“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is a habit, not an act.” – Aristotle

Habits are defined as “settled or regular tendencies or practices”.

They’re matters of course, or as Aristotle pointed out, the way we repeated choose to spend our time.

Our lives are busier than ever. We’re constantly bombarded with 24-hour news, sports, and weather. Our smart phones have us connected to social media, email, texts and phone calls all day, every day.

The average American spends 7.7 hours per day sitting, 10 hours per day looking at screens and as of 2007 (pre-social media explosion), consumed 174 newspapers worth of information daily. [1,2,3]

No wonder it is so relaxing it is to simply sit, observe nature, breathe, and ignore your phone for a few minutes.

Interestingly, University of Michigan researchers have shown that 20 minutes in nature reduces stress and improves brain function. Even looking at pictures of natures works if you’re not able get outside in nature. [4]

I’m not advocating a complete regression into the stone ages. Although many of us could benefit from a short-term digital detox, dropping off the grid is not realistic for most. So how can we find balance and effectively manage our time and schedules without sacrificing our health, our sanity, or our productivity?

That’s exactly what I’m about to share with you.

I’ve spent the last few years working with and interviewing neuroscientists, behavioral researchers, and elite performers to deconstruct the habits that help them achieve greatness.

The results are what I call the neuroscience of high performance and self-mastery.

The short answer is this: by bringing more awareness to where we focus our attention and how we spend our time, we can regain some sanity, reduce mental clutter, lower stress, and be effective in every area of our lives.

The slightly longer answer, and your blueprint for high performance management is below.

Here are 9 essentials for high performance time management.

1. Don’t Check Your Phone 1st

How long are you awake before you check your phone?

46% of Americans – and 66% of millenials – confess to checking their phone before getting out of bed each morning, and 1/3 admit to waking up and checking their phones during the night. [5]

I understand the desire to check in with the outside world. But doing this before our feet ever touch the ground is a dangerous habit – and not one engaged in by high performers.

High performers and successful people usually go to bed with a plan for the next day. When they wake up, it’s all about executing that plan – not wondering what other people are posting on social media or what fires await in their email inbox.

Do we really think Richard Branson or Oprah wake up and check the number of likes on their status updates or allow their email inbox to dictate their morning? (They don’t.)

High performers handle their own sh!t first, then worry about others. Set a “check in” time that will be the first time each day that your turn your phone on. Up until that point, the day is yours. Spend your time on yourself, with your family, or being productive on a big goal or a side project. This simple rearrangement of priorities and schedule will do wonders to boost productivity and happiness. 

2. No Unscheduled Phone Calls

The moment we decide to stop what we’re doing to answer an incoming call is the moment we decide (consciously or subconsciously) that the incoming phone call is more important than our current engagement.

If we’re on the highway in the midst of an 8 hour road trip, this could be a welcome interruption. However, if we’re drafting a sale pitch, creating content, or doing any other high value activity, allowing this interruption is a terrible time management decision.

When we’re doing our high value work, we should not answer incoming phone calls, check email (see below) or allow any other distractions (also below).

In fact, for maximum time management, high performers schedule all phone calls and vehemently refuse to answer any unscheduled incoming calls. This keep them in control of their most precious assets: their time and their attention.

Pro Tip: When you’re being productive on your computer and don’t need your phone, keep it on airplane mode.

3. Only Check Emails at Pre-Determined Times

Email can be one of the biggest time-sucks in existence. Here’s your strategy to spend less in your inbox:

Set 2 or 3 times each day to check and respond to emails. 10am and 4pm are solid choices. The mid-morning check gives you time to be productive before the emails fly, yet still allows you time to respond same-day if need be, while 4pm does the same for the afternoon. 

If you feel compelled to reply instantly, set an auto-reply message that informs people of the 2-3 times a day that you check emails and set the expectation for when they can expect a reply.

When you do check email, use the 3 D’s:

  1. Deal with it
  2. Delegate it
  3. Delete it

Finally, don’t keep your email tab or window open. Close it. It will still be there when it’s time to check email again in 6 to 12 hours.

4. Pomodoros = Literal Time Management

Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato, and the pomodoro timer is a method of breaking up your work into smaller, more managable chunks of time.

Traditionally they’re 25 minute windows of work followed by 5 minute breaks, repeated 4 times for a total of 2 hours, then followed by a longer, 30 minute break.

It looks like this: 25-5, 25-5, 25-5, 25-5, 30 minute break.

Breaking up your work in this manner helps keep the brain fresh instead of doing one set to failure, sort of like using sets and reps for exercise. 

Sitting down for the first 25 minute session of “work” is also much less daunting than “sit down and write this report”. These pomodoro sessions take advantage of our lazy, yet competitive minds. 

You can set a timer on your phone or click here to use the desktop version I use.

