Establish Priorities on Your Activities

by Brian Tracy

“Success is a process of diverting one’s scattered forces into one powerful channel.” -James Allen

“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out, without ceasing.” -Robert Collier


Your ability to set priorities among your goals, tasks and activities is the key to personal effectiveness. This is not easy to do. The natural human tendency is to “major in minors” and to work very diligently on things that in many cases need not be done at all. You must learn to swim against this natural current, to violate the “Law of Least Resistance” and to keep focused on those things that can really make a difference in your life.

There are several proven ways for you to set your own personal and business priorities. These are organized methods of thinking that enable you to select the relevant over the irrelevant, the important rather than the merely urgent and the tasks with long-term consequences rather than those that are fun, easy and which give immediate gratification.

Begin With Your Values

To set proper priorities, you begin with your values. What is really important to you? Of all the things that are important to you, what is most important? What do you believe in? What do you stand for? Developing clarity about your values before you begin setting priorities in your business and personal life is essential to high levels of effectiveness. Peak performance and high self-esteem only occur together when your activities and your values are congruent with each other. It is only when what you believe and what you are doing fit together like a hand in a glove that you feel truly happy. On the other hand, incongruence, or lack of alignment between your values and your activities leads to stress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Whenever you find yourself doing something on the outside that is inconsistent with your beliefs on the inside, you experience stress and conflict. The starting point of peak performance is therefore for you to choose, on the basis of your values, what goals and tasks are most important to you.

Free to Choose

Human beings have been defined as “choosing organisms.” You are always making choices of some kind. You are always choosing between what you value more, and what you value less. The wrong choice, based on your true values, can lead to frustration, underachievement and failure. The best way to determine your values is to look at your actions. You always act in a manner consistent with what is most important to you at the moment. It is not what you say, or wish, or hope, or intend that counts. It is only what you do that tells you, and others, what you truly believe. To know yourself, look at your behaviors. Observe the choices you make hour-by-hour and day-by-day. Especially, look at the way you spend your time. This is one of the best reflections of your true values and priorities in each area. You choices tell you, and others, who you really are inside.

Your Order of Values

You may have several values regarding your family, your work, your interactions with others, and with regard to yourself personally. The rule is that you will always choose a higher order value over a lower order value. You always choose the value that is the most important to you in that situation, over values that are less important. It is only when you are forced to choose between two alternatives that you reveal to yourself, and to others, what is most valuable to you. The order in which you choose your values determines the quality of your character and your personality. Changing your order of values actually changes the person you are. Here is an example of how similar values, but in a different order of priority, makes one person different from another. Imagine that you have two men, Bill and Tom. Each of them has the same three main values in life: Family, Health and Career Success. But each of them has these values in a different order. Bill’s order of values is family, health and career success. This means that his family comes before his health and career, and his health comes before his career. Whenever he is forced to make a choice about how he allocates his time, his family comes first. Tom has the same values, but in a different order. His order of values is career success, family and health. This means that whenever Tom has to choose between career success and his family, career success comes first, his family comes second and his health comes third. Here is the question. Would there be difference in personality and character between Bill and Tom? Would there be a small difference or a large difference? Which of the two would you like to have as a friend?

Which one of the two would you trust more and be more comfortable with?

When you evaluate people from the standpoint of their values, the answers become clear.

You Are Your Values

Your true values are only and always expressed in your actions, and your choices. Many people say that their family comes first in their lives. But if you look at the way they organize their time and their life, it is obvious from their actions that work, golf, socializing and other activities are more valuable to them than their families, because that is how they allocate their time. When people are single, their values are quite different from when they get married and have children. As a single individual, without responsibilities for others, your values may be work, socializing, travel, fun, sports and other activities. But as soon as you get married and have children, your values change dramatically. Almost overnight, your spouse and your children take precedence over everything else. And when your values change, you become a different person. The starting point of managing your time, and setting your priorities, is for you to think through who you are, and what is really important to you. Once you have done that, you continually organize and reorganize your activities so that what matters most always comes first.

Listen to Your Intuition

You can use the “inner peace test” to determine whether or not what you are doing is the best thing for you. You can always tell if it is right for you because, whenever you are doing something that is in complete alignment with your values, you feel happy inside. Whenever you do something that is inconsistent with your values and with your own personal organization of priorities, you feel uncomfortable. You experience stress. You get little enjoyment from your work or activities. Sometimes people work at jobs that they don’t enjoy. As a result, they feel frustrated and dissatisfied. This is not because there is anything wrong with the job. It simply means that this particular job is wrong for that particular person. This is an important point to understand. There are many jobs, and parts of

many jobs, that you don’t enjoy and which you instinctively avoid. It is easy to slip into the belief that there is something wrong with the job or the company, when neither may be true. The job is a good job, but it is not the right job for you. The company may be a good company, but your position in it is not aligned and attuned with your unique set of values, convictions and talents.

