Category Archives: Prioritize

Fire Fighting


If you were to analyze what firemen do during the course of the year, what percentage of their time do you suppose would be devoted to actually fighting fires?  Would you believe me if I told you that it’s actually only 2% of their time?

So what do they do with all their time?  True, a good deal of their time is spent sitting around the fire station, but that’s necessary so that they can be available in the event of an emergency.  The rest of their time is spent in fire prevention.  I found a fireman’s job description on the web.  Here are some of their typical responsibilities:

  • Cleaning, preparing and testing hoses, fire trucks and other equipment
  • Testing water flow on fire hydrants
  • Determining what caused fires that couldn’t be prevented
  • Holding fire prevention workshops
  • Inspecting buildings, sprinkler systems and extinguishers
  • Speaking to children about fire prevention
  • Participating in fire drills
  • Attending training classes in fire fighting, first-aid, and related subjects

Spending all that time on prevention helps reduce the number of fires they are called to put out.  Plus, lives and property are saved.  No matter how much time or money they have to invest in fire prevention, it has to be cheaper than the cost of the fire fighting and destruction that occurs when fires aren’t prevented.

Many of us spend a greater percentage of our time and efforts putting out fires than the typical fireman.  Could it be that many of the fires that erupt in our schedules are a result of poor fire prevention?  Maybe we are not spending enough time in planning and preparation.  Maybe we’ve allowed key relationships to suffer from lack of attention.  Maybe we’re so tired from fighting those fires that we don’t feel we have anything left to invest in learning how to prevent them.  Maybe we’ve just resigned ourselves to the fact that we will always have to spend most of our time fighting fires.

The truth is that most of our fires are preventable.  But like the firemen, we have to get ahead of them.  We have to learn the most common sources of our fires and put plans in place to prevent them.  We have to educate ourselves about how much the fires are costing us in emotional and physical stress, missed opportunities, unfulfilled commitments and quality.  It’s time to stop playing productivity pyromania.  As Benjamin Franklin (the founder of the first volunteer fire department, inventor of the lighting rod and fire insurance) once said,  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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Filed under Challenges, creativity, Decision Making, delayed gratification, learned helplessness, performance, planning, Preparation, priorities, Prioritize, Priority, Problem Solving, Productivity, Sharpening the Saw

Q3 Magnets


In Stephen Covey’s Time Matrix, Quadrant 3 (Q3) describes tasks that are urgent but unimportant.  It’s the quadrant of “Other Peoples’ Priorities.”  The tasks that fit into this quadrant are important to someone, but they don’t have to be important to us.

It may seem crazy that we would spend any time working on things that are unimportant, but we often confuse urgency with importance.  When a phone rings, we feel we have to pick it up.  When there’s a knock on the door, we feel we have to answer it.  When someone drops by, we feel like we have to stop what we’re doing to talk to them.

But what if we could make it so that they rarely dropped by anymore?  We can…by getting rid of our Q3 magnets: the things that attract and invite the interruptions in the first place.  Try these strategies:

  • Get rid of the candy dish on your desk. It’s an invitation to stop by for a sugar fix, and they will feel obligated to stop and talk if they are going to take your candy.
  • Remove chairs from around your work space. A standing interruption won’t last nearly as long as a sitting one will, and it may not happen at all.
  • Stay busy. If someone peaks in and sees you staring into space, he/she won’t feel bad interrupting you.
  • Take home the conversation piece. If you have something near your desk that invites questions or discussion, take it away.
  • Relocate out of high-traffic areas. If your desk is on the way to the restroom or the breakroom, you can be sure that a percentage of the people going that way will drop in to chat.
  • Get out of the line of sight. If people can’t see if you are at your desk when they pass by, they are less likely to stop in.
  • Put your inbox as far away from you as you can. Make it easy for people to drop things in your inbox without having to engage you.
  • Move popular resources elsewhere. If people have to come to you (or near you) for files, supplies or other materials, you’re inviting interruptions.
  • Kill the grapevine. It may be that people are frequently interrupting you because you’ve got the best gossip.  It may be painful, but if you stop passing along information, people will stop coming to you.
  • Close the “open door.” The open door policy is widely misunderstood.  It’s was originally intended to allow an outlet for employees who needed to air issues or unload burdens – not for unproductive interruptions.  Close your door (if you have one) when you need to concentrate, and let everyone know that they can come by and see you during a particular hour of the day.  Schedule your “interruption time.”

