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After studying top performers, consultants Rob Shallenberger and Steve Shallenberger came up with 12 principles of highly successful people. The father-and-son combo then drilled down to find what matters most for our all-consuming quest to prioritize time and came up with three relatively simple tasks that almost everybody refuses to do even as we wail that we don’t have enough time to handle everything before us.

The three key habits are:

  • Develop a written personal vision.
  • Identify and set roles and goals.
  • Consistently undertake pre-week planning.

Nothing stunning. Nothing beyond our grasp. But they argue it can increase your productivity by 30 to 50 per cent, helping you to move beyond task saturation. “Successful leadership is about leading a life by design rather than living a life by default,” they write in their book Do What Matters Most.

The scariest step for many of us is developing a personal vision. Although many famous people, from Nelson Mandela to Greta Thunberg, are driven by a personal mission, it seems grandiose for regular folk. But it’s part of leading a life by design.

A first step is to answer four intriguing questions:

  • In the next 10 to 20 years, what are some things you want to accomplish?
  • What are the traits and qualities of mentors or others who have inspired you?
  • What would you like to improve in your job, home or community?
  • How do you hope others will look back and describe you 50 years from now?

That offers a glimpse of how to become an ideal version of yourself. As well, you must sort through the roles you play in life – parent, spouse, project manager, coach and volunteer, for example – and identify the five to seven that matter most to you. What is the best version of you in each?

Out of that can come annual, measurable goals for each of those roles to achieve your personal mission. Then to implement, plan each week in advance. It’s a manageable approach, but interestingly even amongst their top performers exceedingly rare: Eighty per cent lack a process to plan or focus on what matters most.

Georgetown University Professor Cal Newport offers another way to view the bundle of work you are handling: the Productivity Funnel. At the top, the widest part of the funnel, is task selection, where you determine which activities to commit to accomplish. Next is organization, where you need mechanisms to avoid forgetting what you’re supposed to do and to make good decisions about what to work on next. The final level, at the bottom of the funnel, focuses on the actual execution of whatever you have decided you should be doing in the moment.

He warns that a common mistake is to focus on one part of the funnel while avoiding others. There are some folks so obsessive about their rituals for executing efficiently, for example, they forget about the importance of organization and task selection.

As you plan, Kingston-based productivity consultant Chris Bailey recommends considering which of your projects need space, which need focus and which need both. A project is a collection of tasks rather than simply one item on your to-do list. He keeps a list on his computer of personal projects and another of work projects. But when he became overwhelmed recently, he felt he needed another way to assess them.

Some are highly active, needing immediate focus. Others are more back burner, needing space to simmer while reflection occurs or events help clarify what’s next. “Then there’s the projects that benefit from both focus and space – namely long-term projects,” he writes on his blog, where you move in stages. So keep lists and then in your planning for the next week, figure out where each project properly sits: immediate, back burner or mixed.

Quick hits

  • Instead of using your inbox as your to-do list when returning to work from vacation, marketer Jenni Maier suggests creating a rundown of everything on the go before you leave and use that as a starting point on your return. While things will be added when you’re away, that list will give you a good idea of what’s on tap.
  • Nothing reduces stress like action, advises consultant Steve Keating: “Sitting around wondering what to do and when to do it mixes life into a toxic combination of fear, worry and stress. Making a decision and acting on it becomes a powerful elixir of motivating control over your life.”
  • Every conflict has an understory, notes journalist Amanda Ripley – what it’s really about. To get out of the conflict you have to investigate the root causes wrapped up in that understory.
  • Instead of planning to do whatever you are contemplating “some day,” entrepreneur Seth Godin says choose a date – any date, it doesn’t matter how far in the future, but a definite target. That’s far more powerful than some day.
  • The four characteristics of an influential speaker, according to presentations coach Gary Genard, are credibility, honesty, audience-centred and action-oriented, knowing what you want people to do with the contents of your talk.

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