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In a Sea of Urgency, How to Focus on What’s Important Today

Now that we’ve shared ways to embrace Monday, here’s another thing to contemplate as you start your week: Do you have a plan for the week, or are you facing a blank slate? Of course, you say, what upstanding professional doesn’t have a plan!

I have one too; it’s my “Master Task List” pinned to the wall. I do pretty well getting my work done, but at the end of a busy week I sometimes realize I haven’t done the work I told myself was important — whether it’s about my professional development, my personal development, or my team’s development. It’s so tempting to check off a bunch of things on my checklist, and too easy to think that it’s progress when it’s really not.

You can boil it down to the difference between what’s urgent and what’s important, and often they are not the same. It’s a concept often discussed in time management; you can find lots of time management books, magazines, blogs, and workshop sessions devoted to the topic. I’ll leave it to you to read a few and pick the time management system that works for you. Instead, I’ll share two pieces of advice I’ve learned: one is aimed at helping individuals and another provides a new way for a whole team to create a shared understanding of what’s really important.

5 Ways You Can Stay Focused on What’s Important

Blogger Jonathan Mead, in his wonderfully titled Pick the Brain blog, gives us five ways to focus on what really matters. I see my strengths and weaknesses in each one of these areas, and I think you will too:

1. Set Three “Most Important Tasks” (MITs) for the day. Ask yourself, “If I could only do three things today, what would I feel the most fulfilled in doing?”

2. Focus on providing value. Ask yourself, “How much value will this provide me, or someone else?”

3. Think long-term. Ask yourself, “Will this make a difference in a week, a month or a year from now? Five years?”

4. Tackle first things first. Finishing the most important tasks in the beginning of the day ensures that you can get to other work and still feel you have accomplished something strategic.

5. Have a clear vision. If you can’t envision it, then you can’t measure it; if you can’t measure it, then you can’t manage it. Think about whether or not the work you’re doing is moving you closer to your vision, or if it won’t make much of a difference tomorrow or next week.

A New Way for Your Team to Stay Focused on What’s Important

Lena and I keep coming back to an intriguing idea that was developed in Silicon Valley. In a New York Times  interview, Zynga CEO Mark Pincus talked (among other things) about his success in using a simple system called OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). It was developed at Intel and used at Google.

Pincus echoes Jonathan Mead’s idea of the three most important tasks, but he takes it to the next level. The whole company and every single individual has one objective and three measurable key results. It keeps everyone focused on the same understanding of what really matters.

  • The process starts with a pared-down “road map” or plan. Pincus says that if your road map has ten priorities for you and your team, you probably don’t know which of the three matter, and probably none of the ten are right.
  • At the start of the week, you write down your three priorities for the week, and on Friday you track how you did. Your list shows each item you were going to do, with both their predicted results and actual results. The results are displayed in red if you missed them, yellow if they’re close and green if you met them.
  • If you miss your results consistently, you can see that there’s a problem, dig deeper to find it, and course-correct. It’s much better to do that sooner than later. You don’t want to reach the end of the year with a sinking feeling that your team didn’t accomplish what it set out to do.

This method gives you an objective yardstick. You then can ask for help, renegotiate with your manager, or work with the team to make the objectives more closely tied to reality.

How Do You Put OKRs into Action?

Lena and I are planning ways to put OKRs into action. Our team did several wonderful, thoughtful brainstorming sessions and developed a very ambitious two-year plan. It’s on our shared team wiki, and every month we update our progress. We all struggle to fulfill our daily obligations along with the strategic ones, and we never get as far as we wish.

Perhaps the reason is that we have too many objectives, and we move quickly from one to the other trying to move the ball forward each month. It’s time to make some changes in our process. We’re going to share this OKR technique with our team and see if we can get some traction. If it works, and even if it doesn’t, we’ll be sure to share it with you.

“Time is a fixed income and, as with any income, the real problem facing most of us is how to live successfully within our daily allotment.”  — Margaret B. Johnstone

Now It’s Your Turn

For Yourself

  • Read Jonathan Mead’s post on five ways to focus on what really matters (linked above).
  • Find a time management system that fits your needs.
  • Commit to one change and reward yourself when you meet it. (If you try to change your whole life at once, you will get too discouraged.)

For Your Team or Organization

  • Read the interview with Mark Pincus on OKRs (linked above).
  • Bring the idea to your team and ask if they are willing to try it out. Be sure to explain the benefit to them — always remember that people will be more motivated if they understand the WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”).

We Want to Hear From You

Please share your ideas! How do you get things done that really matter as an individual, and what works for your organization?