September 16, 2011

Priorities Met vs Priorities Set

On page 149 of my copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey sums up the best thinking in the area of time management with five words: "Organize and execute around priorities." The catch is those first two words. I mean, think about it. Truthfully, executing around priorities is all we do every minute of every day.

If that statement flies in the face of common wisdom, good. How could anything else be true? What is a more effective measurement of my priorities for a day: the things I write down that I want to accomplish, or the things I actually do that day? The source of the list doesn't matter. It could be yourself, parents, boss, etc. No matter how important that list is, we can only measure our priorities effectively in hindsight - at the end of the day.

At the end of a rough day, you might say to yourself, "Dang, my priorities were a, b and c, but I spent all my time on x, y and z." Wrong! Your priorities were actually x, y and z, because that's what you spent your time doing. You want to get intimate with your real priorities? Try this:
  1. Track every minute of your days for a week on a spreadsheet.
  2. Evaluate the patterns as they arise.
  3. Compare how you actually spent your time with your list of intended priorities.
  4. Comment below on the results.
You'll likely find that consciously observing your time in this way narrows the gap between what you intended to do and what you did. Great. Now, the crucial habit to develop is to be aware of that gap - to always ask yourself, "Which of my priorities am I working on right now?" If it's not on the list you made, are you trading your time for something that's become more important, or not?

Look closely at the gap between what you say you'll do and what you actually do. Consider whether the priorities you're setting are realistic. Do they play to your strengths? Are you excited about the work required to get them done? Is there someone you work with that might be better at them? Consider the things on which you're actually spending your time. Are they worth it? You are now several steps closer to organizing the list with what you actually accomplish.

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