What will you make of the time you’re given?

By nature, for the most part, we are pack rats. We accumulate things. In the extreme, it’s called hoarding. Yeah, I’ve watched the show myself. We save everything… toys, food, money, books, cables, clothes, cords, clips…

But there’s one thing that no one has ever been able to accumulate more of. Time cannot be saved. Of all our resources, it is the most fleeting of all. I’ve never heard of anyone on the cusp of death who wished they had more books or extension cords. They do, however, wish they had more time.

A great deal has been written about time management. There is no shortage of demand for my own workshops on the subject. However, the challenge (and irony) is finding the time to sign up! Here are five proven principles for successfully conquering — or at least taming — that fleeting, invaluable resource we call time.

Change your perception. In order to manage your time more efficiently, you need to re-evaluate your perception. We treat time as if it were a commodity that’s doled out in plenty for some and not so much for others. Think about it: “I didn’t have time…” Those who know me know how I cringe hearing those words. Our perception of time is skewed. It’s not that you didn’t have the time, but rather, you didn’t take the time. We all have 24 hours in a day. Stop approaching time as something you save. It must be invested into what matters now… as if our lives depended on it. In many ways, it does.

W.I.N. To help you master this thing called time, you need to determine and prioritize your life. I’m talking about laying out a map for the next 30 to 40 years. But if you’re like me, most of us can’t think past lunch. The legendary football coach Lou Holtz counseled his players to ask themselves this question 35 times a day: “What’s Important Now?” (W.I.N.) Great time managers live in the now and learn to focus on what matters most… right now.

Urgent vs. important. Urgent activities demand immediate attention and are typically associated with someone else’s goals. Important activities are those with broader impact that lead to the achievement of your goals. To become effective and efficient time managers, you need to differentiate between the two. Often times, urgent monopolizes our time by masquerading as important, beckoning us to a well of unproductive time every day. Don’t answer.

Raise the flag! I was having lunch at a Mexican buffet in Texas, and I had just scooted my chair out to get seconds. As quickly as I stood up, there in front of me was a server who actually took my order. I learned that whenever I needed something, all I had to do was raise the small Mexican flag in the center of the table. Over the years, I have spoken to countless leaders who say, “I don’t have any time to myself because of my ‘open door’ policy.” I tell them to raise the flag! With permission, I took one of those Mexican flags and placed it on my desk for all to see. To help minimize my interruptions, I would raise the flag while working on important projects. With some training, my staff knew that unless it was absolutely critical, I was not to be interrupted. And it worked! An open-door policy is no excuse for not managing your time. Raise the flag.

To do or not to do. It never ceases to amaze me. I can take a room of 500 leaders and ask, “How many have tasks or projects to do on a daily basis?” I follow that up with, “How many of you actually write out those projects on a daily basis in order of importance?” We live in such a fast-paced and hectic environment that we don’t make time to place our worlds in a more manageable, “user-friendly” mode. Yet when we don’t, it’s like throwing up a deck of cards and trusting that the winning hand will ultimately face up. Why not take a moment and stack the deck in your favor? You can do this by making a “to-do” list each day. Do it every day, because priorities shift. You will find that at the end of the day, you’ll replace your uhhhhh with an ahhhhh! I also recommend a “what not to do” list for those of you who find yourselves wasting time on unimportant tasks.

Each of us has 168 hours each week. Each day, we’re given 86,400 seconds. Our challenge is not that we don’t have time. Our challenge is: What are you going to make of the time you’re given? We make time for what’s important. iBi

John P. Muñoz is vice president of training and development at Citizens First National Bank.