Your Most Precious Resource

I recently heard someone quote a deceptively insightful short poem. Titled, “How did it get so late so soon,” it’s one of many gems penned by the late Theodor Geisel, and here it is. 

How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?

Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss, captures here the feeling that I get frequently when I think about seasons ending, new years beginning and everyone (including me) aging. 

It’s not just about nostalgia; it’s not just about how even a 100-year lifetime is but a flash in the course of history. 

It’s more than that. 

It’s about how there’s one thing that we all have in common, one thing that none of us can acquire. It’s about how there’s one thing that—according to Bruce Springsteen—“slips away, and leaves you with nothing mister, but boring stories of … glory days.”

That thing, of course, is time. It’s our most precious resource, but we all squander it daily. We waste time on failing projects. We allow ourselves to become distracted. We even trick ourselves into thinking that we’re doing valuable work when we’re really just avoiding less-desirable, yet more-critical tasks.

Even more importantly, we often fail to consider that every moment we spend doing something is a moment we aren’t spending doing something else. We hate quitting so much that we often would rather slog on in agony while not making progress toward other, more desirable goals. 

Many leaders—even ones who are fairly successful—are just as guilty as the rest of us. But as the well-known management educator and writer Peter Drucker, in his 1966 classic book The Effective Executive, wrote, 

Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and to cut back unproductive demands on their time.

I find that high-performing managers and executives often make the mistake of performing tasks themselves because they can do it fast and do it right. This is fine in and of itself, but these tasks are often ones that can and should be offloaded to others. Investing time in training and mentoring others is important and saves time in the long run, but many executives struggle with the tradeoff—it takes time to train and mentor. So they continually put off delegating and take on more and more themselves. 

This is a recipe for burnout. It’s a recipe for stagnation. 

At a higher level, it’s also a recipe for missing what’s great in life. Face it: Someday, you are going to die. So am I. Recognizing our own mortality is good; it can help us focus on what’s really important—in our jobs, in our relationships, in our lives. 

And while the skill to master one’s use of time is a lifelong quest, a few things that have helped me include:

  • Being increasingly selective and intentional about saying “yes” to new projects,
  • Recognizing when projects are failing and killing them quickly if appropriate,
  • Challenging myself to devote all of my attention to an undesirable task for set periods of time,
  • Checking e-mail less frequently instead of using e-mail as my to-do list, and
  • Analyzing whether my priorities are aligned with my longer-term goals.

Because although the Rolling Stones—and I’m a fan—told me that “Time is on my side,” it quite clearly is not. So, in our limited time on this planet, I think it’s helpful to prune our activities as best as we can to focus on what gives us meaning and purpose. It’s tough, but I’m going to give it another shot. 

In so doing, I’m reminded of what Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden; or, Life in the Woods: 

I went to the woods because I wished live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com.