Can I See Your Priorities?

I already don’t like this post and I’m the one writing it. I can only imagine how many of you will feel about it. It’s a tough post to write because a lot of the people reading it will not feel better about themselves, at least not right away.

 

If just one person takes this message to heart then it will be a worthwhile post, no matter how many people might be offended. I know it will offend people because the first time it was shared with me I was offended too. But I have a lot more of everything today because I eventually changed my behavior because of it.

 

Around 25 years ago I was sitting in the audience at a Dale Carnegie Traning national convention. We were listening to a Dale Carnegie sales representative talk about the challenges of succeeding in the training business. As with almost all Dale Carnegie presenters his talk was awesome. What truly made his presentation unique however was the fact that he was playing the harp throughout his entire presentation. 

 

It was like he had two different brains working at once. His message was that achieving success, long-term true success, required that we do more than we thought possible. 

 

It was impressive to say the least. I made a comment to the person sitting next to me that I’d “give anything” to be able to play a musical instrument. 

 

He said that wasn’t true. Here’s the thing about working for a self-improvement organization like Dale Carnegie. The teaching never stops. Everything is a lesson. You are held accountable for everything you say and everything you do. It can be a challenging place to work but it is life changing. For the vast majority of the people lucky enough to experience it the change is very positive.

 

So the person sitting next to me said it wasn’t true and the lesson was on. When I said it absolutely was true he said “well then, what instrument do you play?” I said again that while I didn’t play any instrument I wished I did. 

 

It was then that I was informed I was mistaken. I was mistaken because if I really wanted to play an instrument then I’d be able to play an instrument. He went on to say that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to play an instrument, it was that I wanted to do other things more. He said I didn’t play an instrument because while I might like the thought of it, actually playing an instrument wasn’t a priority for me. 

 

He said lots of people say what they want but when you watch them they show their true priorities. 

 

I felt a little like I had been called a liar but eventually what he said sunk in. I started to measure the things I said I wanted against what actions I took to have them. It turned out I was like most people…. I said a lot and did very little. 

 

I decided that had to change. The change was instigated by the awareness that wanting something and doing what it takes to have it are two very very different things.

 

The odds are pretty high that you have some of that “say a lot do very little” stuff within you too. So here’s a suggestion. 

 

Make a list of your priorities, the “things” you want in every area of your life. Your personal life, your professional life, your financial life, etc. 

 

Then track how you spend your time, every minute of your time, each day for a week. You can Google “Time log” to find a tool that will help you with your tracking. BE HONEST! 

 

You will be somewhere between mad, disappointed, shocked, or horrified at how little of your time is spent in pursuit of your “priorities.” When I realized all those years ago where my time was going I was surprised to say the least. You might be too.

 

But awareness is a wonderful thing. You may decide that what you thought were your priorities really aren’t. You may decide that they are. In that case then you’ll also know that something must change. 


I still think that playing an instrument would be nice. I also know that I won’t give anything to be able to play one. In fact as it turns out, I was unwilling to give anything at all. 

The Difference Between Urgent and Important

In my last post I discussed the fact that leaders understand the difference between need to do and nice to do activities.

Effective leaders also understand the huge difference between what’s merely urgent and what’s truly important. Those urgent things are frequently less productive, and often matter far less, than the important things. 

President Eisenhower said, “The urgent is seldom important and the important is seldom urgent.” That statement led Charles Hummel to publish a small booklet in the 1960’s entitled, The Tyranny of the Urgent

In it, he described the tension that exists between the urgent and important things in life and the fact that far too often, the urgent wins. Sometimes the urgent things are also important but very often they are not.

So what about you? Are you running around doing urgent things all day or are the things you do truly important? If you’re like most people, yes sadly most people get caught in the trap of urgency, you’re in such a rush to “get it done” that you don’t really stop to separate, or prioritize the urgent things from the important things. 

What’s more important, a conversation about school, life or their choice of friends with your kids or an empty email inbox? The emails may be urgent but the kids are important, for most of us, our kids are by far the most important aspect of our lives. Yet we stay at the office that extra hour to try and “get through a few more emails” while our kids, those incredibly, unbelievably, positively, absolutely important kids are waiting at home. 

If that happens to you then you are a victim of the tyranny of the urgent. 

If that happens to you then I’ll also bet you just use that always popular time excuse. You think that saying “I just don’t have the time” let’s you off the hook. You’re not responsible, it’s not your fault, it’s just “stuff” getting in the way of you doing what’s really important. 

