The deep midwinter, with its holiday break and its brutish weather, likely provides one of the few periods in which you have an opportunity to review your working habits and begin improving them. We give operations advice year-round, but this month I want to focus on something that can help you in life as well as on the job: How to put first things first. 

A recent American Management Association class that I took called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for Managers shows the way. It's taken from that business classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. Here's a summary:

First, draw a square and divide it into four equal quadrants. Label the upper-left space “Important/Urgent,” the upper-right box “Important/Not Urgent,” the lower-left quadrant “Not Important/Urgent,” and the lower-right space “Not Important/Not Urgent.”

Then think through a typical day’s activities and categorize them. Here is an example from a Forbes article (that in turn borrowed from Wikipedia) that was written in 2012, just after Covey died: 

Matrix from Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Vital customer calls and major deadlines might go into the Important/Urgent square; regard them as necessities. Low-priority emails and unimportant meetings might fit into the Not Important/Urgent square—in other words, distractions. And the busywork and aimless Internet surfing you find yourself doing can be consigned to the Not Important/Not Urgent square. They’re wastes of time.

Now think of the Important/Not Urgent tasks you’ll put into the upper-right square. Here you’re likely to enter items like planning, professional development, coaching, and continuous improvement. In other words, the tasks that over time yield the most effective results for your business. That’s where you should be spending the bulk of your time. Odds are, you’re not.

How do you get there? The course recommends doing these:

  • Set a few “Wildly Important Goals.” These are the goals that must be achieved or else nothing else you do really matters much. Generating enough net profit to remain viable is an example. Whatever goal you choose, though, make sure that it’s SMART—Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Relevant, and Timely (i.e., it has a deadline).
  • Plan Weekly, Act Daily. FranklinCovey, which runs the class, includes in its materials a pocket-sized weekly planner that leads with your Wildly Important Goals and then has you list the activities you plan that week. By doing so, you help make sure you’re keeping your focus on whatever you’ve decided is most vital

Don’t let time bandits deter you from being a success in 2016. Seize the moment to make the most from each day