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How to Use Your Time Wisely by Prioritizing Your Goals

How to Use Your Time Wisely by Prioritizing Your Goals
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In his bookExtreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, author Robert Pozen reveals his secrets and strategies for productivity and high performance, focusing on results produced rather than simply hours worked. In this edited excerpt, Pozen lays out six steps to analyze whether your efforts are supporting your most critical business goals and objectives.

Many executives race from meeting to meeting or crisis to crisis without giving much thought to the rationale for their hectic schedules. They spend too little time on activities that support their highest goals and often report a serious mismatch between priorities and time allocations.

Think carefully about why you are engaging in any activity and what you expect to get out of it. Establish your highest-ranking goals and determine whether your schedule is consistent with this ranking. This process has six steps:

1. Write everything down. Include the routine tasks that you have to do daily or weekly and longer-term projects assigned to you.But you can only tread water if you spend all your time responding to crises and tasks assigned by others. To get ahead, you also must think about what you want to do.

These may be long-term goals, such as advancing your career, or short-term goals, like developing a new skill. Add these aspirations for your work to your list. Be as broad as possible; capture all your tasks and goals.

Related: When 'Just Do It' Just Doesn't Do It: Maximizing Interruptions As They Happen

2. Organize by time horizon. Divide your list into three time categories:

  • Career aims: Long-term goals over at least five years.
  • Objectives: Professional goals over the next three months to two years.
  • Targets: Action steps that should guide your work on a weekly or daily basis--or example, finishing one part of a larger project.

Make sure that each objective has one or two associated targets. If any lacks a target, think hard about the next actionable step you can take to advance that objective, and then add it to your list of targets.

3. Rank your objectives. Think about what you want to do, what you're good at, and what the world needs from you. These are distinctly different -- and there may be some conflict among them.Determining what you want to do is critical to your ranking decisions. For instance, if you have a burning desire to invent your company's newest product, you should rank that objective higher.

Then, ask yourself, "What am I better at doing than others? Which objectives play to my strengths?" Rank an objective higher if you have a comparative advantage in accomplishing it because of your personality or skills.

Lastly, ask what the world needs from you. You can't be fully productive by looking only at the supply side. You must also consider the demand side -- what the world, your organization, or your boss needs most from you.

Write down two or three top objectives for your organization and think about the metric used to evaluate performance. Ask yourself what one change you could make to help achieve success: more time visiting clients? Recruiting a talented professional to replace a retiring employee?

4. Rank your targets. Your targets, or action steps, will typically fall into one of two categories: enabling targets, which help you accomplish your objectives, and assigned targets, which are given to you. First decide which targets belong in which category and then try to rank them.

For example, finishing my book was a very high objective for me, so writing the first draft of a chapter tended to be my highest-ranked enabling target. An enabling target also can further an objective in more subtle ways. Suppose that you've been told that you'll be assigned a major project (i.e., an objective) that will require your full attention. So, you want to get many of your small tasks out of the way. Completing these lower-priority enabling targets supports your new objective by clearing away distractions.

Related: 4 Ways to Discover Your Strengths

List and rank your enabling targets based on the objective's importance and how effectively the enabling target furthers it. Assigned targets are daily and weekly chores that often seem unrelated to your bigger picture. They are very different than those that support your objectives. Although assigned targets are immediate and concrete, that doesn't mean they are important enough to consume your schedule. Consider them low priority and spend as little time on them as possible.

5. Estimate how you spend your time. Once you've ranked your objectives and targets, determine how effectively your schedule matches your high-priority goals. Take out your calendar and answer these six questions:

  • How many hours do you spend at work vs. other activities?
  • What are the three main work activities on which you spend the most time?
  • How many hours each week do you spend on meetings, forms or reports, and responding to emails?
  • Will your weekly schedule be similar a year from now?
  • What will be your three main activities during the next year, and will they change?
  • How will you measure success and failure over the next year?
  • Compare your allocations of time with your ranked list of objectives and targets. What percentage of your time do you spend on activities that help you meet your highest objectives and targets? How much time do you spend on lower-ranking items?

6. Address the mismatch. You'll likely find that you are spending no more than half your time on your highest priorities. Some professionals haven't carefully thought about their objectives and targets, and so often neglect an important goal -- until it becomes a crisis, demanding their full time and effort.

Related: 5 Tech Time Wasters and How to Avoid Them

Robert C. Pozen is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was formerly chairman of MFS Investment Management and served on the president's bi-partisan Commission to Strengthen Social Security. He is a former vice chairman of Fidelity Investments and was a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm Caplin & Drysdale.

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