The principles of a life strategy

Clayton Christensen is a world-renowned professor at the Harvard Business School.

His work on innovation has been at the forefront of how business, health, and educational organizations have built their competitive strategies for two decades.

In 2010, the Harvard MBA class of the year invited him to speak at their graduation.

It was in the aftermath of the great recession, and the relative certainty about how to live and work that the students had walked into school with was being challenged by the uncertainty of the world climate. Suddenly, their ideas of success and substance were being questioned.

The speech, which would also later name his next book – How Will You Measure Your Life?– was about helping this incredibly talented group of students define and capture meaning. It was an attempt to apply ideas from the world of business to their personal lives.

The audience left that day having learned one of their most critical lessons.

When we work with a framework for thinking about business, or a framework for studying the natural world, we often limit this framework to the confines of its domain.

We tend to overlook the fact that the point is to get results, no matter what the domain, and at their core, the frameworks are just organized ways of understanding and utilizing information. We don’t have to limit their application to where they’re commonly bound.

We all want to be more effective in realizing and reaching our potential, and the use of business principles to design a life strategy shows us how we can do more of that by:

  • Understanding that time is our primary resource
  • Defining our operations to identify commitments
  • Recognizing the different assets at our disposal

Christensen’s view challenged how the students saw their lives. This is an adapted take.

Understand That Time Is Your Primary Resource

In business terms, a resource is anything that can be used by an organization to function properly. The term is more loosely defined when applied to a company, but for our purposes and what’s at stake in life, it’s apt to think of time as our only resource.

The way that we allocate this one resource directly correlates with what life gives back in return. It doesn’t matter what else we have unless we can learn to use it wisely.

We often hear people say that life is short, but that’s not the only way to look at it. It happens to be finite, and that’s what makes it appear short. In reality, most of us live for quite a while.

Today, many people under the age of 30 may even live to be over a 100 years old. That’s about a total of 36,500 days. Finite, yes, but not necessarily a quick, temporary breeze.

The dissociation between our feeling that life is short and the actuality finds its root in how we allocate time. We often spend so much of it doing things that don’t add any value, that in hindsight, all we see is how unnoticeably it’s all gone by and how much less we have left.

Relative to historical norms, we live in a world of abundance, and we have a lot of options. Beyond unreasonable goals, many of us can live a fulfilled life if we set the right priorities.

It’s worth regularly calculating and questioning if how you spend this one resource aligns with the value that your consumption provides, and if not, what you can do to change that.

The way we spend our days translates into how we end up living our lives. We intuitively know this, and yet, many of us don’t act like it, and the days end up blending together.

Simply put, whether or not you live a short life depends on how well your time is used over the years. Broken down, it’s a result of what you did or didn’t do when you had the chance.

Define Your Operations to Identify Commitments

If time is what determines potential prosperity, then how do we best allocate it?

We all have different buckets of responsibilities in life. For most of us, they’re divided into work, family, friends, health, finances, life experiences, and hobbies. Some are the source of our meaning and joy, while others are areas that need attention to ensure our functionality.

There may be a few more, and depending on personal values and situations, some of these will weigh more than others in different ways. Combined, however, these are the places where our primary resource, time, mostly finds itself consumed.

There are two ways that we waste time. The first is when we direct an unreasonable amount of it to things that do nothing to add to our satisfaction, and the second is when we’re inefficient in distributing it according to the weight and importance of our responsibilities.

By thinking of life as a series of business operations, we can tackle both problems.

Anything that adds value through an output, whether it be happiness itself or something the indirectly leads to happiness, can be categorized as an operation. That said, not all operations are made equal, and not all of them add value in the same way.

Some add far more absolute value than others, and without them, our life wouldn’t function to its full potential. Without family and certain hobbies, for example, we would limit the joy and meaning in our lives. Other operations are less important but needed, like our finances.

By first identifying the operations and then labeling them by importance, we can begin to eliminate any time spent outside their boundaries through awareness of our priorities, and we can also decide the investment that’s appropriate for each operation relative to its value.

If you’re working too much when you don’t have to, and it’s limiting the time you spend with your family over the long-term, which is valued far higher, you know it’s time for a change.

Assigning a value to operations is simply about recognizing priorities and optimizing the balance of commitment between your different buckets of responsibilities. It’s about directing attention where it’s due.

To know what makes us happy, and in what doses, is in itself a challenge, but by dealing with it head-on, we can manage our lives a little better.

Recognize the Different Assets at Your Disposal

Knowing where to allocate time is indeed the biggest component of the equation, but for the overall outcome to be opportune, we also need to direct focus to how that time is spent.

You can be with your family all you want, but if you’re not present with empathy and ready to contribute, that time isn’t well spent. In fact, it can even be harmful. Similarly, you might want that promotion at work or to lose those extra few pounds, and you might even show up to put in the effort, but if you don’t have the right tools, it’s not happening.

To be effective, any operation needs the right kinds of assets for it to work. This can be anything that might be useful in closing the gap towards a goal or an end objective.

In business, this is usually things like the best talent, the right production gear, appropriate funding, and available inventory. These are the tools that come together to get things done.

With your family and friends, it might be deliberate attention to make the interactions meaningful. Relating to work, it might be your creativity and your network that help you find an opportunity where there wasn’t one. In your weight loss journey, it might be the wealth of knowledge on the internet or a personal trainer to ensure that you’re actually effective.

In each operation, there are going to be at least a few requirements between you and what you want to accomplish. It’s important to recognize the different assets that you have at your disposal to ensure that you spend your time well.

Being present is one thing, but extracting value out of that presence is a different story.

All You Need to Know

Life is messy, complicated, and it certainly doesn’t come with a manual. To make sense of it, it’s useful to have a clear and cohesive strategy for how to get through it.

It’s not necessarily about planning and laying out each thing that might or should happen. That’s limiting. Serendipity and unexpected opportunities can add quite a lot, and putting together a script and religiously following it does more harm than good.

It’s really just about understanding and applying different frameworks to optimize your ability to get the most out of the time that you have. It’s about being aware and being prepared.

In life, like in business, we have goals, commitments, and desires that need our attention. And like in business, we can be smart about getting to them. Here is a three-step process.

I. Life may be finite, but it doesn’t have to be short. We have a lot more time than we think. Many of us just use it poorly, so in hindsight, it appears to have gone by. It’s apt to realize that ultimately time is our primary resource, and we need to put it to good use on a day to day basis to have a shot at living well.

II. We all have different buckets of responsibilities in our life. We waste time when we spend it outside of the areas that bring us happiness or when we allocate it poorly between the needs we have. Each responsibility – family, work, health, hobbies – is an operation that adds value. By identifying and separating them, and the importance they carry, we can better commit ourselves.

III. Beyond just dividing time, a big part of the equation is how that time is used. To accomplish something, any operation in life requires us to use what we’ve allocated in an impactful way. For each operation, we need to know what the useful assets are so that we can actually do that. It takes more than presence to spend time well.

This is by no means the only way to think about it all. Merely one way. It’s a slightly more organized method for filtering out the noise and directing your focus to where it needs to be. The best way to make it yours is to take what’s useful and customize it so that it fits.

You don’t need a life strategy to live effectively, but having one raises the odds that you will.

This article first appeared on Design Luck.