Being clear about priorities can be difficult. With so much going on, a regular day can feel like putting out one fire after the other. However, if we allow urgency to become an end in itself, all the running and worrying accomplishes little and has to be repeated, resembling an endless run on a hamster wheel. When things get particularly overwhelming or stressful, it can be hard to see a path forward. Should we add to our long to-do list and keep hoping for better times? Is it preferable to work overtime to get caught up? And why are we doing all that stuff again? Here are some thoughts about our “true north,” the core priorities that determine how we spend time.
Many ‘busy’ activities occupy so much of our time and attention that they leave hardly any time to distinguish between urgent and important matters. This mode of responding to whatever comes next (a task, a phone call, a text message, a news item) is exhausting and stressful, yet accomplishes comparatively little. Instead of trying to run even faster, it can be helpful to come to a complete stop and ask a few important questions:
1. What is the best use of my time, right in this moment?
2 What distinguishes things I HAVE to do from things I WANT to do?
The priorities that determine our daily schedule can change on short notice. A sudden illness, the birth of a child, or the arrival of a new pet in the household can profoundly change time choices. Virtually overnight, we begin to get up at previously unthinkable hours and reset our internal clocks. The new priority is so powerful that former time choices no longer seem like an option.
What distinguishes things you HAVE to do
from things you WANT to do?
Priorities can also shift over time, leading us to question activities that were once enjoyable. There can be many different versions of ourselves over the course of our lives, with changing attitudes about money, time, community, legacy, understanding, or learning. Significant changes of circumstances are another scenario, for example when political environments change drastically and we feel compelled to become engaged.
Thinking about “true north”, here are three “lenses” that can help with assessing the activities that occupy time:
Test of time: How will you perceive your current time choices five or ten years from now? Will it matter how many meetings you attended or whether you worked weekend hours? The testimony of terminally ill patients keeps pointing at the long-term effect of choices:
“When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”
Test of expectations: It is common to think that we are “expected” to act or think a certain way. However, those perceptions shouldn’t allow other people’s ideas about the nature of success or perfection to stand in the way of our own hopes and aspirations. Expectations also shape everyday time choices. Take the example of the upcoming holidays: Are you following traditions (shopping, holiday gatherings) because you find them enjoyable or because you feel obligated?
Test of passion: “True north” is the kind of work you would do even without pay. The things you don’t get tired to talk about, that you wish you could develop further. The topics you would talk about if social gatherings ever replaced the tiresome question of “What do you do?” with “What do you care about?”
Understanding “true north” doesn’t mean you won’t have to dedicate a significant portion of your time to daily chores, administrative activities, and busy tasks. There is no question that avoiding backlogs of all kinds makes life easier. However, having a clear understanding of your personal priorities ensures that those tasks aren’t given greater meaning than they deserve.
Productivity isn’t about working more or sweating harder. It’s not simply a product of spending longer hours at your desk or making bigger sacrifices. Rather, productivity is about making certain choices in certain ways. The way we choose to see ourselves and frame daily decisions; the stories we tell ourselves, and the easy goals we ignore; the sense of community we build among teammates; the creative cultures we establish as leaders: These are the things that separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive,” wrote Charles Duhigg in Smarter Faster Better.
Our priorities build the foundation for exactly those choices. They eliminate the time sinks of inane small talk, pettiness, and needless drama. By cutting out what’s insignificant, they help us act deliberately and in line with who we truly are. Here’s to you.