Look Into Yourself

What parts of your life and work give you the greatest pleasure and satisfaction? What parts of your life are the most successful? Where are your activities out of synchrony with your basic values and convictions? Where are they in harmony?

In setting your priorities and organizing your life, imagine that you could change anything, in any way you wanted. Imagine that you owned the entire company and you could design your ideal job so that you were doing only the things that you most enjoyed all day long. What changes would you make?

Apply zero based thinking to your work. Ask continually, “If I were not doing this today, knowing what I now know, would I get into it again today?”

In our seminars we often talk about the “C” word. This word stands for “Courage.” When you begin to examine yourself and your life on the basis of your values and what is really important to you, you have to develop the courage to follow wherever this line of reasoning leads. And it often leads to your making fundamental changes in the way you live your life and do your work. If you say that one of your most important values is “peace of mind,” or personal happiness, then you have to be willing to stand back and look at your life honestly and objectively. Then go through your life systematically and adjust or eliminate those situations and activities that take away your feelings of inner peace and personal happiness.

Clear Values Lead to Clear Priorities

Once you are clear about your values, either at home or at work, it is much easier for you to set priorities. I conducted a value setting exercise with a large national corporation some time ago. When we started, they had 250projects that they were working on, at various stages of completion. By the time we had determined the true values and strengths of the company, fully80% of those projects had been crossed off and discontinued. By practicing values clarification, the company was able to get back to focusing on the things that it did the best, and enjoyed the most. When you evaluate your goals and objectives to assure that they are consistent with your values, and with what is most important to you, you can more easily set priorities that are in harmony with the very best person you can be.

Apply the Pareto Principle

The starting point of setting priorities, once you have determined your values, is to apply the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 Rule, to every part of your life. This rule was named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who formulated it in 1895. He concluded, after many years of research, that society could be divided into two groups of people. The first group, 20% of the population, he called the “vital few,” the people and families who controlled 80% of the wealth of Italy. The other 80% he called the “trivial many,” those who controlled only 20% of the wealth. Further experimentation proved that the 80/20 Rule applied to virtually all economic activities. According to this principle, 20% of what you do will account for 80% of the value of all the things you do. If you have a list of ten items to work on at the beginning of the day, two of those items will usually be more valuable and important than all the others put together. Your job is therefore to determine the top 20% of tasks before you begin.

The 80/20 Rule Prevails In All Areas

In your business, you will find that 20% of your customers account for 80%of your revenues. 20% of your products or services account for 80% of your profits. 20% of your salespeople make 80% of your sales. You will even find that 20% of your customers are responsible for 80% of your problems. The

80/20 Rule reigns supreme. In your personal life, this rule also applies. 20% of what you do with your family will give you 80% of the results, rewards and satisfactions that you enjoy. 80% of the time that you go out for dinner, you will go to 20% of the restaurants that you are familiar with. When you go to your favorite restaurants you will order the same dish 80% of the time in your work, before you start doing anything, you always ask, “Is what I am about to do among the top 20% of activities that account for 80% of the value of everything I do?” Every hour of every day you should apply this principle to your work. Take time to think before you act, and then concentrate on the 20% of the tasks and activities that represent the highest payoff for you and your company.

Separate the Urgent from the Important

In setting priorities, it is important that you remember to separate the urgent from the important. Remember that the urgent is seldom important, and the important is seldom urgent. An urgent task is something that must be dealt with immediately. It is usually determined by forces external to yourself, like your boss or your customers. Very often it is a ringing telephone or an unexpected interruption from a coworker. These are all urgent because they are “in your face.” But they are often not important in terms of their long-term value. Perhaps the most important word in setting priorities is the word “consequences.” Something that is important is something that has serious potential consequences for doing it or not doing it. Something that is unimportant is something for which there are few or no consequences. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if it is done at all important tasks, on the other hand, are those that can be put off or procrastinated upon in the short-term. These are the bigger, more difficult and more important tasks that can have serious long-term consequences on your life and work. But they are seldom urgent, at least at the beginning.

Your Top Priorities

The most pressing tasks on your lists are those tasks that are both urgent and important. They have to be done immediately. There are significant potential consequences for doing them or not doing them.

You should organize your workday so that you first of all stay on top of the tasks that are both urgent and important. These are things that must be done immediately, and usually have tight timelines. Once you are caught up with your urgent and important tasks, you should turn your attention to those tasks that are important but not urgent. The more time you can spend working on important tasks with serious long-term potential consequences, the more effective you become and the more you will accomplish.

