Does it ever seem like some people you know are advancing rapidly in their careers or businesses, while you seem to be just plodding along? Chances are you're not doing one simple thing that can make all the difference to achieving your goals. You're not putting yourself first.
In the personal finance world, experts often advise people to "pay yourself first." The idea is that when a paycheck or other payment comes in the first thing you should so is put a portion of it into your savings and only then pay your bills and other financial obligations.
Most of us, of course, instinctively do the opposite. We first pay our bills and then put money into savings if there's any left over. The problem, of course, is that there very rarely is any money left over. So our bills get paid, but we never manage to save much, making it impossible to reach our financial goals. This is why 401(k) programs are so powerful: They literally force you to pay yourself first by putting money into savings before you can pay anyone else.
Unfortunately, most of us take a similar approach with our time, a resource even more valuable than money. On any given workday we are faced with an array of tasks that we need to complete to fulfill our commitments to our customers, satisfy our bosses, meet our deadlines, and give our employees the support that they need.
But then there's another whole set of tasks. These usually have no deadlines, and there's no customer or colleague waiting impatiently for you to get them done. In fact, there's a good chance that nothing will result if you do them because they are often speculative in nature. These are tasks such as pitching new customers, researching possible markets your company could enter, or trying to develop a new product. If your initiative succeeds, you'll be a hero, but there's every chance that it may fail.
It may seem foolish to devote your time to projects that may pan out when there are paying customers waiting for you to deliver. Yet I'm suggesting you do just that for just half an hour a day. Here's how it works:
1. Take 30 minutes of each day and spend them on a speculative or dream project that could yield big dividends.
You could also spend them on research, or on learning more about your industry. If there's something that has real potential to move you forward and that you love to do, choose that. (If, like me, you're a Pomodoro Technique user, spend one pomodoro on your dream task.)
Why just half an hour? Wouldn't an hour be better? It might, but that would mean taking a big enough chunk out of your day that you might not be able to do it consistently. If a major deadline is looming or your boss is waiting impatiently for you to finish a proposal, will you really be able to set those concerns aside for a whole hour while you work on your dream project? Whereas there are few obligations so urgent that you can't sneak away for half an hour.
2. Make it the first half-hour of your workday.
Why? For the same reason that 401(k)s work so well: You're paying yourself first. You could turn to the most urgent tasks instead, hoping you'll have a half hour left over at the end of the day for your dream project. But most of the time you won't.
There's another good reason to take your half hour of "me" time at the start of the day: Neuroscientists report that the beginning of our workday is usually a great time to work on a creative project or other task that requires your brain to be functioning at its best.
3. Block out interruptions.
For this to work well, you should block out your half hour with no interruptions, for instance by closing your office door and turning off your phone. If necessary, put a sticky note on your door explaining that you'll be available in half an hour or less. And whatever you do, don't read your email before or during your "me" time, except for message specific to what you're working on.
4. When the 30 minutes are up, stop.
Even if you're on a roll and the work is flowing along like never before, stop when your time is up. Why is this important? Because if you sit down to work on something for half an hour but don't stop until two hours have passed, it will be twice as hard to keep that date with yourself tomorrow because you won't trust yourself to stop on time and get back to your most pressing tasks. You can always schedule some more time to work on your project later on if it seems to warrant it. But for now, stick to your commitment to stop after 30 minutes.
5. Track your progress.
It's easier to stick with something if it's yielding measurable results. So keep track of how you spend your "me" time. Make note of whether you managed to do it every day, or if there were some days it got swept aside. And track your progress on your dream projects and goals as well. That should help you understand what's working, what isn't, and how you can best spend your time.
6. Don't feel guilty.
If you feel like you're stealing time away from what you should be doing, get over it. The things you do during your "me" time create more potential to benefit your company and customers than if you simply focused on your existing tasks. Google famously allocated one full day a week for its engineers to work on whatever they wanted, and Gmail is just one of many widely used products to emerge from that practice.
What new products or initiatives will result your own whatever-I-want-to-work-on time? It's time to find out.