Forget Your To Do List Why Scheduling Priorities Must Come Before Your To Do List
Your to do list may be the biggest obstacle that comes between you and your success. Myriad books have been written about how to manage your to do list, but I believe the key to success is to put a restraining leash on this all-consuming master: our to-do list.
Allow me to explain why and how.
How I discovered this simple, yet revolutionary, idea…
Every year, a few lessons elevate my thought life and behavior as a leader. In 2020, the concept I am about to share with you has been one of those lessons. The idea was triggered by a Stephen Covey principle: “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
At first blush, when I read his principle, I almost dismissed it as another cliché about time management. But then I realized it is not, at least not for me. When applied, this principle has the power to up-end your life, taking you higher than you are now by leaps and bounds.
We are told that effectiveness starts with a to do list, then prioritizing your to do list, and then blocking time to get the most important items on your to do list completed. It’s what I have always done. But now I approach what I do differently. Here is how:
Step One: Forget your to do list.
Our to do list is usually so packed with what is needed and expected from us that our personal priorities—the ones that can truly transform our lives—don’t even make the list. In our minds, we reason, I’ll work really hard to finish my to do list, then I can work on my truly important life or business priorities. After all, our daily tasks and goals are nagging at us now. We must be responsible, fulfill expectations, meet deadlines, and check off items on our to do’s.
Next time you sit at your desk, look at your to do list, then put it to the side—at least for a moment.
Step Two: Schedule your priorities.
Step two requires you to list your top life priorities and schedule them on your calendar first. These must come before tackling your to do list. Let me share with you how I get this done.
I start my work day at 5 AM. I spend the first 30 minutes doing light exercise, dressing, reading my Bible and praying. Then I devote a full hour (sometimes two) to tackle the big issues facing me professionally and personally. From 5:30 AM to 6:30 AM, I commit to ignore my to do list, even the most urgent tasks, and I tackle what is most important to me from another list, a list that rarely includes anything urgent.
If you want to try this, look at your day and schedule a time. Add it to your calendar that you are going to tackle your life and business priorities. Give them top priority. Only after you have spent that time with your personal priorities do you go to your to do list. For me, 6:30 AM or 7 AM is when I start working on my to do list.
You may ask, what is the difference between what is on my to do list and my top life and business priorities. I will let you in on how I determine that for myself. In the hour of engaging in my top priorities, I divide my time into three categories: unsolved issues, partially solved issues, and solved issues that require completion. All of the tasks here need some level of thinking, and some of them need very intense thinking.
I believe that our most indelible problems—the ones we usually ignore, the ones we put our head in the sand and forget about—these are often the very issues that prevent us from leveling up. We must not be afraid of tackling them, and that is accomplished when we give them top priority.
Therefore, I schedule my priorities, my most difficult issues that require intentional thinking. Even when I sense internal hesitation, I jump, trusting that God will help me find a solution. The French writer Voltaire said, and I love this quote, “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”
So I want to challenge you today to start a new list, a shorter one. Put the scary things on there, the things you have avoided for 10 years maybe, the things you know that if and when you solve, you and those around you will be elevated to the next level. Let’s call this list the “to-think” list.
Step Three: How to make and tackle your “to think” list.
When making your “to think” list, begin with two general categories: work and personal. Under each category, create these three subcategories.
1—Unsolved Issues. These are issues that we usually avoid. They are intensely complicated. Maybe it’s a people problem. Maybe it’s a system problem. Maybe it’s an area of weakness. Usually these are not urgent, though they can become urgent if left unattended for too long. However, they have us chained down, unable to move to the next level of thinking and operating. Therefore they are immensely important to resolve. What are the unsolved issues in your life, both personally and professionally?
On my list now is to lead a deep dive into the mission, vision, and values of our company. Having been in existence since 2004, every 5-7 years, we like to revisit these foundational statements so we can fine tune our focus. It is not urgent. Rarely does anyone ask me, “Wes, why haven’t we revisited these?” But it’s something that gnaws at me when I know it’s time. It’s time now because we are restructuring and rejoining elements of our company that had been run separately with different missions, visions, and values. I know that resolving this will catapult us into higher functionality. I usually make the first pass at these, then invite others to speak to it. So it’s up to me to get the ball rolling. This task is not easy. It is currently unresolved.
I have about ten more items under this section of unresolved issues. Here are a few of them: Should we create a role for a COO, and what would it be? Should we join the two weekly bulletins we send out (one for each section of our company)? On the personal list of unsolved issues I am considering: How can I connect better with my two-year-old son, Danny? How can we teach him music? Can he start taking tennis classes when he is three?
2—Partially solved issues. In our company, we have had a dream of having a medical clinic in an underprivileged part of the world. An opportunity recently arose to have a clinic in Kenya. Thinking of how to put this together was initially on my unsolved list. I had to think through a general framework for the relationship we would have with a church that has an existing clinic that we would take over. I had to think of how we would sell the idea to the main players on our side…this was a few months ago. With the help of several leaders in our company, the issue has been partially solved, but not completely.
Now, with more granular details still needing to be thought through, this item has been moved to my partially solved list. The reason I divide the unsolved, from the partially solved, from the solved that need completion is because my natural inclination is to keep the most difficult problems of my life and leadership in my periphery, mostly ignored.
When I separate them this way, I am more intentional to work on all three. Here is the last category:
3—Solved issues that require completion. This list contains tasks in which the foundational issues have been completely solved, however, I need to finish fleshing it out completely. For example, six months ago I was thinking of how we might train leaders in our company. We have tried many methods before, but with potentially faster growth on our horizon, I needed to re-evaluate our methods. With the help of several leaders, and after much thinking, praying, and deliberation, we decided to launch a new University with the goal of eventual accreditation. With this method, we would train our leaders, as well as outside leaders. We started our first cohort of four students this June. It is a one-year program that will result in a Diploma of Transformation Leadership. This has been a huge undertaking, but the seed of it started when I began dedicating time to think through a big problem.
Now that this issue has been solved, I need to finish the outlines for the course work and set the curriculum and lectures in place. The thinking requirement for this step is less intense than the unsolved or partially solved categories. However, this still needs my intentional attention.
Finishing the urgent first is a mirage.
As I close, I want to address one last trap. We commonly think that we will get to our most important problems as soon as we finish the urgent stuff, our day-to-day fires. I have realized that this is a mirage. We rarely, if ever, finish the urgent because there are always more fires.
A mirage is a visual illusion, like seeing water in the desert or on a hot road, and crawling toward it only to realize that it is an illusion caused by the reflection of light. It is like trying to get to where the sky meets the sea on the horizon. Completing the urgent is a mirage, it looks like we can get to it, but we simply can’t.
Give these ideas some thought. Schedule time daily to solve your most life-altering priorities that will powerfully and positively impact your life and leadership.