I often hear the complaint ‘Everything is a priority!’, but if everything is a priority then nothing is a priority.  The word ‘prioritise’ means to rank, select or place in order, so if everything is equally important then nothing is ‘more’ important and nothing is a priority.  However, I also understand the immense pressure everyone is under these days.  We are all expected to do and achieve more, yet there are only 24 hours in a day.  So the only solution is working smarter not harder.

Your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain where you do your thinking, is surprisingly limited.  It is a thin 2.5mm sheath covering the front of your brain mass and is only 4 to 5% of your brain, yet it demands a huge amount of energy to function.  If that energy is not available because you are tired, stressed or overwhelmed it is not very effective.   The latest studies in neuroscience prove that we can only hold one complex thought in our minds at any one time.  We need to respect our brain and give it what it needs to function well: time and energy. 

It needs to be the right sort of time at the right time of day, week, month or even quarter and it needs to be the right sort of energy – not the quick fix of a caffeinated or sugar fuelled rush – but the energy that comes with a healthy, well exercised and well rested body.

Three shifts in thinking

There are three shifts in thinking required to prevent overwhelming your prefrontal cortex.  The first one is to ‘Zone your Diary’.  This means allocating specific tasks to specific times so you can be more efficient.  These times may differ for different people but generally it is best to do the most complex thinking early in the morning when you still have lots of energy for your prefrontal cortex to work effectively.

For example, I like to plan my week so I only see clients on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.  That keeps Mondays for Business Development and administration and Fridays for writing and developing new material.  On the mornings I go into London I use the train journey as prime creative writing time to develop ideas, write articles and blogs or complex proposals.  On the journey home I meditate which is a great way to relax the mind.

So I invite you to consider a shift in your thinking about the way you zone your diary.  Whatever way you do it, you can expect to realise the following benefits within two months of doing so:

 – You will know that each crucial dimension of your business is looked after. Even if you experience some overwhelm in one area, other aspects will not be deprived of the life-blood of time and energy, so total chaos can be averted.

 – Other people will be educated as to how you work and can therefore plan accordingly. Whole departments can even agree on a working rhythm that promotes productivity. Clients can be educated too; many will admire your professionalism.

 – Rather than working off a single immense task list, you can use smaller task lists for each zone that makes planning easier.

 – A sense of achievement sharpens our self-esteem and promotes positive motivation.

Shift 2: Planning – is it a task or an appointment?

While it’s important to consider the zones in your diary, a second shift is to schedule in time to think.  It is also useful to plan in planning time.  This ensures you are able to make time to work ‘on’ your business rather than just ‘in’ it. 

We keep the appointments that are in our diaries; to not do so would simply be unprofessional.  If something is in the diary, it gets done.  If something is not in the diary, it is an intention. Our task list is a list of our intentions: those things that we aspire to do in the spaces between appointments.

Isn’t it extraordinary how easily we make appointments for others, but are reluctant to do so for ourselves?  The second key shift in thinking is to make those appointments, to agree these with others (public commitments override private intentions) and to defend these with the same professionalism that we would for a client.

The following are a few suggestions:

 – DAILY: 15-30 minutes reviewing the day and planning the day ahead.

 – WEEKLY: An hour to look at the week ahead and decide on the top three priorities. Best not done on Monday morning!

 – MONTHLY: Regular operational review, perhaps with the team. Are we on track for the quarter?

 – QUARTERLY: The lynchpin that holds all this system together. A day away from the treadmill, perhaps with a few trusted advisors.

 – YEARLY: An annual retreat that looks at the year ahead to review the vision and decide on the personal and professional priorities.

Check out the link to the Master Planner at the bottom of this article.

Shift 3: Learning to say ‘No’

People with a high ‘service-orientation’ have a genuine desire to assist others. This is often a deep value-centred reason for doing the job in the first place.  The desire to be available to others, to deal with requests and to solve problems comes from the heart of their being.

Not surprisingly, service-oriented people have a hard time saying ‘No’.  Refusing a client in trouble, an overwhelmed employee or the reasonable request of a colleague may even be unthinkable. But hard as it may be, we have to think about these things. Because not being able to say ‘No’ puts a question mark over our ability to deliver our ‘Yes’s’.

The third shift in thinking is learning to say No in a way that is elegant and yet assertive enough for people to understand without getting offended.  This is a key skill that is often underestimated.

When reviewing your diary, you may wish to ask yourself the following (difficult) questions during the next monthly / quarterly planning appointment:

– If I had to find a half-day per week to go to the hospital for kidney-dialysis, how would I arrange it? What would I let go of?

– What am I doing that is not enjoyable? What are the “heart-sink” appointments in my diary?

– Which team members are not working productively? Or at all?

– Who or what is draining my energy?

– What habits are not serving me well e.g. taking work home or on holiday, eating junk food, working late instead of going to the gym etc?

– Who do I always give in to and then feel resentful afterwards?

– What do I allow to distract my attention e.g. constantly looking at emails?

– Which conversations am I avoiding?

– Where am I spending money and not getting the value I expected from my investment?

– Where am I spending time and not getting the value I expected from my investment?

A very practical resource

Every year I put together a Master Planner with Calendars at different levels of detail.

– The Business Year by month,

– Monthly detail by the week,

– Monthly detail by day (this can be used as a Gantt Chart),

– A Year Planner by day,

– and due to popular demand a Holiday Planner / Calculator. 

It is all in one handy Excel Spread sheet.

To help you with the three shifts in thinking mentioned above you can get your 2014 copy of the Master Planner right now, just Click Here and go to the ‘Templates’ Tab.  You will find it at the top of the list.

You may also want to look at the other templates and checklists available.

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With best regards

David Klaasen