The Complete Guide to Self-Management Skills
Imagine, how would feel if you had complete control of your life? Would you feel confident, relaxed, happy? If enjoying control over your life sounds appealing then perfecting your self-management skills is what you’ve been looking for.
Self-management skills and business management skills are remarkably similar. As with any management skill, self-management skills refer to the coordination and maintenance of a healthy system which delivers tangible results. The results of skilful self-management are stability, and stability leads to success both emotionally, physically and financially. In this article, we will explore a 2-part approach to self-management based on my years of experience as a life coach, talent professional and my interviews with world champions athletes and high achievers.
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The essence of self-management skills is an awareness of what needs to be managed, a structure or system to support it and then self-discipline to operate it. All easy to write yet, in our unpredictable lives all too difficult to pull off. Most of us work in environments which demand our immediate attention to unforeseen emergencies whether it be the last-minute meeting in another country or a child home from school with the fever. Self-management skills include awareness, structure, sharp problem-solving skills, managing the personal resources on which to call, just like any other type of management. There are just the hard skills. Self-motivation, self-confidence and staying cool and calm under pressure are as fundamental to self-managenent as the hard skills and we will cover the emotional self-mamagement skills in part-2.
Part 1 – The Foundations of Self-Management
Self-Management Skill #1 | Awareness
In our working lives, it’s easy to focus inordinate amounts of our time on our working lives, often at the behest of our employers, only to neglect the other important areas. This is especially true of people without children where its too easy to stay late at work or to work on the weekends. In coaching, many of my clients initially present solely work related goals and ignore the many other facets of their lives. Over the course of the coaching sessions, we explore the many other facets including, family, friends, life strategies and goals, career development and money as well as renewal activities such as hobbies and personal interests.
Having an awareness of all of the areas of your life is a foundational self-management skill as, without awareness, we have no idea what to manage. A lack of awareness can lead to imbalance as one of my clients found. An Executive, he was focused solely on a work-related goal of winning at a challenging politically charged situation. Over the course of the sessions, he came to realise that he had been drawn into a metaphorical cul-de-sac, where all of his energy was being spent on a work-related situation that didn’t actually serve him, to the exclusion of his family, the relationship with his partner and self-care which had become the neglected casualties of the battle. His awareness of the other aspects of his life helped him to set a new goal of rejuvenating his relationships and he later told me that he felt “Like a new person.”
At the satellite level, it’s important to be aware of all of the areas of your life before you can put a structure around them. There are other important areas to be aware of too which would be too heavy for this article, and I cover these aspects in-depth in my eBook “Breakthrough.”
Self-Management Skill #2 | Budget
One of the most important self-management skills, the one that will cause you the most headache if you don’t master it is, of course, money. In this regard, it is fundamental that at the beginning of each month you set a clear budget (ideally keeping to the same one each month) taking at least 15% off the table and immediately putting it into a savings account to be invested later. In the world of self-management, this one step could be the biggest of them all because, despite what they say about money and happiness, being confident in your financial future will help you to sleep very well at night.
Waste no time. Take the time right now to set a budget for yourself. Trying not to fall into the trap of underestimating or magical thinking (i.e. Nahh, I can get Starbucks down to just $20 per month from my usual $200), take into account all bills and include those online recurring payments that are too easily forgotten. Remember to factor in renewals such as insurance etc. Be ruthless and brutal with your honesty, turn a blind eye to nothing.
The best way to budget is using an app and many are available at the App Store or Play Store, I use Money Manager but there are lots to choose from. The benefit of this is that you can set the budget and each time you spend some money at the supermarket or grocery store, you can immediately add the payment to the app and see where you are against your budget. Although, if you’ve never done this before it will be an uncomfortable exercise, after you have assessed your 1st month’s spending, you can set a weekly or daily budget to cover your cash expenses such as groceries, entertainment etc that won’t come out of direct debit or standing order. I personally put my weekly cash spending money onto a pre-paid credit card to keep me within my budget. I, like most people, can occasionally lack self discipline when very busy or under pressure, and this is a great hack.
