Tag Archives: achieve better time management

Reclaim quality, productivity, efficiency, and sanity…


Differentiating what’s important to us from what’s urgent to others lets us take situational control by not confusing the two, and helps us to decide what to do next!

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But take a look at your to-do list. And how are you doing on your bucket list? Do you find that you keep putting off things that you really, really want to do or must do? Do you catch yourself first doing things that feel more urgent but just for the moment?

Separating your Critical Few “must do” tasks from your Minor Many “nice to do” tasks is an essential step in the process and is my version of the 80/20 Rule. It’s a fact of life that applies across the board from business to your personal life—80% of your stress is caused by 20% of your problems. In network television, it’s the concept of “prime time”—the three hours of prime time produce 80% of the revenues despite being only 20% of the programming. In time allocation, the idea is for you to allocate 80% of your time to 20% of your tasks that deliver the greatest return on your effort. In other words, you shouldn’t just “work smart,” you should “work smart on the right things.”

So let’s say you’ve identified your Critical Few. When was the last time you had enough time for all of them? Prioritizing them is next. If you can’t get them all done, to which do you allocate your time first?

I don’t know the answer for you. But I do know a reliable method for arriving at the right conclusion. I call it the Given Reality Test.

“Given” because our Critical Few don’t appear in a vacuum. We develop them based on some givens – assumptions accepted as facts. There’s a due date we can’t change. We have role-based responsibilities that are inescapable. If your daughter is counting on seeing you on the sidelines of her soccer game, sending your assistant is no substitute. If you’re the corporate lawyer, you have to read the regs. If you’re the press liaison, you have to return that reporter’s call.

“Reality” because our wishes don’t govern our surroundings. Reality persists in defining what we can and cannot do. We might wish we could enact culture change overnight, but reality says otherwise. We wish our family commitments would not conflict with our work priorities, but often they do. We wish our strategy off-sites didn’t get interrupted by urgent calls from clients, but they usually do.

“Test” because testing means we don’t have to choose the wrong Critical Few and experience the bad effects before realizing we made a big mistake. We can put our toe in the water and then decide if we want to proceed.

Here’s how the Given Reality Test goes: First you define the problem clearly in your own mind. Then you articulate and calculate the effects of not doing each of the activities that is demanding your attention. When you analyze those effects, you’ll end up clear and committed as to what your priority should be. If circumstances change, you might have to repeat the Given Reality Test, but it still works.

That’s the process in the abstract, but let’s give it some color—some context so that you can apply it in your own circumstances. Let’s say you have three activities vying to be your Critical One for an afternoon. 1) Keep your promise to attend your best friend’s gallery exhibition. 2) Participate in an impromptu meeting called by your biggest distributor who is getting customer complaints about your products. 3) Try to get in and see your doctor about a worrisome pain you noticed earlier this week and haven’t had time to deal with.

  1. Define the problem: I can’t be three places at once. So I have to tolerate two of the following: keenly disappoint my best friend, push the distributor problem on to a colleague, stress out about that pain.
  1. Calculate the effects of not addressing each of them now: My 30-year friendship will not be altered by a single disappointment. This distributor wants to be heard and acknowledged, not fire us, and my colleague is a better listener and relationship builder than I. This will be my fourth sleepless night worrying about what that pain could portend—I’m too worried to enjoy the exhibition or even pay attention in the meeting.

So, there’s your answer, inescapably: Go see your doctor. It might be a different answer for somebody else, or different for you if the circumstances were slightly altered. But articulating the effects that way is its own revelation. It keeps you from ruminating in endless circles that all start out with “But maybe I should…” It lets you arrive at a conclusion that you can live with about how to allocate your afternoon.

Do this, and you will find yourself allocating your precious time better. You can claim your own time and reclaim the quality of your work, your productivity, and your sanity.

Do you say it’s urgent?

eisenhowerDwight David Eisenhower had a pretty decent career. Supreme Commander of the forces that defeated one of the vilest regimes ever to threaten civilization. 34th President of the United States during one of the most prosperous periods ever experienced by any country in the history of the world.

So who better to turn to as a model for how we use the precious time of our lives? I’m referring of course to the Eisenhower Principle that distinguishes between urgent and important activities. It goes like this: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Rendered as a graphic, the Eisenhower Principle might have looked like this on June 5, 1944.

With all the claims on his time, Ike needed a simple, clarifying way to make sure that things that appeared to be urgent didn’t divert him from things that were assuredly more important—and at the same time, not procrastinate matters that were both urgent and important.

He also recognized that great time management means being effective as well as efficient. We must spend our time on things that are important and not just the ones that are urgent. To do this, and to minimize the stress of having too many tight deadlines, we need to understand this distinction.

When I began to teach managers and employees how to manage their time most productively, I was working with executives from one of the country’s greatest brokerage organizations – ambitious, hard-charging, intelligent executives. But they had in common a failing endemic among high achievers who are not skilled in managing their time: They had trouble distinguishing between urgent and important. So I adapted the Eisenhower Principle to the workplace in the form of Critical Few versus Minor Many.

Our Critical Few are those which, if we neglect them, will have dire consequences for us, whether in business or our personal lives. Our Minor Many are not necessarily insignificant, but they can wait, and their neglect might be disappointing but not dire.

Personal preferences can complicate our reasoning. I get great intellectual stimulation from floating new ideas with my team, and I consider time spent this way to be of the utmost importance. One of my colleagues likes to work out problems alone, doing solitary research. Another likes to solve business problems by putting a pencil to them – working them out in financial terms. Who doubts that these preferences cause all three of us to consider work that we enjoy to be more “critical” than work we dislike?

So, to separate our Critical Few from our Minor Many, the first step is to subject our too-long to-do list to an 80/20 analysis that obviates personal preferences: Which ones deliver more value than the time, energy, and expense it takes to accomplish them?

When clients wrestle with priorities, I take them through the DERSSIM Logic System.

  • Define the problem.
  • Understand the Effects of not solving the problem.
  • Identify the Reason for the problem.
  • Conceive a Solution.
  • SIM stands for the Solution Implementation Methodology.

Which problem, if not solved, has the greatest negative or positive effect? Sometimes the reason for the problem isn’t immediately identifiable, but the effect may require immediate attention.

If an individual is having difficulty breathing, the reason may not be immediately apparent; however, getting the individual to breathe is of utmost importance. In other words, act now on urgent matters.

Even when the reason is apparent, remember that a solution for a problem without a solution implementation methodology is worthless.

So the next time you are faced with way too many obligations, all of which “feel” urgent, take a deep breath, and run them through the DERSSIM Logic System. It won’t take long, and it will quickly clarify things for you. You will end up knowing, with confidence, how you should allocate your next minutes and hours. You will know what is urgent for you when you apply the Important vs. Urgent Test, taking care to apply it objectively to your own situation and needs. We all know people for whom almost everything seems urgent. When my wife answers calls for me at home at inopportune times, she has a habit of cupping her hand over the phone to whisper a reminder to me: “He says it’s urgent, but it might be HIS urgent and not YOUR urgent.” I find that immensely helpful.

Just remember – nobody else can decide your urgent. Learn how to quickly draw those distinctions for yourself so that you don’t suffer those agonizing moments of wondering what to do for whom and when – and almost inevitably, out of a desire to please or clear the decks for your own purposes, doing other people’s urgent, not your own. That’s not the path to career success or life happiness!