May 072012

I am under vampire attack! I feel like Buffy the Vampire Slayer sometimes, as I am constantly on guard against these insidious creatures of the night. They attack when I least expect them and suck the life right out of me. I wish they would sparkle distinctively like Stephanie Meyer’s vampires for quick recognition, but reality is they are often the shiny objects that lure me in. I’m talking Time Vampires, those things in life that steal the most scarce resource we have and yet have no control over – time.

What is a Time Vampire?

Time vampires are everywhere. They are activities that take more time than we would like to spend. Television, video games or even daydreaming are some common Time Vampires. I’m not saying the act itself is bad . That is a whole other argument. These, and many other activities, easily get out of control without our realizing just how much of our life they have consumed until it is too late. I know when I sit down to play a video game, time seems to speed up and evaporate. The next thing I know, it is 3:00am and the rest of my week is shot while I recover from a lack of sleep.

Silently, these vampires suck away our lives, leaving us disappointed in ourselves and destroying the ability we have to accomplish bigger goals and ambitions. We have to constantly be aware and on guard. Some of these vampires can even be disguised as things we usually consider to be good, like reading, paying bills, yard work, cleaning or cooking. If it gets out of hand and keeps us from accomplishing a higher goal, it is a Time Vampire.

Recognizing a Time Vampire

Time Vampires are not easy to recognize. I wish they sparkled when brought into the sunlight. They don’t appear in front of us in swirly black capes in pointy teeth, either. They often can’t even be recognized directly, but only by their effects, sometimes over long periods of time. This is why they are so difficult to identify. If we don’t arrive at a goal when we think we should, too often we shrug and say, “That’s life.” However, it could be that we have allowed a Time Vampire to deflect our course along the way.

First, we must know where we want to go. I believe Louis Carroll summed it up best in Alice In Wonderland.

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. Which road do I take? she asked. Where do you want to go? was his response. I don’t know, Alice answered. Then, said the cat, it doesn’t matter.

If we do not know where we are going, we will never recognize a Time Vampire deviating us from our destination. To identify a Time Vampire, we have to evaluate every activity we do and ask if it is moving us closer to our goal.

The second question is ask how much time it takes to do the activity in relation to how much it should require. For example, paying bills is a Vampire for me. I enjoy the analysis just enough that hours can go by in a blink. Vampires come in all shapes and sizes. What is a Vampire for me, may not be one for you. Gardening is not a Time Vampire for my wife, but it is for me. She loves it and I don’t, but because I love my wife, I participate. I will get on a project for her and time will get away from me and the next thing I know, I have lost an entire day. It isn’t wasted time, just spent completely on activities that don’t contribute directly to my personal goals. I’m not saying am not saying I should never help my wife, just need to be aware of what I am not getting done as a result so we can judge a compromise.

Guarding Against Time Vampires

I wish wearing a garlic necklace would help ward off a Time Vampire. It isn’t nearly that easy. The most important thing is to have that firm goal in mind of what we are working toward. Once we suspect a Time Vampire is in play, start keeping track of the time it takes to the the various activities of the day. Before starting something, decide how much time is going to be allowed for the task. This evaluation needs to be done regularly as Time Vampires can creep quietly in and take over. Weekly reviews are made to help us identify Time Vampires. We not only review all the tasks and projects we are working on, we spend time evaluating our goals and plans. We should constantly question whether the tasks and projects are moving us toward those goals. Once we have found a Time Vampire, we then have to develop a plan on how to eliminate or at least contain it.

Becoming a Time Vampire Slayer

Just as vampires don’t like wooden stakes or crosses, Time Vampires don’t like awareness. Once we know something sucks our time away, we can consider alternatives. Coming up with different ways of eliminating each unique Time Vampire can be a lot of fun. The more creative, the better the solution may be. Remember, everyone is different, so my alternatives may not be acceptable for you.

When I identified bill paying as a time vampire, I decided to automate as much of it as possible, using electronic bill pay options. I automated bill paying to the point I have very few bills to manually pay each month. I use a checklist of expected bills to quickly work through the bills and be confident I haven’t forgotten one.

