During a recent newsletter coaching call (are you signed up for my newsletter? I offer occasional group coaching to subscribers), a participant asked about aligning her goals with her priorities. More specifically, she expressed concern that she wasn’t completing her work in a reasonable amount of time.
I bet you can relate.
Here’s the general advice I gave her: Be clear on why something needs to be done, and how you’re going to do it. Here’s how to break that advice down into a few steps:
Step 1: Be clear about why the task needs to be done.
This step is about prioritizing. Sometimes we spend extra time on tasks that don’t need to be done right away and say yes to things we shouldn’t do. Be clear on your priorities so that during your normal work day you end up having a shorter, but clearer list of what needs to get done. We need to put firmer, stronger boundaries on our work, which can be good encouragement for us to get it done in the time we give ourselves. Sometimes when we allow ourselves to believe we have nights and weekends to work, we allow our projects to spread into this extra time.
One way to prioritize is to distinguish what’s urgent from what’s important. Important is the book you start in your first year on the tenure track that must be published by year five. Urgent is the faculty meeting that starts in ten minutes. The vast majority of email you respond to is urgent but not important. Urgent and important is the revise and resubmit that’s due back to the journal next week.
You can use a table like this to distinguish urgency from importance:
Step 2: Be clear about how you’re going to achieve your goals.
Uncertainty slows you down. You spend time wondering what you should do instead of actually doing it.
Being clear about your actions and tasks and the time you need to complete them will help you feel less overwhelmed. It’s hard to predict how much time you need to complete a task but there are some steps you can take. They include tracking your time, so you can begin to track how long tasks have taken you in the past. You can use that to predict how long it will take you in the future. Next, write down, in detail, every single step that you need to complete to finish a task in order to achieve a goal. You can learn how to do that by reading this post.
When you do this, you’ll be less likely to start what you thought would be a 1-hour task at 4:00 and find yourself still plugging away at 7pm.
Step 3: Be ruthless about your time.
Finally, when it comes to work, give yourself time limits for routine tasks and for tasks that aren’t directly related to your career mobility or stability. This step is especially important for those of us who are inclined to say yes to everything. You need to put some time constraints on all those favors! Think of your time budget the same way you’d think of a monetary budget – there’s a finite amount, so no matter how much time you’d like to spend, the reality is that you can’t use time you don’t have.
Step 4: Be clear about your priorities (again).
I’ve been discussing priorities throughout this post, but remember that the question that prompted this post was motivated by a concern about working on the weekend. Let’s be honest: you’re not going to set good boundaries if you don’t establish your personal priorities first. That means that your rest, time with others, and whatever else you need for self-care and rejuvenation is non-negotiable. When you prioritize, it’ll be that much easier to say no to superfluous requests. Once you acknowledge (to yourself) that exercise is important because it helps you manage stress and provides some relief for that ache in your back from hunching over a laptop for eight hours a day, you’re more likely to stick to your routine. To start, decide on one non-negotiable. It might be a standing dinner with a loved one or eight hours of sleep every night. Once you decide what it is, schedule around it.
Standing appointments and hard stop times can be great for motivation. I personally get work done in record time on Tuesdays when I know I have to get ready for Pilates at 5pm, because I’m not able to drag my work out.
Finally, remember that your goals and priorities will shift over time — and that’s OK. In fact, it’s natural. The tenure book I mentioned in step 1 will eventually become urgent and important. Things that once seemed vital will lose their urgency. But what won’t change is that you must do the work to protect your time and honor your commitments — especially those you make to yourself.