The Importance of Priorities (How To Take Charge of Your Life)

I have noticed my life becoming increasingly busy lately, to the point where I someties feel like throwing my hands up in despair at all the things competing for my attention on a daily basis. The phone keeps ringing (and when I don’t answer, voicemails pile up). Hundreds of emails pour in. Somebody always seems to be waiting on me for something or other.

I know that I am far from alone in this department. In fact, I think that getting “out of control busy” is possibly a normal path of career growth, and is to be expected to happen to all motivated individuals (I’m looking at you, reader of this blog) who take on a lot of responsibilities at some time in their life. And as we get older, personal responsibilities seem to pile up right alongside the burgeoning amount of work demands.

I have been spending plenty of time thinking about this recently, and have come to a few (fairly obvious) conclusions:

  1. Things aren’t going to become less stressful on their own. The moment I move something off my plate, something new will be there to replace it.
  2. Efficient and effective working methods aren’t enough. Productivity hacks and systems like GTD are part of the solution, not the solution themselves.
  3. To remain sane, avoid burnout and continue to make progress, learn to operate calmly and stay cool amid constant chaos.

When multiple things are competing for our attention and pulling us in different directions on a daily basis, we face a choice of either becoming a victim of the chaos, or the master of it. To me, becoming a victim means watching your time evaporate day after day, progress hitting a plateau, and allowing generally negative thought processes to set in. In a busy world, if you aren’t sure what to do or work on next, somebody else will fill the gap and decide for you.

The path to conquering a chaotic schedule is to set clear priorities, and relentlessly stick to them. Begin by asking yourself tough questions like “What is really important here?” and “What am I unwilling to compromise on?”, and a powerful list quickly develops. Next, the list can be focused further by reviewing your upcoming goals and protecting your path to achieving them.

For example, here is a list of personal priorities to consider:

  • Health (diet, exercise, etc)
  • Family
  • Love and relationships
  • Learning new things
  • Saving money
  • Traveling
  • Spending time with friends 
  • …etc

And here is a list of business priorities to consider:

  • Sales
  • Budgeting
  • Recruiting
  • Leading the team
  • Project management
  • Admin
  • Getting help on certain projects
  • …etc

The application of this rule works in different ways for different people. I like to think in terms of monthly and daily priorities, and manage my to-do list accordingly. In any given month, I try to protect top 5 items from my personal and professional list as much as possible. I don’t always succeed at this, but awareness and clear direction is seventy percent of the battle. It’s always a huge temptation to decide to take on 20 different things in one day, but one has to realize that “If everything is critical, nothing is critical”, and plan accordingly. As much as we can logically split personal and business matters in our head, we only have one life and need to find a way to effectively combine the two.

As for all the other things to do, they usually have a way of taking care of themselves eventually. The key thing is that the fundamentals were looked after first, before the fiddling over the stacks of relative minutia could take over. When working at the fundamentals and getting those out of the way first, we can’t afford to let ourselves sweat over the small stuff.

Every day, remind yourself of your priorities, and why they exist. This will help you to control your life, as opposed to letting the circumstances of your life control you. There’s no comfort or salvation in making excuses. Setting sound priorities and sticking to them is a surefire way to create order amid chaos, reduce daily stress, and galvanize your ability to accomplish that which is important to you.

How do you cope with busyness, stress and many things competing for your attention at once? Let me know in the comments or drop me a line.

Occupy Wallstreet: Where Is It Going?

On a long flight back from New York to Johannesburg I couldn’t help but think of the Occupy Wallstreet movement and all of the attention that it is generating in the US media.Every time I flicked on the TV to see the local New York City news, there was an update on the state of the protest.

Clearly, there are some upset people out there—and they are trying to bring about a change. It’s still unclear to me however what their goal is, or what the general motivations behind the protest are. Are they pissed off at the rich? At their government? Both? Probably, the answer is yes.I’m still forming my views on the movement, but I do think that it should not be confused or compared with the protests movements of the Arab Spring, where people were trying to overturn dictators in order to win basic freedoms that have long been the norm in the Western world.

Time will only tell where #OWS ends up. For now, I wanted to share a short piece from a recent weekly newsletter written by the American author and success coach Philip Humbert, who’s balanced thoughts on this issue I tend to agree with:

"This week, I want to step gingerly around the edges of politics, hopefully without putting my foot in it. TIPS is not about politics. It’s about living our values, achieving our goals, and having a great life along the way.

