A business student from New Zealand, conducting a survey of "successful" folks, asked me to reveal my time-management secrets. My first instinct was to ignore the request. I get irritated when people pull out complex, fat "organizer" kits. Time-management "consultants" annoy me even more. My reaction is doubtless defensive. I have no time-management secrets. In fact, I consider myself a c time manager.
Still, I like to respond to student requests (especially ones that flatter me). Besides, I figured I must have an implicit "time management model." To find it, I followed a common -- time management? -- ritual. I took a five-mile speed walk. I came up with five strategies:
* Focus and reject. Over the years, when something gets really serious (e.g., writing a book which is two years late to the publisher), I "switch on" the issue at hand and "switch off" almost everything else. To switch off is more important than to switch on. The key is unadulterated rudeness. Mail, save for life and death matters, is left unanswered for months. Phone calls are not returned. Social engagements are canceled.
In the end, one will be remembered for at most a couple of significant accomplishments. The majority takes life as it comes (not all bad), and never gets around to those couple of things. If you can't figure out how to push the off switch on 99 percent of the routine stuff, then you mustn't delude yourself into thinking you've pushed the on switch for your big break out toward whatever.
Such intensity of focus involves risk -- quitting a job, taking a demotion, inviting the alienation of superiors and subordinates alike. It means that "available you"/"good old Joe" ain't available for the next month, the next year, forever.
* Use your day "right." Understanding your metabolism is critical. I can work creatively from 4 a.m. to 11 a.m., and work reasonably intelligently for another three hours. After that, forget it. It took me 15 years to figure that out.
* Rest and/or frolic. Winston Churchill invariably took a long afternoon nap while he was prime minister during World War II. I like that idea, and practiced a variant while working on my next book. I'd write from about 4 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., nap until about 8:30, then go at it again. I was stunned at how refreshed I felt after an hour's pillow time. Everyone I know goes through daily doldrums. The solution, notwithstanding arched eyebrows of colleagues, is a serious break. Ten minutes of isometrics or meditation can help, but an hour off helps much more.
At a higher level, a couple of weeks (or months) of rest and frolic in the midst of a daunting task is enormously stimulating. (I try to take at least a few weeks off between drafts of a book.) Woe betide the "pluggers" who pride themselves on never taking breaks: Dullness is their just dessert.
* Pursue "mindless" interruptions. Studies by the likes of McGill University's Henry Mintzberg and Harvard's John Kotter suggest the most effective bosses thrive on unscheduled interruptions; the least effective chiefs program their days down to the minute. Despite advice to focus and ignore the extraneous, I applaud the idea and attempt to follow it. Practical translation: Allow for (plan for!) unplanned interruptions. For example, take occasional off-the-wall calls that just might provide you with a highly profitable insight from a "junior" associate in your or a customer's firm: "I thought you ought to know that your top-of-the-line product has a fatal flaw, though I'm sure your engineers must have told you."
I worry when the info-tech gurus promise I'll soon be able to get my news (papers, magazines, etc.) tailored to my "detailed informational needs." Aargh. I often find more useful information about "life" in Section D of USA Today than in The Wall Street Journal. (There, I said it.) Most "ahas," mundane or grand, come from the juxtaposition of surprising streams of information. Extrapolating from weekly TV show ratings in USA Today may well suggest more about 1994 consumer trends than the $200,000 market research study you just commissioned. A night at the opera may help more with an acute personnel problem than three hours with a senior human resources staffer.
* Be true to yourself. While I hope this brief recitation helps stretch your imagination about "time management," it's not a to-do list. Research on cognitive styles is decisive: People process information differently. Some thrive among contentious groups of colleagues. Some dote on isolation. Your "strategy" must fit you.
I can hear the naysayers: "Your success allows you to follow such strange practices, but I can't." Bull. These strange ways (if they are) have abetted any success I might have had. I practiced such oddball, sometimes anti-social, habits in 1966 as a young Navy ensign in Vietnam (my first real job). When faced with a challenge, like designing a bridge, I'd sometimes disappear for several days. In subsequent jobs, I'd evaporate for weeks, and, in one case, months. In the latter instance, I was subsequently fired. It was the biggest career booster (i.e., gave me the space to focus on what was important) I've had to date. So there.