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  • Writer's pictureTerry Dockery


Fred was everybody’s hero. He worked nights and weekends, always went the extra mile on any project he undertook, and was always available to help his team mates when they needed assistance. Everybody liked him immensely, and you often heard comments in the hall like, “Boy, that Fred sure is a nice guy and a real go getter!”

In addition, Fred belonged to a gaggle of community service organizations, did every home project his wife asked him to do, helped his children with their homework, and coached their sports teams. That made it doubly sad and puzzling to the folks in the office when Fred’s wife left him and he had a heart attack. After a long convalescence he was able to return to work, but he seemed sad and lethargic a great deal of the time. His health, his successes, and his career began a steady decline which he seemed unable to reverse.

Before you ask where to send flowers, let’s examine Fred’s situation. What does his behavior tell you about his goals and priorities? Well, it seems clear that he had none, except to please everybody else. If everything is first priority, then nothing is first priority, least of all your own well being and best interests. Fred’s “hard work” and heroic efforts to be all things to all people resulted in failure and heartache on many fronts.

My perspective is that heroic effort is vastly overrated in our culture. We all like to cheer for the underdog who succeeds against overwhelming odds by the sheer force of extraordinary effort; it’s an integral part of the American dream. Well I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but in general I prefer to put my money on my countrymen and others who did all the preparation required to put themselves in the stronger position in the first place; i.e. “worked smart.”

Effective time and life management, or “working smart,” consists of two separate skills: a) focus and b) assertiveness. First, if you want to achieve excellence and success you will need to focus on a few clear and achievable goals. The more goals you pursue concurrently, the less likely you will achieve excellence and success in any one of them.

In addition, the priorities of your goals need to be clear. For example, if you place professional success as your first priority and family success as your second, then it is realistic to expect that you will miss some opportunities in your family life. The same is true for the reverse; if you place family success first you will miss some opportunities in your professional life.

Second, you must be willing to be assertive and say “no” to people. If you don’t, then everyone else controls your time and destiny instead of you. Your life direction essentially will be determined by who gets to you first rather than by your own clear goals and priorities. For example, if you say “yes” to the time commitment required to be president of your homeowners’ association, then de facto you may be saying “no” to the opportunity to coach your daughter’s softball team.

It’s a sobering experience to calculate the hours in a normal human life—the number is unyieldingly finite. Are you spending your hours on the things that are most important to you?


Technique #1: Focus your efforts on a few important goals, and know their respective priorities.

Technique #2: Be assertive; just say “no” to those opportunities that don’t fit within your goals and priorities.

Technique #3: Apply techniques 1 & 2 to your organization as well.

Technique #4: Celebrate often what a hoot it would be if you could attend your own funeral and hear folks talk about how successful you were in the areas in which you chose to excel.

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