Imagine you are in a galaxy far, far away. You are an officer of the Galactic Empire, but you also have a second identity. You are an undercover Jedi Knight, and the Jedi Council has given you the task to destroy the Death Star — the Empire’s ultimate weapon, which is about to obliterate an entire planet with a single shot. Mace Windu — your Jedi-supervisor — wants you to spy on the Emperor’s plans.
The bright future of the Republic is close to your heart, so you agree to do both jobs at the same time. You have your hands full preparing for the mission that, if successful, can finally eliminate the threat of the Death Star. This mission is now your most important goal.
You are preparing to take off in your spaceship when suddenly, R2D2 reports that you have an urgent call from Chewbacca, who insists that he cannot wait.
You like Chewie a lot, and you have not heard from him in a while, so you decide to answer his call before taking off. It turns out that Han Solo is in trouble. He was captured by bounty hunters in another galaxy while smuggling cargo for Jabba, and he needs help immediately. You promise Chewie to call him back when you figure out what you can do to help him.
While you were talking with Chewbacca, Mace Windu tried to contact you to briefly discuss the progress of your current mission. R2D2 also reports that you received six more messages — from the Emperor, Princess Leia, Master Yoda and three others.
Now you have a serious dilemma about what to do. You are sure that if you delay taking off, it might be too late to save the Republic. On the other hand, you do not want to postpone contact with the Emperor because he might begin to suspect that something is wrong. Not to mention that you are curious why Leia called you (of course you are — you have always had a crush on her). Also, of course, let us not forget about Master Yoda, who waits do not like.
Fan fiction? Not really. Such stories do not take place only in galaxies far, far away. Every day, in our lives, we are heroes who, on an hourly basis need to figure out if our most important tasks are more important than the most urgent one.
Unfortunately, human nature is not a big help. We are naturally more eager to deal with things that are right under our noses than taking care of more distant but essential ones. Fortunately, we can develop personal skills that can help us to focus systematically on the important tasks and put of the ones which are falsely urgent. What are these skills?
Do first things first
The idea that there are a finite number of urgent matters is a myth. Keep in mind that there are always millions of things you could be doing. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that if you handle urgent tasks first, you will be able to get back to your work later. In fact, everything that is not a top priority goal can be done later.
We like to think that the whole world relies on us, but the truth is more painful — the world will take care of itself and will not fall apart. Think pragmatically. If you will not take care of this particular issue, probably someone else will. The tradeoff is that you get things done that really matter. Would it be the first time when poor smuggler Han Solo was in trouble, but eventually managed to get himself out of the fix he was in?
Schedule your priorities
If you need to see the doctor, you arrange to see him at a set time. Your priorities need to be treated the same way. If you have something that is more important than anything else (such as finishing a mission critical project) you also have to plan it and schedule the time for it accordingly. Think about your highest priorities like flights you have to catch: schedule them on your calendar in advance, and say no to anything that would get in the way.
Allocate “no interruptions” time
You could sit an entire day and answer all of the messages which your email account has for you. Alternatively, you can choose to check these things when you allow yourself to be distracted – say, during a particular time of the day. Setting aside quiet time each day and leaving free slots in your calendar for collaborative work, including helping others to solve their problems has been proven to be an efficient method that reduces both delay and stress.
Prof. Leslie Perlow of the University of Michigan, who conducted the experiment of Quiet Time in many companies, found that engaging in quiet time yielded above-average productivity for 65% of the engineers. It was only the second time in the history of the division that a product had launched without delays, and the vice president credited the introduction of quiet time as the reason for this success.
Work in intervals
Not only avoiding distractions can help you to do your job more efficiently. Also working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson has studied elite members of certain professions, including musicians, athletes, and actors. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes.
Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar, and our emergency energy reserves. However, like it, or not, every single person needs to rest, so you also need to avoid exhaustion and must limit your practice to an amount from which you can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.
So, what is the grand finale of our little galactic story?
Finally, you took a minute to set your priorities and decided that destroying the Death Star is the most important goal that you need to accomplish. After taking off, you contacted the Rebels and confirmed the next steps of your mission. You fought a 90-minute battle, destroyed the Empire’s ultimate weapon and saved the Republic. Back home, you reminded yourself of Master Yoda’s call and decided to call him back.
– Master Yoda? You were calling earlier today. Can I help you?
– Mhm… does not matter it anymore. Figured out by yourself you did… Master of Your Time you become.
May the force be with you!