Like most of us these days, Jerry found that a lot of the time-eaters in his life were technology-based. Email was a big distraction, and phone calls and texting. Sometimes, when he was stuck on a report, he’d take a break by checking out what was happening on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Then he’d get sucked into following links to articles and get lost surfing.
Somewhat sheepishly, he admitted he was spending a couple hours a day in front of the TV, too. And sometimes computer games trapped him.
Once he recognized the problem, he came up with strategies for dealing with them.
He could limit the time he was spending on email, for one thing. He could unsubscribe to the lists that weren’t directly related to his goals. He could set aside a specific, limited time at the beginning and end of the day for reading and responding to the necessary mail and phone calls and refuse to give them his attention until then.
As for the social networking, TV and games, they were the first items he put on his new Won’t List. Yes, he enjoyed them. But when he compared what they were adding to the quality of his life compared to the quality of life he would enjoy if he spent his time doing the things that really mattered to him, they quickly took second place.
We talked some about ways that he could remind himself where he wanted to put his attention so that he could be directing his life according to what he really valued.
He would set a timer, he decided, and take a break every hour to remember his goals. That way, he could stay focused on the things that really mattered to him.
The People Connection
“Okay, I can get those things under control, but how do I deal with people?”
Jerry said that his day was frequently interrupted by people who needed things from him—information maybe, or help with something. And his time was getting eaten up, too, because he was accepting invitations for social events he didn’t know how to decline, and participating in a couple clubs where he’d been a member for a long time.
As he talked, Jerry saw for himself that he could simply close his door for a few hours each day. He could tell people he’d be available only during certain hours of the day.
I shared with him Bregman’s ingenious “three questions” standard for knowing when to agree to someone’s request for help:
- Am I the right person?
- Is this the right time?
- Do I have the information?
If you can’t answer yes to all three questions, redirect the person or set another time.
Knowing Your Priorities
Jerry saw, too, that saying yes to the clubs and invitations was saying no to what he really wanted to be doing. But how could he say no to them without jeopardizing relationships he cared about?
We talked about how good relationships are built on authenticity. Honestly telling people that you have other commitments in your life right now is something they can accept, respect and understand.
I told him I’d read an article from the Mayo Clinic that said that not only was saying no healthy because it kept you from the stress of overwhelming yourself, but it wasn’t selfish either, because it opened the way for other people to step up to fill your place. Saying no, it said, was a way to honor your priorities and devote quality time to them. And that’s something people come to respect and appreciate in others.
Just be brief, honest and respectful, the article advised. And, it wisely said, be prepared to repeat your no when needed so people know that you really mean it.
Jerry and I had finished our meal by then. “Would you care for a piece of our chocolate silk pie?” the waitress as she cleared our plates from the table.
Jerry grinned and said, “No, thanks. I have another commitment.”
“That was easy!” he said.
I smiled at him. “And charmingly said,” I replied. Jerry, and his dream, were going to be fine.