This column on time was originally published on Entrepreneur.com on March 23, 2008: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/309865
Despite its third-quarter dip last year, Uber has “rocketed to become the highest-valued private startup company in the world.” Why? Uber doesn’t sell rides. Uber sells time — the single most valuable asset you have.
Most people can’t get through the day without getting into conversations they didn’t plan on having. You don’t schedule any of these impromptu discussions. If taking someone’s time without his or her permission was as illegal as taking money, coworkers and business partners would find themselves on both sides of the biggest class-action lawsuit in the history of … ever.
On the flip side, it’s an imperfect world. You’ll never be able to eliminate all interruptions. Nor can you live your life constantly turning people away. (Full disclosure: My kids have heard, “Sorry — mom and dad are closed” in response to those just-one-more requests at bedtime.)
Time is a limited commodity. You cannot “make” time for anything, and there’s only so much of you to go around. Everyone gets the same amount each day. The best you can do is become a responsible steward of what you’ve got. Believe it or not, you can teach others to respect your time, without making enemies.
1. Value your own time.
Start small. Pick one, new time-management habit and master it. Countless articles are devoted to the topic of time management, yet few people follow the principles. If others see you don’t respect your time, they won’t, either.
For example, you might develop the art of saying “no” more often. It’s healthy for kids, clients, friends and coworkers to be turned down from time to time. It shows them you’re not an all-you-can-eat time buffet. If you’re worried you might offend someone every now and then, you’re right. Some people are going to be offended (your social-media feed is easy proof that you can’t please everyone). Even the most successful people in the world have hordes of haters.
Know this: Others will consume your day if you allow it. Operate each day with a written plan so you decide how your 24 hours will work for you. You’ll see great benefits — a propensity for productivity among them. When you understand your time’s true worth, it naturally affects what you choose to do and what you choose to avoid. The more you value your time, the more you streamline your thinking. As a result, your actions become more selective and wasting time becomes increasingly unattractive.
Keep in mind that some of the greatest time thieves aren’t people. How often do your mobile phone and other devices interrupt you with alerts? Do you really need to know every time someone messages you on Facebook? Throughout the day, pay attention to how your workflow is interrupted and determine how critical it is to receive the information in the moment. Eliminate anything that doesn’t pass the test.
2. Grab hold of a catchphrase.
Decide in advance how you’ll extract yourself from time-sucking conversations you’d rather not endure. Memorize a polite line or two and keep it handy in the back of your mind. Coming up with something on the spot often translates in your body language and facial expressions.
A former therapist of mine had a clever approach. “Something’s come up and I need to go,” he’d explain. The “something” was finding a better conversation. Fortunately, he never used the line on me.
You also could challenge the interrupter to postpone the conversation to a later time. “I’d love to hear what you have to say, but I’m in the middle of X right now. Can you bring this up to me tomorrow?”
This has three benefits. First, it side-steps the interruption and allows you to keep doing whatever you’re doing. Second, it trains your mind to politely reject distractions and stay focused on the task at hand. Third, it ensures the conversation actually is worth having for both parties because it requires follow through. If the topic is important, the interrupting party will remember and circle back later. Quite often, though, you’ll find these “urgent” conversations fall by the wayside. This can be a great filter for unimportant banter.
3. Connect with others who value their own time.
Over time, you begin to be more like those with whom you surround yourself. Pay attention to people who’ve mastered time management and plan their actions. When you’re fortunate enough to get a minute of their time, be certain you don’t waste it. Making good use of time doesn’t mean constantly working. It means being in control of what you do — and with whom. It means living intentionally.
A former mentor of mine placed a sign above his office door. It read: “If you don’t have something to do, please don’t do it here.” At the time, I thought it was cute and clever. A quarter-century later, it’s made a deep and lasting impression on me.
It’s challenging to become diligent time managers in a world of fluid, sometimes chaotic relationships. There are a thousand shades of gray — some of them easier to distinguish than others. You must determine your own boundaries, then enforce them by teaching the world to respect your time. You’re the only one who can or will accomplish this crucial task.
Some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs also are the most difficult to connect with. Maybe they’re onto something.