Matt Perman explains how to tell the difference between important tasks and urgent tasks, and how to make room for what’s important in your life and work.
- Why you should plan your day with your time, not your tasks
- Four tips for effective personal management
- Two ways to prioritize like a pro
Matt is co-founder of What’s Best Next, which he started to help people excel in doing good for the world through productive work and God-centered living. Prior to that, he served at Desiring God for 13 years in several different leadership roles, including director of strategy and director of internet ministries, and at Made to Flourish as director of marketing.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Matt’s website: What’s Best Next
- Matt’s book: How to Get Unstuck: Breaking Free from Barriers to Your Productivity
- Book: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek
- Book: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
- Previous episode: 015: David Allen, The World’s Leading Authority on Productivity
- Tool: OmniFocus
- Book: Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More by Morten Hansen
- Previous episode: 278: The Critical Factors Separating High and Low Performers with Morten Hansen
- Book: ESV Study Bible
Matt, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Hey, thanks so much for having me.
Certainly. Well, I’d love to hear from your perspective. You have a blog that covers leadership, work, as well as theology, and I just want to hear from your experiences. Do you find there’s some controversy there when you’re mixing religion and productivity on both sides, in terms of the religious folks saying, “Hey, what are you doing? Faith alone should work,” and then the non-religious side like, “Don’t force this on me.” Tell us about the world you live in.
Yeah, well, so interesting. There is some controversy in certain ways, but there isn’t as much as controversy as I would have expected, which is interesting.
Where I found most of the controversy is actually where I wasn’t expecting it. It was from Christians who would come and say, “Hey, is this spiritual,” or “Why are you reading all these business books? Why aren’t you-“ sometimes even like “You need to quote more Bible verses,” and stuff.
I sought to really listen to what they had to say and that helped me see the importance of part of my task is, at least when I’m speaking with Christians, to show how all of this fits in a faith-based framework and how the Bible does affirm productivity and teaches about the importance of it. I did really take that lesson to heart.
But also I found that there are some Christians at least where it’s important for them to know that there is a place for productivity for faith-based people and that the Bible actually affirms that. I’ve actually had good experience having lots of conversations in that regard.
Where I haven’t found controversy is just with the general market. I found a lot of people actually being very affirming of the faith-based perspective on productivity even if they are not people of faith themselves. In general, they’re very respectful and like to hear what I have to say.
A couple times even Jewish people have said to me, “Hey, I like what you did. You’ve shown a Christian perspective on productivity. I’m interested in developing a Jewish perspective on productivity.” I thought, “Hey, that sounds very interesting. Let me know what you do.”
That is interesting. I’m thinking about one of my, I don’t know if it’s favorite, but it makes me chuckle a little bit, looking through the iTunes reviews. I’ve got one negative one that said that my podcast was “Religion masquerading as career advice.” I was like, I don’t think I see that.
But I think you’ve got great ideas and that’s what we’re talking about is being awesome at your job.
Yeah, you bet.
Whether the listeners are coming from a Christian or a non-Christian perspective, I think we’ve got some good stuff to dig into.
Your book is called How to Get Unstuck, so what’s the main idea behind this?
Yeah, absolutely. The main idea behind this is most of us want to do great work, and we want to do important things, and get things done. That might be just everyday tasks, … to do what’s in front of you well and then some of us are interested in large-scale endeavors. Whatever your goal is, you want to be able to get it done effectively and smoothly.
The thing is most of us also encounter obstacles when we’re trying to get things done. In fact, if you’re trying to do something significant, you are almost certain to encounter obstacles and potentially get stuck.
The main idea of the book is we need to recognize that as a real possibility and we need to be ready for it. We need to know how to get unstuck if we are going to get things done in this world and get things done consistently and well. We don’t just want to be one-hit wonders. Part of getting unstuck is knowing how to create excellent results over and over again, not just once and then you go off the map.
Well, could you paint a picture of here when you talk about being stuck and unstuck, like what does it look and feel like to be stuck versus unstuck and maybe share a story of someone successfully making the journey?
Yeah, I talk about there’s three main ways we tend to get stuck. First is we might not know where we want to go in the first place. That’s stuck from lack of vision. That’s frustrating. If you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish, you’re not going to be able to accomplish it. That’s almost like being lost, but it’s a real form of stuck. You’re not able to move, to create momentum.
