When organization beats talent & willpower

How time management can be a superpower

We have a tendency to overvalue talent in our society. We look at Lebron James and say "that dude's a freak." And we mean it, of course, as the highest compliment.

The same goes for Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps or Serena Williams, but it's not just these incredible athletes whose talents we celebrate. We also idolize the other-worldly talents of academics like Albert Einstein and investors like Warren Buffett.

These luminaries—and other outliers across the worlds of sports, business and academia were clearly born to (fill in the blank with their greatest achievements).

And there's something to that, of course. Natural talent is important. From athletics to academics, we are "wired" to a certain degree to be better at some things and worse at others. I don't deny this, and in fact, I am a big proponent of swimming with the tide rather than against it. That means doubling down on what we are really good at, rather than spending too much time on what we're terrible at. For me, writing comes fairly naturally. So if I write, and keep writing and then write some more, I might have a fighting chance at becoming an excellent writer someday. Conversely, I am not technical at all. If you ask me to put together a table from Ikea, it will end up with three legs, five missing pieces and four extra ones. I certainly would have made a terrible civil engineer.

And while we're all naturally good at some things and not so good at others, very few of us can rely upon our innate abilities alone to carry us through life and get us to our goals.

So we need willpower, right? Another "superpower" that we admire in others. How can ultra-marathoners run 100+ miles? Because they have freak-ish willpower, surely. How can David McCullough churn out 600-page historical biographies again and again? Must be willpower (and talent), right? How can Olympic athletes reach the pinnacle of their sports? Again, probably a combination of talent and willpower, wouldn't you think?

Certainly in all of these cases both talent and willpower are required. But there is a third superpower. A less respected or at least less-acknowledged secret weapon. One that is more readily attainable than talent or willpower, but when wielded intentionally may be just as impactful. That superpower is organization.

Organization? Are we talking about color-coding our sock drawers or cleaning out our attics? No, but that's important, too. That's why I wrote about that here.

In this case, I'm talking about the superpower of organizing our time. Organizing how we spend our weeks and our days, down to the minute.

I used to be of the opinion that too much scheduling was overkill. That it was unnecessary. That it could squash serendipity.

I didn't want a plan in place for my beach vacation. I wanted nothing on the schedule. I wanted to do whatever I felt like doing, whenever I felt like doing it. The same for my weekends. "Why do we need a plan? " I'd complain to my wife or anyone else in earshot.

But then I realized that in practice, the worst vacations were the ones without plans. The worst weekends were the ones without plans. Those were the ones when our family would sit around and stare at each other and inevitably get on each other's nerves.

Becoming a parent has only accelerated this need for order. Of course, babies do best when they're on schedules. But it's not just babies. My son plays on two baseball teams at the moment. He's got baseball four days a week, often with multiple games per day on the weekends. The amount of baseball is borderline ridiculous. And while many of us feel nostalgic for the days when our parents sent us outside in the morning and simply expected us to be back by sundown, the structure has its benefits. During the summer, when school is out and sports schedules are light, my kids struggle. They're more likely to have behavior issues or just generally be pains in the neck. But in the middle of what can seem like insanity—school all day with a quick stop home for dinner and then on to baseball practice, repeated day after day, my kids tend to thrive. Their attitudes are better and the success they achieve in one area (like baseball) tends to feed through to other areas (like school).

My niece is an awesome soccer player. She's always managed to maintain great grades in school even while practicing multiple days a week and sometimes not arriving home until late in the evening, only to start the next day's homework. Now she's off to college to play D1 soccer. I have no doubt in my mind that she will do incredibly well there, and in her career, whatever she chooses to do. Is she more talented than others? Maybe, but not necessarily. Does she have more willpower than others? Possibly. Has she been forced to hone her time management skills because of all the demands on her time? Most definitely. Managing a college workload and a D1 sport will be no match for her. Nor will managing a high-pressure career, further education, you name it. The time management habits are so ingrained at this point that she'll be able to exploit them to her advantage for the rest of her life.

When I arrived on Wall Street some twenty years ago, one of the things that astounded me was the number of former athletes who thrived in the high-pressure trading floor environment. Certainly, the lessons they learned on the field helped them to succeed in such a competitive environment. Leadership. Tenacity. Humility. But that wasn't what impressed me. They were incredibly consistent—having no problem arriving by 6 am every day, for years—and they didn't waste time. They focused on the job at hand, got it done, and then were off to whatever they had planned for the evenings—often studying for an MBA or training for a marathon. Talented? Yes. Full of willpower? Certainly. But most noticeable to me? They were absolute pros when it came to time management.

