What It Means to Live Within Limits


“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Benjamin Franklin affirmed the reality of human limits when he wrote those words. And I affirmed this reality when I recently reviewed a six-week time analysis of my schedule. I had been letting people down. The time analysis revealed why.

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I have established limits around my schedule. My family routine is based on me allocating 50 hours a week to work and 20 hours during the workweek to the family. My company assumes that I’m allocating no more than 30 percent of my time to management activities so that I have 70 percent of my time available for clients.

So back to that six-week time analysis.

In looking at all six weeks, I can see that I’ve allocated only 30 percent of my time to clients, not 70 percent as I had assumed I would. Three out of the past six weeks I’ve exceeded my 50 hours of work due to travel, work dinners and early-morning meetings. As a result, I’m behind my personal goal for client revenue, and my wife has been carrying more of the load at home.

How did this happen?

Well, things change. For starters, we acquired a company eight weeks ago, and we are in the midst of spinning off a new company. I’d like to say that these are isolated circumstances and that I’ll be back to perfect percentages in no time. But that would be unrealistic. New teammates, new clients, new ideas, new problems and new opportunities continue to intrude into my scheduling nirvana.

Making Friends With Your Limits

It’s frustrating not having enough time, money, energy or ability to do it all. So what can we do about these limits?

We can get tied up in knots with frustration and self-criticism. We can sacrifice the things that usually don’t get measured (family, faith, fun and fitness) in favor of those that do (sales, service and work product). Or we can, as Dale Carnegie says, “Cooperate with the inevitable” and live within limits.

It sounds great, but how do we put it into action? Here are 5 proactive steps I’m taking going forward:

  1. Listening carefully to my body. Two weeks ago, my nerves were frayed and my breath was shallow. Last week, I fell asleep at my desk in the middle of the day. True, some degree of endurance and toughness was required to push past my fatigue. But it’s not true that I should just ignore these data points because of what had to get done. I needed to manage my phone, laptop and bedtime more carefully to prevent getting physically or emotionally sick.
  2. Understanding who gets hit first. There’s always a person who experiences our limit-pushing before anyone else. Maybe it’s your colleague, your nanny, your boss or your child. For me it’s my wife. When she’s feeling anxious, frustrated or disconnected, you can be pretty sure that I’ve been pushing past my limits.
  3. Remembering we are human beings not human doings. You and I were built to be present, engaged, aware and connected. We were also made to create, build and fix. The key point: Our doing shouldn’t deteriorate or come at the expense of our being.
  4. Accepting my limits. I love my family and I love being with them, so that means I can’t work as many hours as I’d like to. I’d love to spend money whenever I want things. I’d love to drive as fast as I want, eat as much as I want, drink as much as I want, and stay up as late as I want. But doing everything I want to often results in more limitations. So I accept my limits—because I recognize that most limits actually make me freer.
  5. Continually course-correcting. I noticed a few weeks ago, as I conducted this time analysis, that I was short-changing important obligations. So I sat with my calendar for a while to block time for client work. I had a heart-to-heart with a few of my colleagues about my circumstances and reset expectations. One conversation was specifically about how I’d be spending less time on a project and why that would be good for our business. Course-correction isn’t a one-time activity; you have to continually monitor and adjust as things change.

Since the Garden of Eden, humans have experienced—and tried to push against—limits. We can try to be superhuman and blow past them. Or we can understand that we are human. And humans live within limits.

What limits do you recognize—or need to recognize—in your life right now?

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