How to be great at almost anything.
The moments between the moments.
Great lives often include a collection of unbelievable stories. But they are not merely a collection of unbelievable stories. A great life is forged and created in the shadows of them. As Muhammad Ali once put it,
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses — behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
Contained, in italics, is the central idea of greatness. The moments that lead to greatness are the ones that pass when no one is watching, when no one cares and when nothing is on the line. Maximizing these moments as opportunities are what lead to excellence. Just as football teams practice during the week to win on game day, humans train daily to capitalize on opportunities when presented with them.
The vast majority of life is spent out of the watchful eye of those who depend on you, cheer for you or work against you. Most moments when we eat, sleep, dream, do, fritter, rest, talk and zone out are done so at our leisure and done unchecked without intention. There’s so much time available to waste — if we choose to. If we expertly use these spare moments that mean nothing to our advantage, we can unlock valuable — yet, seemingly hidden — levels of achievement.
Most high-functioning humans are great at optimizing their free time. As an example: John Wooden, former UCLA Men’s Basketball Coach and considered by at least a plurality to be the greatest coach of all time in any sport, was also a loving husband (married for 52 years), a bestselling author, a prodigious leadership consultant and the creator of the “Pyramid of Success” — which has been widely emulated and circulated in businesses, locker rooms and government institutions across the world.
Coach Wooden’s signature maxims?
- “Make each day your masterpiece.”
- “Build a shelter against a rainy day.”
- “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
- “Perform at your best when your best is required. Your best is required each day.”
Much of John Wooden’s guiding doctrine spotlighted downtime management as not just a key to success, but the cornerstone of it. Preparation was not just something that was undertaken to lead to future excellence, but was, in fact, the excellence itself. Wooden even famously taught all incoming freshmen to properly put on their socks and shoes at their first practice. Attention to detail and maximum effort away from the bright lights of game night were the only greatness worth pursuing.
So much of life’s value is accumulated by simply reaching for the spare change we seek in between the couch cushions of life’s more vital moments. Perpetual action and practice and planning will not guarantee you greatness at everything, but without it, you will not be ready for the opportunity when it comes to call. You will scramble, you will stutter, you will miss your moment.
There are plenty of time management tactics and strategies that can provide you a solid framework for getting things done, becoming consistent in good habits, and forming a foundation for excellence. One does not necessarily work better than the other. It’s been exhaustively researched and written about for decades. I’ll share some tips and tricks that have helped me in my field of work and in my life. Your mileage may vary.
A smart fella who writes for this site Benjamin P. Hardy wrote a fine piece called “Tell Me What You Did Today, And I’ll Tell You Who You Are.” In it, he outlines how time allocation based on your core goals and values essentially provides you the blueprint to be excellent and to develop integrity within yourself. I’ve put this to practice using a two-tabbed MS Excel spreadsheet: One tab with goals for the week, month, quarter and year — the other with a weekly schedule broken out by hour.
I use a modified Pomodoro Technique with a 50-minute “on” and 10-minute “off” for every task slated for that hour. During the 10 minutes is when I do a good deal of my texting, daydreaming and whatever else there is. Rest and relaxation is scheduled where applicable.
All tasks fall into one of four main “buckets.”
In forthcoming posts, I’ll provide a more thorough explanation of these buckets, and why they’re the keys to a fulfilling life. For now, I’ll simply provide examples of each that I’m currently doing right now:
Learn (activities that lead to mastery)
- Practice Spanish
- Research (for writing — or just to learn, in general)
- Yoga (it is a practice, after all)
Build (activities that lead to synthesis)
- Work (I do have a day job, if you can believe it)
Experience (activities that lead to happiness)
Share (activities that lead to community)
- Calling/texting friends and family
- Nights out with friends
- Marketing/branding of my work
- Dating + Sex (yes, I schedule my time for these)
I try to do something from each bucket, each day. I implemented this strategy earlier this year. That’s how I optimize my downtime. Does this work? Here’s what’s happened since:
- I’ve learned Spanish and Portuguese well enough to be conversational in it. I’m not truly trilingual yet, but I’m working on it.
- I’ve done more traffic on this blog, this year, than on all my other blogs in all previous years of writing — and been syndicated and paid more for it, too.
- I’ve run two half-marathons, lost 40 pounds, quit drinking and quit smoking.
- I’ve been to Orlando, New York, Miami, Chicago, Phoenix, Seattle, New Orleans … and I have San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Memphis and Nashville remaining to finish out the year.
- I’ve received a raise and a title change at work.
- I’ve seen over 100 concerts.
- I shot even-par on my local municipal course.
- I play twice weekly at music venues around town and make an extra $500 per month doing so. (And, when I was still drinking heavily, I was drinking for free. Fun perk!)
- I generally have really fun, really enjoyable relationships with the people I truly care about — and have met people who’ve immeasurably changed my life for the better.
That may sound like a bit of chest-beating, and for that I apologize, but I want you to understand that this was done specifically to let you know that this is all possible in the span of just over six months. So whatever you think you are capable of, chances are, you can outdo yourself if you really set forth a strategy. I’m not all that concerned with results … I’m far more process oriented, but for those of you who measure yourself by the rewards you reap, I suppose that’s as close to proof points as I can offer you.
So, to become great at almost anything:
- Make the most of your downtime
- Schedule your downtime with intention and allow yourself time to rest
- Learn, build, experience and share as often as possible
Being your best self away from the big moments is integral, as is being consistent in your practice — and life is always a practice. By approaching life this way, when it’s game day, you’ll be ready to win when your number is called, and that much closer to where you’d like to go.