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Timothy R. Clark: Time management: Don't trade your time for junk

There's no treasure in the world save for its relationship to non-treasure. But if you don't know the difference, you'll find yourself swimming in junk.
There's no treasure in the world save for its relationship to non-treasure. But if you don't know the difference, you'll find yourself swimming in junk.

I walked into an office once that resembled a slot canyon. When I crossed the threshold, I had to turn sideways and sidestep my way through a narrow corridor between two walls of stuff in order to find my way to a little fold-out chair. I expected to see Redd Foxx, who played a junk dealer in the '70s sitcom “Sanford and Son.”

The problem with junk dealers is they don’t know how to assign value. It’s all treasure. In which case, it’s all junk. There’s no treasure in the world save for its relationship to non-treasure. But if you don’t know the difference, you’ll find yourself swimming in junk. Consider that a vintage 1932 LC Smith Corona model 4 typewriter is worth about $800. My Dell Optiplex 755 from 2007 is worth about 8 cents.

The same principle holds true for time management. There are time management junk dealers. They trade their time for most any unit of work or pleasure. Real collectors on the other hand trade their time only for those of high value. When it comes to time management, ask yourself if you deal in junk or real collectibles.

Great time management is a learned behavior and not a widely distributed behavior. Here’s what it looks like in part.

Prioritize till it hurts.

Hold your breath. The greatest time management invention is — that's right, the list. You can use a yellow pad or a smartphone app. It doesn’t matter that much. Just make sure you document your priorities and manage them dynamically. Behaviorally, the best time managers observe a daily ritual in which they add tasks and refresh their priority list every day without fail. They also do weekly planning, mid-range planning and long-term planning. The magic is not in the tool or the process. It’s in the execution.

Someone said the definition of success is doing the task at hand well. What’s the task at hand? That’s the less obvious question and the day-in-and-day-out hard thing to do. It’s the grinding discipline of wringing out your priorities. Time is your scarce resource. Don’t trade it for junk.

Avoid meaningless units of pleasure.

When it comes to trading time for units of pleasure, it’s fascinating that almost all of the world-class time managers I know rarely, if at all, trade time for prime- time television, web surfing or video gaming. Their media consumption habits are sparing. Junk dealers browse the menu of offerings. Collectors know what they want before they shop. Go for quality not kitsch.

Don’t get hijacked.

Hijacking your time is the special talent of media and technology in the digital age. If you sat down at your desk this morning and got sucked into the vortex of a long, unplanned email session, you know what I’m talking about. Remind yourself that you’re the one who trades your time. Don’t let devices or people allocate it for you. You’re the sovereign of your seconds and the master of your minutes.

Remember the one-touch rule.

We spend a lot of time approaching, circling, sniffing, kicking, tasting and simply thinking about tasks without doing them. We check on them like a babysitter to see if they’re still sleeping. We pat their heads and then walk away, only to come back later. To this day, I’ve never seen a task jump out of the crib and get itself done. Tasks sleep eternally until we wake them. If you touch a task, complete the task.

Manage walk-in traffic.

The triage of time management says some things are important. Some things are not. Some things are urgent. Some things are not. Focus on what’s important and urgent first, and what’s important second. Leave the rest alone. That makes sense, but on the ground it can be difficult when the urgent tasks come calling. Walk-in traffic can foil any good plan.

Great time managers communicate their time constraints up front when people walk in. They’re not rude and curt. They’re clear and kind. If it turns out to be important, be flexible and spend the time. If it’s not, acknowledge the person but don’t trade time for junk when there’s treasure ahead.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark Partners, a management consulting and training organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and is the best-selling author of "Epic Change" and "The Leadership Test." E-mail: