The Self-Help Books Lied to You
Over the years I have worked around a lot of people who try hard to convince everyone they have life figured out. They have read a lot of books on productivity and usually preach some “expert” method to make the most out of the time we have on this planet.
I used to spend a not so insignificant amount of time trying to determine the way these folks understood how to balance everything in their life. They were never shy to tell others what to do to manage their time better, and yet they struggled as much or more than I did to accomplish their own goals.
After a few years I decided to quit listening to all these self-styled experts, because I came to an inconvenient truth: there is no such thing as a balanced life. There are many choices, and the most important is deciding where and how to allocate our time.
The real key isn’t managing our time to accomplish everything, it’s learning how to spend time on what matters.
Assess and Assign Your Current Life Priorities
I see my life priorities as a triage in the emergency room. It’s a constant evaluation of what is important and what needs the most attention to be successful. There are processes running in the background that never stop, but the important things get addressed as they come up, even moved to the front of the line, and things that are stable can be moved further back in the queue. These decisions are more of a pendulum than they are a scale, which is why a balanced life seems so elusive.
Priorities shift; that is a hard fact. In recent years, I have prioritized my health (note I didn’t say fitness), time with my family (note I didn’t say my wife), my startup projects, and helping others. Things that have suffered? A personal relationship with my wife (sorry baby, I know you’re the most acquainted with this pendulum), my Army career, my fitness, and my sanity (if I ever had any, just ask those who know me best).
These priorities are not my choices from five years ago, and even those were different than the priorities two years ago.
Initially, I felt like a hypocrite writing the next thousand words on my laptop as I counsel others how to make good choices in their lives by getting away from the blue screens, planning efficiently, consuming less disposable media, connecting personally instead of digitally, and prioritizing what is really important in your life. I don’t always make the right choices, but I do a lot of azimuth checks to try and stay on course.
I have a classic Adult ADD approach to my life which has proven to be a real blessing in stressful situations like combat, entrepreneurial ventures and marriage. It has also proven to be a challenge in organizing my life to focus on the work that I might not want to do, but HAVE to do. I therefore assuage my conscience by assuring you, dear reader, that I have been one of the WORST offenders in leaning hard on the pendulum and being surprised when it swings back the other direction, and my recommendations come from a position of experience, not from an ivory tower.
Now, you need a plan...
0500 wakeups are about the only reason I get anything done in my life. Coffee, a shit, and a shower before 0600. Browse the news and Facebook while I fix kids’ lunches and try to be useful around the house until 0645. Hit the gym by 0655, and start my work day with a strong play from “Murphy” (whose law dictates that anything that CAN go wrong WILL go wrong).
As I have gotten older and realized the importance of sleep, I find myself resenting my partner’s 9 PM bedtime less and less. This 8 hour block of rest is something I have forced in my life, and I have had to schedule it in conscientiously, because it’s really easy to let small acts of neglect creep into huge blocks of choosing low importance things. Staying up late routinely turns into finding the end of the internet and binge watching Black Sails or some other form of mind numbing media content. This isn’t a wise use of time and it has a real quantifiable negative effect on health.
I used to force myself to get into the gym on long days, no matter how late, but I realized I was sacrificing my own health for the sake of my fitness. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but good quality rest is the most important part of being healthy and reaping the benefits of a fitness regimen.
Maintaining Priorities for Mission Success
There are many elements in play here, but one key piece is scheduling. As a Green Beret, we utilized “backwards planning” on almost everything. If It is 0600 and I want to be at a location by 2100, I have to start a timeline at that place and start choosing how I will prioritize my use of the fifteen hours I have available to me.
Allow me to use an example that is familiar to many of us, “It is 0600 and I want to go to the range at 1300”. Here is a rough backwards planned timeline:
1230: Movement to range
1130: Pre-Range equipment check and inspections
1100: Assemble guns and ammo
1030: Determine training for the day and points of performance
0900: Knock out a bunch of email responses and phone calls
0830: Clean house/wash dishes/do laundry
0655: SOFLETE Workout
0645: Get kids on the bus
0600: SSS/Kids’ lunches/etc.
Some of these times may flex left or right, but it is a clear guideline for me to structure my day and understand what needs to happen for me to accomplish my goal.
I have found that a good digital calendar app or day planner helps me stay focused and allows me a lot more free time to focus on the things that matter. When I ignore the schedule I start get sucked into the black hole of media and procrastination. A good paper planner also helps keep your 25m targets in an easily viewable “snapshot” in front of you. Google calendars, Basecamp, Trello, and other digital solutions are great for reminding you, but they still force you back to a digital fixation. I’m a big fan of productivity enhancing, but for me the enhancement is just an excuse to waste more time. I personally rely on hand written lists and calendars to keep me focused and aid my memory.
When your best laid life plan doesn’t survive first contact… stay the course
You need to decide what is important to you, and you need to do so with some really honest self assessment.
I usually start this process of self assessment when I have been reminded how badly I suck at a particular thing. The process should start with asking what the glaring holes in your skill set are and adjusting. If you are the perfect person and amazing at everything you do, but are only getting one hour of sleep a night, it might be time to start ramping back “awesome” and start focusing on not having an ultra short tracer burnout. If you’re really strong, but you hate running… see what I am getting at?
Some of us benefit from having others tell us what to work on. If that is you, it might be time to work on self analysis, or find someone who is where you want to be and ask for advice.
In the world of Special Operations (and most relationships) there is no recurring prize for the triumphs of yesterday. The most commonly asked question is “What have you done for me lately?”. When you are making decisions about what is a priority time commitment it’s not always a zero sum game. Some relationships and projects just need more attention, so don’t be alarmed when you see varying returns on your efforts, but always make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.
Life is Your own “choose your own adventure” novel
The biggest goal of all this is helping yourself achieve the end state you desire.
I don’t want to sit on my couch looking at pictures of the world on Instagram and thinking how cool it would be if I could afford it. I don’t want to slave away at a cubicle for thirty years, waiting for my chance to retire and FINALLY live the life I dream about in a body that can’t fulfill those lofty desires. Some can find fulfillment in a cubicle, and some can find joy in appreciating others’ experiences. However, if you’ve read this far, I am willing to bet that you want to wring every last molecule of energy out of life.
Don’t listen to some other lost voyager who tells you how to make your journey. Don’t fret over another person’s process. Pick what is important to you, make those your priority, develop a plan, and pursue that plan.
Happiness isn’t about balance, it’s about making quality choices.