Took me many years, but I have finally learned to articulate my First Commandment.
Don’t participate in something (anything) unless you can make a real contribution.
All through my school years I was focused on soaking up knowledge and, of course, on using that knowledge to get things done. But I also spent a lot of time going to events where I was listening rather than really interacting and learning. Soon after that, as a young faculty member at Northwestern University, I started a research project and began helping other professors and graduate students learn how to use computers in teaching. Converting “learning” into “action” is what got me that faculty position, and what has worked for me ever since.
In the last five years I finally got my act together and turned this into a principle or commandment, if you wish, and now have an iron-clad rule that I will not go to a conference, or a meeting, or commit a big piece of my time to something unless I see an opportunity to really make a contribution to whatever is going on. It doesn’t mean that if it’s a conference, for example, I have to be on the stage or on a panel — I can still go primarily to listen and learn, but unless there is a real opportunity for me to interact with folks, ask questions or point out important stuff, I just won’t do it.[1. What does the photo have to do with this? Well, every summer I take a small group of 6+ people into the Yosemite wilderness to have fun and learn more about their own abilities. I contribute by organizing these trips. And several of my friends who have gone along on these trips are now doing the same thing themselves, for their friends.]
As a result of implementing this commandment, I have cut back on my commitments to organizations where I’m not of direct use, and I’ve cut my time spent meeting with people who waste my/our time, and I’ve created more time in my schedule to learn and be productive. And yet I still can put some of my time “at risk” by investigating things that may or may not pay off — I just learn to shut down my time investment earlier if they’re not producing!