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The Main Thing

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” ~ Joe Ray Underwood (friend and mentor)

Time management guru Alan Lakein noted that unclaimed time flows to our weaknesses in his best selling book, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life (1973). If we don’t claim our time, we will often look back and regret the time we’ve lost. In his autobiography, My Life, Bill Clinton reflected on the influence that Lakein’s book had on his life.

When I was a young man just out of law school and eager to get on with my life, on a whim I briefly put aside my reading preference for fiction and history and bought one of those how-to books: How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, by Alan Lakein. The book’s main point was the necessity of listing short-, medium-, and long-term life goals, then categorizing them in order of their importance, with the A group being the most important, the B group next, and the C the last, then listing under each goal specific activities designed to achieve them. I still have that paperback book, now almost thirty years old. And I’m sure I have that old list somewhere buried in my papers, though I can’t find it. However, I do remember the A list. I wanted to be a good man, have a good marriage and children, have good friends, make a successful political life, and write a great book.

Lakein recommended that we concentrate on our “A” list priorities. Often these activities are important but not urgent, and we end up concentrating on the urgent things or get overwhelmed and do the easy things or just give up and go with the flow. Consequently, we find that we are not accomplishing our goals, and over the years we regretfully wonder why we haven’t done all we hoped to do.

Many of us keep a “to do” list, some of us even prioritize the items on the list, but is this enough? How often do many items remain on the list day after day or ultimately fall off the list because we didn’t do them? Stephen Covey, author of the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), took Lakein’s ideas to a necessary next step. Making a list of what we want to accomplish and prioritizing each item is not enough. We must schedule the tasks and activities, put them on our calendars just like any other appointment, and show up and do what is required.

Covey said that we should put first things first. He suggested that we all take a yearly or quarterly retreat in order to honestly examine our lives and relationships, determine what is important in context with our values, and set personal and professional goals. Once that was done, he recommended that we schedule a weekly planning meeting with ourselves in order to review progress on our goals and then prioritize our time and energy in order to focus on accomplishing what we have claimed is important to us.

Covey observed that our time and energy was spent in one of four quadrants:

Quadrant 1: Important and urgent. The tasks and activities in this quadrant include crisis, pressing problems, deadline-driven tasks, meetings, etc. Because they are both important and urgent, they must be done. They may also require a large amount of our time and energy.
Quadrant 2: Important but not urgent. This quadrant usually contains the tasks and activities that, if done, will allow us to accomplish our goals, build meaningful relationships, and live healthier, fulfilled lives. Because they are important but not urgent, these are also the things that are most easily put aside or procrastinated in lieu of urgent matters. We think, “I really need to address this crisis or meet this deadline. I’ll get to Quadrant 2 later.” Unfortunately, later never comes, or at the end of the day, we’re tired and tell ourselves that we’ll visit Quadrant 2 tomorrow.
Quadrant 3: Not important but urgent. These tasks and activities include interruptions, including some phone calls/mail/email, other people’s priorities, some meetings, and popular activities.
Quadrant 4: Not important and not urgent. We all have our favorite time wasters and escape activities. When we are tired, bored, or unmotivated, we gravitate to these activities. They can include busywork, watching TV, excessive sleeping, surfing the Internet, and even Facebook. This is what Lakein meant when he wrote that unclaimed time flows to our weaknesses.

To achieve our goals and build and maintain meaningful relationships, we must spend as much time as possible in Quadrants 1 and 2 and protect ourselves from Quadrants 3 and 4. While we usually complete our important and urgent tasks and daily activities, it’s too easy to neglect the important but not urgent tasks and activities. The Pareto principle can help motivate us to keep first things first.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule) states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. The Pareto principle was named after an Italian economist who observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people and 80% of his pea crop came from 20% of his pea plants. Minsters have told me that 80% of the financial giving and work in the church usually comes from 20% of the church members. In business, 80% of profits come from 20% of customers, 80% of complaints come from 20% of customers, 80% of profits come from 20% of the spent time, 80% of sales come from 20% of products, and 80% of sales are made by 20% of the sales staff. In finance, 80% of return will come from 20% of investments. Microsoft learned that fixing 20% of the top reported software bugs also resulted in eliminating 80% of software errors and crashes.

To put this in the context of life accomplishments, roughly 80% of our results will come from 20% of our time and energy. Thus, it is imperative that we claim our time in order accomplish what really matters in our lives. Unfortunately, if we spend most of our lives in Quadrants 3 and 4, we will have little to show for ourselves.

Some believe all activities and tasks in Quadrant 2 are difficult, dull or laborious, which is why they avoid them. Sometimes this is true but not always. Last night, for example, I played poker with some friends. This was a Quadrant 2 activity because I was maintaining some important relationships. I thought about canceling because I was tired from a long work week and had experienced some recent bouts of insomnia. Now I’m glad I went, as I spent quality time with some guys I hadn’t seen in a while, laughed a lot and left feeling more relaxed.

Having coffee with my adult son and daughter is Quadrant 2 activity. Taking the time to purchase, write and mail a special card to my aunt (who doesn’t do email) is a Quadrant 2 activity. Developing a brochure about my business to send to potential referral sources is a Quadrant 2 activity. Compiling a mail-merge list of names and addresses of potential referral sources, albeit mind-numbing and time-consuming, is also a Quadrant 2 activity. The tasks and activities that go in Quadrant 2 are determined by what is important to us. Since I decided what goals I would pursue, I find most of these tasks and activities enjoyable or at least tolerable.

How many times have I heard someone tell me that they have a great idea for a book they would like to write, yet they haven’t written a word? How often have we heard someone (maybe us) say they needed to get in shape or eat healthier but their lifestyle never changes? We all have dreams we want to accomplish in life, but if we don’t spend time and energy on those things, we’ll never realize them.

Let’s assume that we’ve set our goals, broken them down into manageable objectives, and listed and prioritized the tasks and activities that must be completed. While this is a great start, it is merely the beginning. We must take the tasks and activities from our “to do” lists, schedule a time for them on our calendars, and then DO them. Our dreams and goals don’t get accomplished if we don’t claim our time. None get accomplished if we procrastinate. None get accomplished if we allow an urgent task or activity to replace what we say is important.

For years I have wished to improve my guitar proficiency. If this is ever to become more than wishful thinking, then I am going to have to develop a practice plan and then work the plan. I won’t improve over night; however, if I will schedule 20 or 30 minutes three to five days a week (even one day is better than none), show up at the scheduled time and practice, then over time I will see gradual, perhaps even dramatic improvement.

Showing up and doing what we say we will do is what Lakein called “having integrity in the moment of choice.” This is where our character is displayed. If I tell my children I’ll meet them at a coffee shop to catch up on what’s happening in our busy lives, I keep that promise. Most of us keep our promises to our family members, friends, professional colleagues, and even strangers, but how often do we break promises to ourselves?

When we break promises to ourselves, we damage our self-esteem. When we keep promises to ourselves, have integrity in the moment of choice, and do what we said we would do, we build our self-esteem and enhance our well-being. I always feel better about myself and my life when I know at the end of the day that I was productive. This is true for you, too!

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”