Identify Your Limiting Step

An important technique for setting priorities revolves around what is called the “Limiting Step Principle.” Between you and any goal you want to accomplish, there is almost invariably a limiting factor, or bottleneck, that determines the speed at which you accomplish your goal. One of the keys to personal effectiveness is to look at each job and ask, “What one factor determines how quickly I complete this job?”Apply this principle of “constraint analysis” to your work hour-by-hour, and day-by-day. Keep asking, “What is the constraint that determines how fast and how well I complete this task?” Whatever it is, go to work immediately in that area. This is your top priority, and alleviating this constraint will help you to accomplish your most important task faster than anything else you

could do. For example, if you want to get to work on time, you could say that the constraint is the amount of traffic that will be on the roads between your home and your work. But perhaps the traffic is always the same. Then your constraint would be how early you leave home for work, to allow for the traffic. Or perhaps your constraint is the hour at which you arise in the morning so that you can get fully prepared and leave the house on time.

Apply Constraint Analysis to Each Task

When you examine each of your goals, small or large, short-term or long-term, and identify the constraint, chokepoint or limiting factor that determines how fast you achieve that goal, you will see clearly the specifications you will have to take to achieve your goal on schedule. Once you have identified your limiting factor, you then concentrate all of your energies on alleviating that specific bottleneck. You focus your intelligence and creativity on finding ways to remove this constraint so that

you can accomplish your goal far faster. Once you have identified the constraint that is setting the speed at which you achieve your goal, and alleviate it, you will find that another constraint exists immediately behind it. A key part of personal effectiveness is for you to engage in an on-going process of “constraint analysis.” Keep asking yourself, “What sets the speed at which I accomplish this specific goal, or complete this task?”

Look Into Yourself or Company

The 80/20 Rule applies to constraint analysis in a special way. It seems that80% of the limiting factors that determine your success at home or at work are contained within yourself. Only 20% is actually contained within the situation, the company or the environment. This is an important observation.

The average person always looks for the reason for his or her problems outside of themselves. The experienced person on the other hand always looks for the reasons inside himself or inside the organization. In most cases, the reasons that you are not achieving your personal goals are because of the lack of a skill, ability, quality or talent. The problems or frustrations you are experiencing on the outside are almost always a result of some lack or need that you have on the inside. One of my rules is that, “To achieve a goal you’ve never achieved before, you are going to have to develop and master a skill that you’ve never had before.” It may be that to achieve one of your important goals, you are going

to have to become a different person. You are going to have to develop skills and qualities that you are currently lacking. You are going to have to become a different person if you want to get different results. Always take a few minutes to stand back from your situation and analyze it objectively, as though you were a consultant who had been called in from the outside. Then ask, “What is it in me, or in my company, that is holding me back?”

What Else Is Holding You Back?

When I do sales consulting for organizations, I help them think through this process from beginning to end. First, we set a hypothetical goal of doubling their sales. We then ask, “What is the limiting factor that determines how quickly you double your sales in this company?”The first and most common answer is “the number of sales we make.” If this answer is true, we set a tentative goal to double the number of sales. We then ask, “What is the constraint or limiting factor that determines the number of sales that you make?” The answers to this question can lead in several different directions and suggest different solutions. For example, the answer may be, “We are not making enough sales.” If this

is the correct answer, or constraint, then the solution is to find a way to increase the number of sales. Perhaps the answer is, “Our salespeople are not selling enough to each of our prospects.” If this were the answer, then the skills and abilities of the sales force will need to be upgraded through training and development.

Identify the Correct Constraint

Perhaps the reason we are not selling enough is, “Our prospects are buying too much of our product from our competitors.” If this is the answer, the solution to alleviating the bottleneck may be to change or upgrade the product or service, to focus on different customers and markets, to develop new products and services, or to use different distribution channels. Perhaps the answer can be rephrased as, “Our customers are not buying enough of our products from us.” In this case, the solution is to advertise more effectively, sell more professionally, explain the product to the prospect in such a way that it is more attractive, or to close more assertively. Perhaps the solution to increasing sales is to improve the effectiveness of the advertising, or to advertise in a different media. Perhaps it is to change the prices and terms of purchase. Perhaps it is to change the size, packaging or ingredients of the offer. Whatever the answer, the time taken to correctly identify the limiting factor determines the specific actions that will be taken to alleviate that constraint and achieve the desired result of sales improvement. The point is this. The more thoughtfully that you engage in constraint analysis, the more likely it is that you will select the correct area of focus to alleviate the chokepoint and achieve the goal. You will set the correct priorities and save yourself an enormous amount of time and money. Remember, “The very worst use of time is to do something extremely well that need not be done at all.”

