Priorities – finding the most important first step!

The key to success lies in asking a single question…’What’s the One Thing that I can do such by doing it everything else becomes easier or unnecessary’? The ‘focusing Question’ as described by Gary Keller in his excellent book ‘The One Thing’, considers the question you should ask yourselves or others when tackling any activity that is aligned to your goal or activity. Having read this book a number of times now it is clear to me that the power behind this question is immense and has huge influence over how likely you at to succeed in achieving your goal.

The key is to select the most IMPORTANT question rather than the hardest – generally most people create lists of priorities of things they have to do and have been told ‘get the hardest out of the way first’. The theory behind the ‘Focusing Question’ is to focus on the most important task or activity first no matter how hard or easy / large or small. The trick is identifying that one activity that is really the most important and then once finished, move to the next most important activity.

The beauty about the simplicity behind the question is that when you break down the question it guides you, holds you accountable and tells you what you need to do next. If we break down the question into three parts we can see the impact and effect;

(a) What’s the One Thing
This is very specific – its saying ‘tell me what the one and only thing is – not a number of things, just one’ so in effect gets you to pick one – it doesn’t allow you to choose more than one.
(b) That I Can Do
This is the accountability part – that ‘I’ can do – not anyone else – i.e. I’m taking responsibility for this task or activity – it means that I’m on the hook for the successful completion of this activity – no one else.
(c) Such by doing it everything becomes easier or unnecessary?
This is the Importance part – i.e. the part that ‘Matters Most’ i.e. the idea is that by selecting the most important activity all subsequent ones follow become easier or in fact may determine that others are simply unnecessary. To quote Gary Keller;

Make sure every day you do what matters most. When you know what matters most, everything makes sense. When you don’t know what matters most, anything makes sense.”
― Gary Keller, the One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

The One Thing can be applied to everything we do – be that work place activities or targets or personal goals. Once you’ve defined your primary goal or objective and the timeframe by which you choose to achieve it (further details on this structure later in a future blog post) you can then start considering the actions you need to take to achieve this goal…however by starting at the top level and asking the question (for example a goal that will take 12 months)….’What’s the One Thing I can do this year most such by doing it everything becomes easier or unnecessary?’

Think about what that one action item would be. As Gary Keller says ‘extraordinary success is sequential’ and this is at the heart of the process. By focusing on one thing at a time (without distraction) will ensure that the really important things get actioned in order and progression builds and builds (the domino effect) as momentum is created and you find yourself entering a state of ‘FLOW’ (section covers this later).

Breaking down a goal into smaller and smaller components really is the key to achieving your plans and repeatedly asking the ‘Focusing Question’ ensures you always are working on the most important actions first. So what’s The One Thing I can do this year, this month, this week, today or right now!

The question is the starting point for every step and as the question implies – everything after each action is that little bit easier or in some cases unnecessary – look at the list of actions that you need to take and consider those that are important and rank them based THE most important towards achieving your goal. As Gary Keller states – you should be creating a Success List rather than a To Do List – that’s what will get you there in the end.

Furthermore Gary Keller states ‘you can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once’. So many people believe they can multi-task but in reality their attention is divided. Many people believe that multitasking is an efficient use of their time and they can achieve many things – this may also be true in certain circumstances however there is a danger of feeling overwhelmed and additional its simply not possible to do two important tasks concurrently – each individual item will distract you from the other thereby losing focus and concentration on what matters most – and that’s just two things at once – adding a third or fourth results in something eventually having to give.

By focusing on only One Thing at a time will result in other things being left until they then become the next most important thing to focus on – this is the time at which things should be left to a state of ‘chaos’ – in reality though some things may need to be lightly maintained however in the vast majority of situations most other activities can be left to a later point in time, delegated to someone else or simply never completed. This may sound impossible – how can you let everything else just drift? – however when you consider you are focused on the most important things first and then work your way down a ‘success list’ you will find that considerable more progress is being made in pursuit of your primary goal. As you become more successful those less important tasks or generally more administrative activities will be or can be taken up by others in support of you as you become known for these important critical tasks.

Most people will see the value of you regularly executing and completing critical important valuable activities that move the business or a situation forward ahead of other lower priority tasks.

An example may be that you simply taking action on a specific task (such as hiring someone to help you with a project or activity) will then free you up to do something more important and take care of other activities that are less important thereby giving you more time to focus on those things than will grow your business or yourself. So the action of hiring someone becomes the most important activity and the result means that everything after that becomes easier or unnecessary (as someone else is now taking care of business for you).

Whilst it may appear very simply (and it really is when you get good at it) there are many other forces at play that can make this much harder that you will need to overcome – many of which we will deal with later in the programme, for example Procrastination (huge factor in preventing you from taking any action at all or particularly something important) or Distraction (in person, social media, notifications, noise in general) all things that can result in a deviation from focusing on the One Thing that will improve your chances of success. Getting into a habit of focusing on the One Thing will overcome many of these factors as you become clear in what it takes to utilise this approach in everything you do.

Once you study many successful people you will see how single minded they are and how they don’t let anything distract them and have a clear goal, plan and execute the important things above everything else – repeating this process creates the domino effect and success builds quickly and geometrically.

