What to do When Time-Management Doesn’t Work

Years ago, when I was still working in politics, I decided to start transitioning to the private sector by starting a small business. The problem was that there was not enough time in the day – or so I thought. So I built a crude spreadsheet on Microsoft Word and began tracking my time in 5 minute increments. I tracked everything; I was uber-hard on myself. And thus began my love/hate relationship with time-management.

Years later, I read an article in Harvard Business Review that made the case that time-management is a myth. When I read those words, I realized I had always known that to be true – and I bet so do you. We’ve just not known any other way.

But now we do.

Maura Nevel Thomas, the same author who wrote that HBR article revealing the myth that is “time-management,” has a new book out that tells what is real:

We cannot manage time; the only thing we can manage is our own attention.

The “how-to” of attention-management is an elegant walk to self-discovery and self-control. Learning to manage my attention rather than the constant Sisyphic effort to control time has made such a difference in my own productivity and peace in the process.

Your sane self inside you is begging you to read this book. It comes out today.

Why Listening Makes Better Leaders

It was 15 degrees below zero and Ron was standing there soaking wet. A car pulled up in front of him. He took a deep, painful breath of frozen air all the way to the bottom of his stomach, looked up into the clear blue, sunny Chicago day, and turned on the water hose.

Ron Williams had grown up and lived on the South Side of Chicago as long as he had memory. And he had always worked hard. The summers were easier because summer in Chicago is better than anywhere else, but he really made his money in the winter. Most of the Chicago winter was full of snow and slush and salt and dirt on cars. And so, when there was any clear sunny day, everyone wanted to get their cars washed. That’s what Ron was doing on this clear, sunny, 15-degree-below day – standing at a car wash washing down cars in frigid temperatures. This was his 30th car today and it was only 8:30 in the morning. He would wash another 870 vehicles before the day was done.

If you had pulled up to that car wash in 1964 you might have thought, “Poor kid. He’s got to be freezing.” You most certainly would never have ever thought, “That kid is going to help make sure my grandchildren have adequate healthcare.” But that is what is true.

When no one else could, Ron Williams engineered the impossible turnaround of healthcare giant Aetna and today consults companies small to large to the US government on how to create our best next iteration of a healthcare system.

His leadership results are better than most because his leadership approach is different than most.

When he was recently asked on Bloomberg’s “Masters in Business” podcast what advice he would give someone aspiring to improve their leadership skills, Ron said one word:


In that podcast and in his book “Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization,” Williams gives multiple examples of how he made a difference by first listening – and really hearing – people he was called to lead. He made the statement in the podcast that some of the major strategies that were the cause of the massive turnaround at Aetna came from frontline employees who had never been truly heard before. He said, “I got better ideas from those who were on the front line than from hours with teams of strategists.”

Leaders mistakenly believe that they have to show up with the answers. Too many too often first yell, “I know the way! Follow me!” No one leader can always know the way. The best leaders have always drawn from the wisdom of the crowd by listening closely, first, to the wisdom that exists in individual members of the crowd.

Success Secrets from Golf

I am not a good golfer. But I like to play. So when I stepped on the course with my buddy – who happens to be the club champion – I was looking to improve my game. My friend went first and hit the ball what seemed a mile. My turn: I set my sights on the goal to hit the ball as far as my friend’s. I summoned up all my belief that I could hit it that far. I actively visualized hitting the ball that far. I swung.

I topped the ball and it rolled 100 feet.

Again and again this scenario played out one hole after another. Finally, my friend said to me, “Mike, there is a concept in golf that the best way to hit the ball really far is not to try to hit the ball really far. You work to execute the perfect golf swing and the ball just happens to be in the way.”

Success and achievement are exactly like that; they are a serendipity of putting excellence out into the world.

Do You Really HAVE to Be in Competition to do Your Best Work?

I am sitting in a dance competition. Again.

If you know anything about me from Facebook, Instagram, or other places where we post about our big family and the joyful chaos it is, you know I spend a lot of weekends at the back of a ballroom watching my kids in competitive dance. Today I am here again and Taylor Swift is pouring out of the speakers at the front of the room drenching me in popular culture.

The competitive dancer on stage is executing the choreography to perfection with the skill of an elite athlete. Precise. Exacting.

And joyless. Oh, sure, she is smiling at all the right times. And it is too perfect. Like the uniform drawing of a Christmas Tree, not the nonuniform, messy, and beautifully real Christmas tree in nature that inspired the sterile, perfect drawing.

And so, everyone’s eyes are on the kid at the back of the auditorium. That kid. The one back there who is dancing with abandon – dancing out of the sheer love of Taylor Swift music. The one dancing for joy.

Which makes me think about you: in a world where the heart of the art of a product/service/whatever is increasingly vital to attract buyers to your business, who do you want to be? The technically perfect or the one with heart? My impromptu market test from a dance-competition ballroom suggests you want the heart of your product to connect with the hearts of several hundred (or thousand) humans.