Think About the Future Consequences

In setting priorities, one of the most important thinking exercises you engage in is to consider the future impact of any action you take. One of the ways to measure the value or importance of a task is to look at what might happen if the task is done or not done. Something that has a high potential future impact on your life or work is a task of high priority. Something that will have little or no impact on your future is a task of low priority and value. For example, if you were to read this book on time management and incorporate the very best ideas contained here into your ways of living and working, you could double your productivity, performance and output. You could accomplish vastly more and be paid at a far higher rate. You could dramatically increase the value of your contribution to your company and become one of the top people in your field. On this basis, reading this book, and becoming extremely skilled at time management, is a top priority for you because of its long-term future impact. At home, playing with your children and spending time with your family has potential long-term impact for their happiness and health. Investing time in the most important people in your life is therefore a top priority because of the impact it can have on their future, and yours. On the other hand, watching television, reading the newspaper, surfing the Internet or going out to lunch with your friends, are activities of low priority because they have little or no potential impact in the long term. Keep asking yourself, “What are the possible consequences of doing or not doing this particular task?” What are the consequences of engaging in this particular activity? If it can have significant consequences, it should be at the top of your list. Engaging in this activity should be a far better use of time than most of the other things you can do.

Practice Creative Procrastination

An important part of setting priorities is the practice of “creative procrastination.” The fact is that everyone procrastinates. Everyone has too much to do and too little time. In one recent study, the researchers concluded that the average executive has 300-400 hours of projects, responsibilities and

reading materials stacked up that they have not been able to get to, but which they hope to get through in the future. Because you cannot do everything, you have to procrastinate on many things, if not most things. Creative procrastination requires that you deliberately decide, at a conscious level, the items that you are going to procrastinate on so that you have more time to do those things that can really make a difference in your life. Apply the 80/20 Rule to procrastination. Resolve to procrastinate on the80% of tasks that are of low value so that you can dedicate the limited amount of time you have to those 20% of tasks that have the highest value.

Return on Time Invested

In terms of value, and “return on time invested” (ROTI), if you have a list of ten tasks to complete, two of those tasks will be worth more than all the others put together. This means that each of those tasks will be worth at least five times, or give you a 500% return on time invested, over doing any of the other eight tasks on your list which are of low or no value. Focusing on these two tasks will give you the highest payoff possible for the investment of your time.

It has been said that effectiveness is doing the right things and efficiency is doing things right. The difference between leaders and managers is that leaders do the right things, and managers simply do things right. In setting priorities, you must focus on doing the right thing, rather than simply doing things right. As a knowledge worker, according to Peter Drucker, your first job is to decide “what” is to be done? The questions of how and when only come later. Remember, if it is not worth doing, it is not worth doing right.

Priorities versus Posteriorities

An important part of setting and working on priorities is for you to set posteriorities as well. A priority is something that you do more of and sooner. A posteriority is something you do less of, and later, if at all. Setting priorities means starting something and completing it as quickly as possible. Setting posteriorities means stopping something or even discontinuing an activity altogether. Since you can only do one thing at a time, and you cannot do everything that you have to do, one of the questions you ask at the beginning of each day and each week is, “What am I going to stop doing?”What are you going to cut out? What are you going to eliminate? What activities are you going to delete? What are you doing today, that knowing what you now know you wouldn’t start up again today if you had to do it over?

Stop Doing Things

The fact is that you can only get control of your time to the degree to which you stop doing things that you are doing today. You cannot simply find ways to do more things, to work longer and harder hours. Instead, you have to stand back and look at your life and work objectively and ask, “What am I going to stop doing, so that I have enough time to do the most important things in my life and work?”

Before you start a new task, remember that, “Your dance card is full.” You are already overwhelmed with work. You have no spare time. You are subject to The Law of the Excluded Alternative which says, “Doing one thing means not doing something else.”Before you commit to a new task or job, you must think through and decide upon the things that you are not going to do right now, or which you are going to eliminate altogether. You must decide how and in what way you are going to defer, delay or delegate certain tasks on your work list if you are to free up enough time to do other tasks that are more important. Getting into anew task means getting out of an old task. Picking up something that you haven’t done requires putting down something that you were already working on. The very act of thinking through what you are going to stop doing is a tremendous help in setting accurate priorities before you begin.

Practice the ABCDE Method

One of the most helpful ways for you to organize your tasks by priority is for you to use the ABCDE Method. This requires that you review your list of daily activities before you begin. You then place one of these letters in front of each activity. Organize your tasks in terms of potential consequences.

Your “A” List

An “A” task is something that you must do. It is very important. There are serious consequences for not doing it. Place an “A” next to every item on your work list that is urgent and important, and which has serious consequences for completion or non-completion. If you have several “A” tasks, organize them by importance by putting “A-1, A-2, A-3, and so on next to each item. When you begin work, you always start on your A-1 task. This is your top priority.