Wrong! 

You’re not going to like hearing this but the fact is, you don’t suffer from a lack of time, you suffer from a lack of prioritization skills. Or, you just never slow down enough to truly prioritize. The challenge for many of us is that we just don’t often invest the time to consider what really matters to us, we just rush through life doing what’s put in front of us without considering what’s left behind.

I understand that you likely can’t get everything done that you would like to; that’s just a fact of life in the world in which most of us live. But that’s not an excuse for not prioritizing, it’s the very reason you should. 

At some point you’re just going to have to stop the madness, shut down the distractions and make yourself ignore the “urgent” stuff long enough to truly consider what’s important in your life. Just stop once in a while to determine if you’re running your life or if your life is running you. 

You may not be able to get it all done but you sure as heck can get the truly important stuff done, you just have to be aware of what’s really important in your life. 

 

What Not To Do

Strategic thinking has as much to do with deciding what not to do as it does with deciding what to do. I’ve sat in literally hundreds of planning meetings where the discussion centered on what we should do to increase our success. I’ve seldom, if ever, heard a discussion on things we should not do. 

The reality is that what you don’t do can contribute as much to your success as what you choose to do. When we do not strategize about the “don’t do” activities we end of doing them without any consideration of the cost. 

Many of the costs are “opportunity costs;” when we are doing things we shouldn’t be doing we’re not doing things that we should. It’s at that point we use the always popular “time” excuse as in “we just don’t the time to do everything we planned to do.” 

Well, you might if you stopped doing the things you didn’t plan to do. 

Authentic leaders understand the difference between the “need to do” things and the “nice to do” things and they work hard at NOT doing the nice to do until the need to do things are complete. 

The real challenge is, and this is a big one for me, the “nice to do” things are usually easier and more fun to do than the “need to do.” Because the “nice” things are indeed nice we can fool ourselves into thinking we’ve accomplished something when in fact we’ve skipped over something we had planned to do.  

While doing the “nice” thing might even be productive in some way truly effective leaders know it probably wasn’t the most productive thing they could have done. 

If you want to improve your productivity, and your level of success then stop yourself every now and then and ask, “is this the most productive thing I could be doing at this very moment?” If you’re like me you will likely be shocked at how often your answer is NO! 

The answer to that question may not always tell you what to do but it will certainly help you understand what not to do.

 

When Resources are Too Few

One of the biggest “problems” I hear about from people in businesses big and small is that they have too few resources to accomplish what they want.

That statement either directly follows or precedes a word I pretty much despise. That word is “can’t.” It doesn’t matter if it’s “we can’t” or “I can’t,” the word itself becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. 

Lack of resources may be a true statement but so what. It doesn’t mean you can’t, it just means you need to find a different way. Lack of resources has become the easy way out, the easy way to explain away a lack of initiative or creativity. 

Now, some people reading this are already getting mad. To you I would say stop looking for reasons why you can’t and start looking for ways that you can. If you have to get mad then don’t get mad at me for telling you the truth, get mad at yourself for not accepting it.

You indeed may not be able to accomplish every single thing you would like but never use that as an excuse for not accomplishing every single thing that you can. 

A lack of resources can make it harder to begin; when we don’t know how to get past a roadblock 3 miles down the road it can make it harder to take that first step. Take the first step anyway. The first step builds the momentum that can carry you past obstacles that you thought were impossible to pass. But you must take that first step for it to happen.

Make certain that “lack of resources” isn’t actually “lack of priorities” in disguise. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it’s likely that your ultimate success won’t be either. Do what you can do today and worry about what you can’t do tomorrow.

Priorities come from goals and objectives. If you don’t have goals, solid, realistic, written goals, then it’s likely you’ll find it nearly impossible to prioritize. So set goals. Develop a plan to reach those goals. Most importantly, implement the plan. 

When you as a leader hear “we don’t have enough…. your reply should be “enough for what.” Every person and every organization has enough to do something, that something may not be everything you want it to be but it will get you closer to it. 

Remember, more often than not limited progress comes from a lack of creativity and initiative, not a lack of resources. Do everything you can with everything you’ve got and you may just surprise yourself. 

But your success won’t be a surprise to me.

Procrastinators Have Too Much Patience

Successful people know the difference between procrastination and patience. One simply wastes time and one provides the opportunity to think, reflect, plan, and adjust. 

