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What you achieve depends on how you use your time. Everyone on the planet has 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. If you subtract 8 hours a day for sleeping, there’s only about 250,000 hours in an average lifetime. If you assume that the most productive years are from ages 25–55, this reduces the time to about 100,000 hours. The table below shows how the average American spends a day1.

 Working, studying20–45%
 Talking, eating, or daydreaming while at work4–15%
 Housework, cooking, cleaning, shopping8–22%
 Grooming, washing up, dressing3–6%
 Driving, transportation6–9%
 Media, TV, reading9–13%
 Hobbies, sports, movies, restaurants4–13%
 Talking, socializing4–12%
 Relaxing, resting3–5%
*Each percentage point is equivalent to about 1 hour per week.

Some people accomplish much more with their time than others. Day after day, year after year, what you do with your time determines your past, present, and future. On her deathbed, legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I offered her kingdom for an extra moment of time. As Silicon Valley veteran Randy Komisar puts it, “In the long run we’re all dead. Time is the only resource that matters.”

Nothing should be prized more highly than the value of each day.

Time Diary
To manage your time better, it helps to understand how you’re spending it now. Find out by keeping a time diary for a few days.
  1. From the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep, record how much time you spend on every activity you do.
  2. Which activities can you shorten or eliminate? Saving even 5 minutes a day works out to an extra 30 hours per year.
  3. Should you invest more time in certain activities? Remember, how you spend your time predicts your future. If you want to be a professional writer, it’ll take a lifetime to achieve your goal if you’re only investing 15 minutes a day.


Why are some people willing to run though walls for their goals, while others have a hard time getting off the couch? Steven Reiss is a psychology professor at Ohio State University. He believes there are 16 basic desires that motivate our actions and define our personalities2. These motives are listed in the following table. What’s motivating you to achieve your goals?

AcceptanceDesire for approvalSelf-confidence
CuriosityDesire for knowledgeWonder
EatingDesire to eatSatiation
FamilyDesire to raise childrenLove
HonorDesire to obey a traditional moral codeLoyalty
IdealismDesire to improve society, desire for altruism and justiceCompassion
IndependenceDesire to be autonomousFreedom
OrderDesire to organize, desire for ritualStability
Physical exerciseDesire to exercise musclesVitality
PowerDesire to influence, desire for leadershipEfficacy
RomanceDesire for sex and courtshipLust
SavingDesire to collect, desire to be frugalOwnership
Social contactDesire for companionship, desire for playFun
StatusDesire for social standing, desire for attentionSelf-importance
TranquilityDesire to avoid anxiety and fearSafety, Relaxation
VengeanceDesire to get even, desire to compete and winVindication

Follow your passion, and success will follow you.
-Arthur Buddhold

Setting Goals
You’ve freed up your time, and you know what motivates you. The next step is setting goals that are in line with your motivations. Edwin Locke is a business professor at the University of Maryland, and an expert in the field of setting goals. In a review of 30 years of research, he lists the following key findings3,4:
  1. The more difficult the goal, the greater the achievement.
  2. The more specific the goal, the more precise the performance.
  3. The highest performance comes when goals are both difficult and specific.
  4. The higher your commitment, the higher your performance.
  5. High goal commitment comes when you believe the goal is important and attainable.
  6. Goal setting is most effective when there is feedback showing progress towards the goal.
The simple act of committing to a goal makes it more likely that you’ll achieve it. In a study of New Year’s resolutions, researchers from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania recruited people who wanted to make a change in their lives5. The most common goals were losing weight (31 percent), starting an exercise program (15 percent), and quitting smoking (12 percent). After 6 months, 46 percent of people who made a New Year’s resolution had achieved their goal, compared to 4 percent of those who did not make a resolution.

Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed on a star does not change his mind.
-Leonardo da Vinci

Action Steps
Once you’ve set a goal, work backwards and figure out the steps to achieve it. Your plan is like a ladder—the steps are rungs to climb on your way to the top. Some of the steps are absolutely required, while others may have alternative paths. The essential steps represent your “critical path.” Keep a careful eye on these steps to avoid failure. Some steps may also “gate” your overall progress because they must be accomplished before you can do anything else. Try to minimize these bottlenecks as much as you can.