The second way we get stuck a lot of times is we have a great vision for what we want to accomplish and where we want to go, but we don’t know how to get there. We don’t know what path to take. That’s the planning side of things or what I call personal management.
The third way we get stuck is we might know how we’re going to accomplish things and how we’re going to move towards our vision, but unexpected obstacles keep coming up and getting in the way. Imagine a mountain climber and the weather is continually bad or there’s rockslides or people on the team get sick or things like that. Things keep getting in the way and causing problems.
That’s what it looks like. That’s how we get stuck and what it can look like. It doesn’t feel good. Stuck is – you feel like, “Oh, I want to accomplish this, but I can’t.” You get frustrated a lot of times and discouraged. Sometimes if you’re stuck for too long, you can actually lose motivation. That’s not good. That’s not good at all.
I want people to be motivated, be doing exciting work, finding fulfillment in what they’re doing. I want to help people get unstuck so they can have that motivation.
When we are unstuck, what it looks like is you’re getting important things done through obstacles. It doesn’t mean there’s no challenges, no obstacles. It means that you’re able to get important work done through the obstacles. That’s what everyone needs to know how to do.
I’ve had a couple people in the last couple months say to me – it was in relation to my first book, but it’s a good example of people getting unstuck. I had two people say to me – one was a lawyer, maybe both of them were lawyers. I forget for sure what the second person was doing – but they both said to me, “If it wasn’t for your book, I probably would have lost my job,” because they were having a challenge getting organized, focusing on the top priorities.
They took some of the principles I outlined, applied it to their work and their productivity went up and their peace of mind went up and they were able to accomplish the results they needed in their work. Prior to that, they were on the road to either leaving their job because they were so frustrated or potentially even getting fired. I’ve seen a lot of people move from the state of being stuck to getting unstuck, but it can be hard to do.
I’m intrigued. There’s three different flavors of being unstuck and root causes or being stuck and root causes to them. I’m curious does the frustration sensation, is it the same regardless of which root cause is most at play for you or do the flavors feel uniquely different? Like, no vision feels like this kind of a yuck, whereas no personal management is that other kind of yuck.
Yeah. I do think there is a difference. That is a great question.
I think actually the worst feeling is from lack of vision because you can feed disoriented. Imagine when you’re a kid of if you get on a merry-go-round or you just spin around and you start to get dizzy and then you don’t know which way is which. It’s not a very good feeling or experience. Alternatively it can feel like getting lost. I think that’s probably my least favorite way to be stuck, although I don’t like any of the ways.
When you have the vision, but the path is not clear, a lot of times that’s not as frustrating because vision really provides motivation to us. A lot of times when the path isn’t clear, that gets made up for by the passion and motivation you have from your vision. As some people have said, if a person has a why, they are able to endure almost any ….
The biggest I find is lack of vision, but what can happen when the path is not clear, even though you have motivation from your vision, eventually you can get frustrated because it’s taking so long to get momentum and you can start to lose heart.
What a lot of ways that feels then is you’re discouraged. You’re becoming demotivated. You’re disheartened. You’re fearful. Fear is a big thing that can come in and actually keep us stuck, creating a type of self-fulfilling downward spiral. That is not a good place to be.
Okay, then if you find yourself in one of these spots, what are the key steps or best most leveraged practices for getting out of there quickly?
Definitely depends on the type of stuck that you have. If you’re stuck from not knowing where you really need to go, first you need to realize that’s the cause of being stuck. That’s the type of stuck that you have. You need to know how to set a vision.
All of us would benefit from learning how to set a vision for our future or for the big project we’re working on or for the next year for our job. The big way to do that is just say to yourself, “Where do I want to be ten years from now in my life or one year from now for my job,” and describe it. You can have a statement of goal. “I want to-“ it might be as simple as “I want to increase revenues for my department by 10%,” or whatever.
Then a picture, a word picture of what that looks like. The word picture is especially what taps into our emotional side and provides the motivation. Statement of goal and vivid description of what it will look like to accomplish the goal. Those are huge.
Second, and this is crazy, sometimes we just have to do what we know. I have a project management professional certification. I’ve learned the whole process for managing projects well and still sometimes I don’t do it. I sit down. I’ve got a big project and I might outline the path a … but I don’t do things like estimating time on the tasks and making sure that I have enough time to accomplish the tasks I’ve outlined.
