• Russ Powell

If ya gotta eat a frog, why sit around and look at it all day?

Updated: Sep 27

Two Timeless Principles for Managing Time and Tasks

Many moons ago I taught time management courses for Franklin Covey—actually it was a wonderful little company that was bought by Franklin Covey, but no one’s heard of it, so I just say Franklin Covey.


Anyway, there are a few productivity principles from that course that have stuck with me over the years. They’re like old, polished stones that I carry around in my pocket. They’ve been there so long and I use them so often that I tend to forget about them. But they’re hugely important to me and I found myself discussing them with a colleague this week. Thought I’d share them with you here.


There are two at the top of the list, and they are principles for prioritizing: Urgency vs. Importance and The Pareto Principle.


I lean on these heavily for helping me organize and manage my time, the tasks on my to-do list, and other things that require prioritizing—meeting agendas, errands to run, people I need to call, etc.


Urgency and Importance


Consider using the concepts of urgency and importance to help you think about your tasks, your agenda items, your lists, the items that you need to knock out in a phone call.

We hear these words all the time, right? “Do it now, it’s urgent!!” or “Please, this is important to me.” But take a moment to think about these terms carefully, let’s define them.


Let’s look at importance first.


How DO you define importance? How DO you know if something’s important?


Importance


I’d like to propose that we tend to categorize as important those things that point us toward or help us stay on the path toward meeting and achieving our personal goals.


We consider to be important those things that affirm our values and help us achieve our personal missions.


In business, of course, these are the goals, values, or missions of our organization, or our departments or our teams.


It’s not uncommon for people to confuse importance with urgency. While importance is associated with that which we value, urgency is associated with, well, time—deadlines, speed, crises, things of that nature.


When I speak about this topic with teams and organizations, I find really smart people often define importance with phrases like these:

  • I know it’s important if it has to be done now.

  • If it it has a time-value associated with it, it’s important.

  • Well, she (my boss) said she needed it yesterday.

I like to haggle with them a bit. But usually we get around to agreeing that each of these statements speaks of urgency, not importance. Each includes or is driven by a time-element, and as soon as we start talking about time, we’re in the realm of urgency.


So, separate these two things, urgency and importance.


The Blessing/White MPG Model — A Digression on the Value of Knowing What’s Important


ABOUT THE MODEL

A few years ago, I picked up a wonderful model for thinking about what’s important from a mentor of mine at the company Blessing/White (now a part of GP Strategies).


I’ve drawn it out for you here. (Sorry it looks like it was drawn out on a napkin. It was, er, drawn out on a napkin. And EE stands for employee.)


So, I found this model valuable for thinking about how we define importance. Here’s how it works:

  1. There are two paths—one representing an individual (employee) and her progress toward achieving her goals (or her mission in life), and the other representing an organization’s progress toward its goals (or its mission).

  2. The goals on these paths are represented as targets at the top.

  3. The individual works for or within the organization, so the paths cross.

  4. Anything within those paths is helping at least one of the “entities” move toward its goals; anything outside- or off-the-path is not.

  5. We could also say that anything on a path is important (to the individual or the organization); anything off the path, not so much.

SOME EXAMPLES

To help us play with this model for a moment, let’s examine the intersection of the paths.


Imagine you’re in charge of a department or organization. You’ve spent a lot of time defining and clarifying your goals. You know your target. Companies typically spend a lot of time and resources on this. (Your path in the model above is the one that goes from lower left to upper right.) [If you have NOT done this, contact us, we can help.]


You have an employee working for you who has clear personal goals. (His path of course is the one that goes from lower right to upper left.) He’s doing great work for you—everything you could expect of him, within reason—toward helping the organization achieve it’s goals. AND he’s getting everything he wants out of his job. We could say he’s playing in the sweet spot at the top of the diamond, where your department or organization is getting what it needs from him and he’s getting what he needs from the organization. This is, of course, ideal.


Let’s say you have another employee who’s doing great work. She’s an exemplary salesperson who is without a doubt helping the organization achieve it’s goals. At the same time, she’s not getting much from the organization—at least not much toward achieving her goals. We could say she’s operating on the right side of the diamond and, unless you and she are able to find a way to help her get her goals met within the organization, she’s probably going to leave. She’ll quit.


