Naturally, I don't mean one's house and bank account, or one's investments and collection of antique haunted dolls(that's a thing, right?).
Assets, outside of a strictly financial context, can denote things of value and utility. Donald Trump understood this when he proclaimed that "my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart."
While being, like really smart may come in handy, there are two even more foundational assets that are scarce, non-renewable, and vital to one's success and fulfilment.
Let's start with #1: time.
It is constantly and irrevocably passing. A minute spent is spent forever. As Jim Rohn said: "time is more valuable than money. You can get more money, but you cannot get more time."
Time's finitude doesn't merely add to its preciousness, it is what makes it precious in the first place.
And yet, many of us—I know I am included in this camp—spend our time frivolously, with little recognition of the immense value of these dwindling minutes and hours. We stare at our phones all day, come up with ten thousand reasons to postpone our most important duties until the clock strikes freedom-o'clock, and take 90-minute calls from old acquaintances who drunkenly whinge about uncontrollable problems.
If we spent our money in this haphazard way—repeatedly losing 100 dollar bills in parking lots, ordering several of Dr. Ho's patented neck comforters and never using them—we would quickly take notice and change our behaviours.
At least, I'd like to think so.
So, what's the solution? How can we make the best use of our precious, rapidly depleting time on this earth? Here are some strategies that can help you decide.
Eliminate all the extraneous projects, phone calls, mindless web browsing, and other time-sucks from your life. Wherever possible, simplify. Make a list of all the ways you spend your time, and choose the 2-3 most important things to focus on. Alternatively, make a list of all your goals, and employ the Warren Buffet goal selection strategy.
Another strategy is to decide what tasks are most important to you, and start with the most important ones first each day. That way, if things get in the way of your to-do list later on in the day, you have still accomplished what matters most to you.
Once you have established a clear, ordered list of priorities, share it with others. Be vocal about what is most pressing to you.
And remind yourself of it daily, ideally through a visual medium (like a poster) or even notifications on your phone. When you find yourself mindlessly swiping through Instagram or haphazardly peeling paint from the walls, a reminder of your values can help you get yourself back on track.
As Peter Drucker once said, "there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all".
Get Used to Saying "No"
The power of no should never be underestimated.
Politely but firmly declining invitations, phone calls, projects, job offers, product pitches and relentless Hare Krishnas that are not inextricably tied to your values and purpose will help you guard your time, and direct your energy towards the things that are.
It would be helpful to heed the wisdom of Bishop T. D. Jacobs: think of yourself as a precious commodity. Reserve your energy for your highest and best use.
Is your highest and best use serving/being with your family? Is it working on a novel? Is it coming up with a technological breakthrough? Is it making inspirational films?
Almost everything else should be a no. A compassionate, assertive, thoughtful no with a clear underlying reason provided.
"I'm sorry, but I have other obligations x and y to attend to right now, and I don't have time for a meeting/phone call/conversation. Thanks for understanding."
If you are someone who—like me—has trouble saying no to all sorts of requests, try thinking of the money analogy from before. If this person asked you for $100, what would you say then?
Or, take a leaf out of Captain Rex Kramer's book and say no with gusto.
"What gets measured, gets managed". Another Peter Drucker quote to pick at. Everyone is familiar with the concept of time management, but few people consider the greatest tool for managing time.
Time measurement. It just doesn't have the same ring to it.
I find that tracking down what I plan to do, and then what I actually do, in discrete half-hour chunks is a terrific way to discover how many holes there are in the leaky ship that is my daily schedule.
I highly recommend it. I learned how much time I spend off-task, how difficult it is to follow a set schedule—even for 24 hours—and where I was being busy, but not really working.
Of course, you don't have to follow your schedule like clockwork. Life is full of unexpected opportunities that don't fit neatly into word processor boxes on a computer.
I personally use plain old vanilla Excel, although there are free resources like this schedule that you can use to jot down the events for the week.
And then there are apps. RescueTime tracks your computer or phone usage, which you can monitor from a dashboard window. Toggl helps you keep track of projects and time spent planning.
There are plenty of ways of keeping track of how we spend our time. What matters is finding the one that works for you.
* * *
On to #2: Attention.
Without the ability to focus and pay attention, time alone won't help us move closer to our goals.
We need to be able to zero in on tasks and details, separate the signal from the noise and develop the willpower and discipline to avoid the distractions and temptations that compete for our awareness.
And the good news is, our minds can be trained to do deep work and develop sustained attention. The bad news is, it's an uphill climb. But it's worth it!
My own decade-long meditation practice has helped me develop increased concentration, grapple with the effects of ADD and depression, and improve my ability to remain—mostly—present and calm.
There is recent research which confirms that mindfulness meditation is effective for boosting concentration—especially for those who are just beginning.
What I like most about mindfulness is that it is a meta-skill; you can bring the benefits of increased focus and awareness to just about any discipline, hobby or activity.
Sports? It can help you perform better. Playing music? It can help increase expression and reduce anxiety. Relationships? It can help there too.
Whatever you want to achieve, making time for meditation every day can lead to some pretty dramatic results.
For getting started, I suggest Jon Kabat-Zinn's guided meditation, or this daily mindfulness video.
Apps like Headspace can be helpful and fun, but are not needed.
Email alerts. Text message pings. News update sounds. They all bombard us with demands for our attention. After a long day, when decision fatigue has set in, we don't even think. We just react to the buzzing and the beeping.
Seth Godin put it perfectly on his blog a few days ago, in a post titled The Pinging:
The training has been going on for years. We're caught in a Pavlovian game in which we're the product, not the organizers. Someone else is ringing the bell, and it's been happening for so long we don't even realize how deeply the hooks have been set."
A social media notification isn't merely a distraction. Even ignoring it hijacks your brain. Whatever work, focus, or peak productivity you are in the middle of is lost.
Don't be like Pavlov's dog. It's better to live and work on your own terms. Ditch the notifications, and use your newfound attentional resources on the things that matter most.
Design Your Environment
The rooms and spaces in our homes say a lot about our behaviours and where we expend our attention.
A few simple questions can make the relationship between interior design and individual actions quite clear: what 5-10 objects stand out most in this room? What functions do those objects serve? What activities is the room centred around? What do people spend most of their time doing in this room?
A spare, orderly white room with a simple pine desk that is adorned only with a book-marked novel, a black leather journal and a fountain pen will promote markedly different behaviours than a stuffy room filled with boxes of belongings, two TVs and a massive couch.
You can reclaim a lot of your time and attention by simply designing your environment with intention and clarity of purpose.
Make your space conform to your desired activities—not the other way around— and you will be moving with the headwind of the space, instead of resisting it's influence.
* * *
Hopefully, some of these tactics can help you make the most out of your two greatest assets in life. Of course, there are plenty of other ways to hone your time management and attention skills.
What do you think is most important?
Which of the strategies I have outlined works the best for you?