Again, before you factor in any non-essential items you MUST save a minimum of 15% of your income each month, when you get 3-6 months of salary saved, anything over that is for investing so that you will not have to worry about money in the future. How good would you feel with the money worry off the table?
There are many other’s better equipped than me to give you advice on how to manage your money for investment and the best of them all is Tony Robbins. I highly recommend his landmark book, Unshakable. It will equip you with everything you need to know (but I guarantee you don’t know) about money. Saving and investing will be your new sport. Managing your budget and finances, a fundamental self-management skill will have a massive impact on your emotional control for reasons we will come to later.
Self-Management Skill #3 | Basic Daily Routine
When we think of self-management skills most people think of 2 areas, one is emotional control, the other is routines. The routines of the famous entrepreneurs such as Tony Robbins and Richard Branson are well documented. In my research for my forthcoming book on the motivation and psychology of human energy, I sought the answer to a simple question; how did the high energy entrepreneurs pull it off? What were their routines and habits? My curiosity led to an obsession which culminated in a year-long exploration of the neuroscience of human energy and my partnering with a neuroscientist as a co-author. To cut a very very long and interesting journey short, the ability to maintain a simple routine is a key self-management skill held by all of the successful athletes, entrepreneurs and high achievers.
3-time gold medalist swimmer Brooke Burke explained to me in an interview that her success in sport, and in life, is grounded in her routines. Owen Edwards, World Champion figure skater, intimated that his success too revolved around a strict daily training routine as a child. Both athletes are more than competitors, they are warriors in the truest sense of the word, but their routines give them great strength and great confidence. A simple routine will work for you too.
A simple routine which could be for you, and without going into the fascinating science, is to rise and sleep at the same time each day, get 7-8 hours sleep, exercise at least once per week, eat green leafy vegetables every day, take a fish-oil tablet, drink a large glass of water with every meal and take mindful meditation or any duration each morning. Its an incredibly simple routine but one that is nailed-on proven in neuroscience to be beneficial to your personal energy levels. As a coach, I know that people need proof, and the reasons that this simple routine is effective will shock you, so it’s worth reading the book when it is released later this year, but suffice to say that this simple routine is a self-management skill worth having.
Self-Management Skill #4 | Stay on Top of Things
One of the self-management skills I learned from interviews with former military men and now high-achievers in their civilian lives, is to stay on top of things. It takes a surprising amount of energy to stay on top of every aspect of your life. Its very easy when we are un der pressure to leave the washing up in the sink or to let the laundry pile up. In an interview with a former Naval Commander from the Norwegian, now a captain of industry, the self-management skill of “surplus time” was introduced. Surplus time is the practice of doing things way ahead of time, which sounds so simple but so many of us fail to pull off. Of course, most of us don’t have the resources of the military at our disposal, however, the argument goes that if the task is completed way ahead of time, resources are freed up to take advantage of opportunities that later present themselves. You can do this too, it takes practice, but in essence, this is the foundation of good time management.
One of the best ways to stay on top of things is to keep things really simple and prioritise the things you work on. With less to stay on top of, you naturally have the resources to stay on top of what you do have. This has worked well for me personally, as I have perfected decision makingand prioritization, out of sheer necessity. The best exeutives I work do this naturally and it requires one skill in particular, the skill of saying, “No.”
Self-Management Skill #5 | Time Management and the Fine Art of Saying “No”
I’ve decided not to go into a lengthy tome on time management for one massive reason, it’s a waste of time. Oh, the irony. In the time-task continuum, task-time, the equivalent of space-time, is fluid and fills every crevice of the vessel that is our lives. We never have enough time for one big reason, we struggle so badly to say the simple word, “No.” Learning to say no, not only to the demands of others but to the incessant machine gun of new ideas our brains seem to generate, is the only thing you need for good time management.
