Prioritise, Prioritise, Prioritise

First Key: Live Each Day on Purpose

25 MinutesIn Change, Self Management

We have choice over how we spend each hour of each day.  Exercise it.

Most of us have had days where we get to the end of the day, and we haven’t done something that we really wanted to do, or even sometimes, something that was vital. Consequently, we end the day unsettled, irritated or even stressed.

The facts are that a) we had the time to do it, we had around 16 waking hours and  b) we didn’t do it. The question is why?

For most people, it boils down to five things:

1. no prompt to remember to do it: no place to record things that we want to get done and relying on our memory. While this can work, it is also making our brain work a lot harder than it needs to during the day, using up our limited and precious “deliberate thinking energy” on a task that we could outsource. And, our brain has a habit of reminding us about these things, simply when it remembers, which may or may not be at a time we can do something about it. This prompt is commonly called a “to do list”.

Do you have a prompting system that isn’t your brain? Is it in something that you have with you most of the time? If you don’t have something that is working well, what can you start trying today? “Try something. Fail fast”: if it doesn’t work over the next few days, try something else. Try again.

2. no system to make it happen, even when we have a prompt: in 2018, this is the vital piece. A “to do list” is better than total reliance on your brain, but without a system to make the things happen, it can become a “a neverending list of things I never do but torture myself with and to which I add things when I’ve done them simply to get the pay off of crossing them off” list.

A system is how we schedule our time: in between travel and meetings and calls, when we have “time”, how are we planning on spending it? Culturally, meetings get scheduled and go into our diary, but we dont have a culture of scheduling how the discretionary time is spent, especially if it is just our own time. We can give away this time with gay abandon “I havent got any meetings this afternoon, so call me any time”. “Sure, I can do that, I’ve no meetings”. As importantly, are the meetings that are scheduled more vital than the things on the “to do” list? If not, who can you have a conversation with about this; can you move the meeting or can you shorten it, or your attendance at it?

The critical step is populating our prompts into our daily/weekly schedule: without a time to do the tasks, they cannot get done. “Give a busy person the task to do” is true because if our time is pressed, we have to be specific about when we will do the thing as we know otherwise it won’t happen. If we are not busy, culturally we believe that the time and task will make themselves available – there is no pressure, and the downside of this, is the lack of pressure means it is in fact less likely to get done, unless there is a clear intention to do it.

I use a combination of two systems: on a daily basis, I still use the Franklin Covey planner. 25 years after interning at the Franklin Covey HQ in Salt Lake City, I have yet to find a daily system that is more effective, however old fashioned it might seem now….I live in fear that they are going to discontinue it! On a weekly, quarterly and yearly basis, I am a fan of the Daily Greatness systems. But the last thing I would want to imply is that these are the systems: it doesn’t matter what your system is for combining the lists of things you need to do today, and your schedule for the day. The critical thing is to have a system.

Well, and to use it, of course. A bit like the vegetables in the fridge have to be eaten to give nutritional value, the system has to be used, every day. The best tip I can give for this is “start the day before you finish it”. That is, before we go to sleep, we schedule tomorrow. What do we want to do, and when will we find the time to do it. Weekly planning when we are someone with multiple responsibilities is critical; I make space on a Sunday afternoon to plot my non discretionary time of meetings and calls, and set some overall aims for the week, do some scheduling of tasks across the week, and specifically schedule Monday.

I won’t lie that at certain times of the year, this can mean giving a couple of hours to the task: at certain quarterly and monthly junctures. But of course this is true, that it takes effort to be intentional…..the reward, the pay off, is how it feels to live this way compared to not doing so. I also won’t lie that there are days when I don’t make the effort to plan, despite 25 years of this. And it’s a reminder every time of how things slip and anxiousness increases for me.

It is amazing how much we can get done in 30 minutes when we are “on it”. Which brings us to the third reason we don’t get things done.

What daily/weekly/longer term system have you used in your life and what can you try now? When you think about the very best days you have, what do you notice? If you are a leader, what culture are you creating around time and how can you help your team with this? What is one small step you can make towards a system you can realistically commit to, today?

