magnifying glassSo…I’ve got a confession to make. It’s a simple one, but with profound implications:

I have wasted a lot of time in my life.

Anybody else?

Now, as much as I’m inclined to beat myself up over other such shortcomings, I am giving myself a temporary “pass” on this. The fact is, I only figured this out recently, when I developed my own life strategy  and started helping others develop theirs.

As I’ve discussed previously,executing on a clear and compelling life strategy is the surest way to a happy, fulfilling life. Absent such a strategy, success will happen only by accident.

Coming out of college, my “strategy” was a simple one: pile up experiences. I would proactively explore new cities, have a variety of jobs, meet as many people as possible, learn as much as I could, and then… well… wait for the magic to happen.

Yeah, I know, it wasn’t a water-tight plan, but this was the best I could do at 25.

Essentially I was waiting for some theoretical “tipping point” when I would have accumulated enough experience to finally make sense of it all. I was waiting for that moment of alchemy when my life experience would coalesce and I’d both understand the “meaning” of my life and see a clear path toward achieving it.

Again, it wasn’t a water-tight plan. But even today, I would argue that it’s better than nothing.

And I suspect that many reading this, whether you realize it or not, have adopted a similar strategy.


Stop Being Busy, Start Being Systematic

For a long time I thought that if I just kept “pedaling,” kept moving forward, life would eventually sort itself out.

I rationalized my waiting by reminding myself about how “busy” I was staying.I thought, How could anyone who had this many emails to write and respond to not be doing important work?

I was waiting — patiently, but actively — for inspiration, intuition, clarity.

Sadly, I had it all wrong.

As author and university professor Cal Newport likes to say, a successful life strategy is not about doing it all, but about doing the right things better. (Click here to tweet this thought.) He writes on his blog:

Simply putting in the time is not enough… You must identify what activities generate the highest returns, and then focus relentlessly on these behaviors to the exclusion of most other distractions… You have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work.

If this idea resonates with you, here’s a simple list of five highest-value activities to start doing today.


Five Things to Start Doing Today

First things first:

  • This is not designed to be an intellectual exercise — this is about doing. Accordingly, with each activity I’ve provided some context and then some instructions. Follow them, and good things will happen.
  • The amount of time you spend on any given activity will vary. That’s okay. What’s most important is that you spend at least some time, every day, on each.
  • To help reinforce this approach — and turn it into a real habit — I suggest making a record of the days in which you spend time on all five activities. I really like Seinfeld’s don’t break the chain approach.

All clear? Okay. Let’s discuss specifically what you should be doing and how you might do it.


1. Planning

This is the first step, but also the easiest to overlook.

Below is an image of my calendar. You can see that “Weekly Planning” is always the first work-related thing I do each week (Monday, 8-9 am):
Ben Calendar
Whether it’s a trip to the beach, a book project or a first date, there’s a higher probability that good stuff will happen if you take time to plan first. It may feel cumbersome at first, but it’s an undeniable prerequisite for long-term success.

How to use this time:

  • Start your week off right. Planning is the first thing on my calendar each week – 8-9 am on Monday. I remind myself of my over-arching goals and then define the most important things I need to get done that align to these goals.
  • Use this planning time to figure out where, when and how to get done what you want to get done this week. As is the case with most things, you can half-ass it or give it your all. Planning gets better when you give it your all, so try to use the whole allocated time.
  • Recognize that things can change throughout the week. I supplement my weekly planning with a daily check-in. I take five minutes at the start of my day to remind myself of what’s most important and document that on a little scratch pad. You can download the specific planning template that I use here.


2. Creation

I regularly ask people to identify their “regret-free role models” — individuals who have accomplished something with their life, who they admire, respect and aspire to emulate. Every list is different, but there is almost always this common denominator: they are all value creators. They create a disproportionate positive impact on the people, and world, around them.

How to use this time:

  • Build skills, experience or expertise.
  • Write, build, cook, brew beer, whatever. For most of us, what we create will never reach the public eye (thank goodness!), but the key here is to start making a habit of creation.
  • Some may be inclined to use this time as passive learning (i.e. watching a TED Talk or reading a book). That’s important, but this time should be dedicated to applying what you know (i.e. have learned) toward building something.


3. Service

It is too easy today to focus inward, worrying about your own well-being at the expense of everything else. This is a mistake. As we discussed before, our most important human need is to contribute — to give of ourselves to others. Commit time each week to doing something for someone else.

How to use this time:

  • Volunteering is an obvious choice.
  • If you’re not sure what to do, here’s an even easier idea: Look around you and find someone to help. Could be a coworker, a friend, a mom or dad, a brother. Anyone you care about who could use a hand.
  • It doesn’t matter if it’s hugely important work or something mundane. Just make it clear that your help comes with no strings attached.


4. Reflection

Translate what’s happening in and around you into a true understanding that you can build on/take with you. Our lives are so busy we may be inclined to pile our experiences up on top of one another and expect them to magically coalesce into real meaning. That doesn’t happen without reflection.

How to use the time:

  • First and foremost, create a space (time and environment) where you can hear yourself think. Unplug the devices. Be “unreachable” for the time allocated.
  • Actively reflect: Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are now teaching their employees meditation. A long walk in the woods with pen and paper works well, too.
  • Document it. Simply capturing some of the thoughts that surface is a great way to build on the exercise over time.


5. Celebration/Fun

I don’t know when and how people start associating having fun with irresponsibility, but that’s got to stop. When you do something good, celebrate it. On any given week, your successes may be large or small, but celebrate each and every one.

How to use the time:

  • Do something you enjoy doing. Hit the driving range, happy hour, a ballgame, a concert, read.
  • Be grateful. Celebrate the fact that you’re a lucky guy (or gal). Anyone reading this blog has been given more gifts than most.
  • Bring people together. A number of my clients claim the money they will make will be used to bring friends together (i.e. I’ll buy a beach house, a ski house, a plane, and my friends and I will enjoy it together). You don’t need the toys to bring people together — you just need the will (and the time!). Start today.

What would you add to this list? What are the highest-value activities in your life? Share in the comments!

This post originally appeared at Regret Free Life.

Image: Photobucket