Don’t Squander your Second Most Precious Resource

SPS7 video link below. This is SPS7 as presented by Bob Sakalas during a company meeting. Watch in “full-screen” mode:

The key content, with expanded links, is below.

Most people think they have more time than they actually have. How well we invest our time, every week, every day, matters. Too many spend and waste their time, instead of investing it. Months and years run by quickly. In truth, not many 60 year olds are conquering new mountains. Forty year olds rarely found new startups because the pressures of raising a family changes perspectives, priorities and risk tolerance.

Use time well to have few regrets.

My time investment best practices have been evolving for more than 30 years. There have been major releases and minor ones, on the road to this compendium, which is my seventh major version.

I no longer create productivity software as I did a decade ago, and this page is not selling anything beyond ideas — this site simply offers my best practices for you to consider, as you design your own “system” with whatever technology you choose.

It’s important to understand my frame of reference. I believe that we should always strive to work smarter, rather than harder. If you are obsessed with juggling great volumes of tasks, SPS7 might not be a good fit for you.

Why me?

My passion for investing time wisely transformed into founding my own smartphone software company. Over seven years, we created the most capable and flexible task management system ever put on a mobile device, winning numerous accolades. We doubled sales quarter over quarter over quarter for a really nice run over five+ years, we came so very close to becoming a great, sustainable enterprise, but ultimately were derailed when Apple nuked BlackBerry, as the iPhone took over the world ten years ago.

If Malcolm Gladwell was right, my 20,000+ hours experience helped me master most of the concepts and best practices in goal setting and task management. While we had our opinionated best practices, we also supported every major time management guru’s system as well. After those seven 24/7/365 years, I’m now certain that there is always more to learn, but I hope that I can help you on the journey.

Here is Malcolm on CNN a decade ago explaining the 10,000 rule, if you are interested.

Health is our most precious resource because, without good health, you never get out of the starting gate. Right after health, there is no doubt that time is our scarcest and second most precious resource because it flows away, day after day, never to return. You can often get more money but not time or health. Don’t take short-cuts with your health, diet, and fitness as you look to leverage your time well.

Direction is the most important aspect to arriving at any destination. Is your life headed precisely where you want to go? People simply wander for years and then wonder why they end up in the wrong neighborhood.

Unfortunately, the road is not straight and you have to make many right choices. The more choices that you have, the harder it gets. Most of us have way too many options, but those who intentionally recruit and develop wise mentors tend to make better decisions than those who ‘lone ranger’ their path without guidance and coaching.

It is mission critical to find and create more “zen prime time” in your life: you think and see clearly when the world is not clamoring in your ear. Too many people get addicted to the hustle and bustle, and throw away years of their life on tasks and projects that don’t make a lasting positive impact for them.

If you don’t plan your day, and doggedly stick to your priorities, other people’s priorities will take over your time. Planning ahead makes a huge difference. As messaging and smartphones have become ever-present, the urgency conspiracy has taken over people’s time: 99% of requests are not really urgent but many people treat every ‘text message’ like they must receive a response instantly. Check out my blog post on the urgency conspiracy.

Clarity of your personal purpose — a clear vision and definition of what success is for you — is priceless. Once you have clarity, your planning becomes exponentially easier. (PS. If you have never seen the comedy ‘City Slickers’ – its well worth the stream on a rainy day – here’s the famous clip). I suggest revisiting your vision statement at least annually and having the flexibility to re-evaluate and re-calibrate. Perspectives change over time.

Dolly is not the first of philosophers who come to mind, but her quote above is spot on: don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.

Covey’s analogy about making sure that the ladder you are climbing is leaning against the right wall, really resonates with me. Recalibration is important, as is staying optimistic while embracing prudent risks for nothing ventured, nothing gained is one of the most important truths ever said.

These ideas lead us to the ‘million dollar question’ in the game of life: What represents true north success for you?

Defining it, distilling it, writing down your personal true north is one of the most important things that someone can do. If you are struggling with this topic, I suggest reading the classic “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey. He offers great food for thought that might just help you figure it out.

The challenge is that we all have many roles in our lives. We can and should have a vision for each role, but these individual visions must intersect and work together too. The more roles that you have, the more difficult it is to balance priorities across them. One person may have one role that dominates, but most of us move our focus and time from one to another, as needed, balancing our efforts to keep our lives making progress on all fronts.

I believe many people put too much time and effort into their career, at the expense of other roles. The statement in the image above is the absolute truth: no one on their death bed wishes that he or she had spent more time at work. It makes great sense to worker smarter, not longer and harder, to get more out of life.

