How do you set your priorities?


Why are priorities important?

What you prioritise, in your work and your leisure time, is important. It has a cumulative effect – for good or ill – over time. Therefore identifying and setting your priorities is key.

Every day we make decisions that reflect our values and priorities in life. Where we choose to spend our resources of time, energy and money reflect what we think is valuable.

What does it mean to have priorities?

I started playing the guitar 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 the 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 difference went beyond just raw talent (of which I had very little). 

Guitar legends such as Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton would pick a guitar up at the beginning of the day and would hardly put it down until they went to bed; it is like an extension of their body.  I rarely picked mine up at all.  When practising I got frustrated or bored pretty quickly. If I had the choice between practising for an hour or going to the gym I would generally choose the latter.

The Right Questions - priorities
fretboard blues fender by johnbatliner

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, because I needed time to invest in other things I decided to sell my guitars and properly pursue other dreams.  I did not want the good to be the enemy of the great.

How do you set your priorities?

How do you prioritise your time? Which things should you do and which things should you 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, playing sports 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 focused on how I spent my time. There were several things I read that particularly helped me here. Here are three recommended resources.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Firstly I read Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This has a really practical way of prioritising tasks depending on their urgency and importance (also referred to as the Eisenhower Matrix).  When analysing our time management it can be scary to see how much we spend on unimportant and non-urgent tasks. This can be surfing the web, or reading seemingly urgent (yet unimportant) emails that keep popping into our inbox.  This challenged me so much that I now do not keep my email application open. I check it a maximum of a couple of times a day and prioritise the mail before I respond. I also turn off a lot of notifications on apps.

The Pareto Principle

Secondly, I read about the 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle. This 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. 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 maximise that. By reinforcing success we can multiply what we can achieve. By cutting the dross we can also be more efficient.

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 in 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.

Prioritisation Techniques

From my reading there are several prioritisation techniques and tools that I have adopted. I have written other posts about the ones I use most. You can read them by following the links below:

The Eisenhower Matrix

The SWOT Analysis

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