“There is a very important point in life that we ought to maximize — it is this moment. This moment is now gone.” That’s what Frank Stewart told me when I asked him for advice on time management. He should know a few things about maximizing the moment. After all he grew his company, Stewart Enterprises, from a family business with fifteen people in the suburbs of New Orleans to a publicly traded business with more than six thousand employees, and subsidiaries as far away as New Zealand.
Frank went on to explain. “The business I’m in is quite unusual. I’m in the death care profession, where we sell products and services for funerals, burials, and memorials. This means I’m in a business in which there is no way you can ignore the fact that time does run out. I see it all around me. Every one of us will die one day. This is without question.”
“There are so many things I want to do,” he said. “I easily fill the day. There just isn’t enough time to do it all. It’s because I have so much to do - and because of my profession - that I am acutely aware of the limited nature of time. I think about time management constantly.”
“A key element of time management is being present,” Frank says. “Always focus on the task at hand. If you’re with somebody on the phone, do only that. Be there in the conversation. If you’re in a meeting, be present. If you’re doing a task by yourself, focus on that. If you’re going to sleep, sleep soundly. Don’t think about all the things you did during the day, or about what you are going to do tomorrow. Don’t try to solve problems. Sleep.”
“It takes some discipline and self confidence to focus just on the task at hand,” Frank told me. “You have to reach a point where you know you can face challenges as they come, so you don’t have to think about them all at once.”
When you’re dealing with other people, being present is even more important. Not only is there an exchange of information with people that requires your attention to catch all the important details, but there is also the emotional or relationship-building element of all human exchanges. If people don’t feel you’re listening to them, you may lose their interest and thereby miss out on a potentially valuable relationship.
Frank said, “When you’re dealing with people, you can’t think of time management in the same way. Give them your full attention and don’t look at your watch.”
What prevents us from being present? Most people have dozens of goals at any given time. Sometimes we think we have to keep those in mind or we’ll forget them. One way to overcome this is to make it a habit to write down your goals and consult your list at regular intervals.
While it’s important to keep your goal in mind, if you start thinking more about the end state and less about what you need to do to get there, you’re sure to spin your wheels. Frank advises, “don’t celebrate success too early. The same goes for lamenting failure: don’t sit around imagining you’ll fail in the end. You should keep your eye on the goal, but spend most of your time thinking about what you need to do now in order to get to where you want to be.”
Another thing that prevents us from focusing on the task at hand is we sometimes waste mental energy agonizing over something we didn’t do. This could be something we didn’t finish in the way we wanted or it could be something we chose not to do. By learning to make clean stopping points on a given activity and learning to detach yourself emotionally after turning things down, you can free your mind of some of this clutter.
Finally, it’s hard to be present when you are constantly interrupted. Sometimes this is beyond your control, but often it’s not. Make it a habit to block off time for focused effort. If you can get used to thinking about just one thing for an hour or so ever day, you’ll develop your ability to concentrate, and this new capacity will serve you at other times.
Photo: Flickr / Abdulmajeed Al.mutawee CC BY-NC-SA 2.0