3. our system and schedule is unrealistic: one of the reasons we can say to ourselves “I will do this tomorrow” is because in our minds, tomorrow we will be the most brilliant version of ourselves. And this can bleed into our scheduling system too. The ‘planning fallacy’ is that we generally underestimate the length of time it takes to do things – this operates at personal and team levels (how rare it is for a deal to take the estimated time – this is less to do with things changing than with the estimate being over optmistic to start with). This is because when we estimate, we think of Peak Us: if we had our highest levels of energy and commitment, how long would this thing take us to complete?……

But we are very rarely Peak Us. By definition, we are, most of the time, Average Us. Now, don’t get me wrong, Average Us could still be brilliant….It’s just that Average Us tends to mean that we have been Peak Us for a segment of our day, but not for the whole damn day. And this is where we therefore get unrealistic with our scheduling. See 5. below for more on this.

There could be different reasons and a combination of reasons as to why our system is unrealistic: are we making inaccurate estimates in our scheduling, and if so, note actual times of tasks to improve this. Do we allow ourselves to be distracted by the ‘bright and shiny’? If the crises and opportunities and distractions that present themselves in a day are constantly taking priority over tasks that are important but not urgent, we need to consider if we are always make the best choices. Are we procrastinating on a regular basis? I’m still in remission when it comes to procrastination over certain tasks but am much healthier than I used to be. I’ve learned that breaking down tasks I’m procrastinating over into small steps has helped, as has the focus on “just doing some thing”. Are we perhaps forgetting to factor in likely challenges in the day when we schedule and while ‘hoping for the best’ on a consistent basis, not moving forward on actions because the ideal day refuses to present itself?

This is where the “all or nothing” factor kicks in. Why do things like business development, writing content, longer term business or life planning or organising a disorganised study or cupboards tend to be tasks that are evergreen on schedules? It can be because when the half day we blocked out to do the tasks turns into a measly 45 minutes due to client or life pressures, we push the whole task out. Whereas, 45 minutes sending some emails or making a call list or tidying one shelf is ultimately what creates a business pipeline and a tidy study.

Don’t give in to the little voice that suggests we reschedule for another day, far out, when things look “quieter”. Note: they look quieter because they are far out. We can look back in our schedules and see if any of these “quiet” times have actually materialised. If they haven’t, there is no reason to expect they will next month. A related tip I love on this is when agreeing to a meeting or when scheduling some task that is weeks or even months away, ask how we would feel if we had to attend that meeting or complete the task tomorrow. Notice what comes up: there is, again, no reason to believe that the day before, will feel any different about the meeting or task, than we do today. So, we should either not schedule it – or, work out what we need to be doing between now and then to change the feeling it throws up for us.

What patterns do we notice about when our scheduling works well and when it doesn’t? Is there a time of the day when we are more consistently Peak Us, and if so, how can we schedule to make the most of this? What part are distractions – phone, notifications, the internet, social media – playing in our scheduling and can we schedule time for them instead of them scheduling us? If we are procrastinating, notice any theme to these tasks and try tactics to break them down. Are we scheduling enough time/any time for things that we want to do that give us energy, using the “all or nothing” principle, we may need to compromise on how long we have for these.

4. we argued with or ignored our system and schedule. This is when we just plain don’t like what we are ‘meant’ to be doing. The night before, with our good intentions, envisaging ourselves at our Peak Us, we may have decided that today was the day to tackle some ugly task we had been putting off, or perhaps just didn’t have the time or space for. And then we reach the point in the day when we need to tackle this task and we tell ourselves a story that results in this task being moved out in time. Again.

As in 3. above, notice if and when we do this, what tasks it tends to relate to. Ask ourselves the question “What is the smallest thing I could in relation to this task?”. It might be printing something, finding a previous presentation or document, writing out some bullets on what the thing could look like, it might be starting with the one shelf in a room of disorganisation… get the idea….what is some thing we could do, even if it’s not what Peak Us thought we would get done today.

Sometimes too, we can just ignore the system. The day is busy, meetings are happening, emails are coming in, and we don’t check the list until it is time to finish the day. Notice if and when this happens to you and why it might be. It can just be a potentially more sneaky way of arguing with ourselves – with the same outcome…..that we don’t feel like doing it.

