Provision #670: Priorities Matter

Laser Provision

What things do you spend most of your time on? If you are like most people, you spend most of your time reacting to crises, deadlines, and pressing problems. No one gets away from such matters completely, but great leaders learn both how to set priorities and how to organize and execute around priorities. By taking a proactive stance in life and work we are better able to generate vision, perspective, balance, discipline, and control. We have fewer crises because we plan ahead. If that sounds like the third habit of highly successful people, then you’re on to me! I hope you enjoy the Provision.

LifeTrek Provision

Have you ever sat down at the computer to do some work and then gotten distracted by a Facebook friend request which led you to look through someone’s 363 friends, to see whether or not you know any of them and, if so, to see if you can learn what they’re up to? If so, welcome to the club. I did that just now when I sat down to write this Provision. It’s easy to get distracted.

That’s especially true in our 24-7 digital age. Things come at us from more directions, with greater speed, and more novelty than ever before. Who knew, for example, that the classic Google homepage has incorporated a functional version of Pac Man for the past week to celebrate the game’s 30th anniversary? I didn’t know until someone mentioned it in a Tweet so, yes, I clicked “Insert Coin” (instead of “I Feel Lucky”) to play a round.

These things are way cool and often very functional. When I’m working with people around the globe, for example, in Hong Kong, Brisbane, San Francisco, and New York, I love being able to share documents and images as well as audio and video in real time. When I’m trying to work on an important project, however, I find the 24-7 notifications to be something of a nuisance.

So what’s a leader to do? Prioritize our tasks so that the most important ones get done at the right time, in the right way, with the requisite degree of focus. And it’s up to us to control all that. Believe it or not, we control whether or not we are plugged into the Web and even the telephone. We can turn off the notifications and ringers so that we can put our attention on the things that matter most at any given point in time.

Does the thought of doing that give you the jitters? Then perhaps it’s time for a digital detox, an extended period of time with no screens and no ringers. I know an entire family that takes one day a week as a digital sabbatical. 24 hours without electronic interruptions. I know many other people who start their day that way. No email, no Internet, no phones, no newspapers, no radio, no television, no media until their morning rituals are completed. The idea is simple: get focused before you get interrupted.

My own mornings have that quality. I get up, get dressed in my running clothes, put on a pot of water for green tea, and then go on a walking meditation through the yard and gardens. We recently had some landscape work completed, which makes that meditation even more delightful. I am always able to notice something new on those walks, and such noticing restores my soul.

When I am done with my walking meditation, anywhere from 5-20 minutes, I bring in the newspaper and brew my tea. That’s when I review my calendar and think about my day. I want to have a good sense of how my day will flow before I go out for my morning run or bike ride. Having my day in mind has, at times, enabled me to have a flash of insight while I am running or riding. Other times, I just move with reckless abandon • not thinking about a thing. Either way, it works for me.

Usually, then, I don’t get a phone call, look at email, or receive any notifications until I have been awake and moving for 3-4 hours. Those hours are precious for me. They restore my energy and spirit just as much as my evening sleep. Given that I tend to sleep 6-7 hours a night, that means that I usually have about 10 straight hours, on daily basis, with no electronic interruptions at all.

I have no idea how I would get everything done if I didn’t take that much time to sleep and restore my soul each and every day. I’m sure I would burn out and I know I would be much less creative if my body and brain did not have adequate time to renew themselves. I would be running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off: busy, busy, busy with no sense of direction, purpose, or priorities.

That just doesn’t cut it when it comes to leadership. Priorities matter, and leaders make sure that we put our priorities in the right place.

Almost ten years after Pac Man came out, Steven Covey wrote his classic book: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It was a great book then; it is a great book now. Although it was written before the advent of the digital age, as we know it today, the book captures an essential truth of leadership that is even more true today than it was then: we have to discipline ourselves to put first things first if we hope to be successful.

Covey makes a distinction between leadership and management. “Leadership,” he writes, decides what ‘first things’ are; it is management that puts them first, day-by-day, moment-by-moment. Management is discipline, carrying it out.”

That’s not to say that one person decides (the leader) while another person disciplines (the manager). The subtitle of Covey’s book is Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. When we decide what is most important, right now, in this moment, for us, we are exercising self-leadership. That’s part of what happens for me in the mornings. When we set aside the time and configure the environment to effectively work on those priorities, without distractions or interruptions, we are exercising self-management. Both tasks are important, but we are more likely to fall down on self-discipline.

The reason for that relates to another proverb: the squeaky wheel. Stuff happens and, as a result, we get drawn away from our plans. Covey works extensively with this phenomenon in his book through the use of a four quadrant, time-management matrix. On the vertical axis, Covey tracks importance. On the horizontal axis, Covey tracks urgency. He then numbers and explains the quadrants as follows:

  1. Important & Urgent: Crises, Pressing problems, Deadline-driven projects
  2. Important & Not Urgent: Prevention, Capacity building, Relationship building, Recognizing new opportunities, Planning, Recreation
  3. Not Important & Urgent: Interruptions, Some calls, mail, reports, and meetings, Proximate, pressing matters, Popular activities
  4. Not Important & Not Urgent: Trivia, Busy work, Some mail and phone calls, Time wasters, Pleasant activities

The difference between effective and ineffective people, argues Covey, is how much time we spend in Quadrant 2. Everyone knows that playing Pac Man (a Quadrant 4 activity) will not get us where we want to go (although it can also function as Quadrant 2 recreation). But most people spend most of their time reacting to crises, pressing problems, and deadline-driven projects. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as the saying goes.

Effective people manage to rein in that dynamic. We proactively set aside time and space every day to organize and execute around our priorities. How do we do that? By recognizing priorities as priorities. Quadrant 2 activities are not nice-to-have activities; they are essential activities that help us to better meet both our own needs and the needs of others.

One of the most powerful words in the English language is the word, “No.” Just ask any two-year-old. They usually say it with an exclamation point. “No!” And in so doing they reveal an important truth for many adults to remember: “No.” is a complete sentence. We don’t have to explain it, defend it, rationalize it, justify it, or otherwise expand upon it. We can just say no, to borrow yet another phrase.

No to interruptions. No to time wasters. No to energy drainers. No to ringers, notifications, and alerts. No to the urgency of what must be done. When we say no to Quadrant 1, 3, and 4 activities, setting them aside for a while in order to do a high-priority Quadrant 2 activity, we are on the road to real success and to exercising real leadership in life and work. I encourage you to make it so.

Coaching Inquiries: What kinds of activities do you spend your time on? How much time gets spent in Quadrant 2 activities? What rituals could you develop to help you get in that Quadrant more frequently? How could you get started today? Who could you talk with to identify the possibilities?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

I have been overwhelmed by your writing over the last number of months. It has been very encouraging and will continue to be. I am in the process of completing my Masters in Leadership and Pastoral Care in All Hallows College, Dublin, Ireland. And I have been gob smacked to open your Provisions as I have been going along with my studies over the last number of months. 

Sometimes when I open your email and read through what I refer to as your reflections on life, I feel God is acting through you. I feel a little bit embarrassed writing all this, but at this stage I feel I know you. Just sitting here for a couple of minutes there is something inside me in my gut that tells me I have freed myself up this morning another little bit by writing this email. Thank you for taking time out to read my email. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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