The following is an extract from the introduction of Tony's new book: Unbusy.
Step 1: What does winning look like? Your most Important Things.
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Identifying your priorities may seem simple. But, in fact, most of us find such a task challenging. We need to establish real clarity here; to identify precisely what is most important for us to accomplish, both at work and outside, over the next year (or another given timeframe, though no less than six months is advisable),
At the end of this exercise, you should be clear about three things that are non-negotiable - goals for which you would be willing to sacrifice everything else. Remember too, that if everything is important then nothing is important. We must focus on the areas where we really want to win and be relentless in pursuing.
True clarity, however, is more than just writing down a to-do list or assortment of things you want to achieve. The real task is to refine our goals to the absolute Most Important Things – what we will call our ‘MITs’. Since we have to limit ourselves to a maximum of three items across both work and personal life, this exercise requires real discipline. If you focus on any more, it becomes difficult to prioritise and things simply do not get achieved.
If you are going to commit to ‘doing less not more,’ this is where it is starts, with a few simple questions.
- What does the future of my role/team/business/industry look like?
- What are the major factors that will take my team/business to the next level?
- What do I really enjoy and what motivates me?
- What does career success look like?
- Where do I need to focus my time in order to achieve career success?
- Who do I really want to be as a partner/parent/sibling/friend etc.?
- What big things are happening right now or what problems are arising that need my attention?
- What does a successful life look like?
- If I continue the way I am going, will I achieve what is most important to me?
We will consider the ‘outside work’ components in greater detail in the Emotional Performance section, where we will see how crucial all-around success is. For now, let’s write down three MITs across both areas that will guide the choices we make every day.
Step 2: What does winning look like, TODAY?
Once you have reflected on what shape success will take in your current circumstances, you can also start to formulate your vision for your Optimal Day. Here, we must select behaviours and tasks that bring us closer to our MITs. Long-term goals are great, but we also need to understand what a great day looks like - and how to make that great day today.
Whether in our work, finances, health or relationships, we have all set goals in the past and had aspirations about changing things for the better. Yet research on new year’s resolutions, which shows that around 85 per cent have been aborted by February, is a good indicator of the average person’s level of commitment to goals of this kind. Studies of these resolutions show, time and again, that whatever inspired us in January has inevitably lost its traction within a few weeks. You can have the greatest MIT’s in the world, care deeply about them and lay them out clearly and with commitment. But unless you take it one step further, chances are that you will not have the impetus to keep working toward them in the longer run.
Long-term goals are great, but we also need to understand what a great day looks like - and how to make that great day today.
So, what is our problem here?
There are, in fact, a number of key factors that prevent us from following through. Firstly, unless we break our goals down into achievable activities, we will continue to just spin our wheels chasing smaller, sooner rewards. Secondly, long-term outcomes are not always a strong motivator. For example, when we first note down our MIT’s and think about what we want in the future, we get a burst of dopamine. We like the look of what lies ahead. But as we all know, this feeling soon evaporates. The principal reason is that it is too far in the future - there is no urgency. The greatest obstacle with long-term MIT’s is that we are always going to be tempted by smaller, sooner rewards in moments when we must make decisions about what to do (or not do). When we have to choose between answering emails to get the boss off our backs or paying attention to our kids, it is going to be easier and more compelling to answer the emails. Or when we open the fridge and spot the chocolate cake, we are more likely to go for some immediate satisfaction than worry about what our waistline might look like in a month.
There are, however, actions we can take in the now that will help advance us toward our MIT’s. We will call these actions our ‘Key Habits,’ and if we structure them properly, we will get the dopamine rush (reward) that we need to keep us on track, as well as the right amount of stress (urgency) to stay in the Performance Zone.
Each MIT will have a different set of Key Habits. For example, if the most important thing at work is to drive up sales, then your ‘Key Habits’ might be to make twenty phone calls a day, to follow up all enquiries within three hours, or even to review sales opportunities first thing every morning. If your priority at home is being a great parent, then your Key Habits could include doing the school pick-up or being home in time to read a book three nights a week.