In one of the most expansive studies 75+ year study of happiness and what kept individuals happy, those who had expansive social networks of family and friends are the ones who lived longer, happier, and had the fewest regrets. It seems that prioritizing friendships and family over the pursuit of money is a great idea, instead of giving away money at the end to get some building named in your honor. I’ve written a lot about happiness — check out these two articles if interested in more: 1) The Real Answer and 2) Escaping Average (with Shawn Achor’s excellent video).

Do you believe you can perfectly balance the roles? I think it’s highly unlikely and perhaps impossible.

Balance should be thought of as a verb, not a noun. Balancing is a continuous activity, where we often apply extra energy in one area or another to make things work out well.

A great place to start is to write down your top 3 goals by role, with an eye toward one shorter-term, one mid-term, and one long-term. I suggest if you have two or more kids to break “Parent” into the individual roles, because your goals will be different for each child, especially as they mature. My slide image above is just a starting point. Don’t forget your roles with brothers, sisters, as a grandparent, or mentor.

One of the most important ideas to keep in mind is that the Pareto Principle of unequal distribution invariably holds true: approximately 20% of what you do will deliver 80% of the positive progress and impact in your life. Sometimes the formula varies to 90/10 or 75/25, but the core principle has been proven over and over again.

The next principle to understand is that a small domino can start an amazing chain reaction. Most people imagine dominos only knocking over other dominos of the same size, but they can, in fact, knock over progressively larger ones. If you knock over the right small domino, the momentum grows larger, exponentially. Check out this little video. Picking the right thing to do makes a big impact on the end result.

Another truth, proven in various studies, is that we are all very cyclical on a daily basis. If you want to accomplish great things, you have to leverage your best “prime time” slots for the items that matter most.

Don’t multi-task! Multi-tasking has become a national obsession as we sit through countless video calls but all multi-tasking does is add to your stress, wastes time during task switching, and often produces mediocre deliverables. The growth of this idea comes from the beginning of the computer age, but the human brain is not the same as computers — we can’t task switch efficiently every few milliseconds.

Of course we can focus on the tasks with the biggest upside. Too often, the big task looks difficult and we defer for months. Ann Landers (newspaper advice guru from years past) had a great quote that I love: Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognize them. I believe many people actually do see the big rock tasks and opportunities, but simply decide not to tackle them right now. The longer you defer, the less likely that you ever get started.

Is it enough to just have a clear goal? Not hardly, especially when multiple people, each with individual agendas, are involved.

Goals must be distilled into excellent plans. Plans must have measurable milestones. If you want to make great progress, each milestone must become a clear chain of domino tasks that are easy to execute and build momentum. These plans must take into consideration everyone’s goals on the team.

If you are “all-in” on a goal, build a decent plan — on paper — using just 12 questions.

Clarity is crucial. Describe the goal so clearly, in one sentence, so that someone who has never met you would understand it perfectly. Next, nothing matters more than the “why” — if the “why” is strong and compelling, your odds improve dramatically.

In questions 5 – 7, break the goal down to achievable, logical milestone steps.

Consider who’s help you may need or want, and skills that you may need to develop. Make sure that this goal is in alignment with your overall purpose.

Once you have most of the plan on paper, decide if the timeline is reasonable. Great accomplishments happen when you make solid progress in reasonable time. Herculean, mission-impossible challenges that require pulling all-nighters frequently are not a recipe for success. If it all looks good, plan out the first five well-defined “next action” tasks to get started.

Every serious goal deserves a plan in writing, or it is just wishful day-dreaming. You are welcome to download my 12 questions template. It might not be the only plan you need, but I believe it offers a great start.

It is wise to design room in your schedule for inclement weather. Every day tends to have unexpected, time-consuming challenges. Odds are four hours of true north prime time is usually the max you can allocate. If you expect interruptions, plan room for them, they won’t derail you from your longer-term mission.

We are now at a pivot: up to this moment, we have been talking about strategic priorities, the direction and targets that you pick for your life.

This brings me to the tactics of creating your own world-class time investment system. From my experience, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. There is no time to waste, as time is just like a river — the water keeps flowing downhill, whether you take advantage of it, or just watch it flow away.

So far, we have discussed the dark circles which are the strategic effectiveness ones in life’s continuum. As we look at the tactical ones in red, and the interruptions in purple, no tool is more effective than the simple Eisenhower Matrix.

Your system and your habits will determine your pace of success. Categorize each task as much as you can using the Matrix, classifying each task in terms of important/not important, urgent/not urgent, to ensure you are only — or mostly — accepting and committing to tasks that fall into Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2.

A core truth is that the items in Quadrant Two “Important but not Urgent” are the ones that most often propel you to greater heights. But, if you don’t work on these strategic big rock items first, life’s little urgencies will fill up the jar of available time, and the not-urgent-but-important strategic big rocks will never get done. Check out this short video for a demonstration of the idea, if you are unfamiliar with the big rocks and little rocks analogy.