Patience can be productive, procrastination can’t. If procrastination doesn’t kill your chances for success today then it most certainly will tomorrow or perhaps the next day. But it will get you sooner or later.

Despite popular opinion procrastination is not only a lazy person’s problem. Some very busy people struggle with it too. In fact, one of the very reasons they struggle with it is the fact they are too busy. They attempt to do more than is possible and overload their calendars day in and day out. Their calendars  get so full they have no idea where to start, so they frequently don’t actually get started. 

There has never been a time in history when more “tools” were available to help with the scourge of procrastination. You likely have one of those tools in your pocket… or your hand, this very moment. Yes, the very thing that “helps” us procrastinate, our smartphone, can help us stop. 

There are 100’s of apps available to help us be more productive. I’ve tried many of them but my current app of choice is the native “reminders” app on my iphone. It syncs with my laptop and iPad so I have pings and dings and little red numbers popping up all over. It’s annoying but it also has really helped.

I avoid any app that looks like a simple to-do list. I don’t know a single highly productive person that would go near a to-do list. If you use a to-do list and you think you’re highly productive then  I would tell you you’ll be much more productive when you ditch that liar of a tool. 

I call a to-do list a liar because it fools us into thinking that our “busyness” is the same as productivity. We check something off a to-do list and feel good about getting something done. The question is, should we have done it at all. Maybe and maybe not.

I highly recommend any app that allows you to create a Daily Prioritized Task List. This takes your to-do list to a whole new level. You now do things in order of their importance. That requires thought on how you will use your limited hours in a day. You must decide which of the many things you have “to-do” will provide you the biggest payback and force yourself to follow the prioritization. It may even require you to stop doing some less productive things.

Of course there are a couple of problems with all these apps: I can simply turn off my smartphone (highly unlikely) or just choose to ignore it. (highly likely) I’d bet most people reading this are a lot like me.

That’s why the very best tool to help you with your procrastinating tendencies is a tool that’s been around forever. The “tool” is called a mentor. These days some people call it a coach. 

No one climbs a mountain without a climbing partner and for many people climbing a mountain would be easier than overcoming procrastination. So find a coach or mentor and ask them to help you climb the mountain of procrastination. Share your prioritized daily task list and ask them to hold you accountable to tackle each task in order of it’s importance. 

Virtually every person I’ve ever met could accomplish more than they thought they could and virtually every person I’ve met needed someone to help them do it. The right mentor will remind you of the vast difference between procrastination and patience and never allow you to substitute busy for productive. 

Apps are great but they still can’t replace interaction with a human that has the capacity to care enough about you to truly hold you accountable. I hope they never will.

What Won’t You Do To Succeed?

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Years ago, while attending a Dale Carnegie convention I was watching a speaker explain the complexities of playing the harp, while playing the harp. He gave a complete talk on discipline and work ethic while playing classical music on the harp! It was and still is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

I commented to a colleague sitting next to me that “I would give anything to be able to play a musical instrument.” He immediately replied that since I couldn’t currently play a musical instrument it was apparent that in fact, I actually wouldn’t give anything at all.

I disputed his viewpoint by saying that I knew what I wanted, not him. He calmly replied that if I would in fact “give anything” to play a musical instrument then I would be able to play the musical instrument of my choice.

I said I saw his point but said that I was just too busy to be able to commit to lessons, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn, I just didn’t have the time to learn.

It was then that he said the most amazing thing, he said “then actually it’s not that you would give anything to be able to play a musical instrument, it’s really that you won’t give anything up to be able to play a musical instrument.”

He went on to say that it was really a question of priorities. He said that if learning a musical instrument was truly a priority then I would stop doing something that was a lower priority so I could start doing something that was a higher priority.

I don’t really remember much of what the speaker said, I don’t recall the songs he played on his harp. But I do recall the lesson I took from my colleague seated next to me: What you don’t do will have as much impact on your success as what you do.

When was the last time you did a daily activity check to see what you could eliminate from your busy day? When was the last time you stopped to ask yourself is what I’m about to do going to keep me busy or make me productive?

Stop doing the low productivity things that we all do at times. Stop doing the urgent “stuff” that prevents you from doing the truly important things.

There is no question about whether you have the time to succeed, you do. You’ll just have to stop doing something so you can do something else. That means the real question is: What won’t you do to succeed?