First not Next

 The countdown has begun.  Families are eating turkey leftovers, Black Friday has come and gone and Christmas is less than 30 days away.  For businesses, this time of year often creates a variety of items to accomplish in the few short weeks left on the calendar.

I wonder what is on your “to do” list?  I encourage (and challenge) you to not fall victim to the emotional traps of the season.

Regardless of the time of year, the principles of effective leadership remain the same.  Our time should be planned and spent based on our priorities.  Yet, so often, particularly at this time of the year, we are pulled toward those activities that are easiest to check off our list or perhaps to the person screaming the loudest.

If we don’t slow the world down long enough to create a well thought out list of priorities for the next 30 days, it is not just unlikely but certain you will not accomplish what you hope to by year’s end.

So how do you get a handle on those “first items” – the real priorities on your list versus simply what may fall next in line of a long list of to do’s?  Here are five quick action steps.  And let’s face it; each of us could use these little reminders from time to time.

1.  Create a Priority list versus a To Do list.
We can become overwhelmed quickly with a standard to do or task list.  And while there may be many tasks to accomplish, begin with the end in mind.  What results must accomplished in the next 30 days?  Those items must capture the majority of your time – or that of your team.  Secondly, what items must reach specific milestones in the next 30 days?  These tasks create your next level of priority.  And finally, identify those tasks that are not crucial for the next 30 days.  Shift them to a list reserved for those opportunities when you don’t have enough time to dedicate to an item on the priority list.

2.  Learn the discipline of internal questioning.
This discipline goes beyond positive self talk. It is the practice of questioning your participation in a task at any point of your involvement.  Practice asking yourself these questions throughout the day:

  • “Is this what I want or need to be doing right now? “  When the answer is no, have the courage to stop whatever you are doing and move back to your priority list.
  • Learn the difference between “Where can I help?” and “Where am I really needed?” The temptation to pitch in and help out often comes from the emotional side of our brain.  We want to help others; however, when time is limited, putting the best suited talent to each task will allow all involved to accomplish what is needed.

3.  Reduce the time spent in unproductive meetings so you can focus on your priorities.
What are the brutal facts of your weekly meeting commitments?  How much of your week is spent in meetings?  Or more importantly, how much of your week is spent in productive meetings?  Unfortunately, too often in business culture today, we meet together out of habit – often to the detriment of accomplishing anything.  As you review your upcoming meeting schedule this week, employ these tactics:

  • Before accepting a meeting, clarify the purpose of the meeting, ask for an agenda, start and end times.   For some meeting organizers, you may have to remind them that your time, along with everyone involved treasures this special commodity of time.  Even a brief 15 minute meeting snatches at least another 15 to 20 minutes of productivity by the time you stop your current activities to attend, engage in any conversations afterward, then regain concentration to return to your work.
  • If you do decide to attend a meeting, practice the discipline of clarifying ownership and closure of discussed items.  Ensure the time spent was not time wasted.

4.  Learn the power of “no” to the wrong requests of our time. 
We are taught the importance of being a helpful team player and we should be.  However, before saying yes to that co-worker who “needs” you; think about the answers to these two questions:  How much of my week is controlled by someone else’s priorities?  How much of my week is controlled by someone else’s emergencies

There will certainly be occasions require us to lend our time, talents and resources for the good of the greater team.  However, for individual efforts, are there ways that you can help a fellow team mate and in turn, he or she can help you?  A giving spirit can work to your detriment if you are always giving your time to someone else.

 And what about the people who require last minute help to combat office emergencies?  When those happen periodically?  Then absolutely!  That’s what a team if for.  However, for the habitual poor planners and performers, we become enablers when we are always available to help out and save their day.  And the consequence?  We lose time toward our efforts.

5.  Develop smart daily habits – regardless of your schedule.
a.  Spend the last five minutes of every day making out a ‘must’ list for the next day’s tasks then prioritize the list.
b.  In the morning, begin with item #1.  Don’t be concerned if you only finish two or three, or even if you only finish one item.  You’ll be working on the important ones. 
c.  Schedule your email review.  Don’t be a “slave” to each new message. 
d.  Before you leave the office, review the day’s task list and celebrate what you have accomplished.  

2010 will arrive regardless of what we accomplish.  Here’s hoping you take advantage of these last few weeks and finish 2009 with the first things accomplished – not simply those on your list next in line.

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