In early 1991, I transferred to Shell Trading’s Houston office as the northeast gasoline trader. I noticed that many of the energy traders were carrying a small daily planner. Each page contained the same daily layout: a to-do list, appointment calendar, and note taking area. The notebook was filled with a year’s worth of daily planning pages, along with other sections for values, goals, and personal information. I inquired about where to purchase this planner and learned that they were sold at FranklinCovey. I drove to the store and bought my first planner. It changed my life.
I was always an organized person, but it was Stephen Covey (1932–2012) that took my productivity to new heights. His best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, enabled me to link my values and goals. I learned how to create a personal mission statement, list my values, and create macro priorities. I set yearly goals that cascaded from my long-term goals. My monthly and daily goals were derived from my yearly goals. Priorities (A, B, C) were placed next to each goal, and I focused on completing the highest priorities (A) first, followed by the next highest priorities (B), and if there was any remaining time, I would do C priorities.
I became utilitarian and highly productive, although a negative side effect was the lack of spontaneous creativity. My workplace performance dramatically increased along with the associated benefits of promotions and salary increases. I concentrated on accomplishing my highest priority goals and with each completed goal, I felt euphoric. A lingering goal just needed extra focus and time, something I was willing to commit. Covey’s planners were one of my keys to workplace success.
Oliver Burkeman, in his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY, 2021), shifts the productivity scale to a more balanced position. He is not against Covey’s productivity principles but reminds us that we live on borrowed time. “If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.” (page 65) Covey experienced his limited time in April 2012 when he fell while riding a trail bike and died from complications. His planner probably did not have this as a goal. One cannot control or anticipate everything in life.
Burkeman states that Covey got some things wrong: the world contains too many high level priorities. When a goal gets done, there are many more to take its place. Burkeman offers three principles which he terms the art of creative neglect. (pages 73–78) The first principle is to pay yourself first. This principle sounds selfish, which it is. The concept is derived from the financial logic of taking out money first from a paycheck and depositing that money in a savings account, then learning to live off some the remaining money as if one never had the saved money. The savings account accumulates over time which eventually turns into a handsome sum. This principle can be applied to developing our talents and desires. In my case, I blocked out an hour during the early morning, before the family woke up, for my personal fitness. I ran or worked out in the gym before heading to work. I did not miss many workouts and was able to compete in running events, something that I greatly desired.
The second principle is to limit your work in progress. Burkeman suggests limiting your projects to a maximum of three items. New projects can begin only after a project gets completed. Too many irons in the fire not only stresses a person but causes the in-progress items to get delayed. I applied this principle to my current book project. I committed to finishing it this year and not start to downsize my material possessions until after my book project is completed. I have set aside concentrated periods of writing in between travel and family time. This allows me the time to focus on relationships when I am not working on my book.
The third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities. Burkeman counsels us to resist the moderately appealing allures of life, like semi-enjoyable friendships and projects that are less satisfying. I faced this principle last year when I received an unsolicited offer to interview for a foundation position. I was happily retired and did not need the salary nor the job stress. My only reason to consider going back to full time employment was to help the organization be better. The more I progressed through the hiring process, the more tentative I became about joining the organization. I learned an important lesson: only do things that really matter and bail early.
Instead of expending time stressing over projects that do not get started or completed, Burkeman tells us to stop procrastinating and resist making commitments “since every real-world choice about how to live entails the loss of countless alternative ways of living, there’s no reason to procrastinate, or to resist making commitments, in the anxious hope that you might somehow be able to avoid those losses.” (pages 83–84) He opts for holding your attention on a few items that you value. Allow all the other possibilities to be left behind and “accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.” (page 108)
While resisting making commitments may feel like a cop out, living a life of finitude makes our lives more rewarding What we do with our short, earthly life does matter; however, we can’t do everything. Best to spend our time on what is valuable and accept that other, less valuable activities will never get done. Make peace with your limitations.