Manage Your Priorities
After years of frustration, I gave up on managing my time!
It started back in college, continued through almost two decades in corporate America, and has haunted me through 13 years in government. I can’t seem to escape it. Every time I turn around, someone else is dangling another deceptively easy thing in front of me. They say they’ve mastered it, and so can I. With their help – after paying way too much for their course, book, software, or membership – I will finally be able to completely manage my time!
How it was supposed to work
In college, many professors would talk about the need to learn “time management” techniques so we could be successful in college and beyond. It seemed so straight forward at the time – create a calendar, block out times for different tasks, then live by your calendar. Do that, and you’ll always stay on top of everything and will be less stressed because you're in control of your time.
When I worked at Generous Motors, they spent ridiculous amounts of money sending all of us first line supervisors to multi-day training to learn how to properly use a paper-based planner. Then they spent more money year after year, buying refills because that’s what the system required. Make lists, take notes, and tightly schedule every minute of your day. It was clearly the key to success because every executive had one of those leather-bound planners sitting on their desk.
By the time I went to work for the government, paper-based planners had given way to electronic calendars with task lists and all sorts of bells and whistles. You no longer needed to hand-write uncompleted items from one day to the next – and changing meetings times was a simple click and drag. I mean, it doesn’t make sense to use so much time working with the tools that are supposed to help manage your time, right?
How it actually worked
Nothing ever took the amount of time expected. If I scheduled 2 hours for a college assignment, it either took 4 hours or it took 40 minutes. Either way, it messed up my plan. I spent too much time rejiggering my schedule and it got frustrating. If I scheduled 2 hours but finished in 40 minutes – what should I do? If I started working on the next scheduled assignment, it might be something less important but it fit into the available block of time. But I hadn’t been prepared to work on the most important thing, so I needed to figure out what I should to. (More often than not, I’d just screw off for the extra 80 minutes.)
I ended up only using my calendar to track deadlines. Initially, I focused on final due dates of assignments. Eventually, I learned to break down large assignments into phases and assign deadlines to those. It worked great when I did it. (I was in college and I don’t have OCD, so it definitely didn’t come naturally to me.)
In corporate America, there were always at least a few people who swore by their Frankenstein Planners (you know the ones), while everyone else either used them as regular notebooks or put them on a shelf to collect dust. Similar to my experience in college, trying to schedule every minute of my day and keep track of every possible task just didn’t work very well because life never cooperated. And I worked in a factory, so hauling around that clunky planner was a pain.
I ended up using little 2" x 5" lined notebooks. They fit in my pocket and I could take quick notes, jot down any tasks, and it was always at hand. At the end of the shift, I could take a quick look at my notes, complete anything required for that day, and queue up anything I needed to address the next day. It was a simple little system that worked great in a fast-paced environment with a very focused set of requirements (i.e. high quality auto parts).
By the time I began working for the government, I had been off the factory floor for several years, so my responsibilities had changed. When it takes weeks instead of hours to create your final work product, my little green memo pads weren’t up to the task. And that’s where technology came to the rescue! I offer prayers of thanks every day for my email program with it’s integrated calendar and task list. I can schedule my day in 15-minute increments, set up reminders, drag and drop emails and files into appointments, and make adjustments with a few clicks of the mouse. It’s been like a magic wand or silver bullet (pick your analogy) because it solved all of my problems! Yeah!
Okay. Not really.
This technology did two horrible things:
It made it easier to create ever-growing lists of tasks with constantly changing deadlines.
It turned my inbox into a To-Do list that everyone else controls.
And let’s be honest – the fact that I can create a very granular schedule and adjust it easily doesn’t address the underlying problem:
Life doesn’t cooperate with our attempts at “time management.”
The answer is understanding your priorities
Over the last few years, my task tracking system has evolved to better meet the needs of the type of work I do. But the core of it remains the same and it’s not about managing my TIME – it’s about understanding my PRIORITIES.
Yes, there are tasks to track and I have “ticklers” set up to ensure I don’t lose sight of less important matters. And I use my calendar to schedule meetings… but also to set asides blocks of time for focused work. I’ve also tracked my energy levels and I try to schedule those blocks of focused work during high-energy times of the day, which has really cranked up my productivity.
The two important differences are that I’m not a slave to my calendar and I don’t expend much effort reacting to other people’s “urgent” matters. Even if my boss comes to me with something, I don’t simply drop everything and work on it. I’ll start by having a discussion to explain what I see as my top priorities so my boss understands what I’ll have to STOP working on in order to handle his “urgent” matter. Even if I’m told to drop everything and handle the new issue anyway, I’ve not only explained my priorities but I’ve also set more realistic expectations in the process.
Setting priorities isn’t easy
Knowing your priorities probably sounds like pretty basic advice – and certainly nothing revolutionary – but unless you work in a job with clearly defined deliverables, I’d bet you don’t actually have a list of your top priorities. If you can’t list your priorities and explain WHY each one is important, then you’re going to stay stuck in “reactive mode.”
For years, I’ve told my team that if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. It looks great on a cheesy office poster but it’s also a very helpful thing to keep in mind. I encourage you to list your priorities and then compare them to the actual work you do each day.
Start by identifying your Top 3 priorities and make a conscious effort to focus on them. If you find that you’re not spending the majority of your time on your self-identified priorities, either your work habits need adjusting or they’re NOT really priorities after all.
The bottom line is that you’ll always be more successful when you manage your priorities instead of working so hard to manage your time!