The Most Important Question

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See if this sounds familiar. You start the day with a list of things you want and need to accomplish. It’s a great list you think, although a little long. Then you open your email. Your office phone starts to ring. Someone stops by. Your boss is now calling on your cell phone. Next thing you know, you’ve worked a long day but made no progress on your To Do list. To compensate, you make plans to come in even earlier the next day. And so it goes.

In our technologically wired, globally connected, dynamic workplaces, there is MORE than ever before to contend with. More opportunities… more tools… more ways to get information… more people to serve… and above all, more ways to be busy.

The clients I support are high achievers. They want to get it all done, be responsive to everyone, act faster, exceed expectations, and improve the process for the next person. In short, we may be adults in the working world, but we are all still trying to get an “A” on everything we do. Like we did in elementary school.

The issue is this: The workplace has changed dramatically from even 10 years ago, and there are some cold hard facts that we must accept about the 21st century workplace:

1. We can’t and won’t get it all done

2. We can’t and won’t please everyone

3. We can’t and won’t be the first in everything

4. We can’t and won’t be healthy and happy if we don’t accept points 1-3 above

So how do we deal with everything that is thrown at us every day? The answer is actually a question – and a powerful one that you have to master if you want to excel in the 21st century workplace.

And that question is… “What is most important?”

We are all now, and will continue to be, faced with dozens of ways to spend our time. That’s why we must learn to routinely pause and ask the question: what is most important for me to:

  • Execute flawlessly?
  • Decide now?
  • Achieve today?
  • Resolve at this meeting?
  • Finish this week?
  • Communicate to our partners?
  • Start moving on now?

And the key word in the question is… (drum roll)… MOST!

It is rare that I talk to someone who is actively pursuing “unimportant” work. The list of “important” tasks is real. And it is long. So the priorities must be prioritized. Not occasionally, but routinely.

Another challenge is to ensure that we keep our eyes on the achievement of outcomes versus the completion of activities. Too many times, we confuse the two. For example, “leading a meeting at 2 p.m.” (an activity) should not be our focus. “Confirming alignment with the functional leads” might be the exact outcome we need to achieve at the 2 p.m. meeting.

Sometimes prioritizing the priorities is relatively straightforward. But not always. I am reminded of a time that a leadership team handed me a spread sheet with 47 “A” priorities. Anticipating my reaction, they had broken the 47 top priorities into subcategories of: A1’s, A2’s, and A3’s. Needless to say, we had more prioritizing to do.

To call out the “most important” (from among the “very important” and the mere “important”), think about the tasks that would make you feel most proud or most productive on the drive home. Factor in what’s critical to your boss, your customers or colleagues.

Recognize that some things won’t get done… today, at all, or by you. In addition, not everything you do is going to receive your best efforts. But if you assess what is most important and what should be the “A” work early enough, there is an opportunity to re-negotiate the task or the expectations for completion time or quality.

Finally, “What is most important?” isn’t just a once a week or once a day question. We need to learn to consider it every hour of the day, at work and in your personal life. Completing the list is not the prize. Completing our most important work well is.

Bottom Line: We all have to make choices about how we’re going to spend our time and focus our efforts. Ask yourself “What’s most important?” and make it the right things for you, your career and the business.

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Laurie Anderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience as an executive coach to leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies to the World Bank. Visit www.drlaurieanderson.com or call 1-708-524-2444 for more information on Laurie’s services for individuals, groups, and organizations.

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