Are there tasks that are consistently forwarded in our schedule and what do we notice about these? Notice what stories we tend to tell ourselves when we put off tasks until a future date – what is a different story could we replace them with?

5. we ran out of energy. Sometimes we just don’t have the energy. The fact is that “I ran out of energy” is far more truthful than “I ran out of time” on most occassions. After a busy, demanding day, sorting out an invoice, recording our time, replying to an email, finishing a proposal, paying a bill, reading an article or book, signing up for a course, can all seem a step too far, and the promise of a fresh tomorrow, with the Peak Us it will bring, is highly inviting.

This also relates back to being realistic: it might be that it really was unrealistic, even if we were being Peak Us, to have got these tasks done. But could we have done some thing? And was the time of day of the scheduling a relevant factor?

I am most likely to have Peak Me experiences between 0530 and 1400, and fairly consistently between 0730 and 1030. As a facilitator and presenter I notice that my energy patterns are not atypical and when people talk about creating “all day” meetings, I generally find that an 0830 to 1430 period is plenty for a structured, planned session, with the afternoon and evening time better used for relationship building and personal development.

Every hour does not have the same worth to us (though given how many lawyers I work with, this can be seen as a challenging statement….) and working out your “surge” hours and your low hours, and scheduling as much as you have control over accordingly, can be the equivalent to creating more hours in our day.

Arguably, managing our energy is more useful and effective than managing our time: once have scheduled our day, how do we manage our energy levels to deliver against it?  Noticing the times of day when we are best able to do certain types of work. Notice the people that drain energy and give energy and how to use this. Notice the places that give and drain energy. What do you notice about yourself and the things that give energy – and do you have a list of them that you can easily access so at the moments when you are low on energy and therefore on creativity, you can boost yourself.

The usual suspects include fresh air, movement, music, books/articles, certain websites, podcasts, certain food and drink, water, certain smells, manual tasks….create as long a list as you can, with various time and place frames – it’s tricky to take a bath in the middle of a work day, or to read chapters of a book, but these could be 30 minute solutions on walking into your house, enabling you to “go again” if needed, or to have necessary energy to participate in home life for a few hours.

How are you intentionally managing your energy? If you are a leader or a parent, how are you helping others to do notice this and do something about it? Who are the people and places that give and drain energy and how can you better manage this? Where will I keep my list of energy giving ideas – this is a genuinely fun list to compile, so don’t put it off.

Steps to take:

The five questions to ask yourself when your days are not giving you the satisfaction you want in your personal and professional life:

1. do we have a prompt – a place to capture tasks and ideas

2. do we have a system to apply these lists – an approach to scheduling and planning, over the short and long term

3. is our system and scheduling realistic – are we able to implement it, daily, weekly, quarterly, etc

4. can we listen to it and follow it, when we are realistic

5. are we noticing, managing and maintaining your energy levels.

What of course I am not saying, is that there is time enough in the day to do everything that you would ideally like to do…..because there is too much now….too many books to read, too many videos and box sets and films to watch, too many places to visit, restaurants to eat in, exercises to do to be healthy…..The internet has created an amazing world of opportunity for many of us.

What this level of choice and opportunity means though is that is has never been more vital to be intentional about what we actually want to do, go to, buy or read – to make the choices. When we are overwhelmed by choice we can end up choosing none of it, reading none of the books, doing no exercise, writing nothing. Setting our intentions is our guide to walk the path littered with numerous glittering opportunities we may never otherwise take.

Have clear answers to the five questions above though, and we won’t be hit with FOMO and we won’t do nothing. We will do the things that need to be done, that we want to be done, safe in the knowledge that we couldn’t have done anymore.

Thanks for reading this. This is an unusually long post, but I’m not going to apologise for this being a lengthy read. There is plenty to develop and learn around intentionality and purpose and in the world in which we live today, it deserves a good chunk of time to reflect on, I feel.

Do share your thoughts and ideas with me, on Twitter or LinkedIn or email. I would love to hear them as I continue to develop my learning and thinking on this area. And if you would like to discuss performance coaching for yourself or workshops for your team, to implement Key 1, let me know.

~ sarah

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