The 4 Stages of Time Management

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln

Note: This is Part II in my series on “The 4 Stages” You can read Part I here. Part I made appeared on CNBC and became one of the most read and shared stories on the site.

There are four distinct stages of time management. Our ability to identify these stages and maximize their potential will lift us from mediocrity to accomplishment. I’ll provide you with some examples and as I do, I encourage you to visualize the times you’ve experienced these stages. Make sense of them so you’ll continue to build toward your next achievement.

We as a culture obsess over time. And in many respects, rightfully we should. Time, as Steve Jobs once famously said, is our most precious resource. Money, fame, power? All wonderful things, in their own way. But it is time that is most valuable, most fleeting and most influential. We can do whatever we want with our time. So what will you do with yours?

The four stages of time management focus on distinctive aspects of the way all of us use our time. Whether we’re wasting time or maximizing its usage to the fullest, we all enter into each stage of time management.

1. Idea Creation

“Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.” — Oprah Winfrey

As my former boss used to say to me, “Think BIG thoughts.” Cliches abound, though it’s worth noting that the mark of any successful entrepreneur, businesswoman, musician, athlete, student or inventor is big ideas. To think creatively, requires imagination, boldness and confidence. To think this way, we should immerse ourselves in an environment conducive to creativity.

“With ideas it is like with dizzy heights you climb: At first they cause you discomfort and you are anxious to get down, distrustful of your own powers; but soon the remoteness of the turmoil of life and the inspiring influence of the altitude calm your blood; your step gets firm and sure and you begin to look — for dizzier heights.” — Nikola Tesla

The beginning of time management is the birth of an idea. Think about it — before you can have strategy or planning, you require the idea. Now, apply this to your life. What are you trying to do? Whether it’s trying to provide the world with power, like Nikola Tesla, inventing the newest cloud-based software solution, starting a financial services company or beginning your personal training practice, you need the idea.

The idea spawns all your creativity and imagination and helps you think deeply about what you want. From there, you can begin to delegate your time to tackling the tasks that will roll out from your idea and strategy. Everything begins with an idea.

2. Strategy

The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks. — Mark Zuckerberg

Once you have your idea, you begin to put together your strategy. Strategy, decision-making and purpose determine your direction. These qualities manifest themselves into leadership. Part of what has made Facebook a behemoth in Silicon Valley is the willingness of its leader to take big risks. It’s easy to think now that Facebook plays things conservatively.

But it wasn’t always this way. Facebook was far ahead of the game in creating a platform where people could not only communicate, but build relationships virtually. What Mark Zuckerberg did was connect human beings all over the world. It’s easy to think now how common this is. But 12 years ago, it wasn’t.

We need strategic direction to know what is — and equally important what isn’t — a good use of our time. We have to learn to say, “No” to time wasters like excessive web-surfing or TV watching. Strategy tells us what matters. Once we know what matters, we can build our lives around these things. Family, friends, faith, creative projects, jobs, dreams. These things matter. Put together your strategy.

3. Process

“Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent. Be careful that you do not let other people spend it for you.” — Carl Sandburg

So you have your big ideas. Your strategy is all ironed out. Now, what? The process is all about one thing: execution. All the big thinking, creative imagination and strategy in the world won’t help you, if you don’t have a meticulous process for following your plan and getting it done. It’s real simple: Want to be highly successful?

Learn how to manage your time — like a boss.

Your process must safeguard against distractions. You have to rely on what works for you. Research best practices, scheduling and tips, but focus first on discipline. To nail down your process, this takes repetition. It takes a willingness to dedicate yourself every day to carrying out the plans for your life. It may be a brief one-week project.

But your biggest goals will take longer. Theo Epstein did not become a major-league general manager overnight. It took time. He grinded as an intern, then climbed his way up the ladder. He reached the pinnacle of his profession at a very young age! But most people don’t realize he started early. He was ready for the challenge. He focused on his process. And the process took him all the way to the top.

Run your own race. Learn what makes successful people successful. But then, live boldly. Integrate your own ingredients, flavor and special sauce into your process. Customize your experience so that it works in your favor.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” — Mother Teresa

4. Reflection

There is no woman or man that succeeds in an endeavor who does not rest, reflect and calmly process each day’s activities. What worked well? What didn’t? What mistakes were made? Where are the opportunities for improvement? These are the questions on the mind of a constantly self-improving time manager.

A big part of reflection is letting things go. Accepting each day’s result. Then renewing our minds to come back tomorrow with greater energy, effort and excitement. Enthusiasm is part of reflection. We should always love SOME part of our day, even when we’re on the rise up. We always have enthusiasm and attitude in our control. This helps us with acceptance.

It’s easier to accept life as it comes when you enjoy what you’re doing. Remember — no bestselling author, athlete, musician or entrepreneur got there overnight. Take the time to reflect on your day. Get your rest. Prepare for your next big idea. It’s coming up around the bend.

Build the Career and Life You’ve Always Dreamed of

Join my newsletter and discover how I help high-achieving business professionals achieve the biggest results of their life.

Also, check out my bestselling book, The Value of You.