Check Your Gauges: What to do When Routines Don’t Work

If you ask a business leader or entrepreneur about their biggest daily struggle, nine times out of ten they’ll tell you “I don’t have enough time,” or time management. Why is this? 

Because time is a necessary but nonrenewable resource – once it is gone, you cannot get it back. And unlike other assets, you cannot save it for future use.  You cannot buy, borrow, or beg for more. 

The good news is that everyone is on a level playing field. We are all given the same amount of time each day to use as we see fit. Each of us has 24 hours a day – nothing can change that fact. 

So how come there seems to be such a huge difference between what someone like Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet, or Bill Gates gets done in a day versus what the rest of us get done in the same amount of time?

The difference is time management. 

The average person uses 13 different methods to control and manage their time.  These methods can include anything from to-do lists, written planners, calendar apps, phone reminders, and prioritization tools… The list goes on and on, and all of these options require upkeep and attention.

Sometimes, in an attempt to create a system to manage our lives, we end up creating a mess that takes more time to manage than the time it saves.

Clearly, we have no lack of options. Yet, even with all these options available, time management still remains one of the most important, and seemingly unconquerable tasks in our daily lives. 

But I’ve found something that works better for me than all the daily planners I’ve filled up over the years, combined.

Time Management Systems

There are many theories as to what is the best time management system. There’s the Bucket Theory, Lakein’s ABC system (categorizing tasks in order of priority), The Inventory System ( reviewing actions in retrospect and learning from them), Steven Covey’s Time Management Grid (categorizes tasks in different quadrants based on their importance), Goal-setting theory (coming up with challenging and achievable goals), Time Management Windows Principles (borrowing from Johari’s window), and finally, Pareto’s 80/20 rule (only 20% of our activities are responsible for 80% of our output). 

I’m tired just looking at this list! And this isn’t even an exhaustive list of all the time management systems out there. This is just a sample of the more famous ones.

Believe me, I’ve tried my fair share of these systems. Sometimes, I’ve given them a try even more than once. But I always ran into problems.

The real dilemma is created when we try to fit something as fluid as time into convenient boxes, graphs, or grids. Our time isn’t used in neat little one-hour blocks, no matter how much we plan and journal.

The average person gets 1 interruption every 8 minutes, or approximately 7 an hour, or 50-60 per day. The average interruption takes 5 minutes, totaling about 4 hours or 50% of the average workday. 80% of those interruptions are typically rated as “little value” or “no value” creating approximately 3 hours of wasted time per day. 

Half of our day is taken up by interruptions we can’t plan for. 

But how does this translate to real-life time management? Does this mean when you are scheduling your time, you have to allow twice as much time as you predict you need, to allow for all of the unexpected interruptions? Or do you put up firm barriers around what is most valuable? 

The problem with most time management systems is that they don’t address the fluidity of your time. If a problem is dropped on your desk, or you have to leave work to handle a family matter, most time management systems don’t allow you to easily adjust to those kinds of changes. 

That’s why I made my own. I know, I know, the world needed another time management system. But it works for me, and it can work for you.

The Dashboard

Instead of creating time slots, or prioritizing all the big things first, I use a different method – I call it my “dashboard.” 

Think of the dashboard of your vehicle. It has several gauges that tell you the levels of different fluids, the battery charge, or the speed you are driving, as well as warning lights that come on when something is wrong. You don’t need to focus on everything at once, because the dashboard tells you what needs attention: when to put in gas, when to slow down, etc.

Now imagine a dashboard of your life, with a gauge for each area, and warning lights to tell you when something is wrong. 

Wouldn’t that be simple?

In my world, I have six different areas that I gauge and check-in on. 

  • Family
  • Work
  • Emotional Wellbeing (primarily, time for meditation)
  • Giving Back (charity and volunteer work)
  • Exercise
  • Fun (don’t forget this category! It’s as important as any other)

I imagine a dashboard where each of these areas has its own gauge, just like on the dashboard of my car, and it allows me to check in on everything at a glance. For example, if there is something happening within the engine system of your vehicle, the gauges will alert you, or if it is particularly concerning, a warning light will come on. 

The same thing happens with your individual areas in your life. If you can compartmentalize tasks into separate areas, then a quick glance over should keep you apprised of what is going on in each area. 

In practical terms, this means I group all my tasks into one of these key areas (if a task doesn’t fit, it’s probably not that important, so I can either put it on a miscellaneous list or drop it completely). I can tell the gauges have their “warning lights” on if I’m not completing tasks… or by more qualitative means, like feedback in that area from the people who matter.

If one area is getting low, I can address that area and make sure that it’s running at an optimal level. So, if I’m behind on work, I can put in more time to increase that gauge’s level. If I’m feeling burnt out, I can add more power to my Fun or Emotional Wellbeing gauges.

I find most often that I tend to focus on my work, which has an unintentional consequence of other areas of my life not receiving the attention they deserve. I think we are all guilty of this in some way – most often the area that loses attention is something personal. In my case, it’s usually exercise that gets left out. 

While my rational mind knows that when my body is being properly exercised I am mentally sharper, my emotions remain in check, I sleep better and, in short, every area of my life improves, it is also the easiest one of my six areas to procrastinate. That’s because, unlike family time or work obligations, if I skip it, I am the only one who suffers a loss. 

This is the value of the Dashboard approach. At any time, I can check-in and see where I am at in each of the areas that are most important. A quick “glance” will allow me to notice that I haven’t exercised enough and that gauge is getting low or that I have spent too much time at work and my family needs more attention. 

But do not be mistaken in thinking that every gauge needs to be all the way in the “full” zone. If you take this metaphor to the next level and imagine your body as the car’s engine, then it makes sense to accept that not every gauge should be maxed out. Your engine’s RPM’s should never be at max – that indicates that your engine is about to blow up! 

Optimal Levels

Realistically, each gauge has an “optimal” level. Some areas only need 30% while others need 90%. What is important is to make sure your overall engine performance is where it needs to be. 

This allows for variation between people, and variation over time. At a stressful point in your life, you may need to have Emotional Wellbeing or Fun higher than usual.

A reasonable (non-engine-combusting) goal is to have each of the gauges operating at somewhere around 70%. This doesn’t mean only give 70% of your effort overall. It means you give enough to reach your work performance goals, without giving so much that you approach burnout, or harm other areas. 

With my work gauge there are times when I need to give more than others, like when I have a project deadline looming or end of the year accounting to complete. During those times, I have to give more to make sure my gauge is at or above 70%. 

Just the same, there are times where work is less demanding and home might be taking up a bit more of my time. I do my best to keep my family gauge at or above 90% because they are my priority. Sometimes, like during the holidays, my family gets a bigger chunk of my time and effort. 

The other four categories are also important, but they naturally come after work and family. I like to spend time in meditation as well as exercise because it makes me a more fully grounded person in every area. Fun is necessary to enjoy life, even though busy people like us tend to forget that. That leaves “giving back” on the list, which helps me keep a good perspective on my life and the world. The combination of these areas are a little more variable than the top two (family and work). I try to keep these above 50% as well. 

I find that this method allows more flexibility within my time management. I am able to check in on each area and put more into the areas where I am below optimal level. It also allows for me to adjust when different areas are more demanding than they usually are. 

If you try applying this same method to the larger pieces of your life, you’ll waste less time managing your time, and have more freedom to adjust to current demands and even the surprises that won’t fit neatly into one hour blocks.

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Harry Schechter


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