When I skip that I find that my projects go a lot worse. They’re bumpier. I struggle with work/life balance. But instead if I just sit down and do the simple task of estimating how long each task is going to take, I am setting myself up for better success. Just doing what we know and doing some simple tactical things like estimating the time and laying out the steps, go a long way to getting us unstuck.
Okay. To go back to the goal and word picture, the word picture is of the activities that you are undertaking to get there or is it a painting of the reality that will exist once you’re there?
Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s a painting of the reality of the end result, what it will look like to have accomplished these things.
Give us some examples.
Yeah, well I mean something as simple as let’s say you’re installing a pool in your backyard, instead of just starting with the steps, “Well, here we’ve got to find the company that’s going to install it. We’ve got to decide what size,” all that stuff. Instead of starting there, start with a picture of the future.
Envision, let’s say you have kids, envision “Hey, we are able to go out on a Saturday afternoon and sit in lounge chairs by the pool in the shade. We’re able to get in the pool and enjoy splashing around. The water cools us off. We’re able to have neighbors and friends over for pool parties,” things like that. Paint a picture of the accomplished reality and the benefits you’ll have.
Not only will that provide motivation, it also will provide direction. You might realize, “Oh, well if that’s the final picture you have in mind, that means we can’t forget about this and this.” It will have implications on how big of a pool you decide to have, is it a heated pool or not, what type of chairs do we want to have around. It really leads you to think things through in more detail so that you’re less likely to overlook things.
Got you. Can you give us another example?
A vacation. Oh man, these are small vacations. Actually, I’m not using vacation as an example. Let’s use your life.
Let’s say you are 22 and you’re planning to go into the workforce think ahead let’s say five years. Where do you see yourself in your career five years from then? What industry are you in? What type of role do you have? How are you performing in that role? What are your work relationships like? Flesh that out. Envision what it will look like to be performing at your best five years out.
This is something that Olympic athletes do I understand in terms of the activities they’re going to have to do. They picture themselves doing them as well as actually practicing. A lot of times the envisioning that they do can have just as big of an impact when done in conjunction with the practicing as the practicing itself.
Do that for your own career. Do that for your work. Do it for the big project you’re working on. Do it for the department you’re creating. Just make a habit of doing outcome visioning and it will have a huge impact on your success at work.
Do you have any pro tips for if the outcomes feel a little maybe less tangible, like increase the sales of the department by 10%? How do you turn that into kind of a vision that has imagery and power?
Yeah, absolutely. That can be very challenging. That is one of the hardest things to do. What I recommend is for any large goal using a three-fold framework. It’s called the what, why, how framework.
In this case the what is we’ll say increase revenues 10%. That’s the what. Then you’ve got to ask the why. Why does that matter? That’s where you really tap into the deeper reasons that become motivating.
Simon Sinek is obviously famous for his book Start With Why. He points out companies that start with what are less effective than companies that start with why.
Apple is an example of a company that starts with why. Instead of “Hey, we sell computers,” they say, “Hey, do you want to be empowered to challenge the status quo? Do you want to be able to create cool videos and presentations,” that’s the why. Then that leads to the what. “Hey, we’ve got these great computers that help you do it and they make it really easy.” Whereas other companies, they start with what, “Hey, we sell computers.”
It’s those that start with why that really capture people’s emotions and interest. You need to do the same with your own projects and this what, why, how format helps you do that. Don’t skip the why.
Don’t think because your manager said “Increase revenues 10%,” that the outcome is fully defined. It’s not. Ask why. Even ask why a couple times so you really get down to the depths. Then once you have that why clear, then you’re going to be ready to create the word picture, really envision wild success and what that looks like.
Okay, could you give us some examples of some potential why’s associated with increase revenue 10% example and then the word picture of this wildly successful place?
Yeah, great question. Okay, let’s say your manager’s told you you’ve got to increase revenues 10%. Okay, one of the things you want to do is consider your context. What’s going on? Maybe your company is in an industry that is having challenges at that time. Maybe some people’s jobs are going to be at risk if you can’t increase revenue 10%.
Now you see the why becomes very personal. We need to strengthen the company so we can continue to be a good employer and so that people don’t lose jobs and the quality of our team doesn’t decrease because we can’t keep excellent talent on board. Now you have why that goes much deeper than money. It taps into purpose and meaning and the importance of relationships and company culture.
