[Profiles] Jim Collins: The Man with 3 Stopwatches… and 4 Bestsellers


Years ago, Jim Collins, a business professor and consultant, sat down and drew up a schedule for how he’d like to spend his workdays in the future.

Creative: 50%

Teaching: 30%

Other: 20%

Half his time would go to endeavors like research, writing books, and authoring papers; a third to teaching-related activities; and the final chunk to all the other things he needs to do.

In order to make sure he was meeting his goals, he made the incredibly obvious and incredibly bold move of timing everything. For the rest of his life.

He literally took three stopwatches, labeled them, and put them in his pocket.

He still uses them.

Jim Collins is a serial bestselling author, and I’d place money that he will continue to lay golden egg after aurous, shining egg. Part of the reason for this is because he has made it his main goal in his business life to create an influential and lasting body of creative work, then scheduled his time– all of his time— accordingly.


Jim Collins, photo by Kevin Moloney, NYT

In 2009, the New York Times profiled Collins, and they asked him about his time management experiment. He only had to point to the upper-right corner of his whiteboard on the far side of his conference room. Scribbled in marker was the lifetime tally:

Creative: 53%

Teaching: 28%

Other: 19%

Let’s see: he’s forcefully shaped his schedule to meet his life goal of creating an influential and lasting body of work, and has since been on the NYT bestseller list about four times in the last decade. I think it’s time to start taking notes.

Collins has set up a meta-schedule: a schedule to help him schedule. The results have certainly been incredible. “I’m not a popular business professor!  I’m not an author!  I can’t shape my schedule this easily!”, you might complain, but if you’ve said that in your mind, you’ve already lost, because the goal is not to replicate his system entirely, but to learn something from it and let it change your time-management for the better.

What are your large-scale goals for your work life or school life?  Are you dividing up your time– or least the time you have control over– appropriately?

Meta-scheduling at Home

For someone who’s climbed El Capitan in less than a day and remains at 55 the very image of good health (seriously, check out his site), it’s also clear that the focus and self-control he brings to the job spills over to his out-of-work life.

While I’m not sure if he has any “Family time: 50%” rules, I want to make the case that meta-scheduling is worth doing for your non-work time as well. It might not have the same appearance as the percentages of his working time, but it’s the same principle.

For example, one thing that’s worked for me is setting a goal of doing something a certain number of hours in a set time period.  I mean:

For this week:

5 hours writing

3 hours reading

<2 hours cooking

The point is the same. Fix your meta-schedule before your scheduling even begins. Decide what categories of things are the most important. Decide what categories of things are the least important but still need to be done.

One week is not a lifetime, and if I have goals of producing a fat set of books, or reading myself into polymathematics (or never developing my cooking skills), these goals have to be carried over week after week.  But if you have a list of life goals with a few heavy-hitting long-term goals, your accomplishing them could hinge on blocking out that time– and consciously realizing you will be blocking it out.

There’s “I want to build my own home”, and then there’s “Ten hours a week every week for the next five years”.

And the difference in your mind is totally different.

* * *

We don’t all have complete control over our schedules, but we all have some control.  And the less control you have, the more important it is to follow the principles of making priorities fit.  Ruthlessly cut down your obligations and distractions, seal yourself off from others (“I’m not reclusive. But I need to be in the cave to work”, he says), and forget opportunities that aren’t core to the values from which you set up your meta-schedule.

And before I forget, let’s take a moment to talk about things you should say no to.

If your goal in your business life is to leave a lasting and influential body of creative work, what things might hinder you from that? What could simply be distractions? Not your web presence, right? Surely not your social media, which as we know, is critically important to self-marketing these days.

Jim Collins is smarter than you. He’s smarter than you, and his website looks like it’s from an mediocre-to-bad consulting business in the mid-90s. He doesn’t have a twitter, he doesn’t have a facebook, and he certainly doesn’t have a Linked In. Every morning, he turns off every electronic device within sight for four hours and delves into a trance of research and writing.

“If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any”, Collins says. And he believes it with every hour of his day, each one a step closer to his worldly goal.

Your life’s work takes a lifetime. Are you putting in the hours?


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