But this week, the news has been filled with events that put these issues in the guise of “political discussion.”I’ve been struck by the images of the Occupy Wallstreet protesters, first in New York, then in smaller demonstrations around the country. But, I’ve also been struck by people, folks we might label as Conservatives, who seem quick not only to disagree with the protesters, but to question the value of their actions.

Based on a flip of the coin, I’ll address the protesters first.I like their energy and passion. If only I could generate that kind of enthusiasm and commitment for my own goals! They’re up all night, marching all day, carrying signs, arguing, chanting, pursuing their agenda! It’s got to be chilly on the streets this time of year, but there they are. Good for them!

I remember as a younger man I had that kind of energy, but now I get tired and I fear I’m much more skeptical. The protesters remind me to ask whether I still believe that my words and actions DO make a difference. One of my core values is to speak out, share my truth, rock my world and shake things up, and so I try to learn from them. I contribute all I can. I try to stay focused on my priorities and make sure my time and actions reflect my values. The protesters remind me of these things, and I think that’s good.

But I’m not sure they’ve thought clearly about certain things.I see them protesting a banking system that, for all its faults and flaws, has allowed millions of us to get loans for education, mortgages for our homes, loans for our cars, finance our businesses and have many of the good things in life. I see them texting and talking on iPhones created by one of the great entrepreneurial capitalists of our time, Steve Jobs.

But most importantly, I see them celebrating the freedoms of assembly and speech, demanding the redress of grievances with no fear of repression or reprisal, and that makes me proud of my country. These are good things! I tip my cap to these people and wish them well, even as I disagree with much of their analysis of America’s problems and their prescriptions for a cure.
And what of the other side?Sure, as we get “older and wiser” it’s easy to dismiss the enthusiasm of youth, to point out the weakness of their position or to disagree with their demands. Anyone can do that. We disagree with each other all the time.

What’s harder is to hold on to our traditions and the good things of the past while being open to new ideas and new solutions. I see folks “of a certain age” dismissing the protesters because they are dirty or making a mess of the parks and streets. Sometimes they are rowdy and that offends my preference for thoughtful discussion. I get that!But when we defend the status quo without listening to the demands for change, we miss an opportunity to grow. That makes me uneasy. As an old bald guy who likes our American traditions and mostly stands on the conservative side of things, I haven’t been comfortable with some things I’ve heard from my friends this week. At a luncheon, one friend suggested we “Arrest them all!” On television I heard commentators suggesting the protesters should merely be patronized and ignored. That didn’t sit well with me. Over-throwing tradition and abandoning the values that have made America great is not a good thing, and merely revolting in the street is more like the violence of the French Revolution than the idealism of our American Revolution. But when a large group of people go into the street to proclaim their frustration, I think we should listen and try to learn.

Whether it’s the Tea Party or the Occupy Wallstreet folks, people who take the time to march and protest do us a favor by speaking their truth. We should listen and try to learn. America has always attracted the best and brightest people, and the best and brightest ideas. It’s essential that we keep this tradition sacred because it makes life more interesting, and it makes America strong.”

What do you think of the current protests on Wall Street, and other around the world?

Tech Titans Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos Address Ivy League Students

For those youngsters seeking from wisdom from the tech titans of industry, I highly recommend watching these two inspirational addresses to ivy league students.

Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech in 2005:

Jeff Bezos’ Princeton graduation speech in 2010:

Why I Love Reading The Economist


Pictured above is a year’s worth of Economist magazines sitting on my bookshelf. Earlier today I tore off my favourite covers from the last 52 magazines, and threw away the rest. With my annual bookshelf cleaning ritual complete, I look forward to the next year of my subscription starting to arrive in the mail tomorrow.

The Economist offers much more than brilliantly designed covers. It is a thinking person’s newspaper (the term it uses to describe itself), providing timely, engrossing reporting and analysis on international affairs, politics and business. For this reason, it is one of the most popular magazines among corporate executives and technocrats.

In my view, reading The Economist regularly will help anyone to:

  • Stay informed of important world news.
  • Develop a considered opinion of politics and governance.
  • Keep up with big developments in science and technology.
  • Learn how to write effective analytical yet fluid prose.
In addition to the regular sections updated each week, The Economist often has brilliant, in-depth special reports ranging across a fascinating array of topics. 
I far prefer the print version to reading the articles online- it gives me that nice “warm and fuzzy” feeling when flipping through it on the couch or in bed, and in any case, I have enough blogs to get through when reading on my iPad or Macbook.

If you’re thinking of adding The Economist to your reading list, I suggest subscribing - you’ll save a bundle and never regret picking those plastic wrapped parcels out of the mail each week.