Adding to the guilt trip, various experts tell us to manage time, manage ourselves, or manage tasks. But the clock won't be managed, managing myself is too abstract, and if I only knew which tasks to manage, I would do it. Which leads me to the only thing I think we really can manage--priorities. And when we do it right, we don't need to focus so much on discipline, organization, or scheduling.

Just Priorities

My mother once responded to me whining about how busy I was with, "Chuck, there is no such thing as excuses, there's not even reasons, there are only priorities." Annoying, but irrefutable. It was years later that I made peace with the fact that I couldn't manage time, myself, or my tasks, but that I could only manage my priorities.

Once that fell into place, I realized why I had so little interest in being disciplined, organized, or scheduled. Those are just tools, or means to an end. They focus us on a process, when only the result matters. But for decades, highly disciplined and organized people had sent me on guilt trip after guilt trip chasing those tools as if they would magically make me productive. They never did. They just made me busy.

Too many highly organized people mistake activity for productivity, and look very impressive in the process. I have gradually learned not to be impressed with endless activity, discipline, organization, schedules or any other process-oriented focus. Only the results matter anymore.

We Have It Backwards--Big Rocks First

We're all taught to focus on these means to an end (process), instead of the end itself (result). But the only reason to have any discipline or organization at all is to get the important stuff done. And the only way to do that is to know your priorities and focus on them alone.

Stephen Covey often told the story of the convention speaker who would fill a vase with large rocks, then pour in smaller pebbles, followed by sand and finally water. The lesson was that if you put the small stuff in your schedule first (water and sand), there would never be any room for the big stuff. But when you put the big rocks in your schedule first, there is always room for the inconsequential maintenance things that never really improve our lives.

When I started focusing on the big rocks, I finally found a reason to use the tools of discipline, organization and scheduling to get them done. In the process I learned that I didn't need to live like those guys who make long, tidy lists, fill every week with pre-scheduled activity and never forget their wallet. The only discipline I needed was to not sweat the small stuff, and that the only organization and scheduling I needed was to focus on the few big things each day, week and month that would move my life and my business forward.

The Magic of File 13

I learned the value of File 13 thirty-five years ago in the army. The company admin would open the mail, log it in, then throw it in the waste basket (File 13). When I asked why, he said he threw almost everything away because he had learned most of it pretended to be important, but wasn't. I asked how he knew something truly was important. He laughed and replied, "That's why I log all the mail in. If it comes back, it must be important. If not, I didn't waste my time messing with it."

An awful lot of our To Do list is File 13-able. People who are highly effective learn to ignore the water, the sand and even most of the pebbles, and focus on the few big rocks that really matter. One of the most effective people I ever met was a guy who left me with the enduring image of him with his feet on his desk and his hands behind his head. Years later I realized the secret of his success--File 13. He focused on the very few big things each month and let the rest of it go.

Start With The End in Mind

Stephen Covey was right. We should always start with the end in mind. How do you recognize the one or two big priorities every day, week or month? First, figure out the two or three big things you want to accomplish this year (any more than that and you'll lose focus). Then use every day, every week, and every month to get those few things done.

If you focus on being disciplined, organized and scheduled, you may not actually get the important things done. If you figure out your two to three big rocks every year and use every week to pick away at them, you'll get where you want to go.

Focus on a very few priorities. And along the way, make liberal use of File 13.

Published on: Feb 24, 2015