And so to my point: competition has wrung the heart of the art out of the perfect dance on stage but has not touched the heart pouring out of the child at the back. And so humans cannot help but turn around, watch, smile, and be drenched in joy.

So whose product is better? Who is doing his/her best work? Do you really want the technically perfect product chiseled by competition which customers abandon when someone shows up who does it just for the love of it?

What Your Job Is

My daughter, Madison, shared with me her current favorite mantra: “My job is not to move the boulder; my job is just to push the boulder.”

This quote, like most real wisdom, is deeper than the simplicity of its surface. And its genesis is beautiful…

A young man recently graduated from high school in the American South and went away to college in another city. Like many young people, this young man had been strongly influenced by his family; but unlike many young people, his family were firmly ensconced in the Klu Klux Klan.

Once this young man got to the new city where his college was, he felt the uncomfortable uncertainty all of us have felt in a new environment. But there was a another family in that college community that came to know about him and simply invited him for dinner. This family happened to be Jewish.

Over the course of years, this Jewish family invited this young Klansman into their home and eventually to Shabbat dinners, and over time the young Klansman’s heart changed toward those who are different than he. His hate melted away.

On a recent podcast, the interviewer asked a member of the Jewish family how she recognized that this young man might be open to change. “I didn’t,” she replied, “but our job is not to move the boulder; our job is only to push the boulder.”

And so it is with you and me. There are SO many things in our worlds that we cannot control – most things actually. Almost everything we touch is a boulder – out of our control to move. But beautiful things happen when we only push. Not every time, not every person. But enough times to make it a beautiful effort.

If in Doubt, Step

Art does imitate life in this way: if we take action in the direction of our vision, our goal, our dreams, that is when the next door opens. That is when the further path becomes clear. Yes, it does require a bit of risk.

But there are projects we cannot think through to the end; only a step forward will shine light on the next part of the path.

Motivation Training Doesn’t Work

Determination and motivation are not the same thing. We hear/read/pursue a lot about motivation today and how it is important to get us to our goals. But it is not. The problem with motivation is that it relies on emotion most of the time. We attend conferences where rocking, loud music gets us going. A speaker yells how “you can do it!!” We get excited and jazzed and know we WILL accomplish all that we were designed to do!

And then the alarm goes off at 5am at the beginning of the second week. We wake up with the memory of the promising prospect that let us know he had gone a different direction. Or it is time to go to the gym after a difficult second week and we don’t want to because we overdid it following the conference and our muscles are screaming at us.

And so we hit snooze and roll over to sleep another hour. And then another.

Determination is different. It builds from within and looks more like constant forward motion than explosive bursts followed by a quick fade. It is the Olympian who gets up to finish the race even though she has fallen. It is Aragorn who, in the face of certain defeat at Helm’s Deep, says there is one thing they can do – “Ride out and meet them.” It is not “RIDE OUT AND MEET THEM!!!!” nor, “Ride out and BEAT them!” No. It is jaw-clenched, understanding the reality of the situation, and choosing to press forward regardless of the result. It is “progress-is-victory-and-I-define-progress.” It is habits rather than excitement. It is the Tortoise, not the Hare.

Too many times we look outward for motivation, but determination is build inward.

So what, right? Why the obsession about a difference between determination and motivation? Aren’t they just different sides of the same coin? No. For decades, our current culture has associated motivation with a one-at-a-time booster shot that we get externally. “I just need someone to motivate me,” a gifted young man once told me. I had just been named head of the division where he worked. He stared blankly at me when I said my experience was that the best performers motivated themselves. That concept was foreign to him. Further, it implies an additional step: I must make the effort to find something that will motivate me to propel forward. Determination just grinds forward. Fewer steps needed. More simplicity.

Occam’s razor.

There is subtle nuanced difference between motivation and determination, also. Motivation suggests emotion is fuel; I must stoke myself – or have someone or something else do it for me – into a lather to fire my engine. Determination suggests the absence of emotion. Not that emotion is bad; it is just that determination is emotion agnostic. If I am excited/mad/hurt/scared, I move forward. If I am none of those things…

I still move forward.

I am “determined” to move forward, to take one more step. That is how Joe McConaughy recently broke the speed record for the Appalachian Trail. He was tired – exhausted – and so took just one more step, fell, and took just one more. Over and over and over again.

Are you ever tired? Don’t want to get out of bed? Ever? If you ever are, then determination is your friend. And the data is showing determination leads to results. Motivation, not so much.

Lessons in Every Day

This world has been designed to teach us something every day that will help us better ourselves. We just have to look for it.

It can be as complex as the book we hear about on NPR which makes quantum geometry accessible; or, it can be as simple as seeing a child learning to walk fall seven times but get up eight. The lessons are there and they improve our lives.

It is the way The Creator designed it; the simple act of looking for these lessons allows us to see them.