Have you ever felt like you are running from emergency to emergency all day long? You get home at the end of the day (late of course) wondering what you even accomplished. There is no real solid answer, but you know you have more of it tomorrow. It is time to set some priorities and take back your day.

We all know this guy: An airman of mine was tasked to inspect the right side of the aircraft. Two hours in, I went to check on him after I finished the left side and he was not there. About five minutes later, I saw him walking back from the tool crib with new clamps and Armor All. I asked him what was going on and he told me he wanted to replace some of the clamps that were “not perfect” and see how the Armor All would look on the aircraft tires. At first, I was impressed with his initiative. Then I asked him if he discovered any discrepancies on his inspection. “Oh, I haven’t finished. I stopped at the tires when I saw the clamps could be replaced.”

It all comes down to having the correct priorities. Most people show up to work wondering what the day will hold. When they get there, they are greeted at the door with someone else’s emergency. When they check their email, they are tasked with someone else’s emergency. Basically, they spend the whole day as a firefighter and get nothing of worth accomplished. Because of this, tomorrow will once again be filled with fires. When we prioritize our time and efforts, we are much more productive and effective.

To do this:

Create your to-do list. We all have a list of the things we need to do and want to do. Most of us keep these in our heads, however. Get them written down on paper, a spreadsheet (my favorite), phone app, or whatever else works for you. You need to get them out of your head and on a list. This alone takes away the burden of trying to juggle all of them and frees up your mental RAM. I always tell those on my team to share their problems because once they are on the outside we become bigger than the issue. If we let these items rattle around in our heads, we assign false priorities levels to them.

Keep this to do list visual for the first couple of weeks and add things to it that you do regularly (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.). For starters, it keeps your head clear and organized. It also helps you to see what needs done. And it makes a great tool to use for continuity for the person you turn your job over to in the future.

Break up into categories. Now that you have this list, you need to categorize it. This is very simple; just use the following categories below:

Category 1: AFI of Suspense Driven. This is something that is time-sensitive or something a regulation spells out as a responsibility for your position. These are the things that have to be done to keep the lights on and you out of jail.

Category 2: Local demands. These are the things you do for your boss or for your unit. For example, prepping for the staff meetings or fulfilling local checklists. You won’t go to jail for not doing this, but you might get a stern talking to.

Category 3: Value-Added Items. Here are the things you do to stay ahead of the game or the “over and above” items that are done to care for your team. If you didn’t do these, nothing would happen. However, by doing them you prevent multiple future fires.

Work the list. It doesn’t take a genius to point out what order these tasks need to be completed in. However, there is a touch of common sense. I am not going to do all of the Category 1 tasks for the whole year next Monday. I still have to space them out so that I can do the other things required of me on a daily basis. I do need to have a plan to how I will meet the intent of the AFI and beat the suspense. Some days I only work on the value-added things and that is fine as long as the other stuff is on-track. Just like the person I mentioned in the beginning of the post who does HUGE value-added items, but they are not doing the basics of their job.

I like to plan my top 3 priorities for the day. Before I leave for the day, I look at tomorrow’s schedule and my ‘to do’ list. I write down the most important thing I have to do the next day as number one and then the next two in line. When I show up in the morning, I work number one before I do anything else (most of the time even before opening email). Then I get up to speed with what is happening with my team and work the next two. Most of the time I do not finish all three; however, I get 5 items done each week that move the ball forward. This is more than most people get accomplished in a month of putting out fires.

When you know what is important and learn to prioritize, you will be much more productive and your daily life will be less stressful. (In case you missed it, see part 1 in the series here.)

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