Other things you might envision are, “Hey, we’re going to feel a great sense of accomplishment if we can increase revenues 10%,” or “Hey, if we increase revenues 10%, we can maybe add to the department. Maybe we can start venturing into new arenas, coming up with new products. We can implement more creative ideas.”
Then as you flesh that out then you’re able to develop word pictures of “Hey, the office feels a strong sense of morale. People are working together effectively and they enjoy working together. People find a sense of momentum in their work. People feel like they have a future at this company.” That’s an example of fleshing out the word picture once you’ve tapped into the deeper reasons beyond making money.
Okay, cool. That’s the vision side of things when we talk about personal management here, what are some of the top dysfunctions that people have recurringly when it comes to personal management?
Man, absolutely. One of the biggest ones is that people are dominated by the urgent instead of the important. Here’s the difference.
Important things are things that carry forward our long-term goals and do so in a way that is balanced and integrates the four fundamental human needs: social; physical, which is income, earning money; intellect, using talent; and purpose in connecting to meaning. Those are things that are important. They accomplish our goals in a balanced way.
Things that are urgent are the things that press upon us, the things that create a sense of immediacy, “I have to get this done now or something bad is going to happen,” things that press upon us like a person stopping by. They want to spend ten minutes talking about this or that. It’s not necessarily important, but it’s convenient. Text messages, those are classic urgency.
It’s not that there’s no place for urgency, but the issue is that urgency tends to crowd out the important. A lot of times the more urgency we have, the less importance we have. The reason important things are so hard to do is that they don’t press upon us, like the urgent things do. Urgent things press upon us. It’s hard to forget about them. You feel the tug.
The important things, since they’re not pressing upon you, you have to remember about them and you have to take initiative and protect that time. That’s difficult. That’s what brings time management into the realm of character and things like courage and consistency. Those are qualities that are crucial for time management because of the fight that it takes to stay focused on the important in spite of the urgent. That is one of the biggest challenges we all have on the personal management side of things.
Yeah, that’s nicely said there in terms of it’s a matter of character because – sort of like our base-level desires, like it would be a lot of fun to do a lot of drugs and alcohol and sex and computer gaming and sugar, whatever, like base-level immediate gratification things. It’s like there is a – I’ve got the theological term – concupiscence comes to mind.
Whoa, big word.
Yeah. But more so there’s a pull to some of these things just because they’re an immediate sort of dopamine hit of fun. Similarly, urgency has a pull to it. Just as sort of subjugating us over our base desires when it’s not appropriate to indulge them is a show of character, so too is subjugating the pull of the urgent toward that of the important. That’s a big idea. That’s fun to chew on a little bit there.
Yeah, I agree. It’s a cool idea. It’s a big idea. I started thinking about it because of Peter Drucker. He makes the point that courage and virtue are behind these time management qualities we need to have and that therefore self-development in our work is really the development of the person and the development of character.
Then of course, Stephen Covey, who is maybe one of the best know time management folks of the last 30 years or so, really emphasized character in his approach to time management. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that’s all about character and the character ethics. There’s really amazing stuff there to explore.
Yeah, that’s good. That’s one sort of common shortcoming when it comes to personal management is being a slave to the urgent. Your kind of prescription there is I guess one getting really clued on what’s important and two I guess just fighting the good fight. But maybe any pro tips on how that’s done well and effectively?
I find actually one of the most helpful things for me, I know it’s not for everyone, people who don’t share a faith-based perspective might not do this, but I find time in prayer and scriptures really important, especially in the mornings. It brings some peace and quiet to my mind, allows me to focus on what’s most important. I find that helps prepare me for the whole day.
For people who maybe aren’t faith based in their approach to life, I’ve heard a lot of good things about meditation and just spending time reading great literature. I know it’s like, “Wow, well, how does that relate to productivity?” Well, it relates to productivity because it affects your mindset, your focus, your peace of mind and therefore your character and your decision making ability.
Another thing that I find is – I approach clients a lot and it’s so important for me to not just give them information, but to see them doing the things they need to do. What I tell people is be aware that some things you’re maybe not going to enjoy doing it at first, but you just have to do it and keep doing it and then it will become a habit. It will become routine and automatic to you. You’ve just got to get through the barrier of the initial week or two.
But if you just start doing something and keep doing it, a lot of times it will become second nature in spite of it being an unpleasant task.
