October 18th, 2008 10:44 AM by Lehel Szucs
Life Balance: The Urgent vs. the Important
By Denis Waitley
Of all the wisdom I have gained, the most important is the knowledge that time and health are two precious assets that we rarely recognize or appreciate until they have been depleted. As with health, time is the raw material of life. You can use it wisely, waste it, or even kill it.
To accomplish all we are capable of, we would need a hundred lifetimes. If we had forever in our mortal lives, there would be no need to set goals, plan effectively, or set priorities. We could squander our time and perhaps still manage to accomplish something, if only by chance. Yet in reality, we're given only this one life span on earth to do our earthly best.
Each human being now living has exactly 168 hours per week. Scientists can't invent new minutes, and even the super rich can't buy more hours. Queen Elizabeth the First of England, the richest, most powerful woman on earth of her era, whispered these final words on her deathbed: "All my possessions for a moment of time!"
We worry about things we want to do - but can't - instead of doing the things we can do - but don't. How often have you said to yourself, "Where did the day go? I accomplished nothing," or "I can't even remember what I did yesterday"? That time is gone, and you never get it back.
Staring at the compelling distractions on a television screen is one of the major consumers of time. You can enjoy and benefit from the very best it has to offer in about seven total hours of viewing per week. But the average person spends more than thirty hours per week in a semi-stupor, escaping from the priorities and goals he or she never gets around to setting. The irony is that the people we are watching are having fun achieving their own goals, making money, having us look at them enjoying their careers.
Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you've wasted in the past, you still have an entire today. If you've just frittered away an hour procrastinating, you will still be given the next hour to start on priorities. Time management contains one great paradox: No one has enough time, and yet everyone has all there is. Time is not the problem; the problem is separating the urgent from the important.
Every decision we make has an "opportunity cost." Every decision forfeits all other opportunities we had before we made it. We can't be two places at the same time.
In their excellent management book "Tradeoffs," Drs. Greiff and Munter discuss the difficult options that face us in all areas of our lives. One case in point illustrates a common opportunity cost. It's a true anecdote they call, "Bicycle vs. Mother":
"John is a precocious eight-year-old boy. Both his parents work. His mother is a management consultant and travels frequently. After being away for several days, she arrived home late one night and hugged her son.
He said, 'Mom, I missed you. Why were you away so long?'
She smiled and replied, 'One of the reasons I was away was to make enough money to buy you the bicycle you wanted.'
Young John looked at her reflectively and stated, 'Mom, I really did want the bicycle. But mothers are more important than bicycles. So please stay home more.'"
Even though we all are aware of the tradeoffs of "quality time vs. quantity time" in our relationships, we are not used to thinking specifically about how our decisions cost us other opportunities. Without this understanding, our decisions will often be unfocused and unrelated to helping us achieve our most important goals.
You may have heard the story about the analogy of the "circus juggler" to each of us as we try to balance our personal and professional priorities. I have heard the story repeated by many keynote speakers and have used it in previous books, but have never been able to trace the identity of the original author.
When the circus juggler drops a ball, he lets it bounce and picks it up on the next bounce without losing his rhythm or concentration. He keeps right on juggling. Many times we do the same thing. We lose our jobs, but get another one on the first or second bounce. We may drop the ball on a sale, an opportunity to move ahead, or in a relationship, and we either pick it up on the rebound or get a new one thrown in to replace what we just dropped.
However, some of the balls or priorities we juggle don't bounce. The more urgent priorities associated with self-imposed deadlines and workloads have more elasticity than the precious, delicate relationships which are as fragile as fine crystal. Balance involves distinguishing between the priorities we juggle that bounce from the ones labeled "loved ones," "health," and "moral character" that may shatter if we drop them.
The reason I always ask my seminar attendees to list the benefits of reaching their goals is so they can arrange them in the true order of importance to them and give them a sufficient amount of attention as they juggle them within their time constraints. Handle your priorities with care. Some of them just don't bounce!
To live a rich, balanced life we need to be more in conscious control of our habits and lifestyles. Actualized individuals have a regular exercise routine. They pay attention to nutrition, with lean source protein and fiber-based carbohydrates as their basic food choices. They relax through musical, cultural, artistic, and family activities. They get sufficient sleep and rest to meet the next day renewed and invigorated.
In addition to blocking periods of time for recreation and vacations, they also schedule large, uninterrupted periods of work on their most important projects. Contrary to popular notions, most books, works of art, invention, and musical compositions are created during uninterrupted time frames, not by a few lines, strokes, or notes every so often. Every book or audio program I have written has been done with the discipline of twelve to fifteen hours per day during a specific block of time.
True enough, I may have sacrificed a ski trip or an escape vacation once or twice. But by trying to focus on prime projects in prime time, the opportunity costs have been outweighed by the return on invested resources.
With your material, time, and energy resources allocated well, you should be able to use your innovative powers to focus on goal achievement. Effective priority management creates freedom. Freedom provides opportunity to make decisions. We make our decisions and our decisions, over time, make us.
Freedom from urgency... that's what will allow us to live a rich and rewarding life. You may have thought your problem was "time starvation," when in truth, it was in the way you assigned priorities in your decision-making process. Have you allowed the urgent to crowd out the important?
Each day we will continue to encounter deadlines we must meet and "fires," not necessarily of our own making, we must put out. Endless urgent details will always beg for attention, time, and energy. What we seldom realize is that the really important things in our life don't make such strict demands on us, and therefore we usually assign them a lower priority.
Our loved ones understand when we are preoccupied with our urgent business, but it's hard for us to understand, many years later, why they appear preoccupied when we finally find some time for them. Harry Chapin's classic song, "The Cat's in the Cradle," is still a mirror reflecting our priorities.
All the important arenas in our life are there awaiting our decisions. But they don't beg us to give them our time. The local university doesn't call us to advance our education and improve our life skills.
I have never received a call or e-mail from the health club I joined insisting that I show up and work out for thirty minutes each day. My bathroom scale has never insisted that I lose thirty pounds. The grocery clerks have never made me put back on the shelves the junk food I put in the cart, nor has a fast-food restaurant ever refused me a double cheeseburger and large fries because of my high cholesterol.
Nor have I ever been subpoenaed by the ocean or the mountains to appear for relaxation and solitude. Yet I receive hundreds of urgent phone messages and e-mails each week from people with deadlines.
You see, it's the easiest thing in the world to neglect the important and give in to the urgent. One of the greatest skills you can ever develop in your life is not only to tell the two apart, but to be able to assign the correct amount of time to each.
Beginning tomorrow, throughout the day, and every day thereafter, stop and ask yourself this question: "Is what I'm doing right now important to my health, well-being, and mission in life, and for my loved ones?" Your affirmative answer will free you forever from the tyranny of the urgent.
Copyright © 2005 Denis Waitley International. All rights reserved worldwide.