How do you decide what to do with your time when confronted with more projects and tasks than one might easily complete in a full quarter of work? Fortunately, not all projects and tasks are equal, allowing you to make values-based decisions to determine what should command your time and attention. Sifting your projects through a set of filters improves both your choices and your overall results. These nine filters will help you better decide what to do with your time.
- Impact: What is the impact of the task or project you are considering? When you think about your long term goals and the outcomes you are trying to achieve, what effect would this project or task provide (if any)? One of the reasons people don’t feel that their work is meaningful or purposeful is that they choose poorly because they don’t relate their time and effort to the impact they want to make. The more you focus your work on the impact you want to make, the more satisfied you are going to be with your work and yourself. What few things should you be doing to make an impact?
- Long Term Value: What is the long term value of the project or task? Projects and tasks with long term value are almost certainly a better use of your focus and attention than those with short term value. Answering your email is important, and responding to the daily onslaught might give you a sense of control, but the project that is going to be the foundation of your future strategy promises to be worth more. We tend to avoid projects and tasks with higher long term value because they demand more of us than the administrative tasks that require little effort. What projects or tasks promise the most significant long term value?
- Future Value: Some projects and to-dos create very little value now but promise massive value in the future. It’s easy to overlook these things because there is no penalty for avoiding them now. There are, however, consequences for not having done these projects in the future. When the future value is very high, or the consequences for not taking action dire, you want to filter this proactive work in, not out. What should you be doing now that will not produce a result now, but will be critical in the future?
- Importance: The old Eisenhower matrix’s top right quadrant was important and not urgent. Stephen Covey used that matrix in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to teach the idea that the work in this quadrant (Quadrant II) was most important. It is lower on my list of filters because so much of what you do is important and non-urgent that you need to consider Impact, Long Term Value, and Future Value. If everything is important, nothing is important. The error here is believing all projects and tasks are equally valuable.
- Urgency: There are some initiatives and tasks that are time-sensitive. If you don’t do something now, you will either miss an opportunity or suffer some negative consequences for not having taken action. Depending on the value of the opportunity or severity of the consequences, you might prioritize this work. You are not limited to looking at something urgent through this single filter. Does this urgent task also provide Impact? Does it create Long Term or Future value? Much of what shows up in our world feels urgent because of our real-time, right now, communication mediums. Almost none of it is urgent; it’s just rapidly delivered.
- Critical Path: Someone else may be depending on you to deliver something they need to provide something else. Their result is dependent on you completing something before they can continue to do their work. You are on the critical path, and not doing something creates a problem downstream. The commitment you made—or the one made for you—requires you to meet a deadline. When not doing your work harms another’s results, you have to adhere to your commitment. When possible, you might filter out anything that places you in a critical path instead of committing to them.
- Primary Value Creator: Are you the principal value creator? Is what you are considering something that only you can do? Is it a project that isn’t going to be the same without you specifically? Much of the work we do is work anyone might have done—and some would have done much better. If you and I both print and deliver a report, there is no meaningful difference to the person receiving the information. If you and I both assess the report and share our thoughts, and you are an expert, and I am a novice, your view may be better than mine. If the work can be done as well or better by another, you save your time and effort for the work only you can do.
- Relational Value: Some people need your help. You care about these people, and the relationship is meaningful enough that a request will get your attention. Relationships are expensive. They require time, attention, and caring. A project or task may fail most of the filters above and still end up at the top of your list because the value of the relationship is more valuable than other considerations.
- Future You: This last filter is different from the rest. In some ways, it is broader, and in another way, it is even more specific. This filter requires you to allow your future self to decide what you do with your time now. Looking back from the future on today, what will the next version of you want you to do now. That future is racing towards you now, and the decisions you make now either empower that future, or they are your future regrets. Choose wisely.
If you want to be productive, you start by making excellent choices as to what you do with your time and energy. Using filters to allow through what is most important prevents you from wasting time on things that aren’t important—and eliminates potential future regrets.