The most important skill to learn in life

The most important skill to learn in life

The most common gripe about the education system is how bad it is at equipping our next generation with the necessary skills to survive in the workplace. 

It is common to see graduates, having spent more than a decade in school and college, lacking the know-how to manage their own finances. This is worrying as student debt continue to rise and youths are filling for bankruptcy on a daily basis.

But what’s even more important than being financial savvy, is the skill to manage your time wisely and effectively. Unlike personal wealth which may vary for each individual, all of us have the same amount of time to manage every single day.


This is a technique I learned over the years from project management gurus to manage time and boost productivity. Instead of letting a task or agenda take as long as it needs to be completed, you set a hard deadline or “time box” for it.

A simple example would be the time limit we have for our daily meetings where we time-boxed it to 10 minutes. This means the meeting can not last more than 10 minutes and if it does, we just end it right away. This is very useful to make sure we don't waste everyone’s time and get straight to the point.

The Pomodoro technique also employs this strategy by time-boxing your task into 25 minutes interval separated by short breaks. (e.g. 3-5 minutes) This teaches you to break tasks into small chunks that can be accomplished within each interval.

Timeboxing has been very useful in software development. The limit forces you to aim for some sort of deliverables when you approach the deadline. It prevents you from spending too much time on a particular task and affects the deliverability of others tasks in the pipeline. The notion of a sprint in Agile/Scrum is basically a timebox of 1-2 weeks.

Some examples of timeboxing we use when developing web applications.

  1. Keep meetings short by timeboxing them.

  2. Plan and schedule tasks that can be completed within a fixed time-frame (e.g. a sprint of 2 weeks)

  3. Prevent yourself from spending too much time on certain process. For example, timebox yourself to only spend X minutes updating status or writing reports.

This is not only useful for your work but also serves as a time management tool in your personal life. Start timeboxing your life and you may discover that you can get more things done.

Trading time for money

We are trained since young that we can trade our time for money. You can give up some of your play time and do some chores around the house for extra pocket money to buy that toy you always wanted. This is reinforced as we enter the workforce. An employee is compensated weekly or monthly for their services while a freelancer charges hourly for her work.

Since there is only 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, the most obvious ways to increase your income is to get a higher paying job or to charge more for your products and services.

Ideally, you wouldn't want your income to be limited by the time you spent on your work. You could hire others to help you grow and expand your business.

However, not everyone have the luxury to get others to work for them. Most of us have to do the bulk of the work ourselves. So how do we make this trade worthwhile?

I believe the answer is passion. With passion, you will be willing to sacrifice your personal time to get things done. With passion, the work you do is art. And without passion, whatever you do can and will be replaced by someone or worse, something else in the future.

If you are passionate in what you do, you wouldn't mind trading as much as your time for it. In fact you will make time for it. And with all that passion, I'm sure the result is something others are willing to pay more for.

Don't just trade time for money, trade it for your passion and you wouldn't need to worry about money then.

Time, money and quality

Everyone knows that time equals money. The more time you spend on doing something, the more it is going to cost you and vice versa. This means that you can manipulate one of these attributes by changing the other. The relationship between time and money isn't always linear. You can for example, spend more time on something to lower its cost. The simplest example would be to hire someone cheaper and have them work on something for a longer period of time compared to hiring an expert to finish it earlier.

This trade-off between speed and cost is something that we all are familiar with. If you are on a budget, you work around that. If you need something fast, you pay more. But things get complicated when you bring quality into the equation.

Unlike time and money, there's no reliable way to quantify quality. To make matters worse, everyone have their own definition of it. In the food industry, some diners might focus solely on the taste while the others take into account the atmosphere and service of the restaurant.

There are some cases where quality is ignored or at least of less importance. When choosing between which store to rent movies from, most of us would either choose the cheaper one or the nearer one to save time. This happens a lot when you are dealing with commodities.

When trying to differentiate your product from the rest of the market, it is best not to focus on making it cheaper or faster. The reason for this is simple. There is a limit on how fast you can do a haircut and how cheap you can charge for a meal.

Quality on the other hand, as stated before, is something more subjective. There are more ways for you to improve the quality of your products and services. You can appeal to the interest of your customers instead of their wallets and watches.

The best thing about focusing on quality is that when you are good enough, your customers will ignore the speed and cost of your product. Look at the line outside a famous restaurant. People are willing to trade their time for a chance to dine there and most of the time the bill isn't exactly cheap.

If you are starting a business or looking to revamp your product line, I think it's a good idea to look at how you can make it more attractive to your customer. Obviously you still need to keep tabs on the cost and time but it will definitely be worth your time to put a little more thoughts into the quality of your products.

Making time

All the talk about doing things you love and stuff that matters is pointless if you don't have the time to do them. If you feel that you are too busy or 24 hours seems too short, try some of these strategies. You might be able to free up some time to pursue your dream.

  1. Automate - Reduce the tasks you need to do by automating or delegating it. Look for tools or techniques that let's you spend less time on certain tasks.
  2. Prioritize -  All of us have so many things to do that we end up doing what ever that comes next. Sort your tasks and choose what you must absolutely do. Try to either delay the others or automate them.
  3. Less hobbies, 1 passion - Previously, I've talked about differentiating hobby from passion. Both of them requires significant time investment, so try to reduce the number of hobbies you have. Ideally, what you want to do is your passion so that automatically you will make time for it.
  4. Do less stuff - This might sound a little lame but by choosing to do less is the easiest way to free up your time. It's similar to how saving money is the sure-fire to accumulate wealth. Try applying some minimalism in your life.
  5. Set deadlines - You could also set a deadline for your task to prevent it from taking too much time. Only allocate a certain amount of time for each tasks and stand by it.
  6. Disconnect yourself -  The average Facebook user spends one hour on the site daily. Nowadays, you've got Twitter, Youtube, Friendster and millions of other site to procrastinate on. Shut off your smartphone and get away from the computer if you want to get something done.

I hope some of these methods will help you gain that extra hours to put into your dream. We are all given the same 24 hours to work with. The successful ones are those that use it best.

Life is too short

I received this last week. It's one of the painting from Hugh Macleod of GapingVoid. This is not actually the one I ordered but I like all of the Linchpin series so it's fine. 


Life is too short not to do something that matters, not to become a "Linchpin". I know it, you know it, we all know it, so let's stop futzin' around at get on with it. Like Seth says, "Decide". - Hugh

This will serve as a daily reminder for me that life is too short to waste time and get myself to start working on those ideas. You just have to try to know if it will work.