Prioritizing in a World of Overwhelming Demand

It was a Saturday morning, and there was nothing I urgently needed to accomplish. But there was a lot I hoped to do. Over breakfast, the possibilities began to clamor for attention in my brain. I wanted to continue reading The New York Times. I also wanted to work out, run a series of errands, check in with a couple of friends, finish reading a book, take the dog for a walk, visit my grandson and find time for a nap. On the work side, I hoped to take some quiet time to reflect on a couple of important unresolved issues I hadn’t addressed in the office. I literally couldn’t keep these competing desires straight in my head, and this was the weekend.

I run a company that helps people get a lot done without feeling overburdened or overwhelmed. It dawned on me that I was feeling a level of pressure I hadn’t before. I thought it was important to revisit the tools and the principles we share with clients and decide if they needed an upgrade.

The issue at these times is how to prioritize when so much is coming at us. Few challenges seem greater today than delaying instant gratification and focusing on the activities that require greater effort but ultimately yield more enduring value. Think about the endless pings of incoming emails and texts. How often do you interrupt whatever you’re doing to answer them? How often is that the best way you could be using your time and attention?

Three principles seem critical here, and all of them have to do with being more intentional. The first one is that we each have a limited reservoir of energy — and, specifically, of will and discipline. Each time we exercise conscious effort, we draw down whatever is left in our tank.

The first important lesson is to take on the most difficult and important tasks when you have the most energy. For me, writing this blog post was that task on Thursday, and I, therefore, made it the first thing I did in the morning, without interruptions. If I’d waited until the afternoon, my energy and focus would have flagged, more competing demands would have come up, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten it done.

I also turned off my digital life while I wrote. Unless you’re wildly self-deluding or a doctor on call, you know deep down that you don’t have to look immediately at each incoming email or text you receive. But it’s incredibly tempting to do so. Partly that’s because as pleasure seekers, we’re forever looking for the next source of instant gratification. And partly it’s because checking your digital device feels like a justifiable reason to turn away from whatever more challenging activity you may be doing.

Simply trying to steel yourself and resist temptation is a losing game. If what you’re doing really matters, turn off your digital life for a designated period, much the way it makes sense to remove high-calorie foods from your house if you’re on a diet.

The third principle comes from the historian and philosopher Will Durant, paraphrasing Aristotle in “The Story of Philosophy”: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Put another way, we’re far more likely to accomplish what we schedule. I call them rituals — behaviors that become automatic so that we no longer have to think about doing them. Doing the most important thing first in the morning is one of mine. Exercising at a designated time is another.

What I realized on that Saturday morning was that I needed to make sure I lived by these principles. I also have to better assess what most deserves my energy and attention, and when. To make that possible, I created an exercise, and built a new ritual.

For the exercise, I defined four categories: body, heart, mind and spirit. Then I made a list of what activities best served each of these critical dimensions of my life. Exercise and sufficient sleep, for example, are crucial for my body. Time with those I love is critical for my heart. Reading, reflecting, learning and writing are essential mentally. And being of service to others, unconditionally, is what feels most important spiritually.

My new ritual is to take a few minutes, before I leave work each evening, to plan the next day around more of what matters most and to assess how I did that day.

In areas like sleep and exercise and reading and writing, I’ve already got regular rituals in place. Taking a short nap in the afternoon, or a few minutes to meditate, are rituals in progress.

I haven’t been at this updated approach to managing the demand in my life for long, but my new ritual already makes me feel far less whipsawed by competing demands. I certainly haven’t succeeded at every priority I’ve established. But there is something deeply satisfying about a clear intention for each new day.

Originally posted by The New York Times DealBook
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President & CEO
Tony Schwartz is the CEO and founder of The Energy Project and bestselling author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working. A frequent keynote speaker, Tony has also trained and coached CEOs and senior leaders at organizations including Apple, Google, the LAPD, and the Cleveland Clinic.
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