Suppose you’ve set yourself the goal of climbing to the top of Mount Everest. Working backwards, you determine the following critical path to your goal:
  1. Train for high-altitude mountain climbing.
  2. Finance the expedition.
  3. Purchase equipment.
  4. Assemble a team of Sherpas.
  5. Climb to base camp and acclimatize.
  6. Make the final ascent to the top of Mount Everest.
You can start the first step right away. But the second step of fundraising is a gating factor for the other steps. There are also steps not on the critical path, such as recruiting a photographer and choosing the color of your uniforms. By keeping track of the critical path and gating steps, you can focus your energy and achieve your goals faster.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
-Sun Tzu

Scenario Planning
Chess originated in India in the 6th century. During the Renaissance, it became known as the “royal game” because of its popularity with the aristocracy. Playing chess well requires intense concentration. It also trains you to consider the consequences of your actions and plan for different scenarios6.
  1. Learn the rules of the game at: http://games.yahoo.com/help/ch
  2. Practice online with players from around the world: http://games.yahoo.com/ch
Apply chess principles to your goals and plans. Think about questions such as:
  1. What will your life be like in 5–10 years if everything goes well?
  2. What is your backup plan if things don’t work out?
  3. Can you think of a better plan to achieve your goals faster?

Your goals should be as specific as possible. This includes setting deadlines to prevent procrastination. In a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), researchers hired students to proofread papers7. Students were given three papers each, and told they would receive 10 cents for every error they correctly identified. One group of students had a deadline of submitting one paper every 7 days. A second group was asked to submit all three papers at the end of 21 days. A third group was allowed to choose their own deadlines. All students were warned that there would be a $1 penalty for every day they were late.
Results showed that students with the 7-day deadlines correctly identified the most errors, followed by the self-imposed deadlines. In terms of earnings, students with the 7-day deadlines earned an average of $20, compared with $13 for self-imposed deadlines, and $4 for the 21-day deadline. It’s too tempting to procrastinate when a deadline is far in the future. It’s better to split your work into chunks and set short deadlines.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
-C. Northcote Parkinson

Gantt Chart
A Gantt chart is a graphical way of showing how long a task will take, and how it relates to other tasks. It helps you to identify the critical path and gating steps. Set up a Gantt chart for your goals by following these steps:
  1. Write down a goal you want to accomplish in the next month.
  2. Figure out the steps to achieve the goal.
  3. Set deadlines for each step.
  4. For your Gantt chart, draw each step as a horizontal bar. The beginning of the bar represents the start date, the end of the bar represents the finish date, and the length of the bar represents estimated time for completion.
  5. Post your Gantt chart in a highly visible place.
  6. Monitor your progress every day. Update your Gantt chart as needed.
For more tips on how to manage your time, read David Allen’s book: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

Achieving your goals requires a lot of decisions, from the steps in your plan, to managing your time. Some decisions are simple, while others are more complex. For example, suppose you are trying to decide whether to visit Rome or Tuscany. There are lots of factors to consider: airfare and hotels; arts and entertainment; language and customs; climate and weather forecast. It’s a difficult decision. Unable to make up your mind, you decide to put away the problem for a while. Two days later, a thought suddenly pops into your mind, “It’s going to be Tuscany!” For some reason, the decision feels exactly right. What happened?

Researchers from the University of Amsterdam have found that unconscious thought, or “deliberation without attention,” is best for complex decisions8. You make smarter decisions, and you’re happier with your choices. Complex decisions require you to consider many factors. The problem is your conscious mind can only hold a few items in working memory at a given time. In contrast, your unconscious mind can integrate a huge amount of information, and deliver a balanced judgment.

The next time you’re faced with a difficult decision, try distracting your conscious mind. Take a nap, do a crossword puzzle, or play some sports. Give your conscious mind a rest, and let your unconscious mind do the heavy lifting.

