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Setting Priorities to Get More Done with Less Stress

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Have you ever wondered how some people are able to do so much? If you take a closer look, you might find that they actually turn down a lot of opportunities and focus only on a few things—those they view as most important. Solutions-business manager Patrick Brans reveals how some of the most successful people in the world set priorities, and he explains how IT professionals can use these same techniques to get more done with less stress.
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If you are like most IT professionals, time is your tightest resource. Granted, money sometimes seems to be in limited supply. But while you can usually improve your finances by working harder, taking on more responsibility, and getting a raise, it’s impossible to create more hours in the day, or more days in the week. To get the best from this most precious commodity, one must set priorities and stick to them—ruthlessly.

The first thing to do is to start out with a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. To do this, you might borrow from the discipline of project management, where many supervisors classify projects into one of three categories: compliance, operational, and strategic. Decision-makers select compliance and operational projects to conform to regulation or improve business processes, but to move their company into new markets they need to put most of their effort into strategic projects. [1]

Think of your personal goals the same way. What you do out of necessity falls into either compliance or operational categories; whereas, what you do to advance in your career or make a better life for yourself is strategic. You want to spend most of your time working towards these strategic goals.

But while you should spend most of your time working towards your goals, you should spend very little time thinking about the goals themselves. Spend only about an hour or so every month thinking about all your different kinds of pursuits and what you need to do to accomplish them.

During this monthly session, consider all types of goals—those imposed by necessity, and those that promise to advance your career or make a better life for you and those around you. So, take all categories together, and break each of the goals into projects with outcomes that will take you a little closer to achievement. Now break each project into a set of tasks. [2]

Once you are sure about what projects you need to work on and the tasks that make up each project, making a daily choice of which activities to focus on becomes much easier. All you have to do is think about the next work items from each of your important projects, and carry them out one at a time.

Selecting Priorities

To illustrate the process of dividing goals into projects and projects into tasks, and then selecting one of the next tasks to work on, I left out urgent and unexpected matters that spring up out of nowhere and demand your attention. By definition, you won’t know about these matters during your monthly session to think about goals. But as soon as they come up, you do have to include them in the set of things you might do.

Taking together all the planned tasks and the ones that crop up unexpectedly, several techniques can help you pick what to do and when to do it. One is to work on the most daunting tasks first, because those are the ones you tend to put off. If you get those scary jobs out of the way at the beginning of the day, everything else will seem easy. [3]

Another strategy, which is in stark contrast to the first one, is to start by knocking off the small stuff. Getting the little tasks out of the way makes it easier to turn your attention to the bigger things.

Both of these approaches have merit, and both get the job done for some group of people. But the most famous method for setting priorities is generally attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who is said to have taken all the things he had the opportunity to work on and arranged them along two separate dimensions: urgency and importance. As Eisenhower is quoted saying, “What is important is seldom urgent; and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Let’s illustrate with a few examples. Checking for breaking news on the Internet is by definition urgent, but unless it affects you, it’s not important. Doing Google searches to win an argument you had with your best buddy the night before is neither urgent nor important. Brushing up on programming skills is not urgent, but it’s important; while it’s one of the best things you can do, it’s never a pressing matter. Finally, responding to a report from your company’s best client about a show-stopping bug that most likely originated in code you wrote is both urgent and important.

One way to make the distinction between urgent and important is to plot opportunities in a matrix, with two rows and two columns. The two rows represent urgent and non-urgent; and the two columns represent important and non-important.

The resulting diagram allows you to immediately spot what you need to do first. These are the tasks in the “urgent” and “important” box. Also at a glance, you can see what to drop: anything in the two unimportant squares, whether it’s urgent or non-urgent. As for the important but not urgent tasks, either work on them immediately (if nothing is left to do from the important and urgent box) or plan time to work on them.

You don’t need to use this tool every day. Working through it from time to time is enough to remind yourself that urgency and importance are orthogonal. In other words, movement along the urgency dimension is independent of movement along the importance dimension.

Once this kind of thinking becomes part of your DNA, you’ll find it easier to select priorities. And remember that it’s all very relative. While you may have a thousand important things in front of you, one or two of them are more important than the rest.

Refusing the Rest

Setting priorities is only the beginning. To accomplish strategic goals, you have to stay focused on those things you consider most important, which means refusing all the other opportunities that threaten to divert your attention. But that’s not easy. Rejecting something requires you first to accept that you won’t do it, then you have to tell one or more other people, possibly letting them down hard.

As a reminder of how difficult it is for us to decide we won’t do something, consider just three of the cognitive forces working against you:

1.    The Shiny Object Syndrome: What you don’t have seems better than what you do have, and what you’re doing now seems more boring than something else you could be doing. [4]

2.    The Missed Opportunity Syndrome: We are more motivated by fear of loss than by the prospect of gain. [5] When you decide not to do something, you are losing an opportunity, quite possibly forever.

3.    The Avoidance Principle: People will do anything to avoid working on a task they have an unconscious need to put off. If you feel you haven’t chosen an activity, or if you are afraid of the outcome, you’ll tend to procrastinate—and the best way of doing so is by accepting the first alternative that comes your way. [6]

Once you make up your mind to turn something down, you still have to tell the other person. Few of us find it easy to say no, because we don’t like to disappoint. Some of the most powerful CEOs in the world say they have had trouble in the past refusing things, but knowing their weaknesses, they found workarounds. They also say that with practice, saying no gets easier. [7]

Here are three things you might try at three different points in the request life cycle (before, during, and after):

1.    Before people come to you with a request, let people know what your priorities are. Then all you have to do is explain why what they’re asking doesn’t fit in with what you consider important. This technique minimizes the feeling of rejection by making it clear that your refusal is not personal.

2.    When you do turn somebody down, explain the reasons behind your refusal, and be clear about whether you can reverse your decision. If there is some specific change that would cause you to overturn your refusal, let the other person know. If there is nothing that will change your mind, make that clear, so you—and the other person—can drop the subject and move on to other pursuits.

3.    After you’ve decided not to accept an opportunity, detach yourself emotionally. There’s no bigger time waster than agonizing about decisions you’ve already made.

Fancy techniques and theories aside, a simple exercise to do a couple of times a day is to write down the two or three things you need to focus on. Work on those tasks until either you complete them or your priorities change. Filter all distractions.


[1] Project Management: The Managerial Process, 4th Edition, Clifford F. Gray, Erik W. Larson, McGraw-Hill Irwin, 2008

[2] Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen, Penguin Books, 2002

[3] Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, Brian Tracy, Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2007

[4] Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini Ph.D., HarperBusiness, 2006

[5] Choices, Values, and France, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Cambridge University Press, 2000

[6] Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, Joseph R. Ferrari, Wiley, 2012

[7] Master the Moment: Fifty CEOs Teach You the Secrets of Time Management, Pat Brans, BCS Press, 2010

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