No one ever consciously decides to operate reactively, simply waiting for someone or something to provide them with something to do. Those who find themselves using their time passively start with good intentions, only to discover later that they live in their email inbox, acting as if what shows up there is their real work. When challenged about their habits, their rationalizations may sound perfectly reasonable to themselves, but not to anyone who understand the nature of time and the need to do good work.
Time, as I’ve said here before, is your most important resource. It’s more valuable than money in all its forms, including Bitcoin. It’s more valuable than your home, your car, and even food or water. Anything tangible that you value can be replaced, but once you’re out of time, that’s it.
The biggest mistake you can make is disrespecting time, by treating it as if it were abundant. Here’s how to resist two common excuses for wasting time.
The First Excuse for Wasting Time
The first excuse you hear from people who live in their inbox is that they don’t want to miss something important. When asked to close their email, they vigorously reject the idea, often stating that they have clients who might need them, so they have to be there for them. There is a lot to unpack here, a large part of which is going to sting a little. Actually, it’s going to sting like getting hit by a semi-truck.
If you have decided your role is to sit and wait for your clients to need something from you, you are a Customer Service Representative. Your business cards may say something else, but your behaviors and your outcomes betray your real role and contribution. More to the point, if you think that not immediately responding to a client’s request is going to substantially weaken your relationship, then you and your clients don’t have a very good relationship to start with.
Living in your inbox betrays a debilitating lack of understanding of what clients really need from you. You want your clients to turn to you for help improving their results, especially with the outcomes that are critically important to them. You don’t want them to reach out to you to place orders, to request reports, to find lost shipments, or to do anything else that someone else should be handling based on their role.
The reason you do small things for your clients is because you can’t—or won’t—help them with more difficult (and more valuable) outcomes. The value of your relationship should not reduce you to being the liaison between your client and your company.
The Second Excuse for Wasting Time
The second reason you might waste time in your inbox is the unfortunate and incorrect belief that your work is to be found in your email. Certainly, a lot of tasks show up in your inbox every day, likely more than you could do in a day, and many of which don’t belong to you. Were you to count how many emails significantly contribute to your reaching your goals, I doubt you’d need more than one hand.
Your real work is not found in your email inbox. What you find there are tasks, things that other people need from you, delivered in a way that indicates they aren’t urgent: the things that are both urgent and important will cause your phone to ring. This is not to say that the tasks you find in email are not important, but they don’t even touch what’s most important.
When you live in your inbox, two things are true. First, you probably have no priorities of your own, least of all any that dominate your time and attention. Second, if you do have priorities, you are failing to give them the time and attention they need.
It Bears Repeating
Imagine you are sitting across from three C-level executives, decision-makers and decision-shapers who happen to choose the strategic partner to help them with whatever outcome it is that you sell. You have their full and undivided attention for the next ninety minutes, and you are certain that your insights are going to be valuable enough for you to launch a long and mutually fruitful partnership.
Ten minutes into your conversation, you open your laptop and read through your email. Recognizing a trivial request from one of your clients, you ask the three executives sitting around the table, patiently waiting for you to make this meeting valuable for them, if it would be okay if you took a minute to respond to your client’s request. The meeting would end faster than you can say “sorry, I forgot the attachment.”
Each week, I close my Sunday newsletter with the same words: “Do good work.” There are two ideas wrapped up in that statement. The first and most direct is that you should do quality work, work that makes you proud. The second idea is more subtle but also more important: the work you do should be beneficial to other people, something closer to “do good works,” because that’s what’s really worth your time and energy and focus.
You are never going to do good work if you can’t give yourself over to big things for ninety minutes at a time. At the end of ninety minutes, you can scan your email, return calls, and follow up on anything important. Bundle up all the different tasks that show up, then handle all of the administrative minutiae after you have done what’s most import