Scheduling Your Priorities: How A Simple Habit Can Revolutionize Your Productivity

Becoming mindful of time sinks….that is, all of those pesky workplace tasks, crises, interruptions and other distractions that compete with your capacity to get real work done….has been the focus of our recent article series exploring productivity. If you’ve been following along, and have considered how it applies to you, I wonder how agitated you feel by the loss of all that valuable time.

It’s astonishing how “urgent” matters, or what I like to call black hole activities, can find clever ways to cut in line and delay our daily priorities. Personally, I used to find it soul-crushing when day after day, I’d look back on the work I did, only to realize that my specific accomplishments contributed nothing to my long-term goals. However, while I didn’t notice it at first, that very process of self-review was actually the first step toward the solution. In recognizing my pain, I was on my way to recovery!

Mind Your Nooks & Crannies

The tendency to gravitate toward distractions is perhaps the #1 enemy to productivity. Antoinette Colucci, my philosophical and whimsical instructor at Cornell years ago, summed it up succinctly: “Work expands to the time allotted”. She happened to be referring to kitchen prep lists in her Hotel Administration course, but her truism applies to countless other aspects of career and life. Now pair her words with their sister philosophical realism: YOU are the captain of your career. In essence, no one is going to make sure that you’re working toward career goals. Unless you block out time in your schedule to focus on long-term objectives, the dopamine will win, and non-urgent activities will muscle in on your mortal will power.

The Big Rocks, a charming story by Steven Covey, cleverly illustrates the importance of this prioritization of your tasks. His metaphor boils down to stacking your schedule with the career-expanding tasks first, since pushing them to the back burner will assure they never see fulfillment. Another way to put it: “Don’t prioritize your schedule, but schedule your priorities”, meaning, embed into your calendar segments for serious, heavy-lifting brainwork which requires deep concentration. Assign specific times to these thought projects just as you would a meeting or a phone call with a client, with your #1 priority being a focus on goal-oriented work. Once you anchor these priorities into your schedule, those secondary tasks will magically fall into your schedule’s nooks and crannies.

Here’s How It Goes Down

I know what you’re thinking: “I can’t simply block out time. I need to be available to my boss, my co-workers and my clients.” Well, take pride in knowing that you’re mistaken. You absolutely CAN block out time. No one else is going to take charge of your career, remember? Think of yourself as your most important client. By reserving two 30-minute blocks of time each day, you will be able to work towards “bigger picture” achievements while extinguishing all the “urgent” workplace fires you feel obligated to.

Still a little fuzzy? Here’s a place to start. Right this very moment, commit to your first 30-minute appointment with yourself. Book it right on your calendar! When that appointment arrives, compile your annual work goals, a pad & pencil, and a timer (I know it’s old fashioned, but when you handwrite it, it takes on a certain realness.) Set the timer for 15 minutes and after reviewing those aforementioned goals, write out some baby step actions you will take to reach 3 or 4 of these meaty goals. For example, if one of the ‘firm-encouraged’ big goals is cross-selling the services your company offers, an action item might read, “I will interview internal colleagues to understand their services and how to position myself to speak about the offerings.” Before the timer dings, jot down 5 or 6 such baby steps.

Then, set that timer for another 15 minutes and break down those action ideas into monthly blocks, and then to weekly assignments, blocking out time right on your calendar to perform these tasks. Consider carving out time once a week for a month to have a coffee date with four different colleagues each working in a different silo of business. These coffees will serve to not only network internally (another favorite ‘suggested goal’), but to get a sense of what other service line offers look like and how you can position yourself to share this information with clients. After you collect this data, you could use one of those 30-minute blocks of time to review current client profiles and think about how your company can be of further service. This investigation will inspire some questions for the firm. Then, begin to engage with your contacts at these companies by taking THEM out for coffee.

Staying On-Track

Now that you’ve got a little structure in your schedule, don’t pack away that timer just yet. Make these self-meetings part of your routine! If you block out two 30-minute segments each day, you will delight in witnessing your own increased productivity in no time. As a beneficial consequence, your brain will begin to accept and crave this new habit, perpetuating its effectiveness. Naturally, temptations to give away those sacred time slots will arise. But if you treat these two blocks of time as appointments with your most important client and determine that what you’re working on is directly connected to your career goals, you will stay on track effortlessly.

Each of your goals deserves weekly attention. By breaking down the big goals into bite-sized steps, you’re providing yourself a path to follow. Now you’re prepared to accomplish the work it takes to get you to the next level in your career. To find out where to go from here, it’s essential to take a retrospective look at how you’ve come this far to begin with. Keep an eye out during the week of New Year’s Eve as we wrap up a year of energy management with our “finale” article tying everything together. You won’t want to miss it!