How to control your time, Part 3

Time management and personal organization skills

Time management is really personal value management. You need to choose one task over another. Should you do your homework, or should you watch TV? Should you start to go through your stacks of boring receipts for your tax preparer, or should you go on-line and chat up some cyber sex toy?

In fact, it is much more complicated than just one choice. Literally, it is to do one task over every other task on the planet. If you choose to go and feed the homeless, you are choosing not to do everything else. If you choose to sleep in, you choose not to do every other conceivable choice that you could do. You need to manage your time through your personal values.

If a friend asks you to go fishing and you decline because you have to go to work, you are choosing work over fishing. You are placing more value on going to work than you are on going fishing. Your values need to be clear in your own mind. Only when your values are clear within your thoughts can you make choices that are correct for you.

Prior to planning your time, you have to decide what really matters to you. By knowing what you want, you force behaviors upon yourself. For example, are you willing to invest eleven years in higher education to be a nuclear physicist or a medical doctor? Are you willing to devote ten years to the piano to become a concert caliber pianist? In addition to the time, are you capable of being a nuclear physicist, medical doctor, or concert pianist?

Honest limitations

We have all heard it millions of times, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” The reason for this type of touchy-feely statement is to encourage individuals not to give up too easily. At the dojo I workout at, one of the Black Belts likes to spout that very saying. “You can do anything you put your mind to.” One day I privately pointed out that the saying was hollow even if he meant well. He backed his belief with all his heart.

 “I tell the kids that they can make it, that they are great and that I believe in them. They just have to believe in themselves!”

“I think I can prove you wrong.” I smiled.

“You just don’t believe in the kids like I do!”

“I believe in you, please hold your breath for ten minutes.”


Just because you want something doesn’t mean that it will happen. What you have to watch out for is quitting on yourself before you have really investigated all the options.

When I was starting junior high school many of my friends were enthusiastic about becoming astronauts. The American space program was getting lots of attention and my friends were looking towards the heavens with hopeful eyes. One particular lunch period I became the butt of jokes because I announced that I had no desire to go to work at NASA. I was afraid of heights and space seemed pretty high off the ground to me. (I still don’t want to be an astronaut, but I wouldn’t mind a Star Trek type space shuttle to buzz around in.) I bring this up because part of knowing yourself is knowing your limitations. My fear of heights has also limited my desire to be an elevator repairman, a balloonist, or a window washer. If you are five foot one in all directions, your pro basketball career looks doomed. But your love of basketball could lead you to the broadcast booth or to write for a sports magazine. More on this later.

Your personal values set the stage for your activities. If it is your belief that life is short and to be cherished, you won’t waste time well. If you believe that life is cheap and everlasting, what you do with any particular moment or afternoon doesn’t matter much to you.

Predicting time

Once I was driving with my family over the bridge into the San Francisco Bay area. When I got to the toll both area there was a commotion. My family and I were driving in the free direction. Motorists in the other direction had to stop and pay a toll. From what I could tell, a car was sideways and smashed into the protective barrier in front of the toll both. Another car was smashed into the first car. Then another car, and another. It looked like eight or ten cars were trying to share the exact same space. Many cars were now stopping. As I continued onto the bridge I could see miles and miles of cars that were soon to be stuck due to the accident ahead of them. I turned back to my sons and said, “I can predict the future of those drivers.”

“What?” One son questioned.

“You and I know more about their lives than they do. We know that in a minute or so they are going to be in a huge traffic jam.”

At that moment, off in the distance, my son pointed out a small red flashing vehicle. A little later we passed an emergency vehicle as it went towards the accident. The emergency vehicle was moving all of twenty miles an hour along the shoulder of the road. In no time the traffic jam was miles long. When we got to San Jose, two hours later, KGO radio was still talking about the terrible traffic mess caused by the drunk driver who hit the tollbooth.

This story illustrates that it is possible, in certain circumstances, to be able to predict the future. I know that, if all goes well at 7:00 o’clock this evening, I will pick up son #1 at soccer practice and at 7:15 I will pick up son #2 at the dojo. How do I know that? I know it because this plan is written in my schedule for today. It states:

3:00 PM - Work on Thought Mines: Time management

7:00 PM - Pick up Ethan @ Soccer

7:15 PM - Pick up Josh @ Jujitsu.

