Lessons from a Mason Jar

11 01 2012

It’s Day 3 of the final semester in my Master’s program at WMU and I already feel sleep deprived. In the precious moments between 6-6:10 this morning, I seriously considered picking up some “dry shampoo” to buy a solid 40 minutes of additional sleep. While I’m in school, my schedule is a daily marathon: up at 6am (well, depending on who wins the battle between the snooze button and me), a mad dash to get ready for work, drop off the kiddo at school by 7:30, in the office by 7:45. At work, I regularly have appointments every hour, on the hour until lunch, at which time I occasionally eat, though more often grab groceries, refill prescriptions, get an oil change, pay bills, run to the bank, post office, or home to fill a crock pot. I leave the office as close to 5pm as possible, so that I can pick up the aforementioned child from her after school location soon enough as to not feel forgotten. We run home with enough time to pick up or make a hastily prepared meal. And then I drive fast enough to get to class by 6pm. Afterwards, from 9pm to midnight, I alternate the nights that I spend working on the mural that I’ve volunteered to paint and hitting the gym with an hour or two to spare for homework. By the time I arrive back at home, I’m yearning for my pillow so badly that the only wind-down time that’s required is the five minutes spent to change and brush my teeth. You’re already exhausted, aren’t you? It’s clearly time to re-align a few priorities.

This brings to mind a lesson I learned years ago… on the first night of class at Spring Arbor University. The class was filled with weary-eyed professionals, not your traditional students, and the instructor knew we’d be facing a balancing act over the coming years. He stood at the front of the class placing various rocks in a mason jar and proceeded to give us an illustration in time management from Stephen Covey:

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was onto him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”

“No!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”

The point of the analogy is if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them all in. In fact, the sand and gravel of my time could easily fill my entire day if I don’t carve out space for the fundamental priorities. Here I am, thinking I’ve mastered this lesson because I’ve reached a place where I’m making time to pursue higher education by scheduling out time in my calendar for every detail, yet I’m still starting my day by choosing between adequate sleep and showering? Maslow would be so disappointed in me.

It’s been nearly a year since I wrote about my “Re-Resolutions,” and I’m proud to say I achieved nearly all my 2011 goals. It’s true, I still haven’t learned Spanish (maybe after graduation?); however, my education and career have significantly advanced, I read all the books I set out to read, I volunteer more, I work out regularly, I no longer have the time to waste on trivialities such as television and social media games du jour, and I even wake up earlier. Now the question begs to be asked — were these the right goals?

On one hand, I think they were exactly what I needed to achieve to be where I want to be. But on the other hand, I wonder if it’s time to go back to the basics of Covey’s lesson. Is it necessary to plan this much of my life? I suspect that if I reversed the lesson and stopped planning so much, I would better learn where the pebbles and sand really lie in my life. So, my 2012 Re-Resolution? Surrender. Plan less, live more. God has a plan and purpose for my life… I’d hate to miss it because I already set up a conflicting appointment.

-Nikki M Jones-

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The 4-Hour Work Week

16 02 2011

Ok, so I may not have learned Spanish yet, but I’ve already checked off one item from my 2011 Reading List so I had to share my thoughts (and show off my progress, of course).

The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss is essentially a self-help book to remove the shackles of working forty years in an unrewarding 9-5 job for a gold watch and a pension that may or may not still be there once you’re ready to take it. It attempts to liberate employees from believing that they have to wait to obtain a “deferred life plan” for retirement age, and instead spread mini retirements throughout your life. The book goes at length to explain that there’s almost no such thing as a fulfilling job, except one that can be done in the least amount of time, and that no one has to be a risk taker, hate their job, or even quit their job to begin exercising this philosophy.

Ferriss had my attention by page eight, when he asserted: “People don’t want to be millionaires; they want to experience what they believe only millions can buy. Ski chalets, butlers, and exotic travel often enter the picture. Perhaps rubbing cocoa butter on your belly in a hammock while you listen to waves rhythmically lapping against the deck of your thatched-roof bungalow?” That perfectly sums me up. I don’t want to be a millionaire, but living a leisurely life of sea-side hammock living… who doesn’t want that? More importantly though, who in their right mind is going to risk job security and health insurance to obtain that lifestyle?

