2. How Successful People View (and Use) Time

Given what you learned in the previous chapter, it will probably not surprise you to learn that one of the key traits separating successful from unsuccessful people is how they manage their time. More specifically: successful people control their time, while unsuccessful people let others control their time for them.

Let’s illustrate this with two hypothetical examples: Alyssa and Chris, women in their mid-thirties who are very politically aware and passionately committed to progressive values. Both are married, with two school-aged children.1

Alyssa works nine hours/five days a week at an office job. (One hour for lunch.) The job is located 45 minutes from her house, so she also has a 1.5-hour daily commute. She drops the kids off at school in the morning, and her husband, who also works full-time with a long commute, picks them up from their after-school program on his way home from work. At home, one parent helps the kids with their homework while the other cooks dinner. The family eats together, and then, after the kids go to bed, Alyssa and her husband “veg” in front of the television while doing laundry or other chores, or some office work that they brought home.2
Both Alyssa and her husband average around six hours of sleep a night. This leaves them perpetually sleep-deprived, which in turn often leaves them feeling crabby; and so they tend to squabble a lot with each other and with the kids. Being sleep-deprived also means that they don’t do as good a job at work as they would like, and that a lot of stuff that needs to get done around the house simply doesn’t.
Alyssa belongs to a couple of grassroots activist groups, but she is always behind in her commitments to them, and misses many meetings. She originally planned to do her activist work on Sunday afternoons and one or two evenings a week, but it’s been years since she’s kept to that schedule. In fact, she spends most of her free time either napping or zoned out in front of the television.
The truth is, Alyssa has done very little activism in the past five years, a situation that leaves her unhappy and unfulfilled. She hasn’t even been able to write many checks to activist organizations, because her husband’s and her incomes barely cover their own expenses.

Alyssa sounds like a typical rushed American and underachieving activist, doesn’t she? Now here’s Chris, another married mom who also has two young children:

Chris used to have a job and commute similar to Alyssa’s, but she decided that the commute was taking up too much of her time, so she found a job closer to home. She also chose a workplace that is family-friendly and has lobbied her boss for flex-time, so that she now works a thirty-six hour week comprised of four 9.5-hour days (including a thirty-minute lunch break, required by law). This means, of course, that she has a three-day weekend. Her husband has also selected a job with a shorter commute and flexible scheduling. Because of their easier schedules, Chris and her husband have a much easier time than Alyssa and her husband in meeting their kids’ and their household’s needs. The jobs pay less, but Chris and her family are willing to make sacrifices, including:

• Living in an inexpensive community, as opposed to an upscale, gentrified one.

• Living in a small home with a small yard. This means that many expenses are lessened, including mortgage, repairs and maintenance, heating, electricity and grounds maintenance.

• Minimizing the number of possessions (furniture, appliances, etc.) they own, which not only minimizes the purchase expense, but also the amount of cleaning and maintenance required.

• Only going on a vacation every other year—and those vacations tend to be cheap (but fun) camping trips.

• Driving ten-year-old cars, one of which Chris and her husband bought used, and the other of which a relative gave them.

• Not replacing their old furniture and appliances until absolutely necessary. Their home is “shabby but comfortable.”

• Giving homemade birthday and holiday gifts, instead of store-bought.

Chris and her husband are, in fact, living a life very similar to that recommended in The Millionaire Next Door. The authors of that book analyzed the behavior of typical American millionaires and discovered that, contrary to the stereotype, they weren’t all hot-shot entrepreneurs. Many were people with ordinary jobs (for instance, teachers) who chose to live as simply and inexpensively as possible, and to save and invest as much of their money as possible.

Chris and her husband are also raising their children to take a lot of responsibility around the house: for instance, the kids get themselves ready for school each day, keep their rooms clean, and dust and vacuum the living room and other common areas. Although the kids sometimes balk at all the chores, they understand that by helping out around the house, they are also helping to create more time for fun family activities.

Chris and her husband splurge in two ways:

• They use an Internet-based grocery service to do the bulk of their grocery shopping. Chris only spends five minutes each week renewing her order on the Web, and the groceries are delivered the next day right to her kitchen.

• They order three takeout dinners per week.

These two “splurges” save Chris and her husband at least six hours a week in shopping and food preparation. At first, they seemed like extravagances, but when Chris added up the marginal cost of these services—i.e., their cost over what the family would have to pay anyway for the groceries and for the ingredients for the three dinners—they turned out to be a bargain. Chris and her husband, in fact, pay fifty extra dollars each week for these services, which works out to $8.34 per hour saved. That’s a great deal, especially as neither she nor her husband particularly likes grocery shopping!

All of this means that Chris has a three-day weekend each week, with much less housework and many fewer chores to do than Alyssa has during her two-day weekend. Chris spends one evening a week and Sunday afternoons doing activist work. The rest of her free time (four weekday evenings, plus all day Friday and Saturday, and Sunday mornings) she devotes to having fun with her family, relaxing and doing housework and chores. Because Chris is not overscheduled, she can easily handle all of her responsibilities, plus emergencies and other interruptions; and because her whole family gets adequate sleep each night, everyone is usually rested, relaxed and productive at work (or school) and at home.

Moreover, Chris has involved her family in her activist work. This means that some of her activist hours are also family time—and that she’s helping to educate her children to become happy and effective lifelong activists.

The main difference between Alyssa and Chris is that Alyssa has let others determine her lifestyle and schedule, while Chris has been aggressive in building her lifestyle and schedule around her values. Because of this, Chris is thriving, and so are her kids, her marriage and her activism.

Chris and her family occasionally take guff for their choices—”I wouldn’t be caught dead driving that thing,” says Chris’s brother of Chris’s beat-up old car. (Of course, the brother works a twelve-hour workday and is perpetually stressed.) Chris and her family can ignore these kinds of comments, however, because they have the peace, confidence and satisfaction that comes from living a life derived from their values. They also serve as an inspiration to those around them who seek to lead a self-actualized life.