5. Limit Distractions

This one is simple, yet often overlooked. If our phones are airplane mode, it’s a non-issue – unless your computer has notifications turned on.

In that case, turn off your notifications. We don’t need to know about every single email that lands in our inbox. If we’re focused on a task and being productive, we don’t need to know that someone commented on our last social media post.

Turn off notifications, work when we’re charged with working, and compartmentalize all other tasks, tools, and apps.

Remember this, flow follows focus. Those much sought-after flow states that allow for peak performance require focus before flow can be experienced. 

Stanford research agrees. A 2009 study on multitasking demonstrated that multitaskers have less control of their memory, and “are slowed down by irrelevant information” [6]

They continued, saying people who engage in multitasking are “suckers for irrelevancy“. <– Their words, not mine. But if the shoe fits…

6. Have a Plan (and stick to it)

Effective time management, like healthy eating, does not happen by accident. It requires planning and intentional action. But even the best plans are worthless if they’re not followed.

Cognitive researcher Antonio Damasio found that 95% of our decisions are made based on feelings, not logic. This explains (at least in part) why 70% of people who set goals fail to reach them. [7,8]

Achieving goals or being effective with time management require us to chart a course of action – like a map – that takes us from where we are currently to where we want to go. This map is only the first part of the equation. We must also show up, walk the path, and stick to the plan no matter how we feel on any given day.

The ability to do this is something that sets high performers apart from the rest. High performers know that processes, not people get results.

Caveat: Somedays, we need to deviate from the plan…which can be successfully accomplished if you understand the #MoveTheChains concept…

7. Move The Chains

This analogy is courtesy of my mentor, Paul Reddick.

In football, teams are given 4 plays to gain 10 yards. Whenever this 10-yard threshold is crossed, the chains move forward and are reset for another set of 4 downs. If a team fails to gain the required yardage they punt, or turn the ball over to the opposing team.

If we divide the required 10 yards by 3 plays, the result is 3.4. Therefore, if a team gain simply gain 3.4 yards on every play, they will continue to move forward and will never punt.

Further, in this hypothetical assumption, they’ll score every time they get the ball, and touchdowns put points on the board, and the team with the most points wins.

The moral of this story is not to worry about flashy, fancy plays. It’s not about the Hail Mary’s or the highlight-reel plays. It’s about doing the boring, mundane, yet EFFECTIVE things relentlessly to constantly move our mission forward.

Identify something each day that equates to the proverbial 3.4 yards for your mission and make sure you’re doing at least 1 thing every day that moves the chains.

8. Stack Activities For Multiple Benefits With Single Efforts

While multitasking is ineffective and inefficient, certain activities can produce multiple benefits.

For example a telephone call or meeting can be modified to be conducted while taking a walk outside in nature. Instead of accumulating more time sitting and staring at a screen, we’re now up, moving, outside, and in nature – or at least a green space if possible. 

Another example could be signing up for improv classes or joining a Jiu Jitsu class. In both cases, our brains are forced to learn something new, which up-regulates neuroplasticity (prevents cognitive decline), we get social interaction (release of feel good hormone oxytocin), some play/de-stress activity, movement, and time for ourselves.

Where in your life can you incorporate this concept of singular activities with multiple benefits for your health, productivity, and balance?

9. Understand (and Employ) the Quadrant of Importance

We must not confuse being busy for being productive.

In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey shares the following diagram that should be standard learning for every human.

This grid could be a blog post all it’s own, so please understand and forgive the brevity of this description. Study it, fill in a version for yourself, and take note of where you should spend more time, and where you should spend less time.

Notice immediately that the bottom two squares are waste and deception. Right there, 50% of tasks can be classified as waste or deception and should be avoided if possible – or delegated.

Delegation is habit of every high performer I’ve worked with. CEO’s, Navy SEALs, Olympic Athletes…they understand that their success depends on them being able to focus on their specific duties, while allowing their teams to handle the rest.

Consider U2 and their self-proclaimed “Greatest Rock Show on Earth”. The video below is a time lapse of the 9 (yes, NINE) days required to setup and disassemble their concert. 

During this 9 day stretch, U2’s Bono has one job, and one job only. Show up and sing. He does not set up seating, sell tickets, worry about merchandise sales, or do sound checks in each arena.

He simply shows up to the gig and performs his genius. Everything else has been delegated.

Make no mistake, ticket sales, merchandising, concessions, and sound quality are all improtant – even crucial – to the end user’s experience and to the bottom line of the tour, but they’re not Bono’s specialty and they’re left to the capable hands of someone who specializes in those areas.

Imagine how much Bono’s performance would decrease on stage if he had to worry about those other tasks.

Be like Bono. Identify your genius and delegate the rest.

Ready to channel the neuroscience of high performance and self-mastery in your life? Join our community of optimized decision makers and get measurable improvement in your life in the next 30 days inside the Special Ops Academy.