How do you prioritise your time? How do you decide what things you should do and what things you should avoid? What principles or tools do you use to help you with prioritising?
Think about pastimes for a moment. How many things do you enjoy in your leisure time? I enjoy doing lots of different things: writing, reading, watching films, drawing, listening to music, keeping fit, sport, playing the guitar, and many more things besides. As time has gone on and more pressures are applied to my time I decided to take a good look at how I invested the finite time that I have. It was at this point I realised that there is no such thing as free time; you can spend it at will but you cannot pay to get any more, let alone claim a free top-up.
So I decided I needed to be more focussed on how I spent my time and there were several things I read that particularly helped me here:
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Firstly I read Stephen Covey’s book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ which has a really practical way for prioritising tasks depending on their urgency and importance (also referred to as the Eisenhower Matrix). When you analyse how you spend your time it is scary to see how much we spend on unimportant and non urgent tasks such as surfing the web, or urgent seeming (yet unimportant) emails that keep popping into our inbox. This challenged me so much that I now do not keep my email open but rather check it a maximum of a couple of times a day and prioritise the mail I have received before I respond.
The Pareto Principle
Secondly I read about the 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle, which states that generally 20% of our efforts produce 80% of the results. In other words, in business, 80% of profits come from 20% of your work, and on the negative side it is likely that 80% of your complaints come from 20% of your clients! Therefore by identifying the most useful 20% of what we do and who we work with we can either cut out a lot of unproductive work and we can maximise on that 20% to multiply what we can achieve.
Outliers: The Story of Success
Thirdly I read Anders Ericsson’s study (referred to in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’) that proposed that becoming really good at anything was more a matter of time than anything else, and around 10,000 hours of effective application was needed to excel at something (by the way, that equates to about 20 hours a week for 10 years – no small investment of time). I decided that I needed to identify my most effective gifts, time and tasks and concentrate on them. One simple application of this was how I use my day. My most productive time is the morning, between breakfast and lunch. That is when I plan to do the bulk of my ‘productive’ tasks such as writing. The afternoon I reserve primarily for meetings, emails and things that require (for me) a slightly lower level of energy and concentration.
How to prioritise what you do with your time
These factors: the balance of urgency and importance, concentrating on the effective 20% and then putting in the hours to get really good at something, affected my life in many ways. One of these was regarding my pastimes. I mentioned before that one of the things I enjoy is playing the guitar. I started playing in my teens but I had never really improved beyond a certain (and fairly basic) level. Why? Quite simply it was because I never practised enough. It was not that I did not like playing the guitar; it was just that I enjoyed other things more.
In my dreams I could play like Jimi Hendrix. In my mind’s eye I could see myself saving the day at a gig, strolling onto stage to replace an injured lead guitarist and stunning my friends with amazing solos, my fingers a blur on the fretboard! But there was a big difference between successful guitarists and me that went beyond just raw talent (of which I had very little). Guitar legends like Jimi Hendrix are the sort of people who pick a guitar up at the beginning of the day and don’t put it down until they go to bed; it is like an extension of their body. I rarely picked mine up at all. Jimi Hendrix could play all day and all night when the mood took him. For me, I got frustrated or bored pretty quickly and if I had the choice between practising an hour on the guitar or going to the gym I would always choose the latter.
I realised that I did not have the motivation to be the guitarist I dreamed of being because I did not value it enough. It turned out that this dream was not one worth pursuing. Therefore, now that I needed time to invest in other things I really wanted to get good at, and valued more highly, I decided to sell my guitars in order to properly pursue other dreams. I did not want the good to be the enemy of the great.
But that’s enough about me! What are your priorities? How do they affect the way you live and work?