I’m an optimist by nature. I believe the best in people, see the possibilities in any situation regardless of how bad, and love stretch goals. These tangible expressions of optimism have defined and benefited my leadership.
Yet, there are downsides to such optimism. One in particular which has inflicted my leadership (thus the organizations I’ve led) is the belief that I can effectively manage a large number of priorities at one time. Yes, it’s the overzealous conviction that I am capable of doing many important things, all really well, and all at the same time.
But here is the reality, to do our best work we must be single minded, we need to focus and do just a few important things at one time. All the research that’s been done over the past few years tells us this much. Sure there appears to be some outliers who can manage lots of priorities, but they are a micro minority (the definition of outlier) or, more likely, just good with smoke and mirrors. Which means most of us (do I dare say – all of us) can’t juggle many priorities at one time.
It’s the Leadership Grand Illusion – believing, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that we’re a part of the micro group of outliers that effectively management a high number of priorities at one time.
So, I had to come to grips with this reality and quit buying into the Grand Illusion. I’ve worked to bring discipline to my personal priorities as well as SpringHill’s. It’s been a painful process for an optimist like me, but it’s been necessary (and significantly more effective).
How have I (and we) done this? There are three simple rules that I’ve applied personally as well as organizationally:
- Have no more than Three Priorities (of the day, week, month, year, etc.) at one time
- Then be crystal clear about the Top One of the Three.
- Finally focus, talk, look at, work and Obsess over Three.
It’s that simple.
What’s not simple is the discipline, control of that optimism, and ignoring the Grand Illusion that is required to tackle only three priorities at a time, to pick the first priority of the three, then obsess about those three.
Now the issue, especially if you’re an optimist with a long list of priorities, is how do you identify the Three and the One of the Three?
Again, it’s simple but difficult at the same time – you need to ask and answer the following two questions
- “If I/we can only work on three priorities, which ones should they be?”
- “Of these three priorities, if I/we could only accomplish one, which one would we choose?”
So that’s it.
Really simple, incredibly effective – Commit to these three rules, then rigorously debate and honestly answer these two questions, and finally obsess over the answers until they’re completed. When you take these three steps you’re on your way to being a focused (and really effective) leader.
Do you take the time to plan your day, your week, your month, your life? Do you have clearly stated personal core values and purpose statement? Do you have a map that guides you to the places you want to go and a plan for becoming the person God’s called you to be?
If you answer to these questions is a “no” or “not to often” – here’s the harsh reality – someone else, by default, will create answers to these questions for you. They’ll plan your time, set your priorities, fill up your calendar and make sure their priorities and goals are being achieved before yours. Not because people are manipulative or malicious but simply because they can, because you let them, because you’re not doing it yourself.
You see our days and weeks, represented by our calendars, have their own magnetic pull. They will draw in the nearest activities, tasks, projects, and appointments into every available time slot of your life. And trust me, if you’re a leader, there’s always somebody’s priorities close by. The question is which priorities will be closest and fill up your calendar? Yours or others?
So what can you do to assure that your life is filled with your plans, goals, priorities, and the people you want and need to see? It’s simple, with discipline, diligence and tenacity, fill in your calendar before others do so for you. And this starts by having a planning rhythm for your life. This rhythm should include five separate personal planning sessions, or as my friend Jack McQueeney calls them – meetings with yourself. These meetings are:
Annual Planning – where you set you goals and priorities for the year, then schedule these, along with other major events, into your calendar for the year. I do this in November or December of each year with my wife Denise. Typically it takes an afternoon to accomplish.
Seasonal or Quarterly Meeting – check your progress on your annual plan, map out in more detail your calendar, and move things around that have unintentionally crept into your life. This meeting should only be a couple hours at the most.
Monthly Review – adjust your Seasonal/Quarterly plan and fill in open times with your priorities. At this step be much more detailed in filling in your calendar. I spend about an hour during the last week of each month planning the next month.
Weekly Meeting – the most important meeting of your life. This is where you set weekly goals then build time into your calendar to accomplish them. You do this by doggedly moving the less important things out and making time for the most important work to be done Though it’s the most important meeting, once you’ve done it a number of times it doesn’t take long – 30 minutes is my typical time needed. I usually do it on Sunday morning.
Daily Plan – everyday it’s important to look at your weekly plan and calendar and make sure you’re on track to accomplish your goals and key work. Early every morning I identify my top 1 to 3 priorities for that day. This takes about 5 or 10 minutes.
Now if this all seems to require to much time, let me ask you one final question – if you don’t have time to plan, how do you have time to do everyone’s else’s priorities and yours as well? So make 2017 your best, most fruitful year yet by filling your calendar up before someone does it for you.
How often have we been told to avoid the “tyranny of the urgent”, that we need to focus on the most important work first, not the most urgent. But the problem is this assumes that all the fires in our life are not as important as longer-term priorities. But deep down we know this simply isn’t true. When our house is on fire there’s nothing more important than putting the fire out.
The reality is that tackling the most urgent issue facing us is very often the highest value activity we can do to have a productive and successful day. Urgent problems grab us, hold onto us, and demand our undivided attention. That’s why the urgent rules us like a tyrant. When a loved one is in crisis that’s both urgent and absolutely important. When a key employee announces he or she is considering leaving your team, we must drop what we’re doing to step into the situation. Because if we don’t submit to these tyrants, the long-term, important things, like our loved ones health or our team’s performance, may be in jeopardy.
So the first approach to dealing with these little tyrants is to try to avoid them ever popping up their ugly heads. We must heed the advice of management and life guru’s – be proactive. Just as we can avoid some of the cavities in our teeth with a little daily flossing, we can avoid some of the tyrants that invade our lives if we’re a bit more preventative and proactive.
But the truth is, we live in a fallen, broken and bent world where we can never be proactive enough to completely keep away all the ugly little tyrants . They will inevitably show up in our lives. There’s just no way around this hard truth on this side of eternity. We can proactively floss them down to a smaller number, but we can’t change our genetics or the bad water.
So what can we do? There’s two simple steps we must take to prepare ourselves for the inevitable tyrants trying to take over.
- First, face reality and expect them to come. It’s the nature of the world we live in.
- Second, create margin in our lives so we can effectively deal with the tyrants when they come our way. Just like having an emergency bank account, we need an emergency time, energy and focus account. We need margin in our life. This is easy to say, hard to do, but its the only way we can deal with these little tyrants before they rule us.
Take these two steps and we move to the place where the urgent is no longer a tyrant but an opportunity to do important and often lasting work.