Your “B” List

A “B” task is something that you should do. There are mild consequences for doing it or not doing it. The rule is that you should never do a “B” task when there is an “A” task left undone. A “B” task may be getting back to a coworker with the answer to a question, or replying to correspondence. The rule is that you never work on a “B” task when there is an “A” task still not done. Working on your “A” list is the key to high productivity and maximum performance.

Your “C” List

The letter “C” stands for things that would be nice to do, but they are definitely not as important as “A” or “B” tasks. There are no consequences for doing them or not doing them. Reading the paper or going out for lunch fall neatly into the “C” category.

Delegate Everything Possible

The letter “D” stands for delegate. Before you do anything, you should ask if there is someone else to whom you can delegate this task to free up more time for the most important tasks that only you can do.

Eliminate Everything Possible

The letter “E” stands for eliminate. There are many little tasks that creep onto your daily list that you can eliminate altogether and it would make no difference at all to you or to anyone else. The rule is that you can only get control over your time to the degree to which you stop doing things of low or no value. The more things you stop doing or eliminate altogether, the more time you will have to work on your “A” tasks, the tasks that determine your success or failure at work.

Re-engineer Your Work

The process of reengineering applied to your personal work can be very helpful to you in setting better priorities. The central focus of reengineering is simplification. You must continually look for ways to accomplish a complex task or busy job by simplifying the process of work on the task from beginning to completion.

In reengineering your work, you continually look for ways to delegate, defer, downsize, outsource or eliminate. In delegating, you look for someone else who can do the job at least as well as you, but at a lower hourly rate than you earn. In deferring, you look for ways to put off parts of the task that do not have to be done immediately. In downsizing, you look for ways to reduce the size or complexity of the task. In outsourcing, you look for individuals or outside organizations that specialize in doing this particular task and you turn over complete parts of the task to them. In eliminating, you look for ways to discontinue the task altogether, especially if it is no longer important in the current situation. The decision to continually look for opportunities to outsource, delegate and get things done by other people frees you up for the things that only you can do. It is a critical part of setting and achieving your top priority tasks.

Setting Personal Priorities

Your main goal at work, and the key to self-esteem, self-respect and personal pride is for you to increasingly develop your personal and corporate effectiveness. The more effective, efficient and productive you are, the better you feel and the more successful you will be. This is a central focus of time power.

To set better personal priorities, regularly ask yourself questions such as:

  1. “What are my unique strengths and abilities?
  2. What are my natural talents?
  3. What do I do especially well?
  4. What have I done well in the past? What skills, abilities and accomplishments account for most of my success in life and work up until now?
  5. What are the things that I do quickly and well that seem to be difficult for other people?
  6. Where do I have the ability to become outstanding if I were to upgrade my knowledge and skills?
  7. What do I really love to do?”

Most of your results in life come from your ability to perform well in a few limited areas. One of the characteristics of leaders is that they only choose positions and accept jobs and responsibilities where they know they have the ability to do the job in an excellent manner. They refuse to do things that they don’t enjoy, or which they do not do particularly well.

Where Do You Perform Well?

Think through your past life, your past successes, your past jobs and occupations, and identify what it is that you do well. Determining where you perform, or where you could perform, in a superior fashion, is one of the keys to channeling your life, your work and your energies into those areas where you can really make a difference for yourself and your company. To be successful at any job or profession, you must develop a series of core competencies, or skills, that enable you to do your job well. But to rise to the top of your field, you must become outstanding in at least one area. In this sense, the “good” is the enemy of the “excellent.” Many people become good at what they do. They then become complacent and stop growing. They compare themselves with people who are not as good as they are rather than comparing themselves with what they are truly capable of.

Look For Ways to Add Value

The reason for every job, and the role of every person, is to “add value.” The primary reason that you are on the payroll is to contribute value of some kind to your company. This value is then combined with the value that others contribute into the product or service that is sold to the customer or client. Your ability to contribute value determines your results, rewards and your success in your career.

Ask yourself, “Of all the things I do, where and how do I contribute the most value to my company?” If you analyze your work carefully, you will find that there are usually only three things you do that are responsible for 90%or more of the value you contribute to your company. To determine your three strongest skill areas, begin by asking yourself, “If I could only do one thing all day long, what one activity contributes the greatest value to my business?”

Once you have determined the answer to that question, you then ask, “If I could only do one more thing, what would it be?” You then ask the question one more time until you come to the third major activity.

 The whole purpose of organizing your life and setting priorities is so that you can spend more time on these three tasks. If you complete these tasks, and you do an excellent job on each one of them, you will make more of a contribution, and be of greater value to your company, than everything else you do put together. What are they?

