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How to Identify the Most Important Activities in Your Life

The advice of time managers experts (Stephen Covey, Alan Lake in and others) can be reduced to few points:
  1. Find about an hour when nobody will interrupt you and your mind is fresh. Relax.
  2. Take or prepare (cut) 20 to 30 small rectangular pieces of paper of about the same size (cards).
  3. Write on these cards all that really important for you, all that you cannot live without, all that you always dreamed to do, all that you have to do or should do, all your important goals (one item per cards). Do it quickly but in a the relax manner. Write things in random order as they occur to you as in brainstorming. You always can add the missing items later. Do not think hard whether a goal or thing is important enough; it is better to write down the doubtful goal and go further. Try to begin from the long-term goals but again do not try too hard. Just relax and write.
  4. Next separate this pile into two piles: urgent and non-urgent.
  5. Each of these two piles in its turn separate in two piles: important and not important. You will have four piles now. Each pile corresponds to one of the four quadrants (I follow Covey ideas, though image is different from his):
    Quadrant/Pile 1: Important and Urgent
    (Corresponds to things in to-do list and things)
    Quadrant/Pile 2: Important and NOT Urgent
    (Corresponds to activities, which manage Activities and Priorities)
    Quadrant/Pile 3: Urgent but NOT Important Quadrant/Pile 4: NEITHER Urgent NOR Important
  6. Forget for a while Pile 3 and Pile 4 (they are not important). Forgot for a while about urgent Pile 1. It is for a to-do list and we will discuss it later in one of the next chapters. According to Covey the most important things, the goals of your life are in Pile 2 (Important and NOT Urgent).
  7. Looking at the cards from Pile 2, (Important and NOT Urgent, i.e. your long-term, strategic goals) try to indicate not more than 7 to 10 activities that are most important to you. If necessary integrate several activities into one and write the corresponding card (e.g. integrate relationship with friends, parents and spouse into one activity: relationships). As we discuss in earlier chapters, these 7 to 10 most important activities you should learn by heart and always keep in mind when making a decision whether you should do something more specific. Activities and Priorities can help you remember your main goals, showing them together with their current priorities.
To check that you didn't forget something important you may look at the wellness dimensions, which is actually just another way to name the most importand acivities.

Now let us discuss the advices, which time manager experts give related to some points in above list.

First, the advice from point 6 (Throw away piles 3 and 4) is in accordance with time manager expert advice: "You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage--pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically-- to say 'no' to other things." writes Covey. Almost the same says Peter Drucker: "Identify and eliminate the things that need not be done at all". Alan Lakein tries never to do less important things (B and C things in Lakein's terms) etc.

It is probably interesting to have examples of the things, which are in piles 3 and 4 and which are better to throw out. According to Covey in Pile (Quadrant) 4 (neither urgent not important) are things like time wasters, some phone calls, and trivia work. In quadrant 3 (Urgent but NOT Important ) there are some pleasant and popular but useless activities: proximate, pressing matters; some meetings, etc.

For the effective time management the most important thing, as says Covey and as we have also found out above, is to compose Pile 2. While composing this pile it useful to ask yourself the two questions. First is Drucker's: "What would happen if this were not done?" If the answer is 'nothing', than do not include it into Pile 2. Second is Covey's question: "What one thing could you do in your personal and professional life that, if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your life?" If you find such a thing, include it in Pile 2.

Since, as we discussed earlier, there should be few (less than 7 to 10) main activities in Pile 2, they tend to be universal values that are important for most people. So it may be interesting to mention some examples. Covey writes about such activities as Physical, Social/Emotional, Mental and Spiritual. I agree with Covey, but of course it is very personal. These activities should be important for you personally and you may also rearrange them as it convenient to you. For example, when I thought about these things I identified three activities which I consider to be important for most of us: Cardio, Family, and Work, and preset them in the Activities and Priorities.
Actually I included Physical into Cardio, Social/Emotional and Spiritual into Family and Mental into Work. I hope you grasp the idea and can compose your own set. Activities and Priorities can help you form the habit to keep them in your mind while making the decision.

Finally let us look at an example from Covey's practice. Covey asked his famous question "If you were to do one thing in your professional work that you know would have enormously positive effects on the results, what would it be?" to a group of shopping center managers. Their unanimous response was to build helpful personal relationships with teenagers (visitors of their center) and owners of the shops inside this center. However as measurements had shown, they spent less than 5% of their time on those activities. All their time was consumed by Quadrant 1 (urgent and important). After this study the owners of the center decided to spend at least 1/3 of their time in helping relationships with tenants. As a result they were able to increase their income fourfold in about a year and the number of crises diminished (Quadrant 1). Covey writes that earlier they had had the feeling that they were like policemen and supervisors, but after they changed their approach, they felt like problem solvers and helpers.

Quotations

"Identify and eliminate the things that need not be done at all." (Peter Drucker)

"What would happen if this were not done? If the answer is 'nothing' then the obvious conclusion is to stop doing it." (Peter Drucker)

"Keep in mind that you are always saying "no" to something. If it isn't to the apparent, urgent things in your life, it is probably to the most fundamental, highly important things. Even when the urgent is good, the good can keep you from your best, keep you from your unique contribution, if you let it". (Stephen Covey)

"What one thing could you do in your personal and professional life that, if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your life?" (Stephen Covey question that helps to identify your main activities)

"The point is to make time for what is important to you- your health, your family, your relationship, etc." (Edel Jarboe)


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