October 20, 2017

Keys To Time Management: Define Your Priorities

Keys to Time Management: Define your Priorities—The difference between Purpose and Productivity

In part one of this series we learned how your personality type has a major impact on how you manage your time. By assessing the source of your energy, how you gather information, how you make decisions, and how you deal with the outer world, you can get a better idea of why you work the way you do, leverage your strengths, and focus on finding tools that help you overcome your weaknesses. Even if you’re really good at getting tasks completed, there is a big difference between being productive (and exhausted) and being effective (and satisfied). In other words, finding the right tools to help you focus won’t do you any good if you’re focusing on the wrong thing.


Define your priorities

One of the greatest books on this subject is Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. It’s a staple on the bookshelves of most business-minded people but it should be required reading for everyone. If you find yourself too pressed for time to read a book I recommend the audiobook. I listened to it every morning while dropping my son off at school, but you could work it in anytime your mind is free but your hands are not, like cleaning the house or sitting in the stands at your kid’s soccer game. One of the gems in this book is Covey’s Time Management Matrix, which breaks down tasks into four quadrants:


Time Management Masters spend the majority of their time focusing on the Quadrant of Personal Leadership (QPL) but the rest of us get so distracted by the Quadrant of Necessity that we can never find the time to focus on the tasks in QPL — until they become urgent and fall into the Quadrant of Necessity. By then, we’re rushing to get them done and, unfortunately, end up not taking the time to do them as well as we would like. This can lead to discouragement, which is likely to land us in the Quadrant of Waste — trivial activities that distract us from the disappointment we feel when we don’t meet our goals (and also a lovely place to procrastinate, setting ourselves up for future failures!) If you’d like to break this vicious cycle, try the exercise below. But first, some context:


When my kids were small I left my full-time job to stay home with them. I sat around all day eating candy and watching my soaps. Just kidding. That was probably one of the busiest times of my life. Every day I would write a long list of tasks and then barely had time to sit down to eat while trying to complete them. And I never did get them all done. Every night I’d have at least five things on that list, not crossed off. Mocking me.


One day I decided to do the opposite. Instead of making a list of things I wanted to get done, I made a list of all the things I did. Every chore. Every diaper changed. Every task completed for my freelance work. Every snack prepared. Every client call endured with a two-year-old hanging on my leg. Every time I read Green Eggs and Ham. In one day I filled two sheets of college-ruled paper — front and back. That night I went to sleep feeling vindicated, but looking back, I can see that I may have been busy, but that’s not the same as being productive or, better yet, effective.


So I challenge you to log what you do (everything!) for one week. Whether you write in a notebook or text yourself each task you complete, you’ll start to:

  1. see how much you can realistically accomplish in a day
  2. detect patterns of when you’re the most productive
  3. evaluate the value of what you’re doing
  4. discover the time suckers that prevent you from working toward what you actually want to accomplish (but never seem to have the time for.)


After you’ve completed this exercise quickly divide your list of tasks into the quadrants of the Time Management Matrix. Ditch activities from the Quadrant of Waste and replace them with tasks from the Quadrant of Leadership. The more important but not urgent tasks you complete, the less you will feel overwhelmed because you won’t have as many urgent tasks moving forward!


What’s an important task? Here are some simple questions to ask yourself:

  1. Will this help me reach my professional, personal or team goals?
  2. Is my inaction a roadblock to someone else? (For example, are you preventing a co-worker or teammate from completing their tasks because they’re waiting for you to provide information or feedback?)
  3. Is this required? (filing taxes, taking your child to the doctor)
  4. Have I made a commitment to complete this task?
  5. If I don’t complete this task, will it impact my health or well-being?


Once you determine which tasks are most worth your time, you can plan how much of your day to devote to them. Realistically, no one can expend the mental energy required for truly important tasks all day, so here are some tips to finish what needs to be done and stay sane and healthy:


Know your productivity sweet spot. When are you the most mentally sharp? When do you have the most energy? When are you least likely to be interrupted? Matching the task to the most appropriate time to complete it is essential.


Mix easy-to-do tasks with more time consuming ones. Don’t try to do all the heavy lifting at once. Take a 15-minute break roughly every 90 minutes to check some easy things off your list (like answering emails, scheduling appointments or taking a walk to charge your mental battery.) Set a timer so you don’t lose track of time and when it goes off — get back to that important task!


Avoid time suckers. Remember those tasks from the Quadrant of Waste? They should be easy to avoid but somehow, they always manage to sneak into our day and before we know it “I’ll just take a minute to…” turns into three hours of wasted time, sabotaging our success. Perhaps because they’re fun or make us feel like we’ve accomplished something (gaming apps, for example) or because we feel obligated to be in constant contact with everyone all the time (email, texting, phone calls) or because someone else is scheduling our time at work (meetings or that super chatty person who is always popping into your office with a quick question that lasts 20 minutes) or maybe it’s a bunch of small favors you’ve agreed to undertake because you simply feel bad telling anyone “no.” Whatever your time sucker(s) is/are, find ways to eliminate as many as possible. Block out time on your calendar to actually do the work discussed in all those meetings you attend so your colleagues won’t over-schedule you. Find a polite way to make it clear to co-workers that you shouldn’t be disturbed. (Clever or fun door signs can get the message across in a friendly way. Check out these fun illustrations by our friend, Kat Lamp, below.)

image of woman in office
image of note on office door

Save the time suckers that you just can’t quit for times when you’re not at optimal mental capacity, like couch time at the end of a long, effectively productive day.


Some of us, despite the desire to be Time Management Masters, continue to spend copious amounts of time in the Quadrant of Deception or the Quadrant of Waste. Consider that you may have a problem with procrastination, which has more to do with our need to control or our fear of failure than most of us would like to admit. According to Psychology Today, “Procrastination is not a problem of time management or of planning. Procrastinators are not different in their ability to estimate time, although they are more optimistic than others. ‘Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up,’ insists Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago”. Consider reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. You may be surprised how much procrastination is controlling your life and find the steps to break that habit.


Chronic procrastinator or not, picture in your mind what life would be like if you could take control of your time, prioritize based on what you want to accomplish in the next five years (instead of day-to-day) and move forward today to make it happen!

Photo of Jan

Jan Badger, Shape Shifter at Fifth Letter, is handy when you want to start a fire and fills many roles including making sure projects deliver on time and on budget. Contact Jan at jan@fifth-letter.com.