Identifying the One ‘most important’ Thing is the secret and finding the smallest most straightforward starting point will unlock the progression. You may not always get it right but taking action, doing something, is half the battle. Eventually, through practice, you will get sharper in finding the starting point. Evaluate all possible options in consideration of your ultimate goal and keep challenging your position as to whether this IS the most important activity I could do right now. By thinking in this way it will become easier to quickly determine that first step or action. This is not Astro Physics, you simply have to identify what first single step is most beneficial – it’s all about breaking things down and down into small ‘baby’ steps – tasks then appear to be far easier to achieve and with completion you gain confidence, momentum and are encouraged to move to the next one.

The Focusing Question is something that can be applied in any situation once you’ve determined your goal and work backwards pinpoint your first step that then forms the basis of your plan to succeed.

This approach may seem simply, obvious and familiar but tackling a problem or goal in this way will ensure you are focused in the most optimum manner with the very best chance of success.

In the corporate world you will be asked to take on many different tasks, projects, challenges, solving problems or equally hopefully you’ll be pro-active and looking to identify opportunities to innovate or evolve your role, team, department, function or business – your starting point is simply to clearly articulate your goal (what is it you are trying to achieve or solve) and then consider the timeframe (the by when – even if this is not completely clear but at least determine a reasonable target date) and then you start working back by asking the Focusing Question.

The benefits are not just in the correct prioritisation of the activity it also prevents you from wasting time, drifting, never actually accomplishing significant things – by developing an ability to also focus on the most important things you will quickly be recognised for cutting through the noise and getting to the heart of the opportunity or problem.

This approach will set you apart from others as whilst they may work hard or long hours you are acting in an optimal state of efficiency and at the most effective – the time saved by completing those critical things first will push you above everyone else and you success will build on success as you become almost ‘machine like’ in your ability to identify the critical path to success. By asking this question each time it will become almost impossible not to be successful if you apply the other techniques in support of this starting point (that we will discuss later). The cumulative impact will ensure you stand out and on the correct path. The Focusing Question really is the key that unlocks the door to success, progression and achievement in both corporate and your personal life – once you uncover the first step everything else becomes that little bit easier.

Email Efficiency? Do, Delegate or Delete

Email is a double-edged sword – its both a wonderful communication tool, connecting people inside and outside of businesses and home across the world yet it can be the single biggest factor in why you fail to be as productive as you could be during the working day, or in fact in the entire day. Having been created to provide almost immediate communication with anyone anywhere on the planet, hours could easily drift away whilst you are lost, deep down inside your inbox.

Using email effectively requires discipline and self control. In pursuit of optimsing the working day I would strongly advise checking email only three times per day and for no more than 30 mins at a time (less if possible). Personally I check at 8am, midday and 4pm. If anything is really urgent outside of those hours someone invariably will find another way of updating me (and it better be for good reason!). Sticking to these windows ensures I avoid the trap of responding to every little question or conversation that appears innocent (more often than not unrelated to my purpose or goal) yet dangerous as they distract my attention and focus on my priority. Once the email window has closed then I log out completely from the email session such that no notifications will appear on either my computer, phone or any other mobile device.

Email is having an increasingly pernicious effect. Not only is it having a perceptible effect on productivity, it’s skewing what it is we focus on. The immediate increasingly crowds out the important. Noreena Hertz

The second key factor during the ‘open’ window is to filter and then prioritise everything in front of me in the first five minutes. I use the triple D approach, Do, Delegate or Delete. That way I’ve immediately removed the noise, the Delete, I then identify emails that others can attend to, the Delegate (another session on delegation will follow as a future blog post) and finally those items that I am directly required to either read or action (sub folders) sit in my Do folder.

Depending on your email client I would set up rules based on specific criteria to easily identify priorities and individuals – like it or not there are a certain group of individuals in an organisation you want to be aware of i.e. senior management, peer group, key business stakeholders etc… those that you should be tuned into and lets face it, if you want to progress you need to be on top of these messages and respond accordingly – these are opportunities to impress (where possible). I suggest colour coding the name of the individual or group using the rules in the email client (fairly easy to setup). This will help with prioritisation when you come to the Do list.

Additionally if you take some time to wander around your office and observe most people when working through emails you may see them staring at what appears to be the same email for hours, reading, scrolling, composing, deleting….others of course rattle through them and pat themselves on the back for clearing their inbox but still may be unnecessary, however through effective organisation or delegation many are wasting your time or require a single line response rather than writing an essay – be clear, to the point, identify the problem and reply with a concise response.

For now try this three window approach to dealing with emails and see how you get on. Clear your inbox of the clutter – move everything in there to a new folder (if you need to refer back at some later point) and then create three new folders – DO (create two sub folders – ACTION & READ), DELEGATE and DELETE. Then when the first next window opens up filter accordingly. Once complete delete the DELETE folder. Run through the DELEGATE folder forwarding or requesting others to take appropriate action and then focus your attentions on the DO folder – Prioritise the ACTION folder immediately based on either importance or sender and work top to bottom. Then move to the READ folder and work through this determining what action is required (if at all). The DO folder may result in actions or reading outside of the window however the intention is to at least run through initially to determine if an immediate response is required until the next window opens up. If you run through the entire 30mins so be it and leave what remains to the next window a few hours later.

This simple technique will ensure you are, at the very least, more organised, more productive as your time, energy and focus is not wasted on random emails, only this really important ones. It does require discipline to switch off email and the temptation will be there to just ‘check’ but don’t! – simply wait till the window opens up again and then filter and review, when the time is up log out and focus on the next most important activity aligned to your goal. After a week or so reflect on your productivity and adjust and adapt accordingly in line with the way you manage your inbox.