A word of caution:

These strategies are not meant to completely eliminate time that you use to interact with your coworkers.  Building relationships is important, even when it’s not urgent.  It’s a Q2 activity that requires a time investment but pays off in the long run.  Be careful that as you eliminate your Q3 magnets, you don’t send the wrong message to those you need to be building relationships with.

 

 

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Filed under Challenges, communication, fatigue, focus, habits, importance, Interpersonal, overcoming obstacles, priorities, Prioritize, Priority, Productivity, Relationships

Do What You Do Best


A colleague once asked Albert Einstein for his telephone number and was surprised to see Einstein reach for the phone directory.  “You don’t remember your own number?” the man asked.  To which Einstein replied, “Why should I memorize something I can so easily get from a book?”

Einstein may owe some of his genius to his ability to prioritize.  While he certainly had the capacity to memorize large amounts of trivia, he knew that this wasn’t the best use of his talents.  He reserved his brain power for solving complex problems and used other resources to help him with the less complex.

I’ve found that great managers do the same with their time.  While they are certainly capable of making copies, shuffling paper or solving routine problems, they recognize these tasks for the traps that they are.  Less-discriminating managers become entangled in a web of administrivia and find that they have no time left to work on more important priorities. Often in an attempt to appear like a “team player” to their direct reports, these managers waste their hard-earned experience, knowledge and training on tasks that could be handled more effectively (and less expensively) at a lower level.

Don’t sell what you’ve worked so hard to gain so cheaply.  The most effective are not always the most popular, but they spend their time like they spend their money – where it will bring them the greatest return on their investment.

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Filed under creativity, delegation, expertise, leadership, management, priorities, Prioritize, Priority, Productivity

Soft Hands


During a Monday night football game a few years ago, the Dallas Cowboy’s were defending at their own three-yard line.  The quarterback for the opposing team dropped back and fired a bullet…right to one of the Cowboy’s defensive linemen.  To my disgust, the lineman dropped the ball even though it was right between the numbers and even though he got both hands on the ball.

At the time, it seemed unthinkable that he would drop a sure interception, but I stopped yelling at the TV long enough to hear one of the commentators (a former lineman himself) explain why we should give the guy a break.  As he explained it, linemen spend their entire careers pushing against three-hundred-pound gorillas on the other side of the line of scrimmage.  Every muscle in their body is invested in the struggle to push past the opposing lineman to get at the quarterback.  When a ball is thrown their way, they don’t have the “soft hands” required to catch the ball.

By that last comment, he meant that because the linemen were totally focused on the goal of overpowering their opponent, it was supremely difficult for them to switch goals in the middle of battle.  I can relate.  I remember countless times when I was insensitive to my wife when she called me at the office.  Her calls always seemed to come right in the middle of my battles with three-hundred-pound gorilla projects and three-hundred-pound gorilla deadlines.  Bruised from her own battles with the kids, all she wanted was a sympathetic ear.  What she typically got were short, curt responses indicating I had better things to do than to talk with her.

Because I was so focused on the battle, I didn’t have the soft hands necessary to respond to my wife appropriately, and I forgot we were playing for the same team.  Each time I dropped the ball, I regretted it the second I hung up the phone.  Realization of how important and unrecoverable the moment was always made me wish I had not been so single-focused.

