I recently found a notebook from one of the busiest periods of my professional career. It contained my daily to-do lists along with notes from the meetings I attended, right around the time I was trying to build and launch an online learning platform for more than 30,000 students – on top of maintaining my regular responsibilities leading the internal learning services team. Just reading my notes took me right back to that year of my life and how absolutely crazy it was.
Achievement-wise, it was a banner year. And yet: it was also the year I was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disease, the onset of which is often triggered by (yep, you guessed it!): stress. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
As I look at that notebook now, I can see that I was committing one of the Seven* Sins of Time Management. (*Actually, I have no idea how many time management sins there are, but seven sounds good.) My sin? I was managing my tasks instead of my priorities.
Managing tasks is a losing battle. The world operates at such a fast pace that for every item we wipe off our to do list, two more take its place. For people working across multiple time zones, the challenge is even worse: even if you COULD go to bed with a clean slate, you’d wake up to a bulging inbox that created more work for you as you slept. Approaching our days and weeks by chasing our to do list means we’re always walking around with a sense of frenzy (at best) or failure (at worst).
So what’s the alternative? Managing your priorities – which assumes you know what they are. There’s a reason I often start coaching engagements by asking leaders what their top priorities are for the year: most people have a general sense of where they should focus their energy, but they haven’t really clarified their thinking or committed it to paper. Without this clarity, it is easy to shift into the more comfortable territory of working through your task list, which continues the cycle.
Good news: Managing priorities rather than tasks isn’t complicated. Bad news: It requires discipline and an acceptance that you’ll need to let some tasks go. (More on “letting go” in a separate post!)
How to get started:
- Step back and think about your year. What are the top things you want (or need) to do, accomplish, or experience to make this a great year? (Don’t limit yourself to thinking about your job – if you want work-life integration, spend some time thinking about what would make it a great year on all fronts.)
- Once you have your (potentially long) list of satisfaction-inducing items, start prioritizing. Ask yourself: Which 3-5 items on this list would be the foundation of a great year? Are there themes that emerge across items (eg. health, balance, etc.)
- Now use these priorities to clarify where you need to focus in the next quarter to ensure you’re on target to achieve or experience them. Think about what else has emerged that’s important that needs to happen over the next quarter. Write them down.
- At the beginning of each month and each week, look at your annual and quarterly priorities and ask yourself: What are three things I must do this week to ensure I make progress toward these priorities?
- At the end of each week and each month, reflect back: how did you do? Did you spend time on the things you said truly mattered or did you let yourself get distracted by your tasks? See what you notice and recommit to your priorities for the next month.
If I’d followed this advice that crazy year, I would’ve quickly realized a few things: 1) That my priority list was dominated exclusively by work; 2) That it had an unreasonable number of priorities on it (probably close to 12); 3) That a lot of the tasks I was spending my time on were things that either aligned to someone else’s priorities OR really didn’t need to happen. Who knows? Maybe I could’ve even avoided the ER!?
In short: If you feel like your days and weeks are out of control and you don’t have enough time to do it all, welcome to the club! Good news: there IS a way to manage the noise and give yourself the gift of focus. One thing you can do THIS WEEK to move the needle: Take an hour and get clear on your top priorities for the next year. I know, it probably feels impossible to find an hour, but if you want to shift the cycle, it’s critical. Think of it as an investment. Or a gift.