ARTICLE: “The Importance of Planning and Prioritizing”

I would guess that many of you reading this article are already fairly good time managers. You get a lot done. You are fairly efficient. You know how to make lists and check things off. So if you’re such a hard worker and know how to get a lot accomplished each day, why do you often feel like you’re spinning your wheels? Why is it, when all is said and done, and a week…a month…a year goes by…do you feel frustrated by all that is left undone? Why is it that all the things you SHOULD have done are not and you did the things you SHOULDN’T have?

We spend our time in certain ways because we choose to. There is nothing we do without choosing, although our choices are not always deliberate or visible. We have the choice to work or not to work, to write that report or not, to take the phone call or to wait. Each choice is based upon a reward received or anticipated. Rewards are what you expect to gain from undertaking or postponing a certain task. If you didn’t receive rewards, you would not continue that behavior. What rewards do you get for managing time the way you do now? Learning to manage your time better will free up time to do the really important things. Rewards come from good time management habits.

Planning is the most important part of the formula we call time management. Some of you say, “I don’t have time to do any planning,” or “Things change too much to plan!” But this is a fact: research shows that for every 1 minute you spend in planning, you will gain 10 in execution. 1 minute = 10 minutes. 10 minutes = 1 hour and 40 minutes! This may seem amazing because you may feel like you are already doing all you can each day! If you could just gain an extra half-hour a day through effective time management, you would have 22 more days available to you per year. 

Planning will keep you on course in achieving your goals and objectives. Abraham Lincoln reportedly once said, “If I had 60 minutes to cut down a tree, I would spend 40 minutes sharpening the ax and 20 minutes cutting it down.” Dale Carnegie told a similar story of two men who were out chopping wood. One man worked hard all day, took no breaks, and only stopped briefly for lunch. The other chopper took several breaks during the day and a short nap at lunch. At the end of the day, the woodsman who had taken no breaks was quite disturbed to see that the other chopper had cut more wood than he had. He said, “I don’t understand. Every time I looked around, you were sitting down, yet you cut more wood than I did.” His companion asked, “Did you also notice that while I was sitting down, I was sharpening my ax?”

Thus, Steven Covey calls planning “sharpening the ax.” You have to take time to make time. Planning is the difference between being REACTIVE and PROACTIVE. When you don’t plan, you end up responding to the day’s events as they occur. 

What does a reactive day look like? You arrive at work in the morning with no clear idea about the day’s activities. Things begin to happen—the mail arrives, the phone rings, people drop by. With a flurry of activity, you respond to these various demands. You put forth considerable effort, but at the end of the day, you haven’t accomplished anything significant. This approach is often referred to as FIREFIGHTING or operating by the seat of your pants. If you don’t determine what you want to achieve, you will experience frequent changes in your plans. You will experience a decision dilemma—”What do I do next?” If you don’t determine what you want to achieve, others will be perfectly happy to fill your time for you.

So you must plan your day BEFORE you arrive at your office each day! Why?
1. Your stress level diminishes
2. You don’t endanger other drivers
3. You don’t get insomnia
4. You wake to a purpose
5. You can enjoy your family time more
6. If you find out your schedule is too full to accomplish the things that must be done tomorrow, you can delegate, delete, reschedule meetings, move tasks ahead a day, etc. You will know if you have made realistic plans for the day.
7. You eliminate the “Decision Dilemma”—“What do I do next?”

The solution is to learn to focus on the priorities of tasks and plan to accomplish them in order of importance. If you don’t, there is a severe danger that the trivial, time-consuming activities of the day will push the critical few entirely off the calendar. 

Most of us look at our to-do list, determine which tasks we can knock out right away, and decide to start that important project “in a little while.” Then we go to lunch and say we will work on it this afternoon. Then what happens? You’re either too tired or a crisis comes up that demands your attention and you get nothing IMPORTANT accomplished that day. When “later” comes, there will always be something else you should be doing instead. If you always forego a little of something, a month later you will feel defeat for having accomplished so little. This is often referred to as the “TYRANNY OF THE URGENT.”

We operate daily in the tension that the urgent and important bring. The problem is that the “important” tasks seldom must be done today, but the “urgent” tasks call for instant action. Endless demands pressure every hour and every day. As we push the “important” back one more day, we slowly become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent.

The Pareto principle will generally apply—if you have 10 things to do, only 2 are really IMPORTANT. So to “leverage” your time, you should give less attention to activities that are urgent but unimportant and devote more time to those things that are important but not necessarily urgent. If left alone long enough, important things left undone will inevitably become crises. Important but not urgent tasks include contingency planning, training, marketing, writing performance reviews, developing new programs, networking, relationship building, exercise, long-term goal setting and long-range planning, project planning, writing a book, putting your finances on Quicken, etc.

You must learn to detach your sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from the number of check marks you have on your to-do list at the end of the day. In my opinion, you’ve been more productive on a day in which you’ve crossed off one thing out of ten, if it was the most important task, rather than nine things, leaving the most important still undone. I like Mark Twain’s quote, “If you eat a frog first thing in the morning, the rest of your day will be wonderful.” Identify the “frog” on your list each day and eat it first! You’ll feel great all day.

Some of you operate in an environment which witnesses one crisis after another. It is essential to not let the “crisis” or urgent tasks crowd out the important. There will always be a constant tension between these two priorities. One says you must get this done TODAY or this WEEK, the other says, “Get this done NOW!” New distractions seem to require our immediate attention and consume our focus and energy. 

When urgent things act on you, you usually react to them. But you must be proactive rather than reactive to do the important, but not urgent things. Only by saying no to the unimportant can you say yes to the important. If you neglect prevention and planning, crises will own your life. If you plan daily instead of monthly and weekly, you will live in the urgent, where your “planning” will only prioritize your problems.

So the dilemma is NOT a shortage of time—it is a problem of PRIORITIES. Would a thirty-hour day solve your time problems? Not really. Soon your thirty-hour day would be just as full and leave you no less frustrated. You would still have a list of things you never got around to and a pile of unfinished books and projects. Do you have a “someday” pile at work? How about a “decide later” pile? Even if you did have more time, these would still exist because of habits you’ve developed. It’s more complex than not having enough time or not managing your time effectively. Instead, it becomes a lesson in managing priorities and being disciplined.

There will always be more things to do than time to do them. Sometimes you must forego something you would like to do in favor of something that has to be done to accomplish your objectives. Don’t fail to plan. If you do, plan to fail.

© 2000 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at