How to Work within the Discipline of Priorities
by : Dave Anderson

In business, time is more valuable than money. You can get more money, but you cannot get more time. Squandering time is one of a leader’s costliest mistakes. It robs his organization of results; his people from development; his family of attention and himself of esteem. Time management gurus will tell you that the objective of time management is to get everything done…or to at least get enough done. I’d like to offer you some better advice: the objective of time management is to get the right things done. Sadly, many leaders do the wrong things well and often, and as a result, they must spend more time at work trying to get done what they should have accomplished in the first place had they worked within the discipline of priorities. To get yourself out of this trap or to prevent your descent there, I’m offering five basic principles to help you make more effective use of your time.

1. Highly structure your day around the discipline of priorities. Peter Drucker declared, “First things first, last things not at all.” Stephen Covey admonished us to remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. I’d like to add that the major reason I see leaders unable to accomplish their goals is because they put second things first. Most of these folks do far too much every day, but they don’t do enough of the right things. Some seem to immerse themselves in a swirl of activity to hide their limitations. By becoming seduced by the trivial, they disengage from the essential. Since a lack of daily focus is a chief contributor to wasting time, you’ll need to put more structure in your day. As human beings we develop to our potential in structured environments, not when we shoot from the hip, operate out of instinct, or otherwise make our day up as we go along. To be more highly structured, you must stop prioritizing your schedule and begin scheduling your priorities. Put the “first things” on your calendar and consider them as non-negotiable. And just in case I haven’t given you enough sage quotes on this matter, I’ll add this from Jim Rohn: “Don’t spend minor time on major things and don’t spend major time on the minor things. You cannot take a casual approach to your time because casualness leads to casualties.”

To help you implement this strategy I encourage you to determine your four highest return activities each day: schedule them and execute them regardless of the cost. Those last four words are the key. I refer to these four tasks as the “by-god” four. This means that regardless of what else happens in the day, these four tasks will “by-god” get done.

2. Leave as little unmanaged time in your calendar as possible. As you highly structure your day you will want to make sure that you have enough productive, pre-planned activities built into your schedule in order to eliminate as much unmanaged time as possible. Unmanaged time is a killer! It is one of a leader’s most ferocious adversaries. It slays drive, passion, rhythm, momentum, execution and accomplishment. The fact is that people do dumb and wasteful things with unmanaged time. Here are a few examples:

(a) Unmanaged time flows to the trivial. It is during your unmanaged time that you tend to web surf, engage in useless conversation, talk for prolonged periods on the telephone, read the newspaper at work and overeat while on the job. It’s also best that you avoid fellow employees who don’t highly structure their days because as I’m sure you’ve noticed, people who have nothing to do like to do it with you.

b) Unmanaged time flows to your weaknesses. With unmanaged time on your calendar you engage in low-return activities where you are ill fitted and oftentimes make things worse by virtue of your meddling. It’s the leaders with the most time on their hands that make their employees’ lives miserable by harassing, nitpicking, looking over their shoulders and otherwise getting over-involved and creating complexity where it doesn’t belong.

(c) Unmanaged time surrenders to every emergency. You’ll get involved in every bit of gossip, drama and emergency of the moment that presents itself. You’ll find that it helps make your people less dependent on you and allows them to grow as a team when you don’t get involved in every issue that arises and allow them to handle things amongst themselves as often as possible.  

(d) Unmanaged time comes under the control of the dominant people in your life. If you’re not going to use your time, the most dominant people in your life will. You’ll be working off of their in-box. This rule holds just as true for when you’re at home as it does for while you’re at work.  

3. If a task is contributing little or nothing, then learn to say “no” to it. Go on a rampage to find time-wasters and ask yourself this question about many of the questionable tasks you perform: “What would happen if this were not done at all?” If the answer is “nothing,” then you must immediately stop doing it.

4. Continually update your stop doing list. Your stop doing list includes the tasks that bring you little or no return. These are the assignments you must delegate, automate, outsource, train someone else to do or stop doing altogether so that you free up your valuable time to invest where you create the most value. Maybe you can’t stop doing them today, but you make a resolution to work yourself out of the task and you stop doing it over time.
5. Don’t let your mouth overload your back. When you are presented with opportunities to take on a new project, join a committee, or attend meetings where you know you are likely to add or receive little value in exchange for your time, learn to say no. Decline politely and say no to the task and not the person asking: “I’m honored you think that I would make a contribution to the meeting, but with my other obligations and pressing deadlines I’m afraid I’d do both of us a disservice by saying yes this time around. Perhaps next time I’ll be in a better position to offer you a 100 percent effort.”

When I refer to working within the discipline of priorities that is exactly what I mean. It takes discipline. The good news is that discipline can be developed. It’s not something you’re born with or without. The key to developing discipline is to make yourself do the things you know you should do even when you don’t feel like doing them – even when it’s not easy, cheap, popular or convenient and to do so day-in and day-out. When it comes to time management, the discipline you develop is worth the price you pay for the prize. 

Dave Anderson is president of LearnToLead, a sales and leadership training organization. He has an extensive automotive background and has spoken at NADA for eight consecutive years. He has written six books and has three more slated for release in the summer of 2007.