One of the reasons that we stuggle to say “No” is fear. Specifically the fear of appearing rude and therefroe being rejected and the fear of losing out on somthign. Both fears are at play in any sales interraction. We feel uncomfortable saying no to the salesperson and the salesperson fear your rejection too. The other fear is that of losing out on a great opportunity, ironically, skilled sales professionals leverage that one too. The surface level hack for this is to fear what you will sacrifice in terms of time and resources if you say yes. The deeper solution is to understand why you fear saying no in the 1st place which in coaching can sometimes be traced back to childhood experiecnes with domineering parents and codependency.
Time mamagement requires no elaborate planners or apps that take ages to populate and you never seem to follow. It’s really very easy, write down your goal, focus on your goal each morning, anything that doesn’t help you to fulfil that goal gets a clear and assertive “No.” Simple. The reason this works is that it negates the “What will I lose out on fear” at a stroke. In essence, you need a reason to say no and the reason is the goal. Without the goal, you have no reason to say, “No.” Wow, that’s a lot of “no’s” but you get my point. I know, it seems to simple to be effective but really, it is, but there are more sophisticated self-management skills that you can master to give your “no” the maximum confidence, decision-making theory.
Self-Management Skill #6 | Decision Making, Nail this Process!
Successful people simply make better decisions than everyone else. For anyone with a spare 12-hours to spare I thoroughly recommend the lecture series, The Art of Critical Decision Making, by Professor Michael A Roberto of Bryant University. Explosively good, Professor Roberto details the many facets that make up our human ability to completely screw up a decision and what we can do about it. In particular, his detailed account of the lessons learned by President John F Kennedy’s from the doomed Bay of Pigs mission and their subsequent application during the Cuban Missile Crisis is truly one of the most fascinating chapters I’ve read on the subject. I’m indeed a sucker for both history and personal development non-fiction.
To cut streight to the chase, your decisions need 3-key components, and I am keeping this very very simple. 1st, for any option you need to generate at least 2 alternatives. No more going on instinct alone, you need choices. Choices give you not only a chance at the best decision but they also, psychologically promote emotional control and calm as the brain knows that there are many options, so no need to worry about losing out on the one in front of you. We are then less likely to be married to a losing position and good decision are more likely without emotion involved. I have in my past suffered intense pathalogical anxiety and this, more than anything else, calmed my anxiety so completely that it is now a fundamental part of my thought patterns and routines.
The second decision making skill, and essential self-management skill, is to avoid making a decision under stress as previously mentioned. Neuroscientist Dr Jonathan Jordan is keen to point out that emotions such as stress have the same effect on our cognition as being drunk (as does a lack of sleep), so the self-management skill here is to stay calm. Mindful meditation in the morning is a great way to achieve this. I interviewed filmmaker, author and Ted X Resident, Eiji Han Shimizu, an expert on mindfulness, who confided that just a few minutes of mindful meditation in the morning can keep you calm for the entire day. Eiji-san recommends a very simple meditation for “Long enough not to become a burden” each morning, focsing attention solely on inhaling through the nose.
The evidence from neuroscience on the benefits of mindful mediation is very compelling too, with several studies showing imprvements in focus and concentration as well as subjective feelings of calm. For your self management skills however, maybe the greatest endorsement comes from billionaire hedge fund owner Ray Dalio, for whom staying calm and making good decisions is a billion dollar deal. Ray recently posted that he meditates twice per day to keep a cool head for when things get dicey and balanced decisions are called for. You should do so too.
Another of Ray’s Principles, also the title of his book and the 3rd decision making skill to cover here, is to seek out people to disagree with you. Warren Buffet is also a proponent of this approach but so few of us, beaming with our bright idea, have the emotional security to seek out people who could shoot our precious idea down in flames. It takes oth time and secutity to do this one personal level and I guess that’s why they are billionaires and we aren’t (billionaire readers excluded). Dr Robert points out that seeking contrarian viewpoints and independent expert advice (your Mum, Dad and friends at the pub are in no way independent) is a feature a good decision making process. Note the word “process.”