I've noticed in my own career as I've gotten more senior the demands on my time can be insane. I'm often asked to join seven, eight or nine meetings per day. I'm sent hundreds of emails daily, most of which demand a response. And I am receiving phone calls, instant messages and every other form of communication all day long. Yet, the core of my job is to produce content. Articles, papers, podcasts, videos. And it's within that core that I think I can truly add value. Am I okay at attending meetings or answering urgent emails, and do I have to do that? Of course, but if I let my inbox be my to-do list, a lot of people would have the answer they're looking for instantly, but no one would have any high-quality work from me. And I would not have produced anything that I am proud of.

So for me, time management has become my superpower of choice. I am forced to schedule my days in half-hour increments—often a week or two in advance. Rarely do I have a free 30-min slot in my day. But it's not just the meetings with others that are in my calendar, I'm also scheduling time for myself to get things done. That means understanding the projects that will be most impactful and putting time on my own calendar to tackle them. Scheduling time with myself is a relatively new phenomenon for me. I've only been doing it for a few years. But incidentally, I think the quality (and probably) the quantity of my work has increased materially since then.

Am I more talented than I was a few years back? No, I'm not. Do I have more willpower? Please, I have a five-month-old baby. Willpower is at a premium. But am I better at managing my own time? Yes, and it's made a tremendous difference in my effectiveness.

So how can you apply this to your own life? Here a few steps to consider:

  1. Identify who you are trying to be, or in other words, the roles you're trying to succeed at in your life.

  2. Identify the habits that you need to accomplish daily to achieve success in those roles.

  3. Get organized. I described in a recent article how I am tackling Steps 1 through 3 in my personal life, including the use of a habit-tracking app. But in the workplace, this can be as simple as looking at your calendar on a Friday and scheduling out the time you need the following week to accomplish what needs to be done.

  4. Stick with your schedule and be ruthless about protecting your time. Are fire drills going to pop up? Are you going to have to adapt on the fly? Of course, but you're much more likely to succeed if you have a plan (even if it changes) than if you show up and let your inbox direct your day.

  5. Be a psycho about what you let on your calendar. Are you really needed in that meeting? Can it be delegated? Is there something higher value-add that you can be doing? It's easy to fall into people-pleasing mode and attend every meeting you're invited to, but those same people that you're pleasing with your presence may not be so pleased when your real work is not done or done poorly.

  6. Assess how you did. I used to work every weekend. I'd get to Friday afternoon completely flustered because I would have tried to attend every meeting AND get all my work done. In reality, that meant I actually had to do my work on the weekends. That wasn't ideal and is not a recipe for a balanced life or a happy home life. Now I realize that if I have not completed my tasks by Friday afternoon, then it's my fault for saying yes to too many things. And I won't make that same mistake the following week.

You know what you can do if you follow these steps?

A ton. Hard things. Things you think people like you have no business doing.

Once you are in control of your schedule, you will get addicted to spending the bulk of your time on high-value tasks. And people will notice. And you'll notice. And you'll start to believe that you've held yourself back unconsciously for way too long.

But now I'm veering into serious Tony Robbins inspirational speech territory, so I'll stop.

But seriously, being ruthless about your time and not apologizing for it is a superpower.

You will not believe what you can achieve once you nail this. Try it.


Photo credit: Luke Chesser @ Unsplash

Last week, I wrote about the importance of our information diets. So here’s a little insight into what I’m currently consuming. I’ll add this from time to time if you’re interested.
Let me know! As always, thanks for reading and I appreciate you spreading the word about Intentional Wisdom to your friends. So cool to see it grow! - Greg

Books: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow -- Okay, I'm about five years late, but my kids and wife have finally worn me down due to the 24/7 streaming of the play on Disney+ and the soundtrack. It's very good but incredibly long. I'm reading it on my Kindle and I think I've been 16% through it for about a week now. But I love historical non-fiction.

The Obesity Code: Jason Fund, MD -- I'm trying to wrap my head around intermittent fasting and how insulin impacts our bodies. I may write about this if I learn something worth sharing.

Audiobook: Can't Hurt Me by David Goggins -- Only a few chapters in but seems like a powerful story of overcoming hardship in life.

Podcast: Wow in the World by NPR -- This is for kids but if you're handling the drive to school like me right now, you might like it.

Netflix: Money Heist -- a thriller of a series imported from Spain about a bank heist. It's pretty edge-of-your-seat stuff. We thought we'd finished it after 13 episodes but just realized there are 4 seasons. Woah.