Another option is outsourcing. I outsourced lawn mowing to my kids. For Christmas, I outsourced one of my wife’s Time Vampires – housecleaning. I hired a talented woman to spend a few hours every other week to do the deep cleaning so my wife can spend her time on other activities. It was a little expensive, but we haven’t regretted it once.

Another technique that works for those things I still have to do, like email, is the Pomodoro Technique. I set a timer for 20 minutes and focus intently on clearing as much as possible during that sprint. The timer helps me stay on task, keeping the Time Vampire from distracting me into long deviations. This technique also helps me get through tasks that easily wipe out an entire day, like cleaning the garage. If I focus for 20 minutes over several sessions on consecutive days, it actually takes less time than one long, daylong session. Breaking big tasks into smaller ones keeps the Time Vampire in check.

What are some of your Time Vampires? Share them in the comments section. It may help the rest of us identify ones we haven’t recognized yet. How did you find them? What works to keep them at bay? We all need to stick together to guard against Time Vampires.

If you find this post of value, won’t you please share it with some friends? I want to help as many people as possible and could really use your help. I appreciate every link or a retweet. Thank you!

Apr 232012

Years ago, I attended my first boy scout camp at Camp Little Lemhi outside Palisades, Idaho. It was there I had my first experience with paddling a canoe. A few years ago, friends introduced me to a lake kayak and I was sold. Since then, I have taken every chance I could get to dip an oar into the water. I love the tranquility and peace found will paddling around a lake or shoreline. While there are many techniques I have learned over the years, one of the most applicable across life is to keep an oar in the water.

Canoes and kayaks have very little draft, how much of the craft is below the water. Sitting on top of the water means there is little to keep the boat from being pushed around by the wind and the current. The lack of a rudder means all the steering must be completed by the person paddling. In short, the oar becomes the method of propulsion AND steering. These important tasks only happen when keeping an oar in the water.

A little oar makes a big difference

The oar blade is wide and thin, When pulled through the water, the wide surface powers the boat forward. When flipped sideways, the narrow blade becomes a rudder, able to direct the craft in the desired direction. I have always marveled somewhat that a 17 foot kayak can easily be directed by a 6 inch rudder. By contrast, an 1100 foot air craft carrier’s rudder is only 22 feet long.

My scout advisor taught me a few different methods for controlling my craft, including a couple different stroke styles. However, the one lesson he pounded into our heads time and again was the only way it worked was if we kept our oar in the water. Perhaps he really wanted us to quit splashing around, but the lesson is profound. Keep the oar in the water and it puts the boat at your command. Take the oar out of the water and the boat becomes instantly at the command of the current and the wind.

Oars in life

There are many analogies and lessons that can be made to our lives and the oar. Today, I am thinking about how goals are like an oar. Goals don’t have to be very big in size or scope to keep us tracking toward a greater destination. Working toward something, no matter how small, means we are not just allowing the current of life to sweep us along. A goal focuses our efforts and moves us along.

When I made the goal of getting up earlier in the morning, I had no idea how much change that little difference would make to my life. When I get up and get my “Three R’s” of Reading, Writing and Running complete before breakfast, the rest of my day goes much more smoothly. My day becomes more productive. When I sleep in, I have to fight harder to get everything done that I should.

Put an oar in the water

Goals are simple desires to improve ourselves. Without action, though, they are just hopes for someday. Putting the oar in the water, so to speak, is the only way the goal will benefit us. A little speed develops with each stroke or action. Pulling against the resistance of life helps us gain speed to where we want to go. A few small successes and we have momentum. Then we can settle into a steady rhythm, using the oar or goal to guide us.

When I feel adrift in my life, I realize it is time to do as my scout advisor suggested and put an oar in the water. Make a goal and start pulling. it doesn’t take long to get under way to somewhere special.

Feb 292012

I recently reviewed the book Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen. While written about making businesses great, I believe they have perhaps inadvertently written one of the best books on improving oneself. I am taking the next few posts to lay the case of how we can ourselves be Great By Choice.