Okay, got you. Thank you. I also want to get your take on it when it comes to personal management, when it comes to just sort of like the task management tools and approaches and methodologies. We had David Allen of Getting Things Done … on episode 15.
Yeah, so I think it’s cool. But I don’t want to bias you. What’s your take on GTD, Getting Things Done, that system, and you might orient our listeners to that for a bit?
And how do you think about that world of just all this stuff comes in and how do we deal with collecting it and processing it and dealing with it?
Yeah. GTD has really influenced me a lot. I’m a big fan of GTD. Briefly, the central idea is the reason we feel stress usually is because we haven’t defined and captured the things we have to do. Our brain is continually trying to remember what it needs to do and our brain is not designed for that. Our internal RAM is busting at the seams.
Instead, if we can capture all the things that we have to do into a trusted system that we review regularly, it gets it out of our mind and our mind is able to rest instead of continually letting these things bat around in it. You experience what David Allen calls mind like water.
Now, I found that so helpful. You can get into different ways of organizing your list and things like that. But I found it really helpful to start capturing things outside of my mind. That also came with challenges though. I found, and I don’t know if GTD itself is to blame for this, but the system itself does seem to incline people in this way. I found I started capturing way too much, so I was just overloaded with the amount of things I had to do. That created its own new stress.
Another thing that I find people doing with GTD is they’re always fiddling with how to organize their lists, how to organize their project list and their action list. A lot of times it just doesn’t feel natural to people. One of the things GTD does is it has you separate your actions from your projects. A lot of people find that challenging, not natural to the way they think. I found that same challenge.
Actually, I – so that put me on a quest for many years to figure out how to solve that issue with GTD. I got a chance to meet David Allen at one of his seminars several years ago. I asked him about the issue. He didn’t really have a good answer.
Some apps have come out like OmniFocus that allow you to connect your actions to projects. I find that can end up being cumbersome. I might have ten new actions, they come to mind right now and boy, I don’t like going in and finding each specific project and put the action underneath. I just maybe want to do the actions right away.
I’ve actually found it helpful just to revert to Microsoft Word documents to keep my lists. David Allen would actually affirm that. He says, “Don’t worry – you don’t got to worry much about the technology. All you really need are lists. You can just keep them in Word if you need.” I’m finding that liberating.
Right, yes. That’s interesting there when it comes to that notion that a lot of – in a way there’s sort of a de facto prioritization scheme happening in your productivity life because you’re just forgetting things, so once you capture them all and look at them all, it’s like, “Ah, that’s a lot of things there.” It’s sort of spooky.
I guess what I find helpful – I do love OmniFocus. I’ve got it all the time. I have it on my phone. I can quickly just capture things. My favorite way to prioritize the actions to projects personally is by dragging and dropping them during a low focus times, like “Oh, I am on a phone call and on hold and there’s a conference call and maybe it doesn’t require more than 40% of my attention.” Okay, boom. Perfect time. It’s kind of fun.
It’s like this reminds me of a creative thought that I had and then I bring it into projects. I guess I have no illusions – I’m certain that I will die and these 2,494 actions that are there right now I see – many will remain undone, but I enjoy having them captured such that I can then prioritize and say, “All right, I’m comfortable only doing say the top 4% of these things because my brain just generates way more ideas than I could possibly execute.”
I’m right with you there. For me the collecting is the easy part. Then there’s all this stuff that comes after it. But either way, whether you collect 100% of the things that pop up and whether you do so in Word or OmniFocus or paper-based lists, you are experiencing the relief associated with not having your RAM mentally burst because you’ve got it out of your brain and onto something.
That’s right. Yeah. That is such a big relief. One of the very funny side effects of this too though is sometimes I might have something on one of my lists for about four years. Without GTD, there is that kind of natural pruning, where you would just forget about that, but with GTD where you’re capturing everything, I’ll see things and I’m like, “Wow, I still have that on my list. It’s been four years.”
Sometimes it’s still relevant. Sometimes it’s not. But I still end up wanting to do it just because it’s on my list. That’s me letting what feels urgent dominate rather than importance. Here, of course, that’s a unique use of the term urgent because well, if it’s been on my list four years, how is it urgent, but what I find is sometimes a drive just to do something because it’s on the list and I want to get it checked off.
I need to be aware of that potential mindset in myself and let myself make decisions based on the impact that the task will have, not the sense of peace I will get by finally having it out of the way.