If this decision is wrong, will it be painful or fatal?
-Matt Barrett

Informed Decisions
Seymour Schulich is a Canadian billionaire and philanthropist. For important decisions, he recommends the following decision-making tool9:
  1. Take a sheet of paper, and write down all of the positives for the decision.
  2. Rate each positive on a scale from 1–10, where 10 means it’s very important to you.
  3. Take another sheet of paper, and write down all of the negatives.
  4. Rate each negative on a scale from 1–10, where 10 means it’s a major drawback.
  5. Add up ratings for the positives, and subtract ratings for the negatives.
  6. Act on the decision if the score for the positives is at least twice the negatives.
  7. Re-consider the decision if the score for the positives is less than twice the negatives.
For complex decisions, add the following two steps:
  1. Sleep on the decision for a few days.
  2. Act on the decision if you still feel good about it.


Your unconscious mind is good at integrating a lot of complex information. It’s the reason why your gut feelings are often right. In a study from the Iowa College of Medicine, researchers conducted a gambling experiment where participants were allowed to choose a card from one of four decks10. Turning over a card from decks A and B resulted in a reward of $100. Turning over a card from decks C and D resulted in a reward of $50.

The game was complicated by the fact that penalty cards were inserted in all four decks. Turning over one of these cards meant the player lost a large part of the accumulated reward. Unbeknownst to players, the cards were rigged so that playing from decks A and B would lead to an overall loss, while playing from decks C and D would lead to an overall gain.

To monitor players’ unconscious reactions, electrodes were hooked up to their skin to measure skin conductance responses (SCRs). By card 10, most players were generating unconscious anticipatory SCRs to decks A and B. But it wasn’t until card 50 that most players expressed a “hunch” that decks A and B were riskier. By card 80, 70 percent of players were convinced that decks A and B were bad, and decks C and D were good. Your unconscious mind often knows the right answer long before your conscious mind. Make better decisions by balancing your reason with intuition.

Root Cause
Everyone makes mistakes. Root Cause Analysis (RCA) prevents them from happening again. RCA originated in the manufacturing industry as a way of minimizing product defects. Suppose you own a garment factory, and you discover that 1 percent of your shirts are missing buttons.
A short-term solution is inspecting all shirts and fixing the defective ones. A better long-term solution is finding out why shirts are defective in the first place, and fixing the process so it doesn’t happen again. RCA uses a process known as the “5 Whys?” to get to the root of the problem.

Question #1: Why are shirts missing buttons?
Answer #1: Because workers sometimes forget to sew on a button.

Question #2: Why do workers forget to sew on a button?
Answer #2: Because it’s easy to lose count.

Question #3: Why is it easy to lose count?
Answer #3: Because there’s no indication when a mistake is made.

In this example, three “whys?” have revealed that the problem of the missing buttons may be fixed permanently by signaling workers when they’re making a mistake. Apply the “5 Whys?” to your life, and never make the same mistake twice.

Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.
-William Jennings Bryan

  1. Csíkszentmihályi M. (1997). Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life. Harper Collins.
  2. Reiss S. (2004). Multifaceted nature of intrinsic motivation: the theory of 16 basic desires. Review of General Psychology. 8(3):179–193.
  3. Locke EA, Latham GP. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. American Psychologist. 57(9):705–717.
  4. Locke EA. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal setting. Applied & Preventive Psychology. 5:117–124.
  5. Norcross JC, Mrykalo MS, Blagys MD. (2002). Auld Lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. J Clin Psychol. 58:397–405.
  6. Dauvergne P. (2000). The case for chess as a tool to develop our children’s minds. http://www.auschess.org.au/articles/chessmind.htm
  7. Ariely D, Wertenbroch K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science. 13(3):219–224.
  8. Dijksterhuis A et al. (2006). On making the right choice: the deliberation-without-attention effect. Science. 311:1005–1007.
  9. Schulich, Seymour. (2007). Get smarter: life and business lessons. Key Porter.
  10. Bechara A et al. (1997). Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy. Science. 275:1293–1295.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
Buy the book at www.MasterLifeFaster.com