Take a look at your book shelf.  You might have a nice built-in bookcase, an IKEA Billy case, or perhaps an open shelf on the wall, but any of them will do.  Now imagine that your book shelf didn’t have any sides or book ends… how easy do you think it would be to keep your library of business and professional development books upright and organized on your shelf?  So if the book ends are so critical to maintaining order and keeping your books contained why do so many of us not recognize the same importance of book ends in our own lives?

Think about a typical day in your life.  If you’re like most people I know it goes something like this:

06:00 Wake up
06:15 Eat breakfast
06:30 Shower and dress
07:00 Get kids dressed and ready for school
07:15 Walk the dog
07:30 Take the kids to school
08:00 Arrive at work (with coffee)
08:15 Start processing Inbox
08:30 Start of meeting schedule
10:15 Check in on your Inbox
10:30 More meetings
12:30 Grab a soup for lunch
01:00 Catch up on morning email
01:30 Meetings…
03:30 Try to stem the tide in your Inbox
04:00 More meetings… (we do that a lot around here)
05:30 Close up the laptop (to bring home with you) and head for home
06:00 Prepare dinner and feed the family
06:30 Help kids with homework
07:00 Walk the dog
07:30 Open laptop, catch up on emails from the day
09:30 Put kids to bed
10:00 Start work on your presentation for tomorrow
12:30 Pack up your laptop and go to bed

Sound familiar?  Most of us in the high achiever profile likely can identify with this schedule (and even many people who aren’t by nature high achievers will identify this as the pressure of work schedules is increasing at a seemingly unrelenting pace).

What we see in this schedule is the same effect as if you removed the book ends from your book shelf – your work is spilling out all over the other areas of your life and you are losing your effectiveness across the board (don’t try to tell me that your Macaroni and Cheese family dinner would have been your first choice had you not been thinking and worrying about the presentation for tomorrow that you hadn’t yet started).

So what’s the solution?  Simple… Book Ends

Just like on your bookshelf, book ends can help you set the stage for action on what it is important to accomplish, and then provide a container to ensure your work doesn’t spill out all over the rest of your life (or at least not on a consistent basis).

There are three elements to setting up your “life shelf”:

1. Decide what’s important

This is really the same as choosing the size of your bookshelf.  Ultimately while it might be nice to have unlimited bookshelf space, most of us have some constraints on the size of the shelf we can buy – room size, height, other furniture etc.

In life we have the same constraints:  there are only 24 hours in a day; physiologically you have to sleep for at least a few of those hours; your children deserve some of those hours (with you present with them); your dog needs walks… so the size and make up of your “life shelf” is critical.  Write down and commit to what is really important to you, and then review that list regularly to keep it top of mind and fresh.

2. Starting Book End – Plan Your Outcomes

Think of this as the left book end – it anchors the start of your book collection and provides a starting point for you to organize your books against.  In life we need to consciously start our day with the same concept.

Instead of diving right into our Inbox when we get to work we need to block some time to plan our activities against our list of what’s important.  Look at your calendar and determine: What meetings do I not have to attend or could I send a delegate to?; What outcomes do I need to accomplish today (ie. presentation for tomorrow)?; What activities aren’t on my calendar today, but should be (ie. presentation to the board for next week)?; etc.

Now delegate, update your calendar, and get to work.

3. Ending Book End – Reflection

If you just stacked your books from the left book end and forgot to anchor them on the right I’m fairly certain you would find yourself waking up to a number of books spilled on the floor the next day.  In the same way if you don’t consciously anchor the end of your work by taking time to reflect you’ll likely find your work spilling out into the other areas of your life.

Schedule a block of time at the end of your day to review the goals you set out for yourself at the start of the day.  How successful were you at focusing your activity on the things that were important?  What got you sidetracked?  How can you improve tomorrow?

Take learning notes (write it down so you can review tomorrow) and write a list of the things you know need to be on your list of priorities for tomorrow.  Now close your laptop, and set the book end – you can now have a clear head space for the rest of your day to dedicate to the other important things in your life – like your kids for example!

Now I’m not going to lie and tell you that I do this perfectly every day – it’s hard to set the book ends in life, but I will tell you that on the days that I am successful in setting the book ends I enjoy a more rewarding relationship with my family, sleep better, and generally enjoy better mental health.

Time for action – take stock of your life… how can effective use of book ends help you create more personal and professional success?  Feel free to share stories of how book ends have helped in your life, or if you have other related tips I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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