Yeah. It’s funny, I just deliberate enjoy taking things over into the postponed section. It’s like I have no psychic pull of I should complete these. Like, no, no this is a menu of options to choose from. The ones that I should complete are marked with flags and due dates or whatever.
Either way, it sounds like we’re in agreement that having something that gets it out of your brain is going to be potentially game changing for you.
Yes, absolutely, absolutely.
Cool. We talked a bit about vision and about personal management. What about these unexpected obstacles? What can be done about them?
Man, well, I find one of the most important things is preparation. I’ve got a chapter in the book on preparation. Preparation is the most impactful way I know to be able to handle unanticipated obstacles because if you’re prepared, you’ve got options and alternatives in mind so you can respond on the fly as needed. You’ve got the knowledge base there.
If you’re not prepared, you’re not going to be ready with different options to respond to the obstacles that come up. I’ve got a whole chapter on how to prepare and why it works.
Another thing is to be aware of what some of the most common obstacles are and those include distractions, interruptions and actually low energy. That’s not something that we talk so much about, but a quick word on that.
I found when I was in my 20s, I didn’t need to worry much about sleep. I could stay up late. I could get up early the next day and it was amazing what it did for my productivity. But as I’ve gotten a little older I’ve found that level of energy is not there. I need more sleep, need to get to bed earlier. I can’t stay up until two and then get up at seven the next morning anymore.
I wonder if I actually would have allowed myself to rest more in my 20s, if that actually would have had a better impact for me today if I would actually have more energy today if I hadn’t pushed myself so hard in my 20s.
Allowing yourself to have rest and actually eating well and exercise, those affect your energy levels and you’re going to be more prepared to handle things and resist things like distractions and interruptions. It’s just amazing what it does for you.
A lot of times you don’t know you need the rest. Sometimes you get to a weekend and if you’re like me, you might want to do a bunch of work because you’re motivated, excited, you’ve got a lot to do. You might not feel tired. You might not feel that you need to rest, but what I found on those times is if I rest anyway, I’m surprised at the end at what an impact it had even though I didn’t think I needed it at first. You sometimes see the value of it after you’ve done it. You might not actually feel the need beforehand.
Yeah, got you. Thank you. Okay, well, I also want to get your take here, you say, “Start with your time, not with your tasks,” what does that mean?
This is one of the key time management principles. Most of us do it the opposite way. We start with our tasks rather than our time. We sit down and we say, “What do I have to do today?” We might make a to-do list or we do that on a project. We list all the tasks the project was going to involve and then we start working and we only get half the list done in our day and we’re frustrated. The next day we might not get any of those things done and those tasks just hang around and become annoying.
The reason that happens and we get so frustrated is because we’re actually doing things the opposite of the way we should. Instead you start with your time, not with your task, which means you don’t first say, “What do I have to do?” instead you first say, “How much time do I have?” Then you say, “Okay, now what’s going to fit in this time that I have available?”
The reason we need to do that is because as Peter Drucker said, you have to start with the most limited resource. That’s time. Your tasks can potentially be infinite. There’s always more tasks to do. If you start with your tasks, you’re setting yourself up for failure because there’s always more to do.
If you start with your time, you’re recognizing the constraints that you’re operating within and then you’re able to customize your task to the time that you have and you’re much more likely than to get those tasks done and cut out unnecessary tasks that don’t add value. It’s amazing what it does for your efficiency and peace of mind if you start with your time, not with your tasks.
Okay, cool. That does sound pleasant in the sense of you’re not sort of setting yourself up to repeatedly fail so that’s sure nice. Well, I guess nonetheless, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that the time I have is inadequate for all of the things I would like to do have done.
But I guess you won’t feel so terrible bad about it once you see it. Any pro tips on prioritization, how to pick what’s most critical versus not so much?
Yes, so prioritization is key simply because we do not have unlimited time, so we have no choice but to prioritize. If we don’t, then it’s just chance and accident, which really determines what gets done and that’s not helpful.
In order to prioritize, the first thing we need to do is know what our job responsibilities are. I know that can sound obvious and basic, but it’s actually one of the most overlooked things, especially today in the knowledge work era, where jobs are constantly changing and they’re very ambiguous because we have to define our work as well as doing our work. That’s challenging.
I would encourage everyone if they haven’t already done this or done it in the last three months, to sit down and list what are the top five to seven areas of responsibility that I have in my job. Write those out. Those are your priorities. Those are the things you need to be doing every day or every week depending on the need. You need to have a clear idea of what you’re there to accomplish and what you’re getting paid to do.
