Carey Nieuwhof has written At Your Best to help knowledge workers do what they are best at, at their best time. He first chronicles the difficulties that many people have today being overworked, overcommitted, and overstressed. He then confronts the lies we tell ourselves about our life: “To revive some semblance of hope amid all the overwhelm, maybe you tell yourself that the stress you’re feeling and crazy busy life you’re living is fine because it’s just a season” (11). The problem is, “If your busy season has no ending, it’s not a season—it’s your life” (11)!
So how do we reclaim our lives? He first notes that the time off won’t fix the problem. He writes, “Time off won’t heal you when the problem is how you spend your time on. It’s ludicrous to think that a few days off here or few months off there are going to resolve the issues created by a perpetually overwhelming life” (23). A more radical solution is needed: “A sustainable pace is the solution for an unsustainable pace” (24). In other words, band aid solutions like sabbaticals and vacations will not fix the underlying issue of an unsustainable pace. A full-blown transformation is needed.
Furthermore, he goes on to recount how our passion and dreams are eaten up by unfocused time and hijacked priorities. He feel like we aren’t accomplishing much in life (even though we’re so so busy) precisely because we’re not doing what we’re best at. One of his “mantras” throughout the book to help people break through their conundrum is this: “Live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow” (32). That means we must be willing to do some hard things today to help us tomorrow. We must also be willing to NOT do certain things so that we can do the best things. One of the best things that must not be forgotten is cultivate our families: “Winning at work while losing at home means you’re losing. Period” (33).
Nieuwhof then goes into the practical strategies that go into building a thriving life. The first is to tell the truth about time. Often, we lie to ourselves saying “We didn’t have the time,” when in reality we just didn’t prioritize doing something (48). Such a mental shift is simple but profound. We must reckon with the lies we tell about our time. Time isn’t the only ingredient that goes into thriving, however. Energy is also a big component and Niewhof spend a lot of time talking about our “green zones,” our highest energy points during the day. Not all hours are created equal (60). Therefore, if we’re able to leverage our energy and do our highest priority work in that time, we will accomplish much more.
Finding your “green zone” is actually very important because it enables us to be around those we care about the most. If we can become more productive and less-stressed, we will have more time to spend with our families and friends. He writes, “Being around [your family] is not guarantee that anything relationally significant will happen, but not being around is an absolute guarantee that nothing relationally significant will happen” (104). Being productive matters, not merely to get a promotion at work, but to also be less stressed, happier, and more present with those who matter the most to us.
Unfortunately, no amount of theory can ever stamp out all distractions. Sometimes are priorities get hijacked. Niewhof looks into common things which hijack our priorities: technology, people, and ourselves. Many times people try to get us to accomplish their priorities. In fact, “nobody will ever ask you to accomplish your top priorities” (114). Therefore, we must be diligent to prioritize our most important things because we will pay a price if we don’t: “You never pay an immediate price for skipping important but non-urgent things. The cost is always long time. Worse, the price only gets steeper the longer you ignore them” (117). The problem is that it’s very difficult to know exactly what to focus on. Here, Nieuwhof looks to the 80/20 principle for providing clarity of what to focus: 80% of the results usually comes from 20% of what we do, so we should try to spend more time doing the 20%.
Next, Nieuwhof turns to technology which can distract us. He doesn’t break much new ground but succinctly sums up the peril of our current working relationship with technology, “When technology runs us, it can ruin us” (132). Nieuwhof’s work corresponds well to Cal Newport’s view of “digital minimalism” where we leverage technology to support our deeply held values.
Even more distracting than technology, however, can be other people. Nieuwhof points out a difficult paradox: the people who may want our time may not be the people who should have it. Conversely, the healthiest and best people we should be investing in rarely take up our time because they are not pushy about it (151). Nieuwhof advocates for prioritizing who we spend our time. While at first Nieuwhof’s advice can seem cold and uncaring, he really just points out the natural way we live anyways. We all prioritize our families and close friends. Those that don’t will fail in spectaclur ways. Nieuwhof does indeed say that we should spend time with those who cannot repay us (153). Yet, we cannot fill our lives constantly with those who drain us. As he finishes the chapter, he admonishes us to please the right people, not everyone. The right people are our families and close friends.
The final section of the book deals with Niewhof’s practical steps to spending more time in the “green zone.” The primary way is to sync up our time, energy, and priorities. If we can align our schedule so that we’re spending significant time in our “green zone” of energy working on our highest priorities, then we will feel an immense sense of satisfaction. Nieuwhof then closes the book by answering the inevitable question: “What do I do when life happens?” Throughout the chapter, Niewhof provides some diagnostic questions to help us recalibrate fast and make sure we’re spending our time on the right things.
Overall, Nieuwhof has written a rather simple book. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s not profound. The profundity of the book lies in its bracing wake up call to acknowledge that the current way we work is not sustainable. And the only solution for an unsustainable pace is a sustainable one.