One of my favorite pieces of “fortune cookie advice” is: people only do what they feel is important. There are two main lessons wrapped up in this statement

  1. A person’s actions will dictate his or her priorities. In other words, talk is cheap.
  2. Decisions are made with the head and the heart, and the heart has the last word. Whether we are talking about business or personal decisions, we can often find a big gap between what we think is right and what we feel we should do about it. Unless you are Vulcan, the heart wins.

So how can you take this idea back to work and make a difference? Like any leadership principle, start with yourself. First, refer to your list—if you haven’t already made one, see my post about Goal Setting—of your short term (<3 months) and long-term (>12 months) priorities. Then, tally up the hours you spend last work week against each one. If you can’t draw any clear conclusions, keep going back adding up additional weeks until you have something like this:

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By recording the time you spend on each goal, you measure your true priories

Sort the column labels from left to right in priority order. Now look at the height of the bars: if they are not decending in order from tallest on the left to shortest on the right (Pareto-style) then it is time to reconcile the gap. Yes, all of you engineers reading along on a hot new mobile device that none of us have even heard of yet, the assumption here is that each unit of time brings you equally close to achieving the goal to which it is applied. This should be the case if you seek to increase your effectiveness regardless of the task (below).

Objective 1: Look for an integrity outage in your goals by using the questions below to find your true priorities

  • Five years from now, what will be most important to have achieved?
  • Which of your goals do you catch yourself thinking about during “idle moments” (e.g., commute, making coffee, joining conference calls)
  • An MBA candidate intern has just offered to work for you for free for the next 3 months. Which goals on your list would you choose to have them help accelerate?

Objective 2: Become more effective in applying your time

  • Delegate & work share: how can you better leverage the resources within your team, and the complementary skills of your peers, to apply your comparative advantage more often?
  • Find the cutoff for diminishing returns: sometimes called the 80/20 rule, learn how long you can spend on a single task before your rate of progress trails off to embarrassingly low levels. Partition your calendar for specific work and stick to it. Set a timer on your desk when you start each task and use it as a prompt: am I on a roll or is it time to roll on?
  • Ready, fire, aim? If you find yourself putting time into revisions, rework, and drafting new approaches to achieve the same outcome, perhaps you are too quick on the trigger. Try starting on a whiteboard, then moving to your computer to allow the early (and often error prone) stages of creative thought to run smoothly.
  • Another approach—with apologies—is “the Mom test”: if you can’t articulate your core idea or method in a way that your Mom would understand, you need to clarify it before developing out any detail.
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