"In today’s environment, the key to productivity is not to get more things done, but to get the right things done – the important things – with the highest quality you can achieve."
Well, I see you are interested in increasing your productivity. An admirable goal and one I share. But before we go any further, please go back and re-read that opening quote. Now isolate the key phrases in that statement. What did you select? I chose ‘key to productivity’, ‘right things done’, and ‘highest quality’. Which converts nicely into a simple formula for success: Productivity = doing the right things + highest quality.
That’s an interesting ah-ha moment. Typically when most people think about productivity they want to get more things done in less time. I’m not sure that is a sustainable or effective lifestyle choice and the sooner you let go of that illusion the better.
The Five Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity is a FranklinCovey publication, firmly grounded in Dr. Stephen Covey’s time management quadrants and principles. Kory Kogon and Adam Merrill repackage these timeless principles into five choices that help address three key issues faced by people regardless of context – decision management, attention management and energy management. The book utilizes several examples to illustrate the concepts and tackles the challenges associated with information overload in our 24/7 technology dependent world.
Pause, Clarify, Decide
"The key to getting into Q2 [the Important not Urgent productivity quadrant] is to pause your reactive brain long enough to clarify what is coming at you, then decide whether it is worth your time and energy."
Pause. Clarify. Decide. It sounds so simple and yet in our overscheduled, fast-paced lives we often simply put our heads down and plow through the items on our daily to do lists without really thinking about why we are doing what we are doing. Then we bemoan the fact that we are always running from crisis to crisis putting out fires while failing to set aside time to take the preventative actions that would reduce the number of fires we are fighting!
And technology has upped the urgency factor. Computers and mobile devices buzz, beep, flash and vibrate constantly and like Pavlov’s dogs we have been conditioned to respond to those triggers the moment they activate. We tell ourselves we are being responsive and efficient, while in reality we are carelessly syphoning valuable time and energy into lower value distractions. Be honest. How many emails, calls or interruptions do you receive that absolutely must be addressed immediately or the world as you know it will go up in flames?
Taking time to ‘pause, clarify and decide’ helps you determine where your time and energy is best directed in that moment. This winning strategy only works however, if you’ve taken the time to identify what is truly important to you.
Schedule the Big Rocks, Don’t Sort Gravel!
"The key shift in thinking for Choice #3 [schedule the big rocks] is to realize you can never get ahead by just sorting through the gravel faster."
Anyone who is familiar with Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People knows that the Big Rocks analogy refers to your top priorities; time devoted to key relationships and responsibilities, important projects, critical meetings, and so on. I have always liked this principle, however confess my execution over the years has been haphazard. With electronic calendars and lists, it is oh so easy to slide things around and let ‘other stuff’ hijack your time.
That’s why I love the follow-up directive that accompanies Choice #3 – don’t sort gravel! Gravel represents the small stuff in our lives – things like email, household chores, routine meetings, TV, social media and so on. These things can consume a lot of time with minimal return on your investment.
I definitely don’t want to be someone who ‘sorts gravel’ so I’ve decided to experiment with visualization and add some virtual weight to my big rocks. I now think of my calendar as a garden where I am growing the things that are important to me. Each week (and day) I remind myself what I want in my garden and identify the tasks I need to do that will help those dreams blossom. Those tasks get prime time in my calendar. I think of those tasks as focal points for my garden; large, heavy rocks that should not (and cannot) be moved on a whim (after all, they weigh a ton!) As a result I find I am more motivated to follow-through with those tasks and less inclined to shift them around without a really, really good reason. I also am trying to block time for daily ‘weed and feed’ activities where I group routine and unanticipated tasks together rather than addressing them as soon as they are noticed.
Win Without Fighting
"Win Without Fighting is based on the principle of automation. The goal is to confidently automate as many decisions as possible so our brain does not have to use up energy on the mundane, useless or unnecessary."
This actionable insight is associated with the fourth choice for extraordinary productivity: rule your technology, don’t let it rule you. The authors devote a whole chapter to this topic and provide a number of helpful, easy-to-implement suggestions for making technology work for you. The two strategies that I’ll be adopting to better manage the gravel disguised as emails are setting up rules/filters and adopting a Core 4 system for processing information.
The authors have convinced me that taking the time to set up rules to sort my incoming emails into predetermined folders of my choosing will save me innumerable hours in the future and ensure only the most important messages are visible in my inbox. I can then review the auto-filed messages during my daily ‘weed and feed’ timeslot or another convenient time and won’t miss anything. Awesome!
The Core 4 approach encourages you to manage incoming information as an appointment, a task, a contact, or notes/documents or a combination of those things. Read emails with a view to turning them into one or more of these four things, and then delete the email. The same applies to paperwork and verbal requests. Of course if it is unwanted junk mail well, you know what to do with that!
Both strategies make sense when you realize that “every email is a decision. And when we are busy deleting, moving, being tempted by, or answering emails, we are using up energy [and time] that would be better applied elsewhere.”
The Five Choices was a quick and inspiring read. Even though the core principles and choices were not new to me, I gained a deeper awareness of how different choices positively (or negatively) influence my productivity levels and overall sense of accomplishment. I also picked up some easy action items that will help me spend more of my time on my Q2 activities (important, not urgent).
What strategies do you use to stay focused on the important but not necessarily urgent things in your life? Which of the strategies I mentioned can you see yourself adopting (pause, clarify, decide; schedule big rocks-don’t sort gravel or win without fighting)?