You Can’t Manage Time, Just Commitments

By Kevin G. Armstrong

A couple years ago, I had a client who was in business with his son. Habitually, this son was late to management team meetings. His tardiness was so recurrent and predictable that everyone on the team, except me, laughed about it while we waited.

Needless to say, I was less than impressed by the behavior. When he eventually made an appearance, I gave the group a pointed lecture about the value of time management and respect. Not surprisingly, after the completion of that day’s meeting, I was never invited back. But I believe the decision was mutually beneficial because it is only when one is ready for the lesson that the teacher will appear. This team was clearly not ready.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned came to me through my longtime friend and colleague, Nic Economo, founder of “Time On My Side.” Nic taught me this: You cannot manage time, but you can manage your commitments. For example: in the time it took you to read those two sentences, three seconds went by. You’ll never get them back. And there is nothing you can do about it.

The reality is you simply can’t manage anything that you have no control over. Through his company, Nic and his team taught the skill of “commitment management.” All over North America, they coached business leaders the value of sticking to your word and living with integrity, because although you can’t manage your time, you can manage your commitments.

So start by asking yourself, are you habitually late? If so, you are unconsciously sending a message to the people with whom you’ve made a commitment that you don’t care about them. Your time is more important than theirs. It also signals that you don’t know how to say “no” in setting your priorities.

Unfortunately, whether it’s intentional or not, your integrity is measured by how you follow through on the commitments you make to others. I have certain friends that when we agree to meet at a specific time and place, I am worried to the point of calling the police or hospital if they are even one minute late. I have other friends that when they don’t show up to an agreed upon meeting, I get on with my day because I’ve learned to never plan an event around them.

What type of friend are you?

When people are habitually late, the bottom line is they care more about themselves and their priorities than they care about others. Forget the endless excuses. When I confront someone who consistently arrives late, I often say, “It’s okay, you just care more about yourself than anyone else here.” This typically offends the person in question, but I only say this because it’s true.

For example, I know that when this person books a family vacation for a number of family members, the seats are non-refundable, and the plane is leaving with them or without them, he is always on time and will never be late. Why? Because the commitment he made with the airline takes higher priority than the meeting he is always late for.

Whether it’s a conscious decision or simply lack of awareness, being late when it is not due to an accident or other unforeseeable event sends the message that you do not respect the other party and their time.

Your integrity is measured not on what you say, but what you do; so it’s imperative that you properly manage, and follow through on your commitments.

If you struggle with commitment management, here are four helpful rules to follow:

1. Say “no” unless you are totally committed.

Don’t say, “I’ll try,” or “I’ll see what I can do,” and don’t accept those responses, either. Those responses mean “no.” Be direct and honest—just say, “no.” Most of us were brought up to serve and make people happy, especially those closest to us. But we will never make them happy if we are continuously taking on too many commitments and then falling short in fulfilling them. It takes a lot of strength and discipline to say “no,” but your reputation and integrity depend on it. Greg McKeown explains this concept incredibly well in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

2. Don’t say “yes” unless you can write the commitment down and record it. No exceptions.

I often take calls on the road. Sometimes my client will ask me to send him something and I will respond, “Jack, I know you are my customer but I can’t write that down right now. Could you please text me or email me a reminder?” This places the commitment to follow-up on him, not me. With today’s technologies, there is absolutely no excuse for not recording your commitment. No matter how good you think your memory is, pretend you don’t have one.

No matter how good you think your memory is, pretend you don’t have one. Click To Tweet

3. Take time to review your commitments.

The late Stephen Covey recommended that every night before bed, you review your commitments for the next day. And on Friday, review the following week’s commitments. Doing so will allow you to sleep better and enjoy your weekends.

4. Have one system.

When you see someone with a paper day timer, working out of an electronic Google calendar, with yellow sticky notes all over her desk, this is a clear sign of someone who is challenged in following through on her commitments. I teach clients to have one management system, and the same concept applies to managing your commitments. If you use Outlook, use only Outlook. If you use a paper system, use only that system. When you have more than one system, things will fall apart and so will your commitments.

I find writing articles like this enlightening because as I write, I experience flashbacks to situations where I have failed to follow my own lessons. In fact, just the other day I arrived three minutes late for a board meeting just after lecturing my son on respecting people’s time the night before. Living and leading with integrity is a journey, not a destination. As long as we are striving to be better today than we were the day before, we are taking a step forward.

Managing our commitments is not easy, nor is saying “no” to people we care about. But if we don’t prioritize, record, and execute properly, our integrity is diminished. And how, exactly, can we get things done efficiently and effectively in collaboration with others when they don’t trust in us or our ability to follow through on our own commitments?


Kevin G. Armstrong is a speaker, business advisor, disruptor, and author of The Miracle Manager: Why True Leaders Rarely Make Great Managers with ForbesBooks. Learn more at kevingarmstrong.com.

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