Then, of course, there’s a third employee. He’s getting everything he wants from the organization toward achieving his goals, but he’s not doing much toward helping the organization achieve its goals. He’s on the left side of the diamond and—unless you can help him find a way to contribute more—he’s probably going to leave the company too. He’ll be fired.


Dismissed. Terminated. Sacked. Shown the door. Given the pink slip. Booted. Canned. Eighty-sixed. Laid off. Bounced out. Given the ol’ heave-ho. (Amazing how many terms we have for that.)


THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING WHAT’S IMPORTANT

These examples help us see rather quickly how important it is to be clear on what’s important—for both parties, the organization and the individual.


And knowing what’s important will help you think more clearly about what you choose to do and not to do.


I like this because it’s helps us think about how to be happy in our work, how to manage that delicate balance between what the individual needs and what the organization needs.


And it encourages clarity.


As a manager you need to be clear on your team’s goals—articulating what they are and how to accomplish them.


And as an employee you must be clear about what you want, and what your goals are, or you’re going to find yourself unhappy and resentful because you’re un-grounded and blown about by the winds of the organization.


As Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat said, paraphrased: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll get you there.”

So, coming back around to importance, essentially what I’d like you to take away from this is that importance is tied to those things that we value—our personal goals and mission, or the goals and mission of our organization.

Importance is tied to those things that we value—our personal goals or the goals and mission of our organization.
Urgency

Importance is the difficult one. Urgency’s easy.


What do we mean by urgency? How do you know if something is urgent?


It’s time sensitive.

That’s it. It's simple.


Let’s look at an example.


Say you need to prepare your taxes and it’s January. Taxes are due on April 15th. Is preparing them at that time urgent?


Heck no. Not at all.


It’s important, but it’s not urgent. You’ve got several months to finish them.


But let’s say it’s April 14th and you're taxes are still not done.


Yikes! Now, it’s both urgent and important, right?


Given that example, how does it become urgent?


It’s urgent because it’s time-driven and you’re really close to the deadline. You waited until it became urgent. The closer you get to the deadline, the more urgent it becomes.


So, of course, the trick is to let importance drive most of your decision-making, not urgency. Learn to act on things that are important BEFORE they become urgent.


Let importance drive most of your decision-making, not urgency. Learn to act on things that are important BEFORE they become urgent.

The Pareto Principle


The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, is another one of my favorites. Partly because it’s fun to look for examples of it in everyday life.


The Story


There’s this guy, Vilfredo Pareto, he was an Italian economist. I don’t know all the details, but sometime in the early 1900s he woke up one morning and realized that about 20% of the people in his region owned about 80% of the land. Not long after that, he coined what has become known as the law of the vital few or the 80/20 rule. The idea being that 20% of one thing often makes up 80% of another.


The Pareto principle: 20% of one thing often makes up 80% of another.

Here are some examples:

  • Transportation – 20% of the people on the highway cause 80% of the traffic problems

  • Education – 20% of the students in a classroom ask 80% of the questions

  • Fashion – You wear 20% of the clothes in your closet 80% of the time

  • Sales – 20% of your salesforce brings in 80% of the new business

  • Customer Service – 20% of your customers have 80% of the issues

  • Absenteeism – 20% of your employees are sick 80% of the time

Look around you, examples of this are everywhere—a small percentage of one thing making up a large percentage of another. Here are a couple more:


Household – 20% of your carpet gets 80% of the wear and tear

Social Media – 20% of your Facebook “friends” are involved in 80% of your interactions


How to Use the Principle


Alright, enough of that. So, how does this apply to your to-do list?


Given any list—whether it’s your to-do list, a grocery list, an agenda, the things you’re going to cover on a phone call (which I suppose is also an agenda)—20% of those items are probably going to give you 80% of your results. So, analyze your list, look for the 20% of the items that are most important, and move ’em to the top.



I find those top-20%-items typically include things like these:


  • Following up on commitments and promises

  • High-payback items

  • Things that if not done soon are going to cause problems for me or my organization


Reminds me of something my grandmother used to say: “If ya gotta eat a frog, why sit around and look at it all day.”


So, look for those most-important items—especially the unpleasant ones—and do them first, get ’em out of the way. Strive to let importance, not urgency, drive your decision making.


 

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