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Greg Wells is a physiologist, president of the Wells Performance Group and author of Superbodies, The Ripple Effect and The Focus Effect.

In August of 1954, a year and a half after he was inaugurated as the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to address the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

During his remarks, Mr. Eisenhower referred to a university president he knew who was fond of saying, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” This phrase went on to become the basis for what is known as the Eisenhower Decision Principle– a decision-making process for prioritizing tasks and projects.

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My take on the principle is this:

  • Important activities have an outcome that lead to achieving your goals, whether they are professional or personal.
  • Urgent activities demand immediate attention and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. Urgent activities demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.

Eisenhower’s distinction can lead us to a fundamental shift in how we spend time that will improve the way we live, work and run our organizations – from time management to priority management.

Managing your time is about fitting in whatever comes your way as best as possible. Managing your priorities is about deciding what matters the most and allocating time to those tasks.

Once you have a sense of your goals – whether personal, professional or organizational – you can determine how to get from where you are now to where you want to be. To do this, I advise four steps:

1. Write out the goals that are important to you.

2. Break those goals into a series of specific and measurable tasks you can accomplish.

3. Rank those tasks according to priority, not urgency.

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4. Start each day with a plan that ensures you allocate a specific amount of time (90 minutes for example) to achieving your important tasks.

These four steps are based on an adage I love that comes from my colleague, Robin Sharma: “As you live your days, so you live your life.” Unless you are deliberate about how your day unfolds, you will live day after day at the whim of the surrounding environment, not moving any closer to what you hope to achieve. After all, “I checked my e-mail every 15 minutes” is hardly a life’s purpose!

One way to ensure you allocate your time effectively is a practice called chunking – organizing your day into 90-minute work blocks with a 15-minute energizing break between them. No athlete can exercise for 10 straight hours, so why would we expect ourselves to work for that length of time? Our brains use more fuel than any other part of our body yet have a limited ability to store energy. If you don’t take a break to get your blood flowing, you will fall into mental fatigue and be grossly inefficient with your time. You have to step back and move your body to recharge your brain.

Multidisciplinary research indicates that working maximally for 90 minutes followed by strategic energy renewal leads to increased productivity and fewer mental mistakes. This method was popularized by Tony Schwartz and The Energy Project. There are many ways to incorporate a 15-30 minute break into your schedule, such as an afternoon workout, a walk outside, a short nap or a proper meal – anything that gets you away from your desk and isn’t the classic caffeine or sugar hit.

Another method for focusing on priorities is to organize your day according to your circadian rhythms – natural changes in your body’s internal chemistry that determine when you feel alert, hungry, energetic or fatigued. These rhythms are controlled by a structure in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus. The SCN is the master circadian pacemaker, and it is so powerful that it can direct your behaviour and even your genes, including controlling the release of melatonin (the hormone that regulates your wakefulness and sleep) and cortisol (the primary stress hormone).

To figure out your own rhythms, assess the typical patterns of how you live. Ask yourself questions: When am I at my best mentally? When do I have trouble concentrating? When do I feel most energetic or lethargic? When you have those answers, you can craft your ideal day and align your responsibilities to your natural rhythms. When you do, you will perform better and avoid unnecessary mental fatigue that hampers your effectiveness.

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The idea of priority management has the potential to radically alter schools and businesses. If we make conscious choices about how we allocate time based on our goals – rather than those imposed on us – we can improve our work, relationships, leisure and, most of all, ability to achieve optimal health and performance.

When we don’t make deliberate choices about how to use our days, weeks and years to achieve our greater purpose, we can end up like Alice in Wonderland in conversation with the Cheshire Cat:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” Alice went on.

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don't much care where,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn't matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

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If you don’t care where you’re going, then there’s no need to prioritize the important over the urgent. But if you are working toward a dream, focusing on your goals every day is the only way to get there.

Try these protocols before your next critical project.

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