Up until about 10 years ago, I would say that I maximized my days as well as anyone and was always comfortable juggling multiple projects and tasks. My business thrived, my books were selling well and I achieved a small modicum of success by the world’s standard, but I began to recognize that I was often missing out on the truly important things in life. My hectic pace, which mirrored the pace of so many other professionals in my circle, began to negatively impact the quality of time I was spending with clients, friends and loved ones. My crazy schedule and the countless meetings I was having each week began to blur together and I felt that I was not being truly present for the people who richly deserved my full attention, especially my wonderful wife and two sons. The pace I was keeping also had a deeply negative impact on my ability to gather my thoughts, reflect on lessons learned and ponder the future. This epiphany, which occurred in the last few days of 2012, became the basis for my commitment to slow down and begin living life in “real time”.
I have become very intentional the last several years about pursuing this concept and have shared my journey with clients, business colleagues, friends and family. In these conversations I am frequently asked to explain the meaning of living life in real time. Here is how I have come to define it:
For busy professionals, living life in real time is about slowing down and savoring the meaningful moments we all encounter each day to be more fully present for our work colleagues, friends and especially our families. If done well, it means we have embraced a refreshingly radical re-prioritization of how we spend our time and have learned to consistently say no to the unnecessary and embrace the necessary in order to create more quality time for those we encounter and also for ourselves. We have also learned to be reflective about our past and thoughtful about the future in the hard fought moments we create in our busy schedules.
As I continue to refine this idea and discuss it with other professionals, five central truths have emerged from these conversations and my observations that are important to acknowledge:
- More activity and longer to-do lists don’t necessarily make us more effective, productive or happy.
- A hectic pace and filling up our work calendars is often based on our misperceptions about the expectations of those around us and more senior leaders we desire to impress.
- There is certainly nothing wrong with hard work! But, it must be balanced with adequate attention being paid to our emotional, mental and physical health.
- We control our calendars…our calendars do not control us. We must admit that our calendars are over-scheduled because we have likely allowed it to happen. We must fight back and take control!
- Many of us are simply uncomfortable with anything less than a full schedule. Calendar holes often trigger feelings of guilt and anxiety instead of recognizing them as a gift of time for reflection, strategic thinking, physical exercise (if possible) or simply time to rest, catch our breath and re-fuel.
What are some of the recognizable fruits of a life lived in real time?
- As we slow down our pace and gain better focus, our teams and peers should see a greater time investment from us in helping with their professional and personal growth. How often do we intentionally take the time to invest in others with our current hectic schedules?
- We become more thoughtful about engaging with our colleagues and actively practice random acts of praise, kindness and gratitude or “RAPKG”, which I wrote about in a previous post.
- Clearer priorities, less stress at work, less time spent on the trivial and a commitment to what is important will translate into more time being present with our families, friends and in serving the community when we are away from the workplace.
- The quality of our work improves as we focus more time and attention on our highest priorities versus a shotgun approach where multiple areas of our lives receive marginal attention at best.
- We become more reflective and effective as we reclaim time to consider our past actions and learn valuable lessons we can apply in the future. Over my career, I realize that numerous mistakes could have been avoided if I had simply devoted more time to reflect and learn from my past experiences.
- We are more likely to enjoy our jobs and stay in them longer if we can reduce stress and find more meaningful ways to approach the workday.
- There are strong, effective, grounded and respected business leaders out there who are pretty good at living life in real time. I know several and I bet you do as well. This should demonstrate to all of us that business success can be compatible with prioritizing the meaningful things in life.
How do we make progress in attaining this “life in real time”? Here are eight best practices to consider:
- Take control of the calendar. Be more discerning about what meetings you attend. Learn to say NO when necessary rather than agreeing to every meeting request. Block out meeting-free periods on your calendar and train those around you that you are usually not available during these windows. Learn to identify and thwart time thieves who want to take over your calendar.
- Conduct a schedule audit. Review your calendar over a two-week period from the last year (and make this an intentional practice every Quarter). Make note of the meetings you attended where your presence was not really needed or the meetings you led which could have been shortened or avoided altogether. Use this information to help plan where you spend time in the coming year.
- Build “air” into the schedule. Try adding a 30-minute window to your schedule every day for two weeks. Do not fill it with busy work, but instead take some quiet time with the door closed to collect your thoughts or white board a few ideas. Maybe you can take a walk outside or have a meaningful conversation with a team member. If you survive this change (and you will), gradually increase the time the following week until you attain one hour a day. Helpful Tip: I have taken one whole day away from my office every Quarter for several years to conduct a personal mini-retreat where all I do is read, write, brainstorm, reflect on the past and think about the future. This time is critical for me to re-fuel, create and be more effective as a leader.
- Schedule everything that is important. In my life, if it is not on my calendar it is not likely to occur. So, everything goes on my calendar. This includes when I need to be home for dinner, time for writing, time for brainstorming, meetings with my network of clients and friends over coffee or lunch, my prayer life, time for the gym, etc. I even have reminders to call my wife and children to tell them I love them. Everything important gets scheduled.
- Practice radical prioritization every week. Focus on a Top 5 list of the biggest priorities and actively work to get them accomplished. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Don’t spread yourself so thin that you are giving a marginal effort to multiple tasks. Focus on being excellent at fewer things. More can sometimes be less!
- Seek help. If you have access to an Administrative Assistant, ask them to help you with your schedule priorities and best practice #3. They need to be your gatekeeper, not your stress enabler. If you do not have this kind of support (or even if you do), take it upon yourself to let key stakeholders and team members know you are working on a new approach to your calendar and that you may be a bit more discerning about what meetings you attend in the future. Ask them to be your accountability partners. Take the time to explain why and they will understand. They may even follow your example.
- Be intentional about relationship building. Regardless if you are an introvert, extrovert or high-functioning introvert like me, we all need people in our lives. Build into the weekly schedule time for work colleagues, friends or contacts outside work and look upon these coffee and lunch meetings (virtual if necessary) as an enriching source of new ideas, candid advice, opportunities to help and sometimes a few laughs. Slowing down to make time for people is an excellent way to live life in real time. Living as a recluse on the island (your office or working from home) because of a heavy workload is a lonely existence that will ultimately have a negative impact on your personal well-being and career.
- Go device-free from time to time. I am not a Luddite, but I do have a love-hate relationship with my iPhone and Mac. If we are to truly be present for others, reflect more, think more and enjoy our relationships more, we need to learn to put away the devices. Helpful Tip: Another idea is to carry a journal with you at all times and write down your thoughts when you have free moments. This has been a helpful practice for me since 2000.
Of all the resolutions I have taken on during my life, the effort to live life in real time has given me the most satisfaction. I am grateful for the appreciation of friends when I have slowed down enough to listen and be truly present for them. My family has been the recipient of the quality time I have freed up by saying no to unnecessary business travel and honoring a long-standing commitment to be present for them evenings and weekends. They also know dinner time is sacred in our house. My business has thrived by focusing on quality versus quantity. I am grateful to live my life by a different set of rules that is somewhat counter-cultural which allows me to have more balance, reduced stress, time to reflect, time to dream and quality time for the people in my life. I know for certain that I do not want to blink and miss the important moments in my life because I was too busy.
I encourage you to take stock and think about how you might live and work differently for the rest of 2022 and beyond.
How will you slow down and begin living life in real time?
*This post is adapted from the new book, Essential Wisdom for Leaders of Every Generation