Managing Priorities in Constantly Changing Times

June 14, 2000
Is there anyone you know who has not been affected by downsizing or rightsizing? How about by technological changes -- laptops, e-mail, on-line, faxes and other forms of information management?

Not very long ago work was a calming, steady and above all predictable factor in our lives. No longer. As our workplace transforms, we all face these questions daily: "How can I do the work of two people?" "How can this department accommodate its new responsibilities given the recent merger?" Achieving and managing success is based on a new set of ABCs.

Accountability -- Whatever your niche within the organization, you must take responsibility and be accountable for performance -- your own as well as your teams. Remember when saying "it's not my job" was acceptable and valid? Those days are long gone. The job you are doing now might not have even existed six months ago and may be gone again next year. Nevertheless, focusing on meeting and hopefully exceeding expectations is everyone's job now.

Balance -- Yes, there is more to do, learn, understand and create than our parents faced. However, there is also more to living than work. If you have career success at the expense of all else what happens? Career disenchantment. If your personal life looks like a train wreck -- filled with stress, anxiety, stagnation, anger, exhaustion, or self-destructive behavior, you are paying too high a cost.

Having a balanced life does not mean simply leaving work to go home to work some more. What happened to guilt-free lazy Sundays? Or visiting casually with friends, reading for pleasure, or goofing off? Remember when weekends renewed your batteries? Now more than ever maintaining balance in your life is critical.

Control -- You may be thinking, "How can I control my environment, it keeps changing. I can't keep up." When you experience that feeling, concentrate on the task at hand, shifting your view from "out there" to "right here." Focus on the immediate by identifying those areas that you can influence. This will help give you a sense of equilibrium. Your span of control may have shrunk, perhaps significantly, but it has not disappeared. You may not be able to influence the next merger or reorganization. But you can do your best right now.

Urgency vs. Importance

How can you do more of the truly important things? Consider Marilyn, a manager faced with balancing the budget. Should she cut Research and Development, which would have an immediate result of improving the profit performance for this quarter? Or keep R&D and cut somewhere else?

We are continually faced with immediate vs. long term choices. Before deciding, it is critical to make a distinction between important and urgent tasks. Urgency is determined by time. Things with deadlines -- the ringing phone, a person at your desk with a question -- are all urgent.

Contrast this to important tasks. Important tasks and projects add value to people or to processes. They have an intrinsic value and are tied closely to long-term organizational success. Examples include: doing market research, new product development, employee training, planning and getting organized. These projects are often time-consuming or complex.

What stops you from doing these important tasks? It is all the little stuff, the "trivial few," that actually keeps you from getting what you need done. Here is how to integrate long term tasks into your daily schedule, easily and without overtime.

1. Put the project in writing. A plan is much more useful than a vague idea residing on a piece of scratch paper or floating in your head.

2. Break it down into small, manageable steps. The steps should be quick and easy to do. Aim for each taking twenty minutes or less.

3. Set interim deadlines on your calendar. Putting a task on your calendar helps to make it real.

4. Set aside quiet time. Some tasks like writing and learning new software require more than twenty minutes; when that occurs, set aside uninterrupted time to work on it.

As the pace of change continues to accelerate, "no" may be the magic word for this decade. Say "no" to the extraneous that distract from the high value activities. Be ruthless about eliminating the attention grabbers that prevent you from saying yes to the important work.