Sound Decision Making: Priority Management vs. Time Management

Our society teaches us that we have to be good time managers. There are libraries full of books and resources that are dedicated to proper time management. In all honesty, there is no such thing as time management. We have no control over time. Time continues with or without us. What we do have control over is how we prioritize our time.

I encourage you to strike the phrase “time management” from your vocabulary. Replace that phrase with “priority management.” Focus on what your priorities are. When you know your priorities, you can focus on them. You fill your day with activities that are based around your priorities.

Stephen Covey, a well-known professor, author, and businessman, did an interesting demonstration. Covey began the demonstration by taking a jar and filling it with rocks. Then he asked the audience if the jar was full. The audience said that it was full; the rocks had filled the entire jar. Then Covey pulled out a bucket of pebbles and poured them into the jar. All of the pebbles fit into the spaces between the bigger rocks. Again, he asks if the jar is full. The audience catches on and says no, the jar is not full. Next, Covey brings out a bucket of sand and pours the sand into the jar. The sand fits into the cracks between the rocks and the pebbles. Once again, Covey asks if the jar is full, and the audience says no. The last thing Covey adds to the jar is a bucket of water. The water takes the shape of the jar and fills in all of the tiny cracks between the grains of sand.

Covey’s demonstration is the perfect model of how to build your priorities. Your priorities are the big rocks. The only way the big rocks will fit into the jar is if you put them in first. If you put the water in, and then the sand and the pebbles, you will not be able to fit the big rocks in. Successful people know that the big rocks – their priorities always come first.

Successful people realize that they don’t manage time. What they manage are their priorities. Think of it this way, you have been given 24 hours today. In those 24 hours, you have to take your priorities and focus on a critical few. Do not think in terms of time management. Instead, focus on your priorities every day.

Many people get caught up in the little things during the day – phone calls, emails, memos – and they don’t get important tasks accomplished because they are distracted by those small things. Suddenly, the end of the day comes, and they wonder where the day went.

I have a simple rule to be productive and avoid getting distracted by the little things. I call it the “9AM Rule.” Complete your most important task for the day by 9AM, and also do the most uncomfortable thing you have to do each day by 9AM. (Does it have to be 9AM? No. The actual time that you accomplish these two tasks will depend on your work schedule. If you begin work early, you may want to complete these tasks before 9AM, and you may complete them after 9AM if you begin working later.)

The most successful people live by this leadership lesson. They get their top priority done first thing in the morning. Then they get their most uncomfortable task out of the way. When you get that uncomfortable task out of the way, it’s liberating. You feel calm, focused, and energized for the rest of the day. That uncomfortable task might be a difficult conversation with a coworker or a difficult phone call to a client. If you put off this uncomfortable task, you will be thinking about it all day, and consequently, you will accomplish fewer important tasks.

Your important or uncomfortable task might take place outside of the office. It could be your morning workout. So you motivate yourself to wake up early and get that workout done right away in the morning. That way, you feel more energized for the rest of your day. Additionally, you won’t be sitting in your office all day thinking about how you’re going to fit your workout into your schedule.

The first step to implementing the 9AM Rule into your daily life is training your mind. You have to work the rule into your mindset. But just thinking about it is not enough. You have to apply the rule. You have to motivate yourself, push yourself to do those two tasks first thing in the morning. This principle is all about acting on your intentions. Look at what you have to do, and then take action.