Make sure that those priorities align with what your manager wants, why they have you on the payroll, on the team, otherwise, you can inadvertently be working at cross-purposes, which is no good and not productive for you.
List the key responsibility areas of your job and then as you’re going about your day, you need to make sure that each task fits into one of those categories. If it doesn’t, you’ve probably got to delete it or delay it to a future date. Just having this grid in your mind of here are the seven key things I’m doing in my job will allow us to prioritize and make decisions.
The other thing you need to do is – and Stephen Covey talks about this – a lot of times people they write down the things they feel they need to do and then they sequence those items in the order in which they’re going to do them from most important to least important and they think that they are prioritizing. But Covey points out, that’s not prioritizing at all. All you’ve done is prioritize the urgent.
That’s not what we mean by priorities in team management. What we mean is instead of looking at the stuff that’s pulling on us, the urgent stuff, and putting it in a sequence, what we mean is getting out of that urgency paradigm altogether into the importance paradigm and saying to ourselves, “What do I need to do that’s not pressing on me? What tasks do my goals require that I do that no one else is bugging me about and no one is texting me about, but they need to get done anyway.”
We need to write those things down and make sure that those are on your list. Then you can put them in priority order. It’s a big mindset shift from the way we think about our tasks altogether to get to the urgency mindset to the importance mindset. That is the biggest thing I would recommend for the sake of setting priorities.
Okay, thank you. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things.
That’s huge. Then I would say here’s one way to sum everything up in one principle: do less, then obsess. There’s a new book out called Great at Work.
Oh, we had Morten Hansen on the show. Yeah.
Oh man, that is a great book. I just – I can’t say enough good about it. It’s got great advice and it’s based on research. It’s trustworthy.
That’s his first principle and that’s kind of the core principle everything else comes from. What’s unique about it is a lot of people just say do less, and he points out that’s not enough. That’s only half the equation. After pruning and deciding what less you’re going to do, then you have to be fanatical about doing those things with excellence. Those are the people who are really productive and succeed. I say that nails it. That’s what it all comes down to.
Beautiful. Thank you. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
That’s great. Man, so many good quotes. One of my favorite is by Peter Drucker. He just simply says, “Effective executives do first things first and one thing at a time.”
I like that quote because it’s classic Drucker. It sounds like him. It’s worded in an interesting way. It’s something I can go back to when I feel like I’m kind of getting out of step with my priorities. “Effective executives do first things first and one thing at a time.”
Okay. How about a favorite book?
Boy, this might sound like religion masquerading as career advice, but my favorite book is actually the Bible. I’ve been reading it for 30 years now. It captures my interest. It’s amazing the connections between the Bible stories and teachings and doctrines.
There’s always more to learn and right now I’m through it in the ESV Study Bible, so I read the study notes and that calls more things to mind. I just really enjoy it. It’s something I enjoy. I don’t do it just out of duty. I really enjoy it. It really is my favorite book.
Cool, thank you. How about a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and listeners?
Oh yeah, man. Well, I got it from Stephen Covey. This is the big nugget: don’t prioritize your schedule; schedule your priorities. Don’t prioritize your schedule; schedule your priorities. In other words, don’t look at what’s in front of you and put that in your plan for the day. Instead say “What should I be doing?” and put that on your plan for the day.
There might be simple things you’re overlooking like maybe playing catch with your son or daughter because it’s not urgent, it’s not pressing on you, but wow, what a great opportunity for building your relationship. It’s never pressing upon you, so you always forget to do it. Instead you need to put it into your plan for the day on your own. Take the intuitive to do that. Schedule your priorities instead of letting the day come at you on its own.
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
WhatsBestNext.com, that’s my website. I’ve been blogging there for 10 or 11 years, got lots of articles as well. We offer coaching and workshops and things like that for people that want to go deeper.
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Man, my final call to action is stick with it. I applaud your desire to be awesome at your job. It’s exciting. It serves people. It makes society better off, so keep learning how to be better every day and that adds up. It accumulates. Even if you get better at your job by 1% every month, that’s about 12% a year, that makes a huge difference. Never stop getting better.
Awesome. Well, Matt, thanks so much for taking this time and good luck in all that you’re up to here.
Hey, thanks so much for having me.