Because defining these Key Habits gives us a glimpse of what winning looks like on a day-to-day basis, it helps us to stay clear about what will make the biggest impact. It also enables us to track our daily progress, rather than just relying on our long-term goals. The crucial starting point is to identify these Key Habits and schedule them into our day. It is only by doing this that we can generate the sense of urgency that will push us to live our Optimal Day.
Our Key Habits must also have certain features if they are to keep us on track and inspired – namely, they must be high-impact, measurable and finite. If they do not fulfill these criteria, our Key Habits will fail to challenge our hardwiring and we will find ourselves resorting to the Easier Thing.
High-impact tasks are activities that bring you significantly closer to your MIT’s—not the tasks that have minor effects, but those that make a sizeable difference. Think of it in these terms: if you could only do one thing each day that got you closer to your MIT, what would it be? Your answer will give you an indication of the scale of impact our Key Habits must have (most likely, they will also reflect the things you would like to do it you weren’t ‘too busy’.)
Equally essential is that they are measurable and finite. You must be able to clearly see whether they have been accomplished or not. ‘Coaching’ as a key habit, for example, is not necessarily measurable and it is definitely not finite. But to specify ‘one-on-one coaching with three of my team members every week’ is something you can gauge whether you have achieved. Infinite tasks have no end point and therefore create no urgency. So saying ‘I will work on X project,’ will likely be unhelpful, but committing to five small tasks that help advance that project will give you a sense of both urgency and satisfaction.
For each of your MIT’s, identify one key habit that you need to engage in every day. And this is where ‘doing less not more’ comes into the picture; we can all surely think of twenty things we could do to achieve our MIT’s, but if we actually want to deliver on them, we need to narrow it down.
Some examples of poor Key Habits include:
- ‘Make more sales calls.’ You may have only made one sales call for the whole of last year - if you make two this year, is that ok? Unlikely. Set specific targets
- ‘Focus on the kids.’ What does this really mean? Do you read one book to them at night? Do you have dinner together? Be more specific and ensure your key habit has a tangible impact that brings you closer to your MIT
- ‘Exercise.’ What constitutes exercise? Does walking to the shop to get a coffee count? Probably not
When properly defined, our Key Habits can generate a sufficient sense of urgency each day to propel us toward our MIT’s. They can help us to think, ‘I have to get this done today,’ instead of looking ahead to results we might achieve in three years’ time. But to create instant rewards, we need to go a little further yet.
Step 3: Measure your progress toward winning.
Since we now understand the dynamics at play in our decision-making, we need to structure our days to orient us towards our MIT’s and Key Habits. So let’s think again about what grabs our attention - what offers us dopamine and adrenalin and creates a sense of urgency and immediate reward.
One very simple way to generate a sense of progress is to make a chart that lists all your Key Habits and tick things off as you complete them. This is a basic yet very effective strategy to keep you powering through your day. Imagine you have those few key tasks that you just have to get done to progress toward your goals and every time you complete one, you can tick a box.
It may seem ridiculous, but this practice has some significant implications. Firstly, it generates urgency, attention and adrenaline. It highlights what you need to get done during the day and if by lunchtime, there are still no ticks in the boxes, it ramps up the urgency. Secondly, it gives us a sense of progress and achievement. We humans love to tick boxes and cross off lists: in fact, the small feeling of accomplishment it brings is enough to give us a little shot of our much-loved reward chemical, dopamine.
It is also important to display your chart where you can see it (and maybe where others can see it too). When we are trying to be more productive, it is critical that our behaviours stay forefront in our minds. Just like earlier, when we were driving down the road not paying attention, we need a police car to interrupt our Autopilot mode and switch on the CEO. If you put your checklist somewhere very visible, it acts as a police car. Similarly, if you place it somewhere others can see it too and share your commitment with them, you will feel an additional layer of accountability.
These basic steps set us up to focus daily on the things that really make a difference in our lives, decluttering our schedules so we can be Unbusy enough to focus our efforts on long-term goals.
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** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert focussed on helping leaders build the environment for high performance. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and combines the two for a different perspective. He is also the author of Jack and the Team that Couldn't See and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.