The Secret of Success

Some years ago, I met one of the top insurance salesmen in the world. He sold more than one hundred million dollars of life insurance each year. He had a staff of 42 people. These people handled every single aspect of his business, from scheduling through to proposal preparation, administrative tasks, banking, advertising and promotion and client service. He focused on the one thing that he did better than almost anyone else in the world, which was face-to-face contact and interaction with prospective clients and customers. He took two hours aside every day to study, practice and prepare his face-to-face meetings and interactions. He became one of the most knowledgeable experts in personal insurance and estate planning in the world. His unique talent was his ability to assess the needs of a client and to help that client to make the very best decisions in the areas of life insurance and estate planning for his unique situation. He delegated everything else.

Where Do You Excel?

Analyze yourself and ask these questions:

  1. “What is it that I do better than anyone else?”
  2. “What is my competitive advantage?
  3. What is my area of excellence?
  4. What is my unique selling proposition?”
  5. “Where could I be excellent?
  6. Where should I be excellent?”
  7. What skills do I need to develop to make a maximum contribution?

Asking and answering these questions is the key to personal effectiveness and high performance.

Commit to excellent performance. Make the decision today that you are going to join the top 10% of people in your field. Determine the most important skill that you can learn and develop, the one skill that will help you more than any other, to get into the top 10% in your profession. Write this skill down as a goal, set a deadline, make a plan and work on it every day.

Get Better At Your Key Tasks

One of the keys to setting priorities and good time management is to “get better and better doing more and more of the few things you do that make more of a difference than anything else.” The better you are at what you do, the more you will get done in a shorter period of time. Set “mastery” as your goal in your career. You will only be truly successful, happy and paid what you are truly capable of earning when you develop mastery at what you do. Years of research have concluded that the achievement of mastery is possible for almost everyone, but it is not easy. It requires five to seven years of hard work in your field, including many hours of study and practice, to become one of the very best at what you do. And there are no shortcuts.

Invest Time in Your Future

When we discuss this at our seminars and workshops, many of the participants moan and roll their eyes. They have somehow gotten the idea that it is possible to jump to the head of the line in life without paying the price that others have paid. They are looking for a quick, easy way to move to the top without putting in the hundreds, and even thousands of hours of hard work that are necessary to get there. Sometimes they say to me, “Five years is too long!” Then I tell them something that often changes their thinking completely, “The time is going to pass anyway.”How old will you be five years from today? Answer – five years older. Another words, the time is going to pass anyway. The only question is, “Where are you going to be in your field at the end of five years?”The good news is that if you set mastery in your field as your long-term career goal, and you work toward that goal every day, continually reading, listening and learning to upgrade your skills, you will inevitably reach the top of your field. If you are willing to make the sacrifices and pay the full price of success in advance, you will eventually reap the rewards. Nothing can stop you from getting to the top of your field except yourself, and you can only stop yourself by stopping.

Think In Terms of Priorities All Day Long

Apply the 80/20 Rule to every part of your business. Identify the most profitable products and services your company offers. Identify the top 20%of customers who contribute the greatest value. Identify the 20% of people in your company who contribute the most value in terms of their work. What are the 20% of possible opportunities that can account for 80% of your sales in the years ahead? Keep viewing your business through an 80/20 lens. Be sure you are working on those activities that can make the greatest difference of all. What products, services and competencies account for your company’s greatest successes? Why is it that your company has grown from where it started to where it is today? The key to achieving great successes in the future is to identify the reasons for your success in the present. This becomes your springboard to market superiority in the future. In setting priorities, you must analyze your business clearly, and understand it completely. Determine the areas in which your company performs well. Decide upon the company’s area of excellence, or area of competitive advantage. Where and how is your company, and your products and services, superior to your competition? In what areas are breakthroughs possible if you were to develop new products and services, or upgrade your existing products and services?

Analyze Your Company Priorities

Practice “Corporate Triage” on your company, and your products and services, on a regular basis. The concept of triage comes from World War I. During the battles on the western front, there were so many wounded that the medical corps could not treat them all. There were not enough doctors and nurses. As a result, they began dividing the rooms into three groups. The first group was made up of the wounded soldiers who would die in any case, whether or not they got medical attention or not. They were put aside and made comfortable. The second group was the group that would survive in any case, whether or not they got medical attention, because they had light wounds. These were

put aside and treated quickly. The third group of wounded was the group that would survive only if they got immediate medical attention. This is where the doctors and nurses focused all of their energies, to save those would die in the absence of treatment.

