The foundation of effective priority management is the ability to clarify purpose and hold our focus on it.
Both steps can be challenging. The first, because purpose is easily confused with current activities, dealing with agenda or completing to-do lists. The second, because we get caught up in our attitudinal compulsions (to be constantly busy or needing to be liked by others, for example), and effortless distraction is almost always a nanosecond away.
There’s no perfect approach to getting priority management right every time, but it helps to have a rough guide to the territory, to help figure out ways to enhance whatever techniques we currently use.
Donuts, rabbits and alligators
My online search for a definition of “priority management” leads to, “As you go through life, make this your goal: keep your eye on the donut and not on the hole.” Dozens of links explore its meaning – each one a metaphoric rabbit hole.
Rabbit hole . . ? “If you chase two rabbits, they’ll both escape” is attributed with equal authority to a proverb of three different countries – and to Confucius! Interesting.
So is this: Confucius is known as Model Teacher for Ten Thousand Ages. There’s a Ten Thousand Ages bridge over the Min River in China. Who knew?
Anyway . . . Oh wait, here’s a good one: “When you’re up to your armpits in alligators, it’s hard to remember that the original objective was to drain the swamp.”
The centrality of purpose
I’ve learned that the most important question about any venture, meeting, project, life (or Google search) is, What is this for?
It’s difficult to see the relative importance of all the matters we could attend to each day if we’re unclear about or lose our focus on the Big Picture – our overall purpose and the goals and plans we intend to flow from it. Attention drifts away from what really matters, to whatever presents itself for our attention.
Then, if we prioritise at all, we are more likely to prioritise what’s on our schedule rather than schedule our priorities, and end up following aimlessly whatever we next become aware of. There be alligators in that swamp.
A Chief Executive I work with puts an extremely high value on building and maintaining trust; it’s Right Up There in his mind as an intention of his leadership. Some months ago, although he’d begun to doubt the honesty and reliability of an Executive Team member, he overlooked or suppressed those misgivings, lost focus on the primacy of trust, and allowed other everyday priorities to occupy all his workplace attention.
He called me this week to report that his instinct had unfortunately been accurate: the person concerned had disguised important facts, misled many people and caused immense damage to the organisation. A previously impressive tranformational focus on the organisation’s thriving has been thoroughly disrupted by the need to simply survive.
Completing a jigsaw puzzle can be really challenging without a view of the intended end result of our efforts. [Plato]
Plato didn’t actually say anything of the sort, of course – perhaps it was Confucius or me – but his name certainly adds weight and authority to a worthwhile metaphor for the value of envisaging purpose. (I suspect many notable sayings derive credibility in this way.)
To define your own central purpose, start with What is this for? Ask Why? and So that . . ? of your answers until there are no further answers. You may not get clarity quickly or easily, (I’ve seen a room full of Steven Covey workshop participants struggle for hours over, What is my personal purpose? A senior leader I worked with struggled for weeks to define the real purpose of her weekly Executive Team meetings.) But raising the question and returning to it periodically will lead to helpful answers.
Other useful questions might include:
- What important beliefs, values, principles and aspirations do I hold?
- Beyond the desire to maintain existing enterprises and deal with whatever is immediately in front of me, what is my own Big Picture?
- What, as a result of all that I devote myself to, do I want to be revealed about my character over time?
- What, really, is my job for?
- Above and beyond my daily to-do lists, what is my organisation’s purpose, vision, current drivers, strategic intentions and imperatives? What is my role in achieving that?
Answers to questions like these will disclose your personal purpose and important broad intentions – even if gradually or partially – and eventually reveal the picture that the jigsaw puzzle of your everyday possibilities should resemble when completed.
Create space for the process
You’ll need to set aside sufficient time for this and to complete the rest of the process. This may not be convenient but it is necessary.
On the basis of commonly observable workplace behaviour, it’s clear that many people fixate on the 10 Urgent and Important Things To Do Today that come to their attention as soon as they’ve dealt with the previous Top 10. They think they must get them under control before affording themselves the “luxury” of anything else. Bad call.
To get things under better control, we must first step off the treadmill.
But don’t try to manage time
Time is a constant that cannot be planned or controlled: it can only be managed in the sense of “coping with”. However, we can learn to manage priorities within time available (around 30,000 days for each of us overall, on average), once we’ve determined the purpose they’re intended to fulfill.
Our life is the sum total of all the decisions we make every day, and those decisions are determined by our priorities. [Myles Munroe. Really.]
“Time-management” really refers to important aspects of our self-management: the ways we organise and monitor ourselves and the disposition of our personal energy. The basis of successful self-management is being able to keep the main thing the main thing, an achievement reached through priority-management and planning based on a clear sense of values and purpose.
Keep the main thing the main thing
To manage our priorities we should know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and do what’s important first. Many urgent activities have the appearance of importance but do not contribute to making the difference we should make.
If we can’t or don’t readily distinguish between them, we may have a well-ordered and even satisfying day that is otherwise pointless, one which generates pressing and serious problems or puts us further behind.
Remember the story about putting stones in a jar? Put the Big Stuff (what is important) in first and there’s room for small stones, then pebbles. After the pebbles, there’s room for sand. After the sand, still room for water. But start with the water and anything else forces the container to overflow. Start with the sand and you’ll fill it completely with Small Stuff.
Priority management tools
There are many tools available to support a methodical approach to this. One of the best is from Steven Covey’s work – the Franklin/Covey toolkit (although it’s entitled Time Management Fundamentals). Its use helps to reduce Urgent But Not Important activities and those that are unnecessary or aimless (Not Urgent, Not Important).
Most crises (matters that are both Urgent and Important) are the effects of earlier, unwise priority-management decisions.
A methodical approach provides a framework for identifying and focusing on what is really important and truly valuable, the Big Stuff of our lives and work: that which helps us realise the future we want. In my own version of Covey’s quadrant, I identify these as VINU activities: those which should always be Very Important but never become Urgent, because they lead to the realisation of purpose and Big Picture.
Whatever you include in your list of VINU activities is for you to decide, based on your own purpose, vision, values and plans. In Covey’s version, he lists preparation, prevention, relationship-building, re-creation, and values clarification.
In my own priority management system I’ve created several other categories and am much more specific about them. (You may find some relevant categories in these three lists of Tools for Self-Management.)
Know your priorities and identify the five powerful action steps that you intend to take to move your initiatives forward each day. If you go to a tree with an ax and take five whacks at the tree every day, it doesn’t matter if it’s an oak or a redwood; eventually, the tree has to fall down. [Jack Canfield]