Self-Management is the Root of All Management

The 3 essential areas to manage yourself well

I had a conversation with Matt Levene the other day talking about everything work and productivity. During the conversation, Matt mentioned the term “self-management.” That caught my attention because the term sounds more relevant to me and many others as compared to self-improvement.

Self-improvement is all about improving myself. It could be about improving my finances, work, productivity, and more. On the other hand, I see self-management as how I manage myself to accomplish my short and long-term goals as well as objectives.

Think about how good team management can contribute to increasing the productivity of an organization — self-management plays a similar role to our personal performance.

Self-management becomes increasingly crucial in our day-to-day work and life when everyone is forced to work from home these days. Suddenly we’re left on our own to manage ourselves. No boss to tell you what to do. No KPI dashboard in the room. No peer pressure. Nothing. If you don’t manage yourself well, you’re doomed.

It’s kind of good news to many who have wanted to go remote. But also bad news because most people are not trained to manage themselves.

To help, I broke down self-management into three areas that I believe are the most essential, and offer some high-level tips and action steps you can take.

The 3 areas of self-management

Managing your energy

We talk about time management all the time because it’s easier to measure. But time management has two big flaws:

  1. We value time differently, and they often can't be measured equally. For example, one hour spent with family compared to one hour in the gym feels different to different people.
  2. The output you create varies from time to time even if you’re doing the same thing, you might get different outputs because of various factors.

Instead of measuring and managing your time, a better approach is to manage your energy.

There are many contributing factors to your level of energy at any given moment. I’d suggest you first keep a pulse on the fundamentals. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I sleep enough? If yes, how well was my sleep?
  • Do I exercise and workout regularly?
  • How was my diet? And what have I eaten in the past days?

These are the fundamentals to your energy level. I know how it feels to want to optimize something that sounds more interesting: I tried to design new digital systems, test different tools and apps, experiment with new productivity hacks. They all worked at first but eventually all of them failed when I slept poorly or had a poor diet the day before.

Optimally, you want to get seven to eight hours of quality sleep, exercise for at least 60 minutes, and keep a balanced diet — every day.

In fact, when you take a step back and look at the big picture, it’s about keeping a baseline routine in check. Things are messy enough, and you don’t want the same for your daily routine.

Managing your environment

When you have your baseline routine in check, especially the fundamentals: sleep, exercise, and diet, now you can move on to the next step: managing your environment.

Our environment shapes us more than we think. The things and people around us impact our output, especially our energy, to great degrees. For example, research shows that people eat less when given a smaller plate and eat more when a bigger plate is being used.

The key reason this happens is because, under the influence of changes in environment, our brain does not behave rationally as much as we would like it to be. Instead, all of us fall into the same mental flaws and cognitive errors again and again. And often we make decisions unconsciously based on default or the triggers that are closest to us — in many cases, it’s our environment.

I usually break down the concept of managing my environment into two parts: 1) physical environment and 2) digital environment.

  • Physical environment. Everything around you. For example, the office, your living room, your bedroom, and people around you in different settings and different spaces.
  • Digital environment. As our work depends on a computer and the internet more and more, learning how to optimize our digital environment becomes essential. Some examples of the digital environment: your desktop, Dropbox, Gmail inbox, calendar, what you have on your web browser, apps on your mobile devices, and more.

The goal is to manage and optimize them in a way that you can make rational choices easily and take action quickly with little to no distractions. In other words, you still make decisions based on default but this time, you optimize the default to align with your goals by developing a winning environment.

Managing your psychology

You’re likely performing at your peak when you nail both the fundamentals and the environment. The last key here isn’t so much of a management, but more of having the awareness of how your mind works.

Managing your psychology can mean a lot of things. Here are a few things I have in mind now:

  • Motivation and willpower. Your motivation level is usually tied closely to how you approach your work (and your energy level), you can read more about it here.
  • Attention and focus. Productivity equal to time multiplied by focus. We can spend a ton of time on a task but without focus, we hardly make any progress. Again, your energy and environment play a big role here. Here’s an extensive post I’ve written on how to increase your attention span and how to overcome procrastination.
  • Decision-making. Personally, I break decision-making down into two parts. First, how our minds and brains work — it’s important to understand the flaws and errors we have so we’re better equipped to process the decision-making problem in front of us. Second, the decision-making framework — it’s kind of like the system or formula you have in your toolkit when you want to make choices. Most people make decisions based on how they feel. Having a decision-making framework helps you process all the information you have (and if you don’t have them, help you identify and find them) prior to making a decision.
  • Habits and discipline. Instead of depending on motivation and willpower, a better option is to develop positive habits and then stick to them. I’ve written a few articles about this topic, you can read about habits here and about discipline here.
  • Principles and mindsets. Having sets of principles and the right mindsets can help you navigate tough circumstances better. You can learn from your own experience but you need to have a routine to write things down (AKA journalling) to make use of your experiences. However, the real shortcut is by studying what works and what doesn’t work for other people.
Mistakes can be a great teacher but others’ mistakes can be the best teacher.

It’s worth mentioning that managing your psychology isn’t a standalone because many things, especially your underlying energy and environment can impact how you think and behave.

But I do believe you can manage and optimize them separately, by mainly drawing clearer lines between them and that will give you the clarity of what you’re actually working on.

Quit waiting for the perfect timing

I’ve written about not waiting for the perfect timing before but I fell into the same trap myself. One reason I haven’t published as many articles as I used to be is because I was waiting for the perfect timing. It’s not that I don’t have the time and the energy to write but it’s more about me telling myself to wait.

As my work and priorities change, and as my responsibilities grew at Sumo, I got sidetracked from the routine of writing consistently. I was trying to find the perfect mental state, time, and environment to write because I had this idea that I need them to create great work.

Clearly that never happened. The net outcome of waiting for the perfect timing is no outcome at all.

It’s tough when the world goes remote suddenly and it changes how many of us work. But the secret is to keep moving forward and focus on self-management:

  1. First, keep a routine so the fundamentals are in check.
  2. Then, develop an environment that makes it easier for you to work productively.
  3. And finally, master your psychology so you can make better decisions.


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