The Master and Servant Model: How to Approach Goals and Time Management
Simplifying Goal-Setting and Decision-making for a More Effective Motivation
Simply changing the way that you look at a problem can drastically change how effective you are at solving it. As Steven Covey reminds us in his 7 Habits: the map is not the territory. When you change the way you look at something, an entirely new set of possible actions opens up to you — a new approach — that you didn’t have before. Often, a change in view — a new map — is the first and most effective step in effectively navigating the territory.
So here’s a new map for the way you approach the territory of managing your goals and working toward them day to day. For lack of a better way to describe it, I call it the “Servant and Master” approach.
Two Kinds of Work, Two Kinds of People
One of the most useful things you can do when it comes to productivity is to set aside different kinds of time for different kinds of work. During the industrial revolution, we made huge gains by doing this in factories. It’s fairly easy to do when work is physical in nature.
But with the advent of knowledge work, all of our work has washed together into general “stuff to do”. It all looks the same on our giant to-do lists, so we just start working and plug along until we stop, and whatever is done is done. But the truth is, some work can’t be done effectively alongside other kinds of work.
The state of mind for doing strategic planning is different than the state of mind required to comb through data for details and patterns. The state of mind for responding to a difficult email is different than the one for pulling together reports for a presentation.
As knowledge workers, we find ourselves in the unfortunate position of having to be both masters and servants. We can’t simply come in to work each day with a prepared list of things to do, and simply get to work. We have to first plan what we should be doing — which means looking at values, priorities, goals, and deadlines — then we have to actually do the work.
Essentially, we’re in the position of having to do two different types of work. David Marquet (author of Turn This Ship Around!) lays out these two kinds of work — Red Work and Blue Work:
Red work is work that is fundamentally about reducing variability. Red work is the kind of work we are very familiar with. It is a result of the industrial revolution. Red work is about doing. It is about avoiding errors. It is about execution. When we say, “We come to work to do our jobs,” that is a legacy of this long history of red work.
Blue work is fundamentally about embracing variability. Blue work is thinking work, not just doing. Blue work is about achieving excellence, not just avoiding errors. Blue work is about decision making, not just executing our tasks. It’s almost as if we’re being asked to be two different people. That’s why — though it may sound crazy — we need to approach our work as if we were two different people.
Two types of work, two types of people. It sounds odd, but makes sense. So what if you actually approached your time and work as if you were two different people?
The Two Kinds of Time
As weird as it may sound, it can be quite effective to treat yourself as (at least) two different people — based on the kind of work you need to do.
At the very least, separate your schedule in to master time, and servant time.
Master time is the time where you make decisions — big ones. It’s the kind of time that requires thinking and reflection. It’s the time where you think about things like:
- how you’ll spend your time
- what your goals and values are
- what habits you should develop and get rid of
- your operating principles
Master time is usually in long blocks, so that you have the necessary space to think things through thoroughly — without much interruption or pull from other things.
Servant time is the time when you do that stuff that we’re most comfortable calling work. It’s the time where you just move down the task list and check them off as done. You send the quick emails, make the quick calls, pull the reports, analyze some data, and so on. It may require thought, yes, but it’s not the kind of wide-open, second-order thought that master time uses.
Servant work is the kind of work that you can end up getting lost in — getting in the zone. It’s easier to get into what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls a “flow state”. It happens when the task at hand is undoubtedly aligned with your goals and — as he puts it — you find yourself “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Flow time is servant time. You’re serving your goals, you’re fully vested and fully trusting. You lose yourself in the work, and do it not for your own motives, but for its own sake. That’s servant time.
A few notes on the differences between the roles and times:
- The servant only makes decisions by referring to the rules the master has set out.
This may sound like an unnecessary constraint at first, but if you look back on the worst cases of procrastination you’ve battled, they are likely due to a lack of trust in your plan or commitment. You have to trust the plans and goals you set as your own master, or you will be paralyzed by second-guessing. Just trusting yourself and doing what you laid out for yourself is actually very liberating — so long as you actually do it!
- The servant shouldn’t disobey or question the master during servant time, but can record questions for future master time.
During servant time, your job is to work the plan that you made during master time, and just trust it. But you didn’t always plan things perfectly, of course, so there’s a check and balance. During master time, the servant can bring concerns to the master, and perhaps revise principles, goals, and time allocations for the next period of servant time.
To use another analogy, master time is when you chart the course. Servant time is when you steer the ship. Of course, some quick adjustments will have to be made from time to time, but those should be exceptions, not the rule. Chart a course each few days or week, and stick to it.
Working the System
So how do you work these two selves, and work the two kinds of times into your life? If nothing else, you need separation. Master time needs to be separate from servant time. It is a different mindset, and it requires you to switch into a different mode.
Master time is also more expansive. You need at least 30 minute blocks to do the kind of thinking and strategy that master time requires. However you need to do that, do it, but really do it. And it should be done 1 to 2 times per week (usually). An hour to two hour bookend at the beginning and end of the week should help you to guide yourself by your principles and values and toward your goals. You may need more, you may need less. But that’s a good place to start.
A Note on Grading Yourself
To judge how you’re doing, you can give yourself 2 grades:
1. Grade your servant self on how effective you were at following the mission and principles the master set out.
2. Grade your master self on how effective you were at providing a clear mission and principles — and how easy it was for the servant you to make decisions based on them.