The self-management skill with decision making is to have a process for making a decision, and then to stick to it of course. The actual decision is not as important as the process you use for reaching the decision. After following a great process, discipline becomes a decisive factor and this, we will focs on in part-2.
Now that you have a basic foundation in self-management skills my guess is that you want a little extra. Something to turn you from a temporarily embarrassed millionaire to a real defacto one. My experience with very successful people if that they simply make better decisions and they think with long-term vision too, they have limitless energy and enthusiasm but they also think much…..much bigger than regular people. In the next article on self-management skills, we’ll take a look at the emotional skillset, the self-management skills to really hit the next level.
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Part 2 – The Emotional Skills for Self-Management
In a training event I conducted recently for a Japanese multinational company at their regional headquarters in Singapore, a participant from Australia made an astute comment. I had spent the previous 4 hours-training participants in situational leadership, and the mindset of great leadership. At the reflection time, I asked participants what they believed would happen is the suddenly returned to their offices to use their new skills? Once we got through the usual answers of “my employees will love it” we got to what I was really looking for, the deeply held fears of participants. The comment by the Australian participant summarised the reason that self-management so often goes awry, “It will be great until someone stresses me out.” It was an honest comment made with great courage to a room of 50 of her peers.
Managing your emotions is the glue that holds the self-management framework together. Its ability to hold in the very worst of storms is the difference between those with true character and those that crumble. In this section we will look in detail at the emotional self-management skills you will need in your arsenal.
Self Management Skill #7 | Staying Calm, Mindfulness
Our emotions can easily get the better of us. Stress has the same effect on our cognition as being drunk [read more about emotional stress in “How to Manage Emotional Stress (Properly)”] and the effect of nor-adrenaline (noradrenaline is adrenaline stored in the brain) and cortisol is profound. The stress response, aka the fight or flight response, is the result of a reaction from the pituitary-adrenal amygdala axis which is there to keep us alive. The amygdala has the job of sensing a threat or reward from a distance and it’s well placed to do so. It sits in the hippocampus which is where your memories reside. This is no accident, the memories you hold of the things that can hurt you are best accessed at the fastest possible speed, and the short proximity of the alarm bell to the memory bank delivers just that. Unfortunately, the energy-hungry pre-frontal cortex, where the thinking happens, has less control over your behaviour at that point. Notice that I say “less.” Its often said that the prefrontal cortex is “bypassed” which is not strictly speaking true. Its certainly less effective but studies have shown that through mindful meditation that some control can be exerted on the PFC and that behaviour can be controlled in spite of the dump of stress hormones.
Mindfulness, as we learned in the section on Decision Making is a powerful way to stay calm. Practised for just 20 minutes per day for one month, neuroscientists have shown significant benefits in emotional control and feelings of calm and even compassion. However, if you are like most people and you struggle to find the time, you can build your mindfulness into your daily activities. I personally enjoy a mindful shower in the morning. Filmmaker Eiji Han Shimizu who we met earlier, reminded me of a quote by Bob Marley. “Some people feel the rain, other’s just get wet.” Another good way used by some mindfulness experts is to enjoy a mindful meal. I particularly enjoy this method. Eating my lunch in a mindful way means savouring every bite and you can read more about this mindfulness hack for emotional stress management in the article Eating with all 5-Senses.
Self-Management Skill #8 | Staying Calm, Going Deeper, Getting Connected.
Imagine that your dog keeps barking in the middle of the night, seemably for no obvious reason. You manage the situation by 1st, pretending you didn’t hear it (denial), then putting your head under the pillow (ignoring) then shouting “Stop” to the dog from the bedroom (anger), a piecemeal solution which quiets the dog for only 10 minutes before its barking once again. Eventually, you need to investigate (awareness) and address the cause of the problem (action), you’d accidentally shut him in the lounge. Problem solved, no more barking. This metaphor for how we address our problems is powerful because the dog is communicating a clear signal that something is wrong and in this particular metaphor, the dog is your subconscious mind, the barking is your anxiety and the lounge is a belief rooted in your memory. We start with denial, progress to ignoring and don’t address the problem until it becomes a nuisance.
