As a modern preoccupation, time trumps even sex and money: time is the #1 most commonly-used noun in the English language. But despite increasing average life expectancy, we seem to be constantly overscheduled and stressed out. Learning how to prioritize is essential not only for better productivity but to enjoy peace of mind. Distractions—whether solicited or unsolicited—take up our attention, which in turn uses up our finite stores of both time and energy.
Stephen Covey, author of the self-help classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, illustrated the importance of prioritizing how you spend your time with a simple demonstration of placing rocks into a jar. The jar represents your life. Big rocks stand for the things you deem important; pebbles are tasks with slight but manageable consequences if left undone; and the sand is low-priority stuff (social media, say…) Covey showed that if we start by filling the jar with sand, all of the big rocks and pebbles won’t fit. If we put the big rocks in first, however, even though the jar looks full, the pebbles and sand miraculously find their place in the spaces between. In the words of Goethe,
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
In the Wall Street Journal bestseller 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, Peter Bregman suggests that where most time management systems fail is that they focus on structuring a to-do list, without deliberate reflection on whether the tasks are consistent with longer-term goals. Before looking at our daily to-dos, Bregman suggests that we first identify what’s most important and critical for us to accomplish over a long period (Covey’s big rocks), and be vigilant that our daily tasks are in line with those goals.
Bregman suggests taking the time to determine a few annual areas of focus. His own areas of focus, for example, include three professional priorities (do great work with current clients; attract future clients; write and speak about his ideas) and two personal ones (be present with family and friends, have fun and take care of himself). Keeping your list in mind allows you to determine which commitments to take on, aiming for 95% of your time spent on your areas of focus, with only 5% on miscellaneous.
If [miscellaneous] becomes 20 percent, it means you’re spending too much time on other people’s priorities, your frivolity, and life maintenance, and not enough time on your own priorities.
As W.H. Auden wrote, “in headaches and in worry / vaguely life fades away.” Part of our pervasive feeling of busyness and overwhelm stems from the anxiety engendered by seemingly infinite to-do lists. By emphasizing efficiency, we risk losing sight of effectiveness. But when our days and our hours are being spent in service of our larger values and goals, we can relax in the knowledge that even if we can’t get it all done, we’re not filling our precious jars with sand.