Agile-Driven Priority and Time Management

In a previous post, “Focus, Dude!”  we identified one of the rules of agile leadership: focus. There are things you can do something about things you cannot – it’s important to distinguish between the two and treat them differently.

One critical mental discipline that agile leaders practice is being proactive. If you’re waiting for a choice to be made, an event to occur, or an issue to arise before you decide if it’s in or out of your circle of influence, then you will always be at the mercy of the pounding surf.

Having studied and worked with him since the late 1980s, I use the method Dr. Stephen R. Covey advanced in his work, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. His role-based techniques for weekly planning and time management work like this for me:

  • First, I have a personal mission statement; it is something that I defined for myself long ago. Without one, I don’t know how anyone decides what is truly important in their life and what is not. The truth is — either by design or default — everyone does have one. The difference is that some define theirs for themselves, while others let the randomness and vagaries of life define theirs for them. Fate may be what happens to you, but your destiny is determined by how you choose to respond to what happens to you. You want your mission statement to guide your choice of response.
  • Second, I have defined seven roles for myself in the context of my personal mission statement. I didn’t strive to have seven, that’s just what mine came out to be. Generally, a person will have no fewer than five, and should not have any more than nine, roles at a time in their life (i.e., 7±2), and these roles should cover their whole life (e.g., one’s personal and professional lives).
  • Third, on a weekly basis, I define one to three goals that I intend to accomplish that week in each role — the one to three things I want to get done to advance the state of each role that week. For example, in my role as “Husband & Father,” a week’s goal might be to surprise my wife with flowers for no reason, another might be to take my daughter on a father/daughter date; and in my role as “Steward of Others’ Resources,” a week’s goal might be to complete my department’s budget forecast; and so on. Several of my roles pertained to my work life, and I made sure that the goals that I set for myself in these roles were ones within my “Circle of Influence.”
  • Fourth, I schedule these goals to get done — I block off the time on my calendar.
  • Fifth, I am not so ignorant nor naïve to think that unexpected things won’t happen — I know that reality has little respect for any plans I might make. However, while I may not be able to anticipate everything that might require my time and attention during the week, I can foresee that un-anticipatable things will happen. For this reason, my calendar includes at least one hour of “buffer time” each day. Sometimes that is more than I need and sometimes it isn’t enough. But there is no secret on God’s green earth that gets around the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day and that you can spend an hour only once. (I am always amused by those who will brag about their productivity in terms of “being able to pack 7 pounds in a 5-pound bag.” It’s usually braggadocio, and it is as if they believe that there is some sort of bubble around them where the laws of physics do not apply. The fact is, you cannot get 7 pounds in a 5-pound bag. If you think you did, then there are only three possible explanations: 1) You only had five, not seven pounds; 2) Your bag was really 7 pounds, not 5; or 3) Two pounds leaked out and no one cared.)
  • Sixth, when reality does present me with something I did not anticipate, my first decision-gate is to determine if it is, or is not, in my circle of influence. Those that are not, die right there. Those unexpected things that arise and that are within my circle of influence are made subordinate to the weekly goals I have set for myself, and they get my attention as my available buffer time permits. Again, I am not so ignorant nor naïve not to know that there are times when the unanticipated needs to take precedent over the planned, but these times are the exception, not the norm.
  • Finally, when I make my role-based goals and plans for the next week, I start by taking my previous week’s results into account. Unaccomplished goals from one week do not necessarily become goals for the next week; there are no automatics, each week’s goals are the result of a conscious decision-making process.

At first, I would lay all of this out in pencil and paper, but as I exercised this discipline of role-based, weekly goal setting, it became a habitual behavior.

Many have initial difficulty with the concept of scheduling “buffer time” on their calendar. They’ll feel guilty for not having every hour of their day specifically scheduled. This may be a self-inflicted guilt, or it may be guilt you feel is imposed on you by your organization’s culture.

If it is self-inflicted guilt, well, you know what you have to do — if it helps, call your buffer time something else, give it a pseudonym.

If you think such guilt is spurred by your organization’s cultural norms and expectations, then test that theory. You may be surprised. Agile organizations, enlightened organizations — manage their productivity in terms of results, not activity; commitments honored, not hours worked.

If you persist, you may just find that you affect positive change in your culture. And that is good leadership!

And we’re agilityIRL. We’ve been where you are. We can help. Contact us.


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