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The Ghost in Our Days

This supplements thoughts posted August 31, 2011 at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com


            We do what we want to do, even when it demonstrably robs us of something else we want. Maybe something a lot more important.

            I let a talkative co-worker gobble up 15 minutes of my morning, for example, even though it cuts severely into the time I was going to devote to making a start on researching and drafting a proposal that is important to me.

            Furthermore, since my concentration was pretty much shot by that long interruption, I drop work on the proposal entirely, for now. I still had a half-hour available before an upcoming meeting, but it’s easier to just catch up some leftover emails than to work on the draft.

            Did I do what I wanted to do? Did I really want to waste the 15 minutes – which turned into a 45-minute black hole?


            Yes, I did what I wanted to do. Maybe by default, but I made a choice.

            The value I placed on getting the proposal started turned out to be less than the present benefit I saw in the conversation and in the ease of working on the email. I might well blame the co-worker after the fact, or just bemoan later how my day went, but the fact is that I made two poor decisions. Why did I do that?

            One factor in these moment-to-moment choices is immediacy. The co-worker and the conversation were right there in front of me. The email messages are a click away, in the inbox. The potential payoff of the proposal is off in the future.

            Another factor is preference. Maybe I like talking with the person and maybe I really was excited about the subject – say, last night’s baseball game – more than I like and am excited about my important proposal. One passes some time pleasantly and the other is a little grim right now.

            A supporting factor is the specific nature of the alternative I chose. The ballgame is fresh and vivid in my mind, and that of my conversation partner. The proposal is still vague. It has a long way to go before it even takes shape, much less pays off.

            This doesn’t endorse the choice I made, but it explains it. How many moments like that occur in a typical day? How many of my minutes and hours are consumed by devotion to the low-return activities of the moment?

            More strategically, each time I do something like that, it reinforces unproductive behavior and my semi-conscious conviction that this is the way I am and nothing can be done about it. The ghost that drifts through my days is a frequent reminder that I’m not really meeting my own needs.


            The answer lies in attitude, the predisposition we have toward certain kinds of decision-making. In the examples above, it was easier to go along with the less-demanding, more-pleasant alternative. I could, instead, have made a conscious decision to focus on the desired payoff of my much more important goal.

             In a companion set of decisions, we can order our daily choices according to their relationships to broader goals. That means each day means something to us, and we set out to get something worthwhile out of it.

            The first action item is to stick a crowbar in your day and pry open time to examine, decide and plan. Then you make that examine-decide-plan cycle the action structure of your day, and you maintain it. This must become a habit, but not an unconscious one. You have to make a priority of tending, tuning and disciplining your behavior.

            You can’t be on autopilot. That is crucial, because time management is a continuous examination-decision loop, within a planning structure.

           The nuts and bolts of this worklife habit are up to the individual. Some people work well with a personal time-management device and/or one of the group software systems. Others use paper smart lists, Gantt charts and wall schedules.

            Either way, there must there be an external means of recording intentions, but it should also track actual outcomes. Intentions should be established through goal-setting, priority-management and time estimating. Outcomes must be recorded, analyzed and related to the succeeding rounds of planning.

            Projects and longer-term activities need to be broken down into work packages and given proper priorities in relation to more immediate concerns. A handy practice is to organize everything into action plans of no more than 90 minutes each, and build them into realistic, written daily schedules.


            There’s a problem with all this, though – you have to want to do it. Really want to, because discomfort precedes success when you mess with your customary behavior. And you can expect varying levels of discomfort into the indefinite future. You have to head that off.

            First of all, don’t let this be burdensome.

            You must devote adequate attention to minimizing the time spent on time management. If tending your system is too time-consuming, you won’t do it. So you squeeze it down to what is really necessary. Once you have it in hand, a half-hour once a week and two or three minutes twice a day should do the job.

            Longterm success at personal productivity also requires a strong sense of reward. Actually, the time-management process itself can produce a lot of satisfaction. You’re getting things done, you have time for your relationships and enjoyment of life.

            But also, you want to build in measurable payoffs for progress toward longterm goals in such areas as job satisfaction, finance, health, etc. You remind yourself frequently of what you're getting out of it.

            Ghosts evaporate in the light of day. An effective time-management process is a perfect ghost-buster.




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