Don’t take on the world – Take on what matters most

One of the things about being busy and successful is that while achieving success can often lead to even greater success, being busy can also lead to even more busyness. The more you triumph in your leadership role, the more emboldened you may feel to take on even greater challenges. And that’s an admirable thing; I’m a big proponent of people reaching for higher aspirations and leading their organizations to extraordinary achievements.

Yet with bigger ambitions come bigger levels of detail and complexity to manage – all on top of the many other accountabilities in our lives. All too often, the highly engaged and accomplished people I talk to are also privately struggling to get it all done and to fight off the stress and overwhelm that can dog them on a daily basis.

Previously in this blog series, I addressed the virtual mountain of responsibilities and deadlines we all tend to experience, and introduced the concept of accepting that you simply can’t “get it all done.” It is utterly counter-productive to continually convince yourself and others that you’re on top of it all at work, at home and everywhere else. Conversely, what can lead you to your greatest productivity levels is a dramatically candid shift in the way you confront your obligations. It comes down to reconditioning how you obligate yourself to begin with, and how you decide what you’re going to “do now” – and what you’re not.

To accomplish this requires some real self-awareness and rigor as you take in – or “capture,” if you will – everything you feel you need to do. And I mean all of it – including things like attention to yourself and loved ones… the stuff we tend to filter out and put off while we’re busy chasing other so-called “priority” tasks. Once you take a brave embrace of all there is to get done, the next step is a highly deliberate prioritization of those things based on what matters the most to you, rather than what you think you’re “supposed” to do.

Do you really need to accept that meeting request… or what if you declined because it’s part of something that is low on your scale of what really matters? Imagine how freeing that might feel, and what you could do instead of taking that meeting. Do you really need to cancel that date with your loved one because you’re up against a deadline… or can you delegate something that’s truly less important to you and keep that commitment? Imagine what that shift in prioritization could contribute to your peace of mind. It’s a very powerful thing to get honest with yourself about what you can and can’t get done, and what you are – and aren’t – choosing to do. The power comes from a strong and disciplined focus. We have so many day-to-day opportunities to make decisions about what we do (and don’t), and it can make a remarkable difference when we begin to make these choices with a new perspective.

First, we have to shed old habits. It’s not uncommon to have a running to-do list that prioritizes those urgent items linked to crisis or survival. The problem with that conventional approach is that it can position you squarely in survival mode, putting out one fire after the next. Then, by necessity, you can find yourself filtering out anything that seems less than pressing or immediate in nature. Yet these items you put off could, in fact, relate to the things that matter most to you – including your relationships with people, your wellness, and your overall happiness.

I worked with a client who had significant personal and professional motivations to learn a new language. She had acquired the online learning system she needed, but months had passed and she had marked no progress. Her frustration sparked a candid look at what was getting in her way. It became clear that while she was very dedicated to every detail of her job, often staying late and working on the weekends, she was taking only minimal time for things like exercise, social time, even sleep. Her approach to her responsibilities – treating all things work-related as a top priority, and letting other matters fall by the wayside – was producing an exhausting daily pace with very little room for anything else.

This well-regarded leader began to focus with discipline on prioritizing differently, based on what mattered most to her rather than what she had become accustomed to doing. As she moved along the learning curve of making choices every day with a new sense of deliberation about what she would do now and what she wouldn’t, she began to see results. She recognized a tendency to sometimes get caught up with more doable tasks that delayed her tackling more significant undertakings, and she began to delegate those items as she focused on projects that she knew would make a real difference for her team and their customer base. As she operated with greater decisiveness and efficiency, she was able to successfully carve out time for things like rest, having more social time… and finally learning that second language. Within a matter of months, she experienced being more productive than ever before, and the sense of satisfaction that comes along with it.

Another thing she experienced was a hallmark of this practice: It produces qualitative as well as quantitative benefits. While you can certainly monetize being more productive, you can’t place a dollar value on experiencing less stress and exhaustion, feeling more freedom, or having greater peace of mind. It is, as they say, priceless.

So I challenge you to stop trying to take on the world and begin concentrating on what’s most important in your world. You have to work for it, but this kind of shift can make a lasting difference in the kind of life you lead, at work and beyond. There’s still more to say about the process of getting there, which I’ll write about next.

The fifth entry a blog series by productivity expert John Fisher.

Read article 1article 2, article 3, article 4