Jennifer Lamb graduated with a B.A. in Journalism. She has experience as a manager with a large staff and huge territory. She runs a successful website on time management.
Jen, tell us a little of your background. Why did you decide to become an expert in time management? What type of effect has it had on your life?
I first took an interest in time management in college. As the first in my family to attend a university, I wasn’t prepared for the insane demands on my time from carrying 18 units and three jobs. I was working my way through college to minimize my student loans so I could graduate with as little debt as possible, but I didn’t quite think through HOW I would get it all done. I majored in journalism because I love to write and one of my jobs was working at the school paper from 8-midnight three nights a week. I had another internship copy-editing for a publishing company from 8 a.m. to noon two days a week and my last part-time job at a pizza place three days a week. My schedule at these jobs often lined up so I would function on four hours of sleep. Fitting in studying on top of all of this while driving 30 miles each way to school was taxing. I made it through and never forgot the lessons I learned in how to prioritize, what I could abandon without anyone noticing, and what was really important.
I don’t have the energy to swing that schedule today (we are all 20 only once in our lives,) but looking back on it really makes me proud. I was jealous of the people whose parents were paying for everything so they didn’t have to work, but I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that experience. Since then, I’ve lived with a sort of mission for myself of productivity. I don’t know how to start a day without a plan (sometimes the plan is just to do one thing that day, but there’s always a plan.) I began reading about successful people to find the commonalities in how they approach their lives and apply everything I could.
Jen, you say you’re obsessed with studying successful people. Name 3 things most of them have in common and why you believe these traits help them be successful.
1. A relentless focus on the most important things they can do to meet their goals. (Successful people tend to intuitively know what will move them in the direction of their dreams then they slowly pare down the less-productive activities. Some people have done this through trial and error, others through written plans of where to focus their time.)
2. An ability to recognize and capitalize on unexpected opportunities. (There’s a famous saying, “luck is when preparation meets opportunity” that seems to ring true for many successful people I’ve read about. Many people charted a course and worked toward one goal only to end up on a completely different, yet much more successful, path because they recognized and jumped on opportunities that came up on the way.)
3. They never forget “why.” Marshall Goldsmith said it best in his book “What Got You Hear Won’t Get You There,” he said don’t spend your whole life climbing a ladder only to reach the top of it and realize it was leaning against the wrong wall. So many of us get caught up in the “achieve, achieve, achieve” mindset and rarely back away from our lives enough to gain perspective on why we’re working so hard in the first place. Any hard-charging type A personality can earn a good living, but the truly fulfilled tend to know why they’re driving so hard and establish boundaries.
What tips would you give someone who has a hard time focusing on tasks they have to do but don’t want to?
This is a challenge for everyone, it’s just that the most self-disciplined of us have mastered one thing better than the rest of us… you have to remember why you want to accomplish those tasks. What do you get out of it AFTER it’s done? Why do it at all? If you can answer those truthfully to yourself and then force yourself to get started remembering how you will feel when it’s all done, that makes it easier. It’s a simple theory, but it is much harder in practice.
If you want to start a new exercise routine, the first three weeks are always the hardest. Why? Because you are used to excuses, used to sleeping in and telling yourself it doesn’t matter. The people that have a strong reason why they’re forming this new habit have an easier time. Once you remember why, then you make a promise to yourself that you will visualize why you’re doing it, then immediately get dressed and start exercising. The longer you spend in contemplation, the less likely you are to get started.
Can you explain the 80/20 rule?
The 80/20 rule, or Pareto Principle, is an interesting concept that states that 80% of your results come from only 20% of your activities. There is a lot of truth in this principle. You can look at almost anything through the Pareto lens. If you really drill down what you’re paid to do at work, you will likely figure out that you’re only spending roughly 20% of your time in those areas. If you have a team of direct reports, you will see that 80% of your team’s creative work comes from 20% of your team. If you look at what variables impact any goal you have, it’s likely that you can easily create a list of 10 things that will make a difference to whether you meet it but 2 will make the biggest difference of all. The key is once you’ve identified the 20%, to spend more and more time on those activities and people that produce the best results.
How do you effectively utilize time management at work when someone else has control of your schedule?
There are so many variables in this situation that it makes it hard to answer. My own experience as an employee, then in management is that most managers love self-starters. Although ultimately the boss has control over your schedule, they don’t have the time to do the job for you and don’t want to monitor you so closely they can’t focus on their own role.
Generally you can wrest back some control if you establish that you’re trustworthy and prove yourself through exceeding their expectations. Whenever I’ve been confronted with a new manager or project-head, I begin by asking what their ultimate goals are, what metrics they will use to determine if this job or project is successful. Then I ask how often they want updates on my progress and if they would like to see my plan before I get started or just get started and provide them with updates on results. My best employees have operated the same way, they work to understand their goals, devise an action plan then just get started. They work through interruptions and get back on course, provide updates at requested intervals and ask for help as necessary. Interruptions are a part of most jobs but building in time for them helps you devise a more realistic schedule.
What fun games can people play to get better at time management?
I wish I had a great recommendation for a time management game but unfortunately I haven’t spent enough time playing them to make one.
What are your future goals? How do you plan to accomplish them?
Well it depends on whether we’re talking about short-term, mid-term, or long-term… I have goals for each.
One of my goals for this year is building in more time to just relax. I work full-time, have a family and build my website in the evenings and weekends. I fit the description of Type A perfectly and I’m also extremely analytical so it’s harder for me to see value in just “being.” I don’t take much time for myself to relax without working toward a goal in some way. I’d like to learn to enjoy just reading a novel (I read non-fiction) or going to a spa and getting a massage. I am slowly building time to relax into my schedule so it’s harder to ignore self-renewal.
I have begun guarding and spending my money with at least as much forethought as I do my time and that’s been helpful to my mid-term goal of becoming debt-free. This economic downturn has taught me a lot about what’s really important and curbed some materialistic urges. I still have a lot of work to do to meet my goal of financial stability and freedom, but I’m building a rock solid foundation as we speak.
One of my long-term goals is a bit esoteric, probably not what you’d expect from someone fascinated with time management. It’s to have more fun. I get so caught up in productivity and maximizing my time that occasionally I forget my own “why” and continue to hustle through life at a breakneck pace. I would guess most people’s goals are to correct an area of their lives they feel they’re lacking in and I’m certainly no different.
Jen, thank you for taking time to discuss your insights on time management.
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