On his deathbed, Alexander the Great summoned his generals and told them his three ultimate wishes: The best doctors should carry his coffin; the wealth he had accumulated (money, gold, precious stones) should be scattered along the way to his burial; and his hands should be left hanging outside the coffin for all to see.

Surprised by these unusual requests, one of his generals asked Alexander to explain. Here is what he said: “I want the best doctors to carry my coffin to demonstrate that in the face of death, even the best doctors in the world have no power to heal. I want the road to be covered with my treasure so that everybody sees that the wealth acquired on Earth stays on Earth. I want my hands to swing in the wind so that people understand that we come to this world empty-handed and we leave empty-handed after the most precious treasure of all is exhausted — time.”

Time is our most precious treasure because it is limited. We can produce more wealth, but we cannot produce more time. The ultimate mystery: None of us knows how much time we really have.

When we give someone our time, we actually give a portion of our life that we will never get back. Our time is our life.

Time is money. In work life, how you spend your time often determines success. Make the most of every minute with these useful ideas:

• Set aside a block of time to return phone calls and answer e-mails. Of course, urgent messages should be returned in a timely manner. But plan to regularly set aside a few minutes on the phone or responding, saving or deleting messages so important e-mails don’t get lost in the electronic clutter.

• When talking on the phone or face-to-face, give the other person your full attention. Don’t check your e-mail or fill out your daily planner when you’re talking to someone. Make sure that your communication is clear and focused, which will reduce the need for clarification and other time-wasters in the future.

• Do your most important tasks first. Identify your priorities (and those of your boss) so you know what’s critical and what’s trivial. Then take care of your top priorities first thing in the morning. The rest of your day will flow more easily once you’ve got the important stuff under control.

• Identify quick tasks. Make a list of routine items you can do in 5 minutes or less. Tackle these when you’ve got a little spare time. That way they won’t distract you when you need to concentrate, or waste your time when you should be working on more important things.

• Determine whether you really are necessary to meetings. Find out what the meeting is intended to accomplish. Ask yourself, “Do I get anything out of the meeting?” and “Do I contribute anything to the meeting?” If your answers are “no,” ask the meeting organizers if your attendance is really necessary or if you can attend only part of the meeting.

• Take good notes. When you’ve got an idea, or realize you need to do something later, write it down. Review your notes regularly so nothing slips through the cracks.

• Just say no. Avoid tasks and projects that don’t directly contribute to your primary objectives. Use your list of priorities to identify work that you need to do. Politely turn down requests to take on irrelevant work, or negotiate for a deadline that allows you to focus on your key tasks.

• End each day with a plan for the next day.

Using your time well will become a habit. And it will lead to some shocking revelations, such as that getting more done doesn’t always mean doing more things.

Mackay’s Moral: Taking your time can sometimes be the best use of your time.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.