I love to watch M*A*S*H. One common scene in M*A*SH was triage. The doctors and nurses would quickly assess the wounded soldiers and rank them based on the severity of their injuries; life threatening, critical, stable, or minor. Those classifications would determine the order the soldiers were brought to the operating room. It was interesting to note that often the soldier that was making the most noise wasn’t necessarily the soldier that had the life-threatening injuries.
While our daily tasks aren’t comparable to soldiers on a battlefield, the concept of quickly doing a triage on the tasks that make up our day, whether planned tasks or they come rolling up unannounced by the busload, is still vital to knowing what we should be doing right now. This is the Habit of Putting First Things First.
As we work to be less reactionary (Habit #1 – Be Proactive) and have a clear strategy (Habit #2 – Begin with the End in Mind) our day will be filled with distractions, interruptions, unplanned meetings, and spontaneous assignments. Even when we carve out time for specific tasks – like writing a blog post – our brain will interject unrelated thoughts our mind – “Call your sister for her birthday”, “did I send the team an email about practice?”, “make the travel arrangements for the Dallas trip”, etc. How can we be certain we are doing the most important thing right now and spending our time chasing every distraction, thought, or impulse? We must triage our daily inputs and do what is most important right now – Putting First Things First. The task that is screaming the loudest is often not the most important at that moment!
In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about a concept called “Mind Like Water”. The idea of Mind Like Water is a combination of the Archimedes Principle and the work of the philosopher Win Chow Ching. Archimedes discovered that if you drop something into water, the mass of the water displaced is directly proportional to the mass of the object that was dropped into the water. Supposedly he discovered this while he was bathing and then ran through the streets naked shouting “Eureka!” The philosopher Win Chow Ching expanded this idea to say that our reaction to anything that is dropped into our day should be proportional to the importance and weight of that task, interruption, distraction, project, disappointment, or successes.
A few years ago my boss and I were analyzing an opportunity for our company and we needed to make decision within 24 hours. The new project would allow us to invoice a large recurring revenue number quickly but the gross margins were low. The opportunity would help us expand into a new market. As we discussed the opportunity, we realized that the paperwork, support headaches, and relationship management would not be worth the added revenue. As we worked on the whiteboard to understand the solution, we realized the new opportunity was taking us away from our core business and away from our vision. By Putting First Things First we saw that passing on the new opportunity and sticking to our strategy was the best option.
Sometimes I see a salesperson fall in love with a huge deal that might make their entire annual quota even though the chance of winning the deal is slim. Then she spends extraordinary time and effort working every angle of this enormous but unlikely opportunity. She even creates a spreadsheet of the potential commissions and how she will spend the money. She stops working everything else including prospecting and the other deals in the funnel. When the “whale” doesn’t come in she doesn’t have anything else to fall back on except excuses. With a quick and honest triage of each deal, including the size of the opportunity and the likelihood of winning the business a salesperson can give each opportunity exactly the appropriate time and effort. Putting First Things First helps us give that enormous but unlikely opportunity the perfect effort and energy and gets us back to the tasks that will meet our quota and keep our commissions checks flowing.
Take one final example. A busy professional had a terrible day of interruptions and unproductivity, the sale he was counting on fell through, the drive home was miserable, and he arrives home to a chaotic scene. During dinner one of the kids spills milk accidentally and this is the last straw. The worn out professional grossly over-reacts. “How many times have I told you to be careful at the table? You never pay attention to what you are doing!” Feelings are hurt and everyone is in a sour mood for the rest of the evening. (This story may be autobiographical.) What is the real cost of the spilled milk? The milk is easily cleaned up, the cost of the milk is really a few cents, dinner was not ruined by a little spill, and children actually spill stuff all the time. A Mind Like Water reaction would minimize the impact maybe turning the situation comical. Putting First Things First would have helped him diffuse the situation and realize relationships are far more important than milk and a few paper towels.
How much more effective can we be if we apply triage and “Mind Like Water” to figure out what we should be doing right now? By assessing the size, impact, and value of each task, interruption, distraction, project, disappointment, or successes we can rank them. Once we rank our daily inputs, we can work on the things that have the greatest impact right now to our business, our relationships, and our personal lives and we won’t confuse activity with productivity. When we take the inputs into our day, triage honestly and quickly, and then make sure our reactions are exactly proportional to the potential effects, we can be confident that we are Putting First Things First.
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Doug Tolley is the Business Development Director for LVM, Inc.; owner of the VXSuite products. Doug has 20 years of experience in Business Development, Sales and Consulting, and Project Management in a wide variety of businesses with a primary emphasis on IT. Doug is responsible for the development of the healthcare and MS Lync vertical markets at LVM and he also works with the LVM investor relations group. Previously he was the director of international research at KLAS where he worked with hundreds of CIOs, healthcare providers, and vendor executives in monitoring the performance of Healthcare IT globally. Doug has presented around the world at trade shows, government agency strategy sessions, user’s groups, and regional associations on topics ranging from unified communications, healthcare IT adoption, battlefield IT challenges, business process and implementation, and investment strategies. Doug has a Bachelors Degree from University of Utah. Follow him on Twitter at