Five tips for avoiding Oprah’s Regret

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Imagine being Oprah and having any regrets worth mentioning! But on turning 60 recently, she voiced a poignant one: “I think the hardest part of aging really is recognizing the time that you wasted and the things that you worried about that really didn’t matter…. That’s really the only regret that I have.”

Sad as that is, it’s also painfully common. Show me anyone who reaches that certain age without wistfully thinking, “I wish I could’ve…would’ve…should’ve…” and I’ll show you someone who can’t bear to think about it.

I don’t know what Oprah’s besetting time-wasters were. She doesn’t seem to have been over-consumed by the usual shiny things of celebrity. Yet even Oprah—popular to the point of adoration, a model of philanthropy and wildly successful in her profession—regrets the time not used well or wisely.

Here are five field-tested time management tips to guarantee you won’t have similar regrets.

Tip #1. Use “Quiet Time” to Make Important Decisions

“The world is too much with us,” lamented Wordsworth. You cannot freely contemplate how to best spend your precious time when you are surrounded by the events of your “life.” Things vie for your time day in and day out, pleading, “Spend time on me, I am Amusement. No, on me, I am your Duty. No, on me – your Future is with me.” We don’t make wise decisions in that enticing cacophony.

When this happens seclude yourself, if necessary, to find “Quiet Time,” especially if the decisions you’re making are life-altering: marriage, divorce, or change of career. Quiet Time does not mean retreating to the desert. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, introspectively go into a relaxed, calm, meditative state of mind. If you utilize the mantra “calm,” a form of bliss replaces whatever chaos or confusion was an obstacle to your Quiet Time.

Socrates tells us that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Examine your life by utilizing positive self-visualization so that you can receive advice from your very best consultant, that familiar “little voice within” that you typically ignore. It is forever correcting our mistakes, motivating us, protecting us, and helping us make the right decisions by weighing benefits and risks. Listen to it.

Positive self-visualization enables you to use optimistic realism when contemplating the “Big 5” questions:

1. Am I happy?
2. Am I doing what I want to do?
3. Is this the time for change?
4. From what to what, from where to where, or from whom to whom?
5. If I want to change, how? Who will help me and who will try to stop me?

Tip #2. Differentiate Your Critical Few from Your Minor Many

Lose a job, health, or loved one – that’s when we know with certainty what truly matters. That’s when we see what I call our “Critical Few” starkly.

But in the absence of a dramatic event, what happens to those Critical Few? They get lost in the busy-ness of our lives. Ask me at 7:00 in the morning for my Critical Few, and I reel them off confidently. Ask me at 2:00 in the afternoon, and I might forget one, add two, throw in a problem that just erupted, and tell you what I want for dinner. That’s not Critical Few. It’s Aspiration Salad or what I call the “Minor Many.” That’s how I used to be, before I made a regular practice of understanding my Critical Few.

Your Critical Few will probably include your work projects due today: Finalize the proposal. Grade papers. Cross-examine the witness. And grander matters like: Outline our new charitable foundation. But they don’t have to be big and bold. Text the kid away at college once a day. A friend always includes: Surprise somebody with a kindness. Jot them down regularly when you are in a quiet frame of mind.

Tip #3. Understand Your Priorities

If someone (God forbid) told you your house was on fire, your kid was on his way to jail, and all your clients were leaving, how should you prioritize your actions? Naturally, all three would make your Critical Few, and maybe you know exactly what you would do first, but some of you would stop and think about the possible outcomes.

When clients wrestle with priorities, I take them through the DERSSIM Logic System.

– Define the problem.
– Understand the Effects of not solving the problem.
– Identify the Reason for the problem.
– Conceive a Solution.
– SIM stands for the Solution Implementation Methodology.

Which problem, if not solved, has the greatest negative or positive effect? Sometimes the reason for the problem isn’t immediately identifiable, but the effect may require immediate attention.

If an individual is having difficulty breathing, the reason may not be immediately apparent; however, getting the individual to breathe is of utmost importance. In other words, act now on urgent matters.

Even when the reason is apparent, remember that a solution for a problem without a solution implementation methodology is worthless.

Now consider the fact that what’s urgent to others may only be important to you, and what’s urgent to you may be only important to others. When my wife takes a call for me at an inopportune moment, sometimes she will cup her hand over the phone and remind me: “He says it’s urgent, but it may be his urgent, not your urgent.” She knows me to be pleased when someone asks for my help and eager to fix any problem a client, employee, family member, or friend brings to me.

I don’t want to change that outlook, but not all problems are best solved by addressing them as urgent, and precious time gets wasted in the heat of the moment, when reflection and the healing power of time would be more useful. Important is not a synonym for urgent. You won’t be much help to others if you don’t take good care of your own time first.

We cannot paint all problems with the same color and with the same brush. Doing so is unrealistic and that’s why understanding how to differentiate our Critical Few from our Minor Many and understanding Urgent versus Important will help us with personal problem solving, as well as help others do the same.

Tip #4. Establish Time Lock Agreements with Your Time Bandits

A Time Bandit is anyone responsible for wasting your precious time with unwanted, unplanned, and unproductive interruptions. The Time Lock solution provides blocks of uninterrupted time guaranteed by the Time Bandits. To work successfully, you and your Time Bandits have to mutually agree that during certain times of the day, good friends, colleagues, even your boss, have to abide by the Time Lock Agreement.

Because of Mental Leakage, very often we are our worst Time Bandit. Thus, we have to make Time Lock Agreements with ourselves. The method is called Focal Locking, which means bearing down and focusing on your critical tasks during your Time Lock period.

Like all behavioral change good habits, Time and Focal Locking have their psychological and functional challenges, but with successful implementation, Time and Focal Locking can become a way of life and dramatically enhance the quality of your work and productivity.

Tip #5. Train Your Time Bandits

Don’t be fooled by the deeply disguised Time Bandit who simply asks, “Got a minute?” The only decent answer 90% of the time is Yes, isn’t it?

No. Think about it. A Basex Research study says that workers lose two to three hours a day to interruptions, which adds up to $588 billion lost to U.S. businesses annually. That’s because interruptions trail a lot more than a lost minute in their thieving wake: There’s the interruption that throws you off task. There’s loss of momentum due to the work stoppage. There’s the time wasted reassembling your thoughts and resources. There’s frustration at having to rebuild them, which dissipates the energy that work thrives on. There is the distress and fatigue of having to make up for time lost. All of these things can cause errors and the need to do the task over again, which of course takes even more time. This time loss won’t improve your regard for the person who asked for the minute or for yourself for allowing it!

Learn how to handle that deceptively small question by doing what you do with big Time Bandits – be honest, polite, and cheerful in declining. The cheerful part will be easy once you realize that it feels good to have protected time for your precious Critical Few and to have benefited your Time Bandit as well by restoring focused time to attend to his needs.