“Things which matter most, should never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

— Johann von Goethe

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? I imagine so. Whether you have children who just went back to school or you find the demands from colleagues, clients, family members, friends and others suddenly increasing, the feeling of being besieged with lots of things to do seems to have hit many people.

It is easy to wonder if we have the balance right between doing what’s really important for us versus what others want us to do.

As leadership guru Stephen Covey might say, its time to put “first things first.” Traditional time management techniques focus on having us work harder, smarter and faster in order to gain control over our lives. Yet, as he points out, this type of control will not lead to peace and fulfillment. Instead, we need to focus on doing what is important to us, not just what is urgent.

So, how do we accomplish this?

Covey categorizes our activities into four quadrants by importance and urgency. Important things are those that contribute to our mission and goals. Urgent things are pressing things that demand our immediate attention. There are things we do that are unimportant and urgent (e.g., interruptions, some meetings); things that are unimportant and not urgent (e.g., junk mail, busywork); things that are important and urgent (crises, deadline-driven projects) and then things that are important and not urgent (e.g., relationship building, values clarification).

He notes that we need to spend more time on things that are important, rather than simply urgent. If we really thought about our day, we probably would see that we spend a lot of time on urgent, unimportant things.

He shares a story from one of his associates about the “big rocks” and the importance when filling a jar, to put the big rocks in first, followed by gravel, then sand and finally water. The point is that unless you put the big rocks (i.e., the things that really matter to you) first in the jar, you won’t be able to get them in once all the little things are in the jar. As he mentions, we can be surprised by how much sand, gravel, and water we can still get in to fill in the spaces once we put the big rocks in.

So, clearly we need to identify what are those “big rocks.” There are also some smaller things we can do to improve our peace of mind.

First, we could reset or preview our day — at the beginning of the day step back and think about what top two or