If we are going to be effective leaders, we have to learn to develop the soft hands required when our team members come to us for help.  We have to be skilled at transitioning from driving the line, chasing down the goal, sacking the competition… to taking time out, being receptive and possibly moving in a whole new direction.

While success requires us to be totally invested in our work, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that teams are made of people, and we can’t play this game alone.

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Filed under Attitude, Challenges, Change, communication, conflict, determination, emotions, family, Fathering, Goals, habits, Interpersonal, leadership, management, marriage, mentoring, paradigm shift, pressure, priorities, Prioritize, Priority, Relationships, Serving Others

BIG “G” – little “g”


In one of the classes that I’ve regularly facilitated, we do an activity called “The Parking Space.”  Participants are given a role-play scenario in which two people have to compete for a single parking space.  One person is running late for a job interview, and the other is running late for a meeting with an important client.  As one tries to back into the parking space, the other is trying to pull forward into it.  The two people get out of their cars and negotiate to see who gets the space.

What’s really interesting about the interaction isn’t who gets the space or even how they get it (and I’ve heard some really creative and unethical methods of coercion).  It’s that in the process of overpowering their adversary for the space, both people completely forget what their primary goals were – getting the job or making the meeting.  It never dawns on them that time is ticking away as they bicker about who gets to park where.  Each person fights for a win-lose outcome, but what they end up with is lose-lose, because the parking space is moot by the time they miss their respective appointments.

The role-play is an excellent example of sacrificing a Big “G” Goal (making the appointment) in order to achieve a little “g” goal (getting the parking space).  It sounds crazy, but we do it all the time.

  • We pull out all the stops to win the argument but forget that we are trying to build the relationship.
  • We prevent our top performers from transferring to other departments in order to protect our team’s productivity and end up losing them because there is no room for advancement.
  • We refuse to share information with another group because they haven’t reciprocated in the past and lose sight of the fact that we work for the same company.
  • We cut services back in order to reduce expenses and succeed in chasing off our customers.
  • We invent rules for a small percentage of “law-breakers” and ultimately punish the 99.9% of people who want to do the right thing but can’t get anything done because of the excessive red-tape.
  • We turn drill sergeant with our kids to get them ready in the morning and manage to ruin everyone’s day as we head out the door for a family event.
  • We argue with our neighbors over property rights and forget that we were trying to win them to Christ.

Our problem is that we are so focused on what’s before us that we can’t see the big picture.  We are intent on winning battles, but our short-term focus is losing us the wars.  If we could keep our eyes on the Big “G” Goals, what a difference it would make in our lives, in our work and in our ministries!

We would have so much more grace for people who don’t act the way we want them to act.   We would be able to keep a healthy perspective on the minor things that don’t go our way.  We would make better decisions in the moment as we assessed the impact of those decisions on our Big “G” goals.

Where is it that you have gotten seduced by the urgency of little “g” goals?  How could you maintain your focus on the the bigger picture?  A long-range focus informs better decision making in the moment.  It takes practice, but if you’re like me, you’ve got plenty of opportunities.

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Filed under conflict, Goals, grace, Interpersonal, priorities, Prioritize, Relationships, success

Don’t Be the Last to Know


When World War II ended in 1945, Japan had about three million troops overseas, about a third of them dug in on islands throughout the Pacific. These men were thoroughly trained in the Bushido code, which held that it was better to die than to surrender.  Many Japanese soldiers had been cut off from the main army during the Allies’ island-hopping campaign and continued to resist. Sporadic fighting continued for months and in some cases years after the formal surrender.

Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda had been stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines when it was overrun by U.S. forces in February 1945. Most of the Japanese troops were slain or captured, but Onoda and several other men holed up in the mountainous jungle. The others were eventually killed, but Onoda held out for 29 years, dismissing every attempt to coax him out as a ruse.

