Urgent - Important GridI’ve written a lot about the importance of planning – and it is important – but I haven’t written too much about execution which is where most failures occur.  It’s really all about priorities – what we think ours are and what they really are.

One example of my priorities is my daily to-do list.  I have a LOT of to-do lists.

  • I have a comprehensive to-do list with everything I expect I need or want to do – from gift lists for the year to what needs to be done every day, week or month. This list is so I have a reminder of things that are important to me but not urgent – those things that I’m not going to be reminded of un less something bad happens.
  • I use my Google calendar as a to-do list for those tasks which need to occur at specific times – making gifts for birthdays is one specific use. There’s also things such as renewing my driver’s license – it’s year’s in the future, but now I don’t have to worry because there’s a reminder a month before I need to renew.
  • I generate a weekly to-do list every Sunday for the next week – appointments, projects, daily tasks, etc. – they all go on the list.
  • Finally, I’ll generate a daily to-do list to guide me in this day’s activities.

One advantage of these lists is that I’m able to control what I’m doing now so I can focus on what’s important.  Because I and most every other person who alive or has lived are programmed by our biology to response to the URGENT, not the IMPORTANT.  Stephen R. Covey wrote about this in his Seven Habits of Highly Successful People using the 2×2 grid shown above.

The Urgent and Important gets our immediate attention – blood spurting from a severed artery will always get our attention over anything else – no question.  But, it’s the Urgent and Not Important that we respond to before the Important but Not Important – we learned this response when we were living on the African savannah.  But we can control our environment, so we focus on the Important but Not Urgent before the Urgent but Not Important – I do it by using to-do lists.  Executives have assistants and support systems – and in the age of apps and mobile computing devices, anyone can come up with a system that supports them.

But any system is only as good as the operator is willing to let it be.  I can make lists everyday covering everything in my life but if I don’t set my priorities before I create the lists, then they just become oppressive reminders of all the things we haven’t done.

Rule #1: It’s important to know what to say NO to – there’s lots of good things to do but what are the GREAT things you should be doing?  Years ago, I was invited to join the Scottish-American Military Society, a great organization – I declined because I knew, if I joined, I would become involved in the leadership and I didn’t have time to do it justice.

Rule #2: Understand the consequences of saying YES.  What’s the impact on your time, money, effort and even your emotions?  You have only so much time, money, energy and emotional reserve – apply them to what will give you the best return.

Rule #3: Priorities make your life easier.  Once you know what your priorities are, then decisions are easier to make, and tradeoffs become clear.  This week I had my to-do list in place and I was following it successfully, then I got a call that my son-in-law’s car had broken down 170 miles from home.  My to-do list was based on my priorities, but a higher priority was to render assistance by getting an auto trailer and driving 170 miles, picking up my son-in-law and his car and driving back.  The unexpected happens and when it does, your priorities help you make the decision.

Which also illustrates the lesson about priorities.  It’s easy to spot what a person’s priorities are – just observe how they spend their time and the activities they engage in.  Many years ago, I was in a meeting at church where we were discussing goals and how to get people to involved when the statement was made, “Well, people are so busy, they don’t have time.”  I pointed out that the previous year I had made over 100 projects in my shop – having done so while I had a full-time job in Washington, DC with a one-hour commute in each direction and was active in church.  I said, “People do what they prioritize.”

So, what are your priorities?  REALLY?

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.