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How To Organize Your Life By Priority And Not Urgency

How To Organize Your Life By Priority And Not Urgency

Lists, notes, follow-ups, calendars — these are all great tools to manage your ever-growing list of things you need to accomplish on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. But are they the right way to manage what you need to do? For you to visually understand the importance of what you need or have to do?

How many times have you spent Sunday night putting together a list of things that must get done, only to have one event throw it all away? How many times have you looked over that list at the end of the week and wondered “why do I not feel fulfilled?” or “why did I spend the whole week firefighting instead of doing what was really important to me, my team, my family, and my work?”

Perhaps the answer is not in what you need to do, but in how you organize the doing of those activities. In an era where we have notifications coming to us from a variety of sources, it is easy to confuse what is urgent with something that is important and let it move to the top of our list. It is even easier when these items have dates assigned to them which quickly push out our calendar of to-dos in favour of these requests.

If you take a step back to look at the post-its and items on your lists of what you need to do, you will probably start to see a trend. You’ll see those things you have to do, those you need to do, and those you want to do. Stop right now and go look at your last to-do list. What did you need to do? What did you want to do? You can easily see the buckets and overlaps, but once you truly understand what they mean, when those urgent items come to you, you’ll know where to put them.

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Have

Items I have to do are items that, regardless of what is on my list to of items to do, have to get to done. If I am looking at my list with a timeline of a week, it becomes very easy to identify the when I have to get these things completed. Whether it’s personal or professional, you know the items that go into this bucket. If you are training for a marathon and want to do it right, you have to train, if the servers go down at work and you’re the go-to gal, you have to get them back up and running.

We want to keep this list small. Take a look in your “have” circle — what are the items driven by? Who is driving them? Is it you? This is doubtful— items we have to do are often driven by external factors: our boss, our family, our friends, etc. They are driven by others. My daughter wants to go to soccer practice, so I have to drive her (otherwise she cannot get there). I have to finish the end-of-year report for next week (not by choice, I think the following week would be fine, but I’m not setting the priority).

Items we have to do are where our stress comes from because we feel we have no other choice.

Need

When you look at your list of things to do, you know the items that need to get done. These are the ones that you have prioritized as being important to get done so you feel like you have accomplished what you set out to do this day, week, month, etc.

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You need to get this item completed — you are driving the priority of what needs to be accomplished. This is where the majority of our internal conflict arises from. In general, we will classify nearly everything as a “need” until this circle is bursting in size. But if you look closely, you might start to notice that what you think you need to complete, what is really important for you to get done this week, is not at all. Instead, it is something that you really want to do to make you feel fulfilled.

Want

How many items on your list do you want to accomplish and finish this week? Why? What makes those items so special that you are willing to push them to the forefront of everything you want to do? What do they give to? How to they benefit your wellbeing? What makes them differ from a need?

Simply put, our wants, whether professional or personal, are the collection of our pursuits that let us go to bed at night feeling like we’ve really accomplished something. They are that simple.

Think of the Software Developer who has to complete a project on Friday. He needs to check in the code on Wednesday but he wants to refactor it on Thursday. If he only does the first part, he will have accomplished the goals of others by completing the work and satisfying his professional requirements, but what he really wants is the feeling of getting that last thing off the list which his team might not really be pushing for.

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What we want to accomplish will always be a large, ever-changing bucket of items going in and out. I want to learn to play the guitar, now the cello, now run the Ironman, etc, etc. Completing a “want” will always make us happy because it is directly attributed to what we want to accomplish — not what someone else does.

Putting it all together

The goal is a better understanding of where our priorities come from so we can better handle and manage them — not to find a faster way to check the boxes off on our list. If we know what we have to do over what we need and want to do, all of a sudden the priority ranking of our items changes to what we really feel we should do to feel accomplished at the end of some period in time.

Can items jump between circles? Can items jump between categories? Sure they can. As a “want” starts, it is something basic, undefined, a thought or idea. But as we refine it, put body to do it, the path to accomplish the want and the desire for it turns into a “need” that you must accomplish irrespective of its priority or time of the week.

Not sure how to get started or where to begin in classifying what’s on your list? Here are some easy steps to take.

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  • Draw 3 circles on a page. Label them have, need, and want.
  • Throw everything you want/must do that week into each circle (don’t overload your circles or you might feel pretty down at the end of the week — keep them legit).
  • Now, look at what exists between each circle. Are there conflicting priorities? Can you see what will be overridden where simply by visually seeing it?
  • Where are the similarities? Are your needs being derived by your wants? Can you really accomplish that many things?
  • Now, track throughout some arbitrary time period. What did you accomplish? What moved between circles? What was in direct conflict? What external urgencies pushed what was important to you out of the way? How close did you get to accomplishing what you wanted to accomplish?
  • Now, do it again and again until what you have to do, need to do, and want to do align to work with each other, leaving you fulfilled in what you’ve accomplished.

If you’re in the scenario where you have this massive want circle, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Underline the top ones you want to work on and focus on this week.

Featured photo credit: Alejandro Escamilla via images.unsplash.com

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Greg Thomas

Software Architect

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Last Updated on April 23, 2019

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

What Is a Stretch Goal?

A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

1. Get Outside of Your Head

If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

I see this in so many areas of life:

When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

“Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

S.M.A.R.T.

is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

The Bottom Line

These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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