In 1974, a college dropout by the name of Norio Suzuki was traveling the world, looking for, as he told his friends, “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”  He found Lieutenant Onoda and became friends with him.  (While he may have since seen a panda, reports suggest that he is still looking for the Abominable Snowman.)  Despite Suzuki’s encouragement, Onoda refused to come out of the mountains unless ordered by a superior officer.

Suzuki returned with photographs of him and Onoda and convinced the Japanese government to go after Onoda (they had declared him officially dead years before).  Finally, the government officials located his commanding officer, who went to Lubang in 1974 to order Onoda to give up. The lieutenant stepped out of the jungle to accept the order of surrender in his dress uniform and sword, with his rifle still in operating condition.  Surprisingly, he wasn’t the last Japanese soldier to surrender.  Teruo Nakamura was discovered in December of the same year on Morotai Island in Indonesia.

Sometimes we become so invested in fighting our battles that we fail to recognize that everyone around us has moved on to other goals.  They knew (long before we ever recognized it) that the battle was lost, that it was no longer worth fighting.  Leaders need to know when to cut their losses and move on – sometimes even from a good cause.

As Christian leaders, we have a Superior Officer who will tell us which battles are worth fighting, but we have to evaluate, and we have to ask.  When our activities stop producing fruit, we should consult God before we redouble our efforts.  It may be that He has moved on to other priorities, and there is no sense wasting time on our pet projects when there won’t be an impact at their completion.  In addition, it is also good to ask God to order our priorities when we are in the process of transition or when we’ve reached a natural stopping point.

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails. (Proverbs 19:21)

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Filed under Change, christianity, God's Will, priorities, Prioritize, Priority

Planning Ahead


The trustees of New College in Oxford, England, discovered that the oak roof beams in its centuries-old Great Hall were infested by beetles. The beams had to be replaced, but the college had no extra funds to spare on this expensive project.

The trustees decided to try every source available to find oak at a good price, so they began with the college’s forester and asked whether there were any suitable trees that might be found on college land.

The trustees were surprised and happy to learn that there was a stand of trees that would do. In fact, these trees had been planted in the 1300s expressly for the purpose of one day replacing the oak beams! Though there was no documentation about the stand of trees, every college forester over the centuries had maintained the oral tradition of telling his successor that the trees were not to be touched until beetles had infested the oak beams.

Stephen Covey would call this a Q2 activity. According to his time matrix, activities in quadrant two are important but not urgent. Here we find activities that lead to productivity and balance in our lives. It was important for the foresters to plant those trees, but it certainly wasn’t urgent hundreds of years before they were even needed. Planting the trees was a Q2 activity at the time. Most of us don’t plant our trees before we need them. Rather, we live in Q1, the quadrant of activities that are urgent and important. This is the quadrant where we find activities that are necessary to do. They were probably important (Q2) before they became necessary (Q1), but we procrastinated until we couldn’t wait any longer to do them.

time-matrix
Quadrants 3 & 4 are characterized by activities that are unimportant. Some are urgent but not important (Q3), like answering a ringing phone that turns out to be a wrong number or dealing with an interruption to our work. They look urgent at first; then we realize they weren’t. That’s why Q3 is the quadrant of deception. Others are neither urgent nor important (Q4), like doing things to excess or doing things that are destructive. Often, we do Q4 activities when we are trying to avoid Q1 or Q2 activities that we don’t enjoy doing, and often even good activities (relaxation, reading, exercising…) can become Q4 activities if we do them too much or for the wrong reasons.

While Q1 activities need to be done, the problem with living in this quadrant is that it always costs us more than it would have had we taken care of the activity while it was still in Q2. For example, if we spent some time today on that project that’s due next month (Q2 – important but not urgent), it would cost us a lot less than it will if we wait until the deadline (in stress and quality of our work).

As the proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree was thirty years ago; the next best time is today. Got any trees you need to plant?

(Time Matrix Source – FranklinCovey)

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Filed under delayed gratification, importance, Instant Gratification, planning, Prioritize, Priority, urgency