Stealing Time for Yourself

by Michael Masterson

“How many of you get up before six a.m.?” I asked the 80 people who came to last year’s Wealth Building Conference. Twenty-six hands went up — many more than I had expected. “And how many are up before seven?” Another 32.

I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me that two-thirds of the group were early risers. Studies show that successful people get up early. In fact, more than one study has shown a direct relationship between how early executives rise and how far they go up the corporate ladder.

Getting up early and using that extra, undisturbed time well is the single most important thing you can do to get a leg up on everyone else who’s trying to climb the same ladder. An hour’s worth of productivity in the early morning is usually worth two hours of afternoon or evening work.

I’ve often suggested that you give yourself a jumpstart on your day by setting your alarm clock an hour earlier. But there is more that you can do. You can squeeze out at least 90 extra minutes each day by adopting the following six practices.

  1. Take Control of Your E-Mail.

On a typical day, I receive about 100 work-related e-mails, some of which have largish (10- to 40-page) documents attached. This used to take me about four hours to handle. Nowadays, I seldom spend more than 90 minutes on it.

Here’s how I do it:

  • I read and answer e-mail only twice a day.
  • I never read e-mail until I’ve accomplished at least one important thing on my task list.
  • I resist getting involved in e-mail conversations/arguments between subordinates and colleagues. In most cases, I find that issues are resolved without my input.
  • I do not write e-mails that convey criticisms, complaints, or condemnations. Instead, I handle all difficult discussions personally or, at worst, on the phone.
  • I keep my e-mails as short as possible. (Never more than a single screen page.)

2.  Take Control of Your Phone Conversations.

Like e-mail, phone conversations can be wasteful and emotionally draining. Although a necessary part of doing business, phone work should be managed with the same care as e-mail. Here are some of the ways I keep my phone work down to less than 30 minutes a day:

  • Except for emergencies, I do all my phone work once a day. I manage that by informing callers (either through voice mail or my assistant) that I return phone calls at a certain (specified) hour. And I stick with it. By bunching my calls together, I’m much better at keeping each one short.
  • Whenever possible, I head off a lengthy phone conversation by sending out a preliminary e-mail that outlines what needs to be said. Sometimes, this eliminates the need to speak in person.
  • When I begin each conversation, I announce the subject. (“I was hoping to talk to you about three things, John. The January property tax bill, the new marketing assistant, and . . .”) I also indicate the maximum length of time I want to spend on the phone. (“I have another call scheduled for 10:10, John. But I think we can say everything we need to say by then.”)

3.  Delegate Better (and More Often).

It doesn’t take a productivity expert to know that a great way to add extra time to your day is to become a better delegator. Some people have problems letting other people do the work. This was never an issue with me. Still, I’ve learned to become even better at delegating.

  • While planning each day’s activities, I ask myself, “Who could do this as well as me?” By identifying beforehand who else might do a given task, I find it much easier to give the work away when the time comes.
  • My goal is to get someone else to do every time-consuming task I am responsible for.
  • So even when I can’t find anyone as good as me to do one, I ask myself, “Who could do this job adequately?” And I give it to that person (and supervise him).
    I encourage my subordinates to delegate, too. That gives them more time to take on progressively more challenging tasks from me.

4. Reduce the Amount of Time You Spend on Personal Maintenance.

When I explain my six time-saving techniques to strangers, this one is the least popular. But I probably save 30 to 45 minutes each day by spending less time on the following:

  • The Morning Ritual
  • You don’t need to spend 15 minutes each morning under a hot shower. It wastes water and energy. Two minutes is plenty. Five minutes if you wash your hair — which you shouldn’t do more than twice a week. (Even with a good conditioner, shampoo damages your hair.) Dressing should take no more than five minutes if you’ve (1) simplified your wardrobe, and (2) planned what you will be wearing the night before.
  • Coffee and/or Smoke Breaks

A classic time waster. If you care about your health, you shouldn’t be smoking or drinking more than, say, two cups of coffee a day. Drink your coffee at your desk and cut out the cigarettes completely.

  • Personal Phone Calls

Do your socializing after work hours. If you must handle a personal phone call, keep it to the bare bones — a minute or two.

  • Personal E-Mails

Except for emergencies, there is no reason to spend time on personal correspondence during working hours.

  • Interruptions

When people walk into your office to have a chat, smile and ask them when they’d like to schedule an appointment “to talk about it” and how many minutes they think it will require. Do this a few times and the interruptions will slow to a trickle.

5. Spend Less Time Working Out.

Naturally, this will save you time only if you currently spend a lot of time working out. For many years, I didn’t work out at all — and it wreaked havoc on my body. I had no stamina, a bad back, and I got sick often. Over the past 10 years, I gradually increased my daily routine. Eventually, I was working out three hours a day, six days a week. Too much. I’ve cut that back drastically. Here’s what I do now:

  • 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. — Yoga or Pilates, focusing on loosening the tight areas (in my case, shoulders and hips) and strengthening the stomach.
  • 12:30 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. — Strength or Circuit training. Strength training employs heavier weights. Circuit training focuses on cardio.
  • 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. — Jiu Jitsu. My sport. Wrestling. A good combination of strength, cardio, flexibility, and mental acuity.

6. Learn to Say “No.”

For me, this was the most difficult task. Having spent a lifetime taking on virtually any challenge offered, it has taken me a long time to learn to say “no.” But in the process I learned a valuable lesson — because so many of the things I said “yes” to in the past turned out to be unproductive.

You can’t expect to find and keep extra time in your life if you continue to fill up the time you have doing work that accomplishes other peoples’ goals. So the next time someone asks you to do something, say, “That sounds like an interesting/great challenge/idea. Can I think about it briefly and get back to you with an answer by (deadline)?” Then ask yourself:

  • “Is this a job that advances my goals?”
  • If it isn’t: “What specific benefit could I get from accomplishing it?”
  • If none: “Who could I delegate this task to?”
  • If no one: “What is the best way to say ‘no’?”

Use Your Extra Time Doing What Matters Most

Somewhere inside you a fire is burning. It is your core desire — your deepest, truest idea about what you’d like to do . . . the person you’d like to become.

If you can vent that fire, it will give you all the energy, imagination, and boldness you need to make your life full and rich and satisfying. If you ignore that fire, it will consume everything that is potentially great and good about you. It will burn out your secret hopes, desires, and passions, one at a time, and leave you — as an older person reflecting back on your life — with a cold, charred core.

By getting up early each morning and making those early hours — as well as the rest of your day — more productive, you can make your life into exactly what it should be. What it should be, of course, is different for every person. Only by digging down deep and finding out what really motivates you — by identifying your core desire — can you find the fire that will fuel your future.