The Compass vs The Clock

The CompassWe often talk and think about time as though it was an expendable commodity, like money for example. We talk about ‘saving’ time, or ‘making up’ time.

However, the simple fact is that all of us have all the time there is. Twenty four hours a day, no more and no less. It can’t be saved and used later, and you can’t borrow more from tomorrow to use today. Time passes inexorably by, and regardless of whatever we do with each passing minute it disappears just the same, never to return.

It is our misplaced notion of time as an elastic property which often lies at the heart of most time management problems – we assume that we can stretch time to fit everything into our day without stopping to consider whether we are giving more time to the things we really value, and less time to those that we don’t.

Every day we are faced with a seemingly endless stream of tasks demanding our attention, and clamouring for our time – from emails to admin; from to-do lists to projects; from deadlines to due dates – and that’s before we even start to consider the things we would like to achieve in our lives outside of work. It’s like we tip everything into a large bucket, and sooner or later it overflows. But the trouble is, we have no control over what spills out and what stays in.

If only we had some way of assigning value to things, so we make sure the things of high value stay in and only those of low value spill out.

This dilemma can be addressed to some extent by approaching the problem as less of a Time Management issue, and more of a Life Management issue.

Stephen Covey addresses this issue in his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. and in particular through the third habit which he calls First Things First. He uses the metaphor of the clock and the compass to compare how we manage our life vs how we manage our time. The clock is a focus on how we spend our time – what we do. This refers to such things as commitments, appointments and schedules.

The compass involves a focus on how we lead our lives. This includes our values, principles, mission, goals, vision and direction in life. The goal then, in terms of our Life Management outcomes, is to make sure that what we do (the clock) contributes directly to what’s most important (the compass).

So how does this help? Well for starters it helps us to identify and separate the urgent things in our lives from the truly important things.

When operating according to the compass, for example, we find that many of the longer term life goals we may have for ourselves appear as important but not urgent.

Things which demand our attention in the moment on the other hand will appear as urgent and if we are not careful, and unless we have a system to separate the two we can spend our whole lives focusing only on the urgent, only to find we have neglected those things which are most important to us.

To quote Goethe, “Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”

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