The hack here is, with mindfulness or coaching (self or otherwise) is to be aware of the barking, the subtle signs the mind communicates, and then to trace the cause back to the root of the belief that triggered it. This is the essence of psychotherapy yet it truly doesn’t have to be as drawn out (psychotherapy can take years) or intense to achieve the result you need. It is also far more powerful than Cognitive Behavioral Tharapy which is essential talking yourself out of your negative thoughts as they are. The benefits of going deeper and pulling it off are stunning. When a client says to me “You changed my life” or “I feel like a different person” this is exactle what they are referring to. I have documented the full process which you can follow step by step on your own in my eBook “Breakthrough.”
This approach has helped me personally to overcome codependency and anxiety and to become more calm, emotionally secure and more successful in my career and realtionships. My clients have enojoyed life breakthoughs with it too. I will document my own experience, which used the inner child approach in an another article but suffice to say that going to the root of why we feel stress at a beliefs level lays a foundation strong enough to weather the wildest of storms.
Self-Management Skill #9 | Decaf and Low GI Carbs
OK, this one’s from the persoanl locker and may not be for everyone. I love coffee, truly, and I’ll drink around 6+ cups of the stuff per day, but too much coffee makes me anxious and my decisions and self-mamagement go to pot. The solution for me is decaf. I drink 1 or 2 fullcaf (I think I just invented that term) cups in the morning and then shift to decaf. It helps me to stay calm and make self-management more effectively.
Of course its personal. Caffeine essentially increases the amount of the stress hormone noradrenaline, and to a lesser degree dopamine, whilst at the same time reducing the effect of adenosine which is supposed to build up over the course of the day to make you feel sleepy and rest. It is an incredibly elegant system that nature has provded to make sure that we care for the brain and body by taking rest. Caffeine puts a hammer into that system by sitting on the adenosine receptor, preventing adenosine from doing its job. Think of adenosine as the control rods in a nuclear powerstation. Caffeine works, make no mistake, and feeling excessively sleepy can also effect your self-management skills and emotional control. The trick is awareness, and keeping things with reasonable and productive limits.
Many people, myself included, also find that eating less processed sugar helps them to stay calm too. The huge fluctuations in circulating glucose is the factor here and in my interviews with athletes in particular, a low-glycemic diet which has less processed sugar is an important part of their routine. Based on that premise, pasta and oats serve as better sources for emotional control than donoughts and Pop Tarts althoguh ironically, when we have less sleep our bodies naturally crave processed sugars. You can read more about foods to boost energy in the article Top 3 Foods for Mental Energy.
Putting it all together
Rome, as they say, was not built in a day. It takes at least 30-days for the neural connections to begin to form an embryonic new habit. At that stage, it is still far from the efficient and powerful neural network that makes up a new behavior. It takes time and consistency over and extended period of time for a newly encountered idea to graduate to an optimistic hope, to advance to place in our lives and eventually a lifelong behavior. As you set your goal of applying your newly aquired knowledge on self-management, think of a 3-month commitment. Focus on your new endavor each morning and don’t lose heart because you missed a day. Slipping up from time to time in our quest for life changing improvements is not only expected, but it is encouraged. The association of a new habit with failure or fatigue will not encourage the brain to release the dopamine it needs for the positive reinforcement cycle. Slipping up every now and then offers a little relief so expect it and embrace it if it happens but then use it to remotivate yourself to continue. Your new habit should not become a burden.
Without question, from all of the interviews I have done with world class athletes, entrereneurs and high achievers, the power derived an inspiring and well aligned goal is the potent source that fuels the self-discipine and self management that together sets these winners apart from all others. You can do this too.