Remember to Focus on What Really Matters
Most of us experience cycles during our careers. Frenetic times arise when crime rates go up, tourists descend on our towns, or storms rage. Then, when such cycles end, we can breathe again. How do we spend that precious commodity of downtime to strengthen ourselves and our agencies?
For me, it is simple yet daunting. I need that special time to deal with the nonurgent but truly important aspects of my life. Readers of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People will recognize this activity from his four-quadrant time-management model.1 I examine the big-picture questions that force me to analyze the course of my life and then realign short-term goals with my desired destination.
How fulfilled are you in your current situation? When did you last analyze your life progress and make course corrections? If these questions ring alarm bells of guilt, you may be focusing too much attention on matters that are urgent but not really important. Understanding the power in purposely devoting time to the significant issues will sound a loud liberty bell because this frees you from the tyranny of the urgent.
So many pressing matters demanding our immediate attention clutter our lives and cause us to shortchange the truly significant things in life. Some of these are genuinely important and need top priority, but there are other items that are urgent but not truly significant. For instance, the siren call of e-mails and innumerable apps on our phones demand, through tones and vibrations, that we acknowledge or respond in diverse ways. We also stay busy with seemingly endless deadline-driven, work-related tasks that just do not matter very much and perhaps even could be discarded. And, people’s problems that they should solve somehow may have landed on our backs; we ought to return those to their rightful owners.
By adjusting our priorities, the treasures we will find include nothing less than the most critical—and least accomplished—matters of our harried lives. They are not urgent because they have no deadlines, but they hold eminence. Building relationships is a major part of this category. Kids grow up too quickly, and parents pass on before we are ready. Our officers and coworkers would benefit greatly from our caring input into their lives and establishment of a team that will be remembered for years. No one, however, is programming special tones into our phones to remind us to build relationships.
True rest and rejuvenation also make up part of this important-but-not-urgent category. Our bodies need to recuperate after a stressful period, but we often fill our free time with leisure activities that do not really relax us or give us rest.
Creating a vision and reviewing and planning our progress also represent high-impact actions that often die of neglect as we tend to urgent yet unimportant matters. Are we doing the right things, such as improving our weak areas and building a legacy that will matter to others? Have we learned new competencies to prepare us for greater challenges in the future? Regardless of our position, are we leading or just managing?
I sometimes have squandered the slow times in my work cycles only to face another crush of busyness, which left me exhausted and less effective than I should have been. I recommit myself to follow my own advice when these brief seasons occur. Hopefully, you also see the wisdom of focusing on the nonurgent yet really important things when you have the time.
Stephen D. Jones, retired captain of the New Jersey State Police and current leadership and media instructor in the Executive Programs Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.
1 Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Ltd., 1999).