Do FIRST the things you MUST do

You can relieve stress, ensure that you make deadlines, and give yourself a greater sense of control simply by following one general rule: Do the things you absolutely HAVE to do as soon as you can do them.  — Or, put another way: Do first the things you must do.

To achieve the benefits of this rule, you must first identify correctly the things that belong on this list  — distinguish must-do items from anticipatory tasks (more on those shortly). Your must-do items are things that have extreme consequences if you do not do them.

Start, for instance, with things that prevent you from dying or paying taxes.  In other words, the absolutely unavoidable and extremely important tasks like preparing the presentation for next week’s speaking event or examining the financials in order to present them at the board meeting on Friday.  These are the tasks that can make or break you and not having sufficient time to do them properly will severely damage your credibility, so don’t delay.

Then move on to other absolute necessities.  Here are some examples:

  • Email. At least once per day, build in time to prioritize and plan or re-plan email-related tasks. You may not have time to carry out all those tasks, but prioritizing and planning them gives you a sense of the time that will be required.

  • Travel arrangements. When a project requires travel, do all planning and booking as soon as the trip has been finalized.  Get all critical information into your calendar — flight times and flight numbers, hotel address and confirmation number, time and method of getting to the airport, etc.  Assembling all that information early, when you are calm and collected, ensures fewer errors and, most important, gives you early warning of any time constraints that might have caught you by surprise later on, when you could do little to change them.

  • Reports. If you need to send in periodic reports — sales, expenses, or other types of reports — create them as soon as it’s possible to do so. For instance, if you need to collect your receipts and report them every month, do that on the first day of the following month, if possible. Better yet, do them on a weekly basis, so that you build in the habit of spending just 10-15 minutes every Monday, while things are fresh in your memory, instead of staring at a mysterious receipt and trying to remember what you did 25 days ago. Once you’ve identified the earliest possible time to assemble such information, block off time in your calendar or create a recurring task to ensure the early creation of such reports. You’ll find that the closer a report’s creation to the events being reported on, the easier it will be to create that report and the more accurate it will be.

  • Future meetings. Once you’re certain that a particular meeting will take place, do the planning for that meeting as soon as it’s possible to do it. Again, executing early gives you early warning of any trouble that might lie ahead, including unexpected demands on your time.

The greatest benefit from working this way will be the feeling of being on top of, rather than under, the mountain.  It’s a matter of simply changing the order in which you do certain things. You’ll lower your stress and, most important, see how little time you have left for your core business  — which brings us back to anticipatory tasks.

Anticipatory tasks

The reason you want to do your must-do items as soon as possible is because it gives you a much clearer picture of how much time you have for anticipatory tasks (Stephen Covey calls these Quadrant II tasks – a term he borrowed from Dwight Eisenhower).  These are the tasks that prevent fires because you anticipate challenges and proactively stave off emergencies and secure opportunities.  Most of these tasks are operational excellence oriented.  They are about removing waste, reducing defects, speeding up processes and adding value to the customer experience (internal as well as external).

As you can imagine, it is extremely important that you allow time for anticipatory tasks; and it’s not that easy, because the last thing we feel like doing after we have put out the fires is look for more work to do – but that is precisely what is needed.

Quite often we will drop our guard (allow interruptions and do busy work) once we have breathing room, so building in a habit of taking care of one or two anticipatory tasks every time you finish a must-do will not only help you continuously improve your situation, but also alleviate the stress you have about not getting past status quo.

Measuring your progress

I will ask my clients every so often to color code their work in their calendar so that they can differentiate absolute needs, core business and the rest.  Sometimes they are surprised at what they see, in which case we take some decisions in order to correct their time usage.

Imagine if after color-coding your calendar (using categories in Outlook or print out a week-view and highlight your core responsibilities) you found out that you spent less than five hours per week doing what you considered most important.  Measuring your calendar gives you a visual understanding of the truth, which will hopefully help you regulate how many other things you are willing to take on and how many interruptions you are willing to incur.

Michael Hoffman


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