General McChrystal: Managing Time

General McChrystal: Managing Time

To be honest, I don’t think I’d make it in Brazil. Famous culturally for having a relaxed approach to time, the average Brazilian plays by a different set of norms in relation to time both in their private and work lives. Parties start much later than advertised and nobody seems to hawk the clock for meetings. Being unfamiliar with this norm is said to cause much embarrassment and frustration for the uninitiated. For me, the thought of living in a place where there are unwritten standards for something as simple as punctuality is too much of a gray area for me to thrive in. Now if I knew to just show up an hour after a party invitation or 15 minutes after the start of a meeting, I’d be OK. But personally, I prefer structure and getting the most out of my day with clear time expectations.

Here in the United States, we expect meetings to begin and end on time. We have various calendar apps and processes to minimize agenda creep so this remains the case as much as possible. This has become even more critical as all of us seem to lead busier and busier lives with competing priorities. The desire to divvy up precious time between work, side interests, and family has a lot of us feeling overly committed. There is simply no way to handle our lives without taking a structured approach. I am on a journey to find out what the optimal approach should be.

An interesting article appeared a week ago from CNBC that laid out how retired general Stanley McChrystal plans and documents every single moment of his day. From the time he gets up to the time he goes to bed he knows exactly what he is doing. He talks about how he used the technique to find value in his time and to delegate tasks that did not use it properly. He also speaks about matching how he spends his time with active pursuit of his goals. You see how having these skills would have been paramount to managing an enormous organization like the US military during wartime operations. His approach somewhat reminded me of B.D. Wong’s character White Rose in the Mr. Robot series from AMC, who wears a watch that beeps after every minute passes. From the outside it seems overly obsessive, but I decided nonetheless to try it for a week in my personal life to see what happened. This means I would block off time for everything. Everything from the time I spent reading my online newspapers every morning. When I would take a shower. When I ate dinner. When I cleaned the house. I’d like to share what I learned so far.

It forces you to manage your priorities better

When you start blocking off time for every waking hour of the day, you quickly see what low priority tasks you’re committing to that probably should come later after more pressing issues arise. This also forces you to be flexible in how you set your priorities too, so if something comes up you can handle it. The best practice is to simply reschedule what you had planned to do forward on a different block of time. When you realize your time is a finite resource, you use it much better.

It makes you more aware and honest with how you spend your time

One thing I found is everything I did took 15 minutes longer than what I had planned. This is why reminder/task apps are ineffective. If you’re not aware of how much time it actually takes to do something, when you set out to accomplish five things but only get three done you’ll find that you’re always behind and frustrated in your lack of progress. Also, because you’re accounting for everything you do during the day, it also forces you to stay focused on the task so you can complete it. This reduced the social media checking I resort to as distractions from the work at hand, which actually forced me to delete the Facebook app from my phone so I wouldn’t be tempted anymore.

You carve out time you did not know you had

One of the greatest discoveries was finding a 30 minute window where I could work with my son on his dribbling and defensive basketball skills in the basement. Normally, I may have used that time to plop on the couch, but instead we worked together and had a good bonding moment. I was also able to schedule time to watch a few Netflix episodes. Since I had free lunch periods at work, I decided to download a few episodes to my iPhone and watch them then. This may seem like low priorities, but they mean a lot to me and my enjoyment of life.

Using your time more effectively uses up your energy

When you reduce the amount of time you spend lounging about, you naturally get a little more tired throughout the day. I found it necessary to expand dinner time a little longer so I could recharge mentally before the rush of the evening and getting children bathed and into bed. This gave some additional value to our family dinner time where we now sit at the table a little longer than usual and enjoy each other’s company.

It would be impossible without technology

Trying this experiment without a calendaring app would be nearly impossible. Using a paper notepad would take up too much time. Luckily electronic calendaring makes it easy to add events, especially using a personal assistant, and move them around when necessary. I used iCal on my iPhone and had reminders pop up on my iWatch. There maybe better products to use but this is what I had readily available when I kicked off the experiment. If I find something better I’ll update this post to reflect this change.