By Brian Tracy
"The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities."
- Stephen Covey
In 1970, sociologist Dr. Edward Banfield of Harvard University wrote a book entitled The Unheavenly City. He described one of the most profound studies on success and priority-setting ever conducted.
Banfield's goal was to find out how and why some people become financially independent during the course of their working lifetimes. He started off convinced that the answer to this question would be found in such things as family background, education, intelligence, influential contacts, or some other concrete factor. What he finally discovered was that the major reason for success in life is a particular attitude of mind.
Banfield called this attitude "long time perspective." He said that people who were the most successful in life and the most likely to move up economically were those who took the future into consideration with every decision they made in the present. He found that the longer the period of time a person took into consideration, the more likely it was that he would achieve greatly during his career.
Doctors, for example, invest many years of hard work and study to finally earn the right to practice medicine. After university courses, internship, residency, and practical training, they may be more than 30 years old before they are capable of earning a good living. But from that point onward, they are among the most respected and most successful professionals in the United States. They had long time perspectives.
If you take additional courses in the evening to upgrade your skills and make yourself more valuable to your employer, you're acting with a long time perspective. Because it can have a long-term effect on your career and your life.
The key to setting priorities is to have a long time perspective - and that usually requires sacrificing present enjoyment for future enjoyment. It requires giving up a short-term pleasure in the present in order to enjoy a far greater and more substantial pleasure in the future. And it begins with deciding what you want most in life and then organizing your time and activities so you can achieve those objectives.
With your larger, long-term priorities in order, you can much more easily decide upon your short-term priorities.
Setting short-term priorities begins with a pad of paper and a pen. Sit down, take a deep breath, and list all the tasks you need to accomplish. Although there is never enough time to do everything, there is always enough time to do the most important things.
Once you have listed your tasks, ask yourself this question: "If I were to be called out of town for a month and I could finish only one thing on this list, which one thing would it be?" Think it through, and circle that one item. Then ask yourself: "If I could do only one more thing before I was called out of town for a month, what would it be?" This is the second thing you circle.
Continue with this exercise until you have sorted out the highest priorities on your list. Then number each according to its importance. You are now ready to begin working effectively toward the achievement of your major goals.
Another good way to set priorities once you have determined your major objectives is with the A-B-C-D-E method. You place one of those letters in the margin before each of the tasks on your list.
"A" stands for "very important; must do; severe negative consequences if not completed."
"B" stands for "important; should do; but not as important as my 'A' tasks, and only minor negative consequences if not completed."
"C" stands for "nice to do; but not as important as 'A' or 'B,' and no negative consequences for not completing."
"D" stands for "delegate or assign to someone else who can do the task in my place."
"E" stands for "eliminate if possible."
When you use the A-B-C-D-E method, you can easily sort out what is important and unimportant. This will focus your time and attention on those tasks that are most essential.
Once you can clearly see the one or two things that you should be doing above all others, just say no to diversions and distractions and focus single-mindedly on those priorities.
Much of the stress that people experience comes from working on low-priority tasks. The amazing thing is that as soon as you start working on your highest-value activity, your stress disappears. You begin to feel a continuous stream of energy and enthusiasm. As you work toward the completion of something that is really important, you feel an increased sense of personal value and inner satisfaction. You experience a sensation of self-mastery and self-control. You feel calm, confident, and capable.
Here are six ideas that you can use to set priorities and keep yourself working at your best:
1. Take the time to be clear about your goals and objectives so that the priorities you set are moving you in the direction of something that is of value to you. Remember that many people scramble frantically to climb the ladder of success, only to find that it is leaning against the wrong building.
2. Develop a long time perspective and work on those things in the present that can have the greatest positive impact on your future. Maintain your balance in life by setting priorities in the areas of your health, your personal relationships, and your financial goals.
3. Make the commitment to improve those aspects of your life that are most important to you. If you're in sales, learn how to be an excellent salesperson. If you're a parent, learn how to be an outstanding mother or father. The power is always on the side of the person with the best practical knowledge.
4. Take the time to do your work right the first time. The fewer mistakes you make, the less time you will waste doing it over.
5. Remember that what counts is not the overall amount of time you put in. Rather, it's the amount of time you spend working on high-priority tasks. You will always be paid for the results you obtain, not merely the hours you spend on the job.
6. Understand that the most important factor in setting priorities is your ability to make wise choices. You are always free to choose to engage in one activity or another. You may choose a higher-value activity or a lower-value activity, but once you have chosen, you must accept the consequences of your choice.
Resolve, today, to set clear priorities in every area of your life, and always choose the activities that will assure you the greatest health, happiness, and prosperity in the long term. The long term comes soon enough, and every sacrifice that you make today will be rewarded with compound interest in the great future that lies ahead for you.
[Ed. Note: Brian Tracy is one of America's leading authorities on the development of human potential and personal effectiveness. With Brian's Ultimate Goal Achieving Package, you can discover a simple and easy-to-learn way to get everything you want out of life. Learn more here.]
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