Divide Products/Services into Three Groups

In your business, you can apply the idea of corporate triage to your products and services. They can be divided into three groups: Winners, Survivors and Losers. Sometimes they are called “Cash Cows, Stars and Dogs.” Which of yourproducts and your services are your winners? These are the ones that sellwell, that are profitable, that generate steady, predictable cash flow, and forwhich your company is known. These are products and services that youtake excellent care of, but which do not require immediate or emergency attention. What are the products and services that have great potential? If you spend time on these products and services, in sales and marketing, or if you redesign or repackage them, you can turn them into winners in the market. These are the products and services that require immediate attention, and the best energies of your most talented people. The third group are your losers, or your “dogs.” No matter how much effort you put into marketing and selling them, no matter how you repackage them or reformulate them, they are still not making much of an impression in the marketplace. They are a drain on funds and on time and energies of your key people. These are the products and services that will die sooner or later because, for whatever reason, the market doesn’t want them.

Focus Where Excellent Results Are Possible

In setting priorities for your business, your winners represent the top 20% of your business activities. You must never take them for granted. You must do everything possible to upgrade and improve them and assure that they continue to be good sellers and generators of cash. Your potential “stars” are the products that have the potential of becoming big sellers if you spend enough time, attention and money on them. They are your potential winners for the future. Investing time and money in these

products and services is a high priority. The products and services that will die anyway, no matter how much time or money you invest in them, become your “posteriorities.” Especially in times of reduced markets and profitability, you must have the courage and decisiveness to accept that, although it seemed like a good idea at the time,this product or service does not justify the expenditures necessary to make it successful. It should be discontinued or abandoned so you can devote your energies to those products and services that represent the future of the business and the cash flow of tomorrow.

Prioritize Your Personal Life

You can practice “personal triage” in your life, as well. There are some things in your life that give you tremendous pleasure and satisfaction. These are high priority uses of your time such as your family and your personal activities. You should pay close attention to them and never take them for

granted. There are potential uses of your time, activities and money that represent the possibilities of the future. These are areas where you need to invest more of yourself and your time if you want to maximize everything that is possible for you in those areas. Finally, there are those people and activities in your life that, knowing what you now know, you wouldn’t start up again today. These are the time traps and activities that you should downsize, minimize and eliminate so that you have more time for those few things that give you the greatest pleasure and satisfaction.

Look Into the Future

A key part of personal time management is for you to take the time to look into the future. Project forward five years and think about where you want to be. Create a mental picture of your ideal future and then think about the steps that you would have to take, starting today, to make it a reality. Remember, “It doesn’t matter where you are coming from: all that really matters is where you are going. ‘Focus on the future rather than the past. Focus on opportunities rather than problems. Think about solutions and what specific actions you could take rather on things that have gone wrong, and who is to blame. Keep asking, “Where do we go from here?” As John Maynard Keynes said, “We must give a lot of thought to the future, because that is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

 In many companies, fully 80% of the time of senior people is spent on the problems of yesterday rather than on the opportunities of tomorrow. Keep thinking of ways that you can change the things that you are doing today to assure that your future is consistent with what you desire.

Project Forward Five Years

Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahaled, the strategic planners who wrote the book Competing for the Future, encourage decision makers to project forward several years when they do strategic planning. They encourage them to imagine that their company is the top company in the industry some years in the future. They then identify the products, services, markets and especially skills, talents and abilities that they will need to be industry leaders five years from now. Finally, they encourage business leaders to begin immediately to develop the core competencies they will need to be market leaders in the future. You should do the same.

Focus On the First 20%

In setting priorities, remember that the first 20% of any task usually accounts for 80% of the value of that task. The first 20% of time that you spend planning and organizing the resources necessary to achieve the task usually account for 80% of your success once you begin working on the task. In setting priorities, always focus on the first 20% of the task. Get on with it and get it done. The next 80% will tend to flow smoothly once the first 20%is complete.

 If you are in sales, getting the initial appointment, getting face to face with the decision maker, is the first 20% of the transaction. But it accounts for80% of the value in the sales process. The presentation, the closing of the sale, the follow-up, the delivery of the product or service, and so on, is the second 80% that only accounts for 20% of the value.

Forget About the Small Things

In setting priorities, never give in to the temptation to clear up small things first. Don’t start at the bottom of your list and work up to the important task sat the top. Don’t allow yourself to get bogged down in low priority activities. Don’t major in minors. As Goethe said, “The things that matter most must never be at the mercy of the things that matter least.” The natural tendency of human nature is to follow the Law of Least Resistance. In time management and personal work, this means that we have a natural tendency to start on small tasks, thinking that as soon as we get warmed up, we will launch into our big tasks and we will be more productive. Here is what we have found. When you start in on little tasks, they begin to multiple, like rabbits in the springtime. When you begin clearing up your small tasks, you seem to attract more and more small tasks to work on. The longer and harder you work, the more small tasks seem to arise. By the end of the day, you will be exhausted, and you will not have accomplished anything of value. Start with your most important work first.

