The Time of Your Life
When I was growing up, my grandmother Nana, who was an astrophysicist, would take me out to look at the night sky and tell me stories about outer space. Greek myths. Sun spots. Shooting stars. The sense of wonder was infinite.
Looking out at you today, I feel I am looking again at a galaxy of stars, each glowing with possibility. Yet, when we see a star, we are seeing the past as the light has travelled far. When I see you, I see the future.
We live in a world framed by three dimensions of space. But it is the fourth dimension ─ time ─ that holds secrets to your future success.
So let me share some observations about time.
Time is infinite, but our time on earth is finite. Around 36,500 days, if you live to 100.
Time is an interrelated paradox of past, present and future. We live in the now, but humans are amazing beings who can imagine themselves at different moments in time.
We can live in the past, wishing we could rectify our mistakes. Or we spend time dreaming — or worrying — about the future. Both habits, ironically, come at the expense of enjoying the here and now.
What’s especially mystifying about time is that we often don’t value it until it is too late or something dramatic happens. We have a cornucopia of time … until we don’t. Did any of you notice how fast the end at Darden came, but how slow the beginning seemed to go?
I learned this lesson from an incredibly challenging moment: when my mother died suddenly of pancreas cancer at age 51. From diagnosis to death it was about two weeks. The day she died, I learned that time is the most precious thing in the world — and a riddle. A conundrum. An unknown known. We know time will end, but we don’t know when. I didn’t know what to do, but concluded I had to get a lot better at mastering it.
So how can you make the most of time? How can you shift from being mastered by time to becoming its master? Let me share with you a few lessons I have learned, most of them the hard way.
1. The first lesson is to view time as an asset.
Time is more like a balance sheet item than an income statement. To what extent are you investing your time in long-term value creation and things that matter?
One of the great freedoms we have is to decide how to spend our time. Make investments of time explicit to yourself. Recognize that investments of time pay off over time, compound in value and in unforeseen ways. The opportunity “cost” of time, and the translation of your time into value, changes over time. Value is not only measured in dollars. For example, what is the value of spending time coaching your child’s sports team?
In French, there is a beautiful expression, “donner le temps au temps” — give time to time. In other words, some good things, like relationships and wine, have a natural rhythm and need time. And sometimes you need to invest time to get time.
Part of seeing time as an asset is to realize that different goals have different timeframes and payoffs.
Personal goals might include family, passions or using key values and character traits. Professional goals might include money, skills, experiences or milestones. All have their own timeframes, currencies, alphas and betas — like different asset classes.
Long-term goals might include financial independence by a certain age, building a company that makes the world a better place, raising a wonderful family, and/or helping talented people achieve their potential. Short-term goals can be revised daily to reflect changing circumstances, such as completing a deliverable or getting in a workout.
Periodically reassess your goals and how you allocate time to them as you discover what really matters to you and life circumstances change.
Because time is an asset, you need to build a diversified portfolio. As you reach for the stars and “want it all” on every axis of life, consider that not all items that take time have the same value, and not all items that are valuable take a lot of time.
For example, in client development, it takes roughly the same amount of time to negotiate a small project as it does to negotiate a big one. In your personal life, spending an hour with a loved one at a key moment may be invaluable.
Create option value by experimenting with time or allocating small amounts to something you know is valuable to you.
Balance your portfolio with some big and little things you are shooting for. Get the big things right: your career, family and health. Every portfolio will have some failures, but all good portfolios will be diversified and have some grand slams.
2. Lesson two is to use the power of the calendar.
What gets scheduled gets done. To achieve your goals, get your defaults broadly right and use the power of the calendar.
Aristotle famously taught, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is therefore a habit.”
Let me ask you, “Are the things you do repeatedly those at which you want to excel?”
What default activities do you schedule daily, monthly, annually?
I have found several defaults to be critical for maintaining the productivity of your total time over time. No one else will schedule them if you don’t. They include:
- Vacation and time for recharging
- Structured unstructured time for thinking and creativity
- Time to be present (and I mean really present) for important family or personal milestones
- Sleeping, eating and exercise, and
- Major professional obligations or travel
You should be great at these, as they will drive your professional productivity and happiness.
Of course, there is no substitute or shortcut for hard work, and there may be crunch times when you must focus on one thing. There may be crises. You have to be flexible. But the defaults create guardrails and provide longer-term sustainability. Work expands to fill all the time you give it. Counterintuitively, you may need to invest time outside of work to get more work done. Examine your habits carefully.
Using the power of the calendar means leveraging your time. One way to expand time is to increase the output per unit of time input. I have found there are a few ways to do this.
- First, spend time to build a great team that has complementary skills and can provide leverage to execute on the vision. Remember to recruit other people to help you ─ at home or at work ─ so that you can focus on things only you can do.
- Second, build skills that amplify your time, such as technology tools, critical path management and parallel processing.
- Third, manage your energy so that you have maximum output per unit of time spent. As James Loehr writes in The Power of Full Engagement, there are many forms of energy: spiritual, emotional, mental and physical. You cannot expend more energy than you have, and energy is needed to get things done on time. What are you doing to give yourself more energy? Be aware of certain bad habits or time drains and eliminate or curtail the unnecessary. How much time do you need to spend doom scrolling on social media?
- For example, I have learned the hard way that little sleep and lots of wine does not lead to total performance improvement.
Leveraging the calendar also means being on time. Showing up is half of success. When I graduated from college, I asked my grandfather what advice he had for me to be successful in business. He said, “The most important thing is being on time to work.” This was not what I wanted to hear as I was always the last one on the bus. To my horror, I overslept by more than two hours on my first day of work at AMD.
The broader point is that showing up and being fully present when you do, is critical. When I was a partner at McKinsey, I developed clients far away from Belgium in places like the UAE and Qatar and part of the reason was that I consistently showed up.
3. The third and final lesson is that your time is yours, so make the most it.
Let’s think about the where, when and who of time. You do have choice.
Where. Where do you live and spend your time? Where you live and work are key drivers of well-being as they affect a large percentage of waking life.
When. When will you do things? Should you take a timeout or are you outta time? They say timing is everything. Dan Pink has written a great book on it, called “When.” Decide when to do things like exercise, think, decide or sleep. I have learned that I write exponentially faster in the morning after a great sleep than if I try to grind it out as a night owl.
Who. With whom do you do things? Why? Invest time in relationships you value. One of my best decisions was to marry my wife, Claire, with whom I have spent 35 years. Spend your time with good people.
Make the most of the moment. We learn in financial theory about the time value of money. We can discount the cash flows to the net present value with a discount rate. The further out the cash flow, the less valuable it is. We often act as if the reverse is true with time. We often assume the future is more valuable than the present, so we discount the present for the future.
The result is that that we don’t make the most of the moment. Rafa Nadal, professional tennis player and one of the best and fiercest competitors on the court, is said to have commented, “Play each point as if it is the most important thing in the world. Except remember that it isn’t.” Thus, optimizing time is a mindset, strongly influenced by who, when and where you invest it.
We live in the now. Can you see the beauty of this moment? Let time stand still. The future and the past are overrated.
In sum, view time as an asset. Use the power of the calendar. And make the most of your time.
My hope for you is that you will have the time of your life, in the time of your life. That your portfolio of your time will make you very rich — as measured by a great life. Your time is now, Darden graduates. Get out there and change the world in the ways you are meant to. There is no time to waste.