The book seems to be most practical when a person is re-evaluating his or her life from a recently laid-off frame of mind. Ferriss says, “This period of collective panic is your big chance to dabble” (p xiv). At any point though, he believes it’s essential to test the most basic assumptions of the work-life equation. For example: How do your decisions change if retirement isn’t an option? What if you could use a mini-retirement to sample your deferred-life plan reward before working 40 years for it? Is it really necessary to “work like a slave to live like a millionaire?”

While I found the book as unrealistic as most starry-eyed optimistic multi-level marketing sales pitches, I took away several valuable points. First of all, my life plan has always included working like a slave to be able to retire early enough to enjoy my deferred dreams – but they’re still deferred dreams. The 4-Hour Workweek gives a fairly valuable approach to entering financial freedom incrementally, through the acronym DEAL: Definition, Elimination, Automation, and Liberation.

The Definition and Elimination steps are still more about personal psychology than actual actions, for defining – or more accurately re-defining wealth, time management and employment assumptions, and then systematically eliminating them. The Automation step is most personally valuable to me, and any other individuals that may not be planning on immediately tossing away the security of their job. I previously thought of automation in personal finance terms, such as having 10% of my income automatically deducted for a 401k or independent retirement account. Ferriss shows that income, as well as personal management and communication, can be automated through outsourcing.

After reading these chapters, I decided to attempt my own venture into outsourcing. I thought the most cost-effective method of this experiment would be to work for hire as a virtual assistant, rather than to hire my own. I visited Freelancer.com and replied to an ad to proof-read someone’s cover letter, résumé, and thank you letter. Two and a half hours later and I’d made $25 after Freelancers fee. Not bad, but not worth competing in the global marketplace for not much more than minimum wage. It was a worthwhile experiment, and it definitely caused me to value the things virtual assistants will do for $5-10/hour. If my time is worth $20-25/hour it’s just poor utilization of resources to do some things myself if I can find someone to do as good of a job as I would.

Ferriss touched on several other things that are valuable, with or without leaving an employer. For example, he discusses Pareto’s Law that “80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs.” We’re all familiar with this law from a wealth distribution point of view, but Pereto’s Law isn’t exclusive to economics. Ferriss urges readers to evaluate which 80% of company profits are coming from which 20% of products or consumers. I can see from a marketing or customer service lens, that this a priceless statistic. With the right market research (done fairly cheaply by individuals in Bangladesh, by the way), this could essentially save 80% of a company’s budget.

On a personal level, evaluating which 20% of sources are causing 80% of headaches may be difficult to truthfully analyze, but it would be very telling. This type of analysis may allow giving up some of the things that drive me crazy, like following up with the same time wasters over and over again. Unfortunately, knowing where headaches are located doesn’t necessarily allow all of them to be removed, because part of that is just dealing with life.

Ferriss discussed time management with a similar point of view that I found mind-altering. He reminded me that doing something unimportant well doesn’t make it important and just because a task requires a lot of time also doesn’t make it important. In my work life, I’m reminded of the mind-numbing spreadsheets that I’ve had to complete for the sake of tracking productivity for micro-managers of my past. If I’m spending 30 minutes a day recording production in three different locations for various commissions and tracking purposes, are those ten hours per month really productive?

Another example in both my personal and work life is obsessing over distributing emails as effectively as possible. To do so, I’ve set up elaborate folder rules and techniques to have everything automated. Ferriss believes this “professional wheel-spinning” may demonstrate efficiency, but not effectiveness – which is what actually brings you closer to your goals.

Overall, I enjoyed The 4-Hour Workweek, even if it was overly idealistic for the cynic in me. It had a narrative-style of writing that made it effortless to read and digest several chapters at a time. At times, I felt Ferriss’s breezy style combined with his unique perspectives waivered between hedonistic and arrogant. I’m not sure if it’s realistic or fair to teach people that they are the only thing standing in the way of money flowing freely into their checking accounts as they bask in the sun. At the same time, it’s almost refreshing to be challenged with such an assertive position. I don’t know if I should be offended that there’s an underlying accusation that it’s my own fear or failures that are causing me to not be a wealthy entrepreneur or if I should be stirred to action to realize my American dream – and in the end, I’m both.

-Nikki M Jones-