If all goes well, at 6:45 I will be closing down the computer and heading for the car. Soccer is 10 minutes away from my office. At 7:00 I should be picking up a sweaty, red faced teenager... and so on.

I know all this because I keep a day planner. Nothing fancy, but it is very important for my life’s organization. I have kept one since high school. I have a few simple rules for planning my days, and as long as I don’t break my own rules I tend to get lots done with a minimum of personal grief.

“Stop, wait a minute!” you might be saying, “A daily planner? Isn’t that for busy executives? I’m not a rich businessman with lots to do. I’m not the kind of person who needs a fancy day planner, PDA, or a Blackberry.”

You may not be a rich executive, but you are busy. You do have a life. You do have things to plan.

Don’t let the day planner throw you. What I want to discuss with you is a tool to help you get your needs met. It is personal. It is about you and your needs.

If you knew that at seven tonight you were going to be in a huge traffic jam, on a bridge, in earthquake country, would you try to avoid the situation? Well, in a personal way, my daily calendar focuses me on what I want to accomplish and how important, to me, each task is. I try to use my 86,400 seconds to the fullest. I work hard and I play hard. What I don’t do is worry hard. I have noticed however, that people do a lot of worrying about forgetting things.

I think of planning in the same way cows eat. When a cow chows down on some sweet clover, she chomps away and fills up one of her four stomachs. Then, later on, she goes and hangs out over there and chews her cud. What she is doing is bringing up lunch and re-chewing the really fibrous stuff again, and maybe again. This sounds nasty (and it is), but for the cow it is the best way to get all the nutrition out of her fibrous diet. In cow speak this is called rumination, the act of chewing cud.

Lots of people also ruminate. They bring up stuff all day and make sure that they keep it on their mind. Some people worry all day and all night long. So, if you have a meeting at say 4:00, you keep it on your mind throughout your entire day. You think of it at 1:15. You ruminate at 2:37 and again at 3:11. Now that takes a lot of brainpower. In fact, I contend it takes a lot of wasted brainpower.

Virgil was very upset. He was angry with himself for forgetting an appointment.


Virgil: Yesterday I was supposed to go and put in an application for a new job. I talked to the manager last week and he said he would be happy to talk to me. I politely asked him to commit to a time. I was all excited about the interview. I just simply forgot.

Dr. Phil: You forgot?

Virgil: Yeah. I was thinking about it all week. I was looking forward to the interview. At about six last night it dawned on me that I forgot.

Dr. Phil: You didn’t forget. You remembered at six. You remembered at the wrong time.

Virgil: I hadn’t thought about it like that. I guess I didn’t really forget.


Virgil was blaming his memory. But in fact, it was not his memory that was faulty. It was the tool he used to trigger his memory.


Virgil: At around three I went off with friends to hang. I wasn’t doing anything.

Dr. Phil: You were doing something. You were hanging out with your friends.


What Virgil needed was a plan. He thought he had one, but it proved not to work very well for him. So now he needs a better plan. He needs to have some way for him to trigger his own memory so that he can do a particular behavior, like go to the job interview, at a particular time.

Repetitive worry is a poor tool for keeping organized. We tend to be able to ruminate only when we are not involved with some meaningful act, like during math class, or a boring meal, or when we should be sleeping. When we are with friends, all involved with the entertainment value of the interaction, time goes by. The more involved we are the quicker time goes by. Thus, at six o’clock Virgil brought back up his cud and started chewing. Then he remembered, 4:00 Interview. You snooze you lose, the saying goes. Unfortunately, when Virgil called to try to set up another interview, the manager didn’t return his calls.


