In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the late Stephen Covey tells a story about the limits of forcing efficiency on relationships. One of his sons was quite into scheduling (perhaps a genetic trait!) One day his calendar “included down-to-the-minute time allocations for every activity, including picking up some books, washing his car, and ‘dropping’ Carol, his girlfriend, among other things.”
You can see where this is going. “Everything went according to schedule until it came to Carol.” The couple had been together for some time, and while the young man had come to the conclusion that things weren’t going to work out, the 10-15 minute phone call he had scheduled to let her know this was shockingly insufficient. “One-and-a-half hours later, he was still deeply involved in a very intense conversation with her. Even then, the one visit was not enough. The situation was a very frustrating experience for them both.”
As he points out, you can be efficient with things. With people, aim to be effective. Sometimes that takes time. But that’s OK, because of this next foundational time management strategy:
Time invested in life-affirming relationships is seldom wasted. People are a good use of time.
I suppose I should back up and explain the somewhat flowery first half of that statement. I tend not to use phrases such as “life-affirming” but I want to be clear that not all relationships are good. Some turn out to be toxic or draining. Some are even abusive. These are not worth investing one’s precious time on earth in preserving. Some not-so-positive relationships are unavoidable, though in some cases the life-affirming aspect is shoring up one’s view of oneself. Perhaps you are caring for an elderly relative that you have never been all that fond of, but doing so is partly about your self-image as a loyal family member. That can be fine.
I had been thinking of writing separate posts on professional relationships and personal relationships, but then I realized how blurred the line often is. All relationships grow with care. Few relationships grow without care. Time “spent” on people is more akin to investing than spending. The payoff is a deeper sense of belonging and a happier life. That is true on the job and at home too.
There are lots of ways to allocate time to relationships. Some are small and practical. While 15 minutes is insufficient to break up with a lover, sometimes it is smart to schedule small bits of time for interaction. I love the suggestion, from the Meeting Wise folks, to go ahead and plan for 5 minutes at the beginning of a business meeting for personal chatter. Put it on the agenda as such. The reason? This chatter will happen anyway, but without time allocated to it, someone will try to cut it off (knowing, rightly, that it can’t take the whole meeting time). This little altercation can then poison all interaction from then on. While it seems wasteful to allocate 5 minutes to discussions of people’s weekends, it isn’t when you believe that people are a good use of time. And it turns out that groups that trust each other, because they know each other, work together better.
The difference between “efficient” and “effective” is particularly important to remember in the busy years of building a career while raising a family. I know a lot of people with young kids try to work through lunch in order to get out of the office on time. It makes sense (if trying to work with no breaks is often a recipe for afternoon mind mush). If you view nurturing work relationships as a key part of your job, though, because people are a good use of time, then this seems like less of a good trade off. The 20 minutes you spend grabbing lunch with a colleague may help you develop the kind of relationship where he will tell you his misgivings about your report — which means you won’t spend two days in crisis mode when he raises these issues after it’s gone up the chain of command.
On the home front, I do think most parents try to spend time with their little ones. When they’re little, they’re so needy, it’s hard not to. Many of these interactions are not inherently pleasant, though the good ones tend to nudge them into the “life-affirming” side. I’m thinking of my toddler — he of the 4:30 a.m. wake-ups — figuring out how to say his 6-year-old brother’s name. The two of them then beamed and hugged. It is harder to invest time in your relationship with your partner or your friends. Doing so when you have a busy life truly does require believing that people are a good use of time. If you do believe that, though, it makes other decisions easier. I generally want to be in bed at 10:30 p.m. (for self-preservation with the early wake-ups) but often my husband and I will hang out together a little later than that. I can forego a few minutes of sleep. Even in a busy day it’s worth it to chat with a friend.
A lot of this investment doesn’t happen without thinking about it. That’s another reason to do a Friday check-in, and create a list of top priorities for the next week: career, relationships, self. Career we often think about. Relationships, not so much. But relationships deserve time too. Figure out your top 2-3 priorities in this category. Then look at the calendar for the next week, and see where this activities can go. Such mindfulness doesn’t guarantee that relationships will bloom. Everything goes through ups and downs. But it greatly increases the chances. And when it comes to such an important part of life, that’s a good thing in any case.
Photo: working together…
In other news: This is part of a series of blog posts on foundational time management habits. If you are enjoying the series, please consider sharing it with a friend!