Mt. Kilamanjaro, Africa. Courtesy of Ramesh Chamala

The first distinguishing factor Collins and Hansen laid out between 10Xer companies and their comparisons is The 20 Mile March. They describe a trek across the continent, San Diego to Maine. They contend the person who walks 20 miles each day, come rain, shine, snow or wind, will beat the person who walks 50 miles on a good day, 5 or 10 when the weather is adverse or perhaps not at all when conditions are worse. The discipline of always trekking 20 miles every day, even if conditions dictate more could be accomplished, delivers high performance in difficult times and holding back in good times. As my mother used to say, “Slow and steady wins the race.”

This principle is first that got me thinking Great By Choice applies to the personal quest as well as business. When I read this, I was in the middle of planning my goals for the new year. I was in the mindset that I should be breaking my goals into smaller chunks. The 20 Mile March made perfect sense. Consistent, small steps are more likely to change habits than big leaps.

Collins and Hansen lay out seven characteristics of a 20 Mile March:

  1. Clear performance markers.
  2. Self-imposed constraints.
  3. Appropriate to the specific enterprise
  4. Largely within the company’s (or person’s) control to achieve.
  5. A proper timeframe – long enough to manage, yet short enough to have teeth.
  6. Imposed by the company (or person) upon itself.
  7. Achieved with high consistency.

What does this look like in a personal life? One of my 20 Mile Marches this year is to read 40 books. I have several books lined up to read and the pile is quite daunting. However, the 20 Mile March is to read something every day. I have a recurring task on my task list for every book I am currently reading. Even if I only read a couple pages, I make sure I read some every day so I can check off the task. I have these recurring tasks for all my goals to keep me moving forward. Each time I check one off, I build confidence that I can accomplish the goal, regardless of how difficult it may seem.

I visited with Ramesh Chamala yesterday who exemplifies the 20 Mile March. He was on my team several years ago. Ramesh mentioned to me then he had a goal to climb the highest peak in every one of the lower 48 states. He started with some of the lower elevation ones, but soon was climbing taller ones. I checked in to see how he is doing on his goal.

He didn’t tell me how many peaks he has climbed, although it is several, instead excitedly telling me about how he broadened his challenge. After climbing the Inca trail to see Machu Picchu, he decided to climb the highest peaks on each of the seven continent. Now that is a formidable challenge! Last year he climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro in Africa. At 19,341 feet (5,895 meters), it is the largest free-standing peak in the world. The ascent took seven days, during which he traveled through five climate zones, rain forest to arctic. The oxygen levels at the top were half those at the bottom and altitude sickness is a real, mortal danger.

I asked him what he thought of the 20 Mile March concept. He replied it is a very valid point. He is training to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, this December. He used to not going out to train when it is windy and snowy. Now he realizes he has to. Conditions at the top of this 22,841 foot (6,962 meter) peak will not be ideal. He now goes out to train regardless of the weather. His comment “adapt to the conditions and go” is good advice.

He climbed the Grand Canyon rim to rim recently. It is 21 miles, 6000 feet down and 8000 feet back up. His new mantra? “Heaven is 21 miles long and 6000 feet deep.” He explained the real beauty of the Grand Canyon cannot be seen by peaking over the edge as most do. Getting down into the rock formations is the best way. The sunrise, according to Ramesh, is best seen from inside.

Ramesh Chamala conquered Kilamanjaro March 1, 2011

His advice to the rest of us non-climbers?

You can’t give up, shouldn’t give up. I’ve had a lot of problems. Just have to pick up the pieces and move. Lean on others to move on with the journey. Learn from others. There are always going to be obstacles. Like climbing a mountain, you have to keep making the changes.

Whatever challenge we face, attack it with a 20 Mile March. Don’t try to conquer it in one attempt. Regardless of difficulty, change or chaos, just do the routine tasks. Don’t overextend or stop. Keep moving. All the way to the top.

Great By Choice Personal Improvement Series

Great By Choice: Personal Success In Reach
Great By Choice: The 20 Mile March
Great By Choice: Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs
Great By Choice: Leading Above the Death Line
Great By Choice: SMaC

Great By Choice: Return On Luck