What’s Most Important?

Back in the “good old days”—which appear in my memory lit by a warm golden glow like a flashback scene on TV—I used paper planners to manage time and tasks. It was a pain to enter repeating events, but they never froze or needed rebooting. I could access a paper planner even if I was not anywhere near a wifi hotspot. Paper and computer-based tools co-existed for a while until I realized that resistance was futile. Now I primarily use tools from the Googleverse and other online providers, augmented by the occasional note or list written on paper.

Image credit: twobee at  FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image credit: twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As much as I enjoy working with these tools (and using precious time finding new ones), I try and remember that they are not the essence of time management. In fact, time is not the most important factor in managing what one does every day. The amount of time we have is set: 24 hours each day. Deciding on priorities is the most vital piece of “time management”—in fact, I prefer to say “priority management” rather use than the more common term.

A famous presentation of this idea is by Stephen Covey in his hugely popular The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey counsels the reader to constantly distinguish between what’s urgent and what’s important.* It’s all too common to put off doing what is truly important and may have a big, if long-term, payoff, because we have so many deadline-driven urgent tasks to accomplish. Unfortunately it’s also common to consider everything currently on the desk or in the inbox as urgent. Is it truly necessary to respond to every email, voicemail, or text message right now?

Once our priorities are thoughtfully put in place, we can start to identify how to pursue them, which may mean finding ways to reduce interruptions, delegate some tasks, break big projects into smaller steps, and all the other good suggestions we think of as time management.

Here are a few questions and ideas for reflecting on your priorities and time:

  • Identify a goal with great meaning to you that you’ve been putting off working on. What makes this goal so important? Imagine in some detail what it would be like, including how it would feel, to accomplish this goal.
  • OK, now identify reasons for not achieving this goal. In other words, what are the benefits of keeping things just as they are? For example, working on your big goal may mean forgoing some other things for a while. Is it worth it? Does the value of working on and achieving your goal outweigh the benefits of just continuing the status quo?
  • What are some of the obstacles to making progress on your important goal? How much of a roadblock are all the urgent items in your inbox? Realistically, are they all so crucial?
  • What do you spend a lot of time on that really is not all that urgent or important? Yes, I am talking about Facebook (or any number of other wonderful things that capture our easily distractible attention).
  • And finally (for now), what will help you get started working on your important goal this week?

* A little extra: President Dwight Eisenhower is often given credit for emphasizing the distinction between the urgent and important, though there does not appear to be evidence for a quote to that effect often attributed to him. Speaking of his long-term vision for the country, he did make a statement in 1961 after he left the presidency that is also relevant to the more modest purpose of this blog post:

Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long- and short-term! Especially whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.