Some specific approaches to decision making are implied in Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People but these can also be applied. His work derives from Dwight Eisenhower’s claim that what passes as urgent is not always the most important thing we will do. Mapping these two categories of decision can give us four simple self-commands that helpfully advance Covey’s work to help us organise our time and energy more efficiently.
These enable us to reclaim our world proactively and to give our best to what is important without life’s urgencies necessarily robbing us of that which we are gifted and called to achieve.
1. Important and urgent – Do.
There is little doubt that such tasks impose themselves without choice and that any consequences for delay could be extremely serious. Crises, pressing problems and impending deadlines may offer opportunities for reflection regarding prevention at a later time, but obviously need our best in the moment they occur.
One further thought here, though, is that any other block of time allocated to a set task may not feel particularly important or urgent but it needs to be made so. When today’s hour is only a small part of tomorrow’s deadline, it still expires in just sixty minutes. Within that same hour, I am therefore working with the end in mind, that end being the need to show myself some outcome and to work toward my deadline. In completing a Ph.D., for example, I sometimes need to break away from the morass of books and papers and just start writing!
2. Important and non-urgent – Diarise.
Planning, personal growth and task-completion are just a few of the many aspects of life that need to be completed if we are to be successful. Procrastination or minimisation can have long-term consequences and prevent us from maximising our potential.
If such tasks do not make it into our diary, we do not seriously consider them enough of a priority to complete.
What do we require of ourselves in a diary entry, though? An elephantine task can’t just be a single entry. Completing an assignment for study or an important work project, for example, may require us to allocate a sub-task and its time allocation. A calendar entry in a phone can secure this as an appointment that takes one strategic bite of the overall elephant. When we actually get to it, it moves from priority two to priority one.
Also, selfless investments into family, volunteer work and others who need our time can feel like a lower priority alongside a mountain of tasks, but need the intentionality of our investment. My kids have a morning with dad in the school holidays. It’s in the diary so I’m busy with an appointment at that time; one of them. I work hard elsewhere in the week to get done what I need to do in other areas, so what gets squeezed out will be the lower-priority time tasks. Time with kids is not always urgent, but it sure is important.
Where this category is too hard to prioritise, it’s time to engage a good coach. An hour with him or her will save many more elsewhere.
3. Urgent and non-important – Delegate.
Tasks that are comparatively meaningless and routine still have to be done. Sometimes bills need to be paid, reports written and maintenance done and these just can’t wait. Ideally they would be delegated to others, but resources don’t always seem to allow this.
Where no obvious delegation exists, it may be useful to consider what action can be taken. What I need to do fairly urgently but which is relatively unimportant gets grouped; this is delegating by reassigning. Emails or phone calls can then happen in a burst, for example. Better planning can allow this efficiency to happen more often.
At home, kids can help with mechanical work tasks or household chores as a trade-off for TV and gadget time and as a part of developing their own responsibility and management skills.
What others can do may actually be about finding friends or people who are gifted in certain areas or who just want to help. Leaders may not have anyone to help with certain tasks but, in recruiting a key one or two people, they will often be finding those who will inevitably do more than the one task and those who may, in turn, be effective links to other volunteers. What can be done more quickly by the leader, too, becomes more than just one task simply delegated to someone else, since it will often fuel the other person’s creativity and their drive to make a difference in other ways so that the investment is potentially repaid many times over.
4. Non-urgent and non-important – Defer.
Irrelevant phone calls, busywork and most television watching do not fit this fourth category because they would generally be eliminated except when on holidays. Web-surfing, selective TV watching and hobbies better represent justifiable (even helpful) pursuits that actually fit better between the big rocks of other more important and urgent needs.
Leaders are constantly faced with the need to identify what feels role-related but is glorified time-wasting. Some conferences and networking appointments can make us feel productive or significant, but add little or nothing of value. As long as we are not so selfish as to make no time for helping others, we need to reclaim a better balance of our many priorities and achieve significant tasks at the expense of more insignificant ones.
People who spend most of their time on activities that fit into the third and fourth categories lead irresponsible lives, according to Covey. The emphasis on ‘doing’ and ‘diarising’ the right things forces decisions to be made in the present that will better impact the future. Spontaneity will still play its part and although planned spontaneity seems like an oxymoron, it is about valuing your time enough to know when you can and when you cannot ‘live in the moment.’
Modelling humility and servanthood will naturally mean that our time is not controlled selfishly, but it doesn’t mean living slavishly, either. Arresting the feeling of being overwhelmed by life is no easy task when presumed urgency screams loudly and when we are not always resourced well enough in comparison to high-powered leaders. These decision principles do, however, allow us to break free of the ‘can’t do’ mentality and to plan what it is that we can so as to make a better difference in our world.