 Five Key Questions for Setting Priorities

There are five key questions that you can ask yourself regularly to assure that you are working on your top priorities, and getting the very most done that is possible for you.

Question one: “Why am I on the payroll?” Ask yourself if what you are doing right now is the most important thing that you have been hired to do. If your boss were sitting across from you watching you, what would you be doing differently from what you are doing at this moment? Here is an exercise. Make a list of everything you feel you have been hired to do and take it to your boss. Ask your boss to organize this work list by priority. Have him or her tell you what is most important and what is least important. From that moment onward, work single-mindedly on those tasks that your boss considers to be more important than anything else.

Question two: “What are my highest value activities?” Remember, there are only three things that you do that account for most of the value of your work. What are your activities that contribute the greatest value to your company? If you are not sure, ask the people around you. Everyone knows the most important things that other people should be doing.

Question three: “What are my key result areas?” What are the specific results that you have to get in order to do your job in an excellent fashion? Of all those key result areas, which are most important?

Question four: “What can I, and only I do that if done well will make a real difference?” What is the one thing, hour by hour, that only you can do, that if you do it well will make a significant contribution to your business? This is something that no one else can do for you. If you don’t do it, it won’t be done. Doing this task, doing it well and doing it promptly, can have a major impact on your career.

Question five: “What is the most valuable use of my time, right now?” This is the key question in time management. Every time planning and management skill is oriented around helping you to determine the correct answer to this question at every moment of the day. What is the most valuable use of your time right now?

The Law of Forced Efficiency

This law says that, when you are under tremendous pressure to get results, you become more and more efficient at setting priorities and getting things done. Here is an exercise for you. Imagine that your boss came to you with two first class tickets plus five days, all expenses paid, in a beautiful vacation resort. It is Monday morning at 9 o’clock. Your boss won these tickets at a raffle the night before but he cannot use them. He is willing to give them to you if you can get all your work for the week done by 5 o’clock this afternoon.

If you received such an offer, and it was only valid if you could get your week’s work done by the end of the day, how would that change your method of working? What would be the first thing that you would want to be sure to complete before you left? What would be the second task or activity? How much of your time would you spend drinking coffee and chatting with your coworkers under such a constraint? How would you do your work differently if you only had one day to complete five days worth of work?

We encourage our seminar participants to set priorities by asking, “If I had to leave town for a month, and I could only finish one task before I left town, what one task would be the most important for me to get done?”Put the pressure of priorities on yourself. Ask yourself these questions on a regular basis. And whatever your answer set those key tasks as your highest priorities. Go to work on them immediately, and concentrate single-mindedly on those tasks until they are complete.

Aim for Maximum Payoff

Your time is your life. When you are working on your highest priority tasks, you are using your life at the very highest level. Anything you do other than your top priorities are a relative waste of time. They contribute less to your life than other things that you could do. The biggest pay off of all is that when you are working single-mindedly on your highest priority task, you experience an unending flow of energy, enthusiasm and self-esteem. You feel more powerful and confident. You feel terrific about yourself and your life. If you work on low priority tasks, no matter how many hours you put in, you get no sense of satisfaction or pleasure. You merely feel tired and stressed out at the end of the day. You feel harried and overwhelmed. You feel frustrated and unhappy.

Take Time to Think and Then Take Action

Take time before you begin work to think through and establish your priorities, using the various ideas and techniques explained in this chapter. Select the most valuable use of your time and get started on that one task. Discipline yourself to stay with that task until it is complete. When you repeatedly concentrate on your top priorities, you will soon develop the habit of high performance. With this habit, you will get two or three times as much done every day as anyone else who works around you. And you will feel terrific about yourself.

Action Exercises:

  1. Resolve today that you are going to become excellent at thinking through and working exclusively on your top priority tasks; never allow exceptions until this becomes a habit.
  1. Make a list of activities each day before you begin, and set careful priorities on your list. Divide the items by applying the ABCDE method to each one before starting. Always work on you’re A-1 task.
  1. Apply the 80/20 Rule to every part of your business and personal life; identify the top 20% of activities, customers, products, services and tasks that account for 80% of the value, and focus on them before anything else.
  1. Identify your key constraints to business and personal success; what sets the speed at which you achieve a specific goal, and what could you do to remove the limiting factor, either in yourself or in the situation?
  1. Think about the potential consequences of doing or not doing particular task; separate the urgent from the important and spend more time doing those things that can have a major effect on your future.
  1. Determine your personal areas of excellence, those jobs that you do easily and well, faster and better than others. These activities are where you can make the greatest contribution to your company.
  1. Every hour of every day, ask yourself, “What is the most valuable use of my time, right now?” Whatever the answer, be sure that you are working on that task, the one that can make a greater difference than anything else.
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