An important idea is that a person who makes sincere progress on just one strategic big rock (I call it an SBR) each week, will build awesome momentum over time. To illustrate using American football terms, five years x 52 big rocks adds up to more than 250 important “first downs” and a lot of “touchdown” successes, with some important games won along the way.

Habits of excellence are built one day and week at a time. The people who block their time on a calendar to make the best use of their prime time, and build a habit over weeks and months, succeed. A visible ‘habit build’ calendar, where you mark successful days, helps a lot.

There are a lot of gurus and methods in time management and personal productivity. I have taken some of the best ideas and built a blended model of best practices.

If you follow world-class processes, your talents will be best applied to your own true north priorities. To understand what world-class looks like, I’ve grouped the practices into five levels below:

Many people simply jot down incomplete lists. While writing down anything is better to keeping it only in your own head, this is just Task Management 101. It leads to a lot of unnecessary stress because pouring over lists that are items that you don’t want to work on now only distracts and frustrates you.

At the 201 sophomore level, people realize the wisdom of writing down every task that they decide to accept. This is a major process step to reducing the stress of having to remember the little details. It is crucial to keep tasks grouped my project. Setting alerts that never fail to remind at the right time helps a lot. Smartphones have made it simple to always have your system with you 24/7.

When you begin distilling and planning the ready-to-work-on ”next action” as you finish the current one, you are really hitting stride. Planning ahead, especially a week ahead, ensures that your best time serves your goals, not other people’s urgencies. At the 301 level, you want to have the ability to look at your tasks by various dimensions such as project, day, or priority.

Best practices 401 means that you only look at the items that you can do, given the context of where you are. Blocking a lot of time for your plans is crucial and learning (and adjusting) when things don’t go according to plan helps you become smarter and more zen over time.

The ultimate best practice combines everything from the previous level but aligns your daily and weekly efforts with your true north goals. In chaotic environments, this is not an easy thing to do, but it is important. How well you can disconnect from distractions, how often you can say “no” to distractions, while staying in good graces, is the puzzle to solve.

Lastly, I’d like to stress the importance of creating excellent habits. We are – in the end – products of habit, not bursts of will power. Aristotle was right: Habits forge excellence.

I believe you must build the accomplish a Strategic Big Rock each and every week habit. A task is only strategic if it still matters 90 days later. Identify the one SBR that will define whether the week was successful or not. Then add two bonus rocks, just in case there is enough time to get to them.

Set expectations lower than you believe you will deliver. This builds trust with your team, and with yourself. Read this blog post for more.

Constantly focus on the tasks that are most likely to make a bigger impact. This is a persistent riddle of modern human life. Sometimes you will pick the wrong ones, but don’t stop pursuing the power of the Pareto Principle.

Get started using a burst of will power. There is never a perfect moment to start. We are rarely motivated if a project looks daunting. Just start, and you will find motivation comes with momentum.

Remember that the only thing that counts is finishing. Few half-finished sculptures are on display in art museums. I suggest starting less projects, but finishing what you start. If your timeline doesn’t work out, simply say to yourself “not yet” and keep heading for the finish line.

Tackle your most important stuff as soon as you can in the day. Distractions pile up as the day goes on, just like delayed flights at O’Hare International. The best prime time is before lunch for 99 out of 100 people.

Forge new good habits. Habits matter more than almost anything else. Habits are the difference between success and failure. There are many best sellers about habits — I suggest reading the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg or Atomic Habits by James Clear to find a formula that works. Here is an explainer about the Power of Habit or check out this video of James Clear on stage.

It is not just you! Everyone struggles with procrastination and distractions. Check out the Pomodoro Method paper by Francesco Cirillo. This little idea — if you make it a habit — will absolutely help. Additionally, a great take on procrastination and use of time is offered by Tim Urban at TED.

I personally now use Google Sheets for strategic goals and top SBR priorities, while everything else goes into the Things app for iOS devices and the Mac. Things could do it all, actually, but I like the long-term record keeping of Sheets, and the separation of strategic from tactical tasks. Task managers usually hide accomplishments after you check them as complete. You can download / copy a sample here from Sheets.

Here are a few key takeaways. The goal of well aligned time investment is to figure out your one thing, and spend your prime time (2 – 4 “calendar blocked” hours per day (figure B above)) on that one thing that will make the biggest positive impact on your life and matter well into the future.

Lastly, don’t put fitness and health off. Productivity won’t matter if you don’t stay fit.

Best of luck!

Bob Sakalas in 2022

PS. Got comments? Click on this Contact link and send me a note. I respond, but often not quickly, because I’m off working on my one thing that matters most 🙂