An excerpt from The Six Disciplines of Personal Sustainability by Dr. Stephen R. Graves, co-founder of GiANT Leaders Executive Coaching
A father and son were traveling home from a college football game late one night in the 1970s when the dad pulled the car onto the shoulder of the rural, desolate highway and asked his son to take over the driving. As hard as it was for him to admit, the father said his eyesight was failing him and he didn’t think it safe for him to stay behind the wheel. So the son took over, and it didn’t take him long to realize that his dad’s eyesight wasn’t the problem – it was the station wagon’s headlights that were fading.
In life, we have to stay focused on the things that matter most. As Mark Twain put it, “Plain clarity is better than ornate obscurity.” For the father and son with the fading headlights, the most important thing became obvious: The road in front of them for that last 15 miles! For most leaders, however, finding clarity starts with establishing priorities from a long list of things that all seem important.
Very often, our day is much like one of those tests we took in college – not every question carries the same weight. Sometimes there’s a 100-point test with a 90-point question that demands the bulk of our attention. But we have a tendency to only see that there are 10 questions. What is wrong with that, one asks? Real world living tells us that not everything that floats across our screen is of equal weight and consequence. And real world living tells us that the urgent and the significant are not always the same thing. And for sure the loud and shiny are not always the strategic and the noteworthy. Even leaders who intuitively spot the critical strategies of life must guard against the tendency to spend too much time checking off the two-point questions.
What keeps us from clarity when it comes to the things that matter most? For starters: We’re blinded by stubbornness, ignorance, arrogance or a self-centered agenda. We’re overwhelmed by the volume of life’s demands. We’re too easily distracted by things that don’t really… hey, look at that bird! We’re too rigid and tactical.
Have I lost my footing with regards to the priorities of life and slipped into simply going through the motions? Is there an issue or past experience that has handcuffed, bushwhacked or paralyzed my passion and clarity for life? Does the speed, complexity and myriad options of life feel like a furious European roundabout, spinning me in a circle and creating confusion, frustration and fear? Am I using creative thinking, analytical thinking, big-picture thinking and bottom-line thinking to sort and tackle the critical matters of life? Am I anchored to a promising future and a compelling vision? Do I see and sense the mission critical elements of life?
Take a few minutes at least once a day to ask yourself what you must get done tomorrow and this week. Jot those down and use them as a mental traffic light to guide you. Don’t be scared to slow down and think through all the things screaming for attention. Draft a short list and put a quick score on them and MAKE yourself prioritize all the activity. As the Japanese Proverb says, “Vision without action is a daydream but action without vision is a nightmare.