Over the years I have noticed that most people react to their life, versus controlling their life. If you do not plan your days you will be dealing with stuff as it occurs, you will need to be reactive. If you plan your day you have large portions of time during which you are in control. Not every minute, but lots of minutes. You will be proactive. You will be choosing your path. This is important to me. I hate to be told what to do. I like to tell myself what to do. Whenever possible I want to be proactive. If I had been stuck on the other side of the highway in the earlier story, I would have had little choice but to be stuck in a traffic jam. I couldn’t wish the auto accident away. But, I could have had proactive choices about how I reacted to the sudden change in my plans, a change that I had little to do with. I might have chosen to visit with my family, but after hours in the car, well, we would probably be all visited out. I might have tried to find an impromptu card game or read or checked through mail or written a letter. I know that I cannot always control my life, so I actually plan for inconvenience. When we travel, I bring reading materials, cards, a chess game, paper and pens. I take reading material that is important to me when I go to the doctor’s office so I am not stuck reading whatever I can find. I have often joked to friends, “As soon as I am stuck somewhere, I’m going to...” What I am really saying is, that at this moment I am too busy to do whatever it is right now, but I would like to. So, when some unscheduled time drops in my lap, I’m going to. Over the years I have noticed that people have lots of excuses for not planning their day. I politely call them excuses, but really I think of them as personal lies. Let’s look at some of the biggies.

I’m too busy to plan

This is the most common excuse. “Who has time to do that every day?” The answer: People who wish to get stuff done! If you won $86,400 dollars would you spend fifteen minutes planning what you were going to do with it? I surely would, in fact a lot longer. And, I would enjoy playing with the thoughts of what I could do with the money.

Well, you have 86,400 seconds tomorrow, what are you going to do with them? At this point you might be thinking, a second is very small. Who cares! You’re right, but what second are you thinking about? If you hold your breath for ten seconds, no big whoop. But, after two minutes every second is really noticeable. I suspect that each second you hold your breath you will get more respect for the “insignificant” second. If you have no plan for yourself tomorrow, you are giving yourself permission to be reactive every second of the day.

A daily plan puts you in control of your time. Your time is a valuable commodity that you cannot replace.

I hate not being free, a daily planner is controlling

A daily planner is controlling, self-controlling. You are indeed responsible for controlling yourself.

My daily planner is my behavioral map to success. As I have told you before, I am basically lazy. If I didn’t control my basic desire to butt hug my couch and watch TV, I would be the best couch potato on planet Earth. In my daily planner I plan work, play, and do nothing time. When I am following my plan I am not feeling guilty because I know that I planned my day according to my values. I plan based on what I believe is correct for me. I plan towards my own personal definition of success. I guarantee I will not pass judgment on how you define your personal success as long as you are not hurting other people and you are feeling creative. It is your life. Create with it.

My life is boring, I have nothing to plan

Everyone has a routine life. Often this can feel boring. But it is not routine or boring—it is life. If you’re bored, you are boring. Why would you want to be boring? Spice up your life.

George hated his Monday through Friday mornings. He was a high school senior and ready to go to college, but he still had months to go before he was a high school graduate. His grades were good and he was already accepted for college. He was treading water. A week after we talked he told me that he had found a book of seldom-used words. He had been carrying it with him in has backpack. When he found that he had a few wasted minutes he would flip open the book and try to learn one new word. He started asking his friends what they thought the word meant and it had led to a game. One teacher even asked him where he got the book  (garage sale, 25¢). George was playing mind candy. Something small and sweet to make something out of nothing. Earth shattering? No. But a valuable use of time for a man who wants to be a sports writer.

Planning doesn’t work for me, I already tried it once

My Uncle Joe once told me, “If you fish in the desert you won’t snag your line, but you won’t find fish either.” Uncle Joe was a strange old bird, but what I think he was teaching me is that a bad plan is just as bad as no plan.

It takes a little bit of practice to find a system that works for you. There are lots of planners sold in office supply stores that seem to be an OK starting place. But, what I found was that they did not work for me. They were designed to work well for everybody, but I am just a single body. So over the years I begged, borrowed, and stole the best of lots of planners and simplified all of these into one that works well for me. I do mean simplified. Most of the “systems” I have seen are a six week course within themselves to get me to fit into their planner. That is not my style. I like my world more simple, less flash (remember, I am basically lazy.)

Over the next few pages I will explain one simple way that lots of people have found useful. I advise that you try it for a day or two, then play with it and make it yours. It isn’t fancy, but it is functional. This little planner has made me lots of money too. I have used it for years to organize my world.

As I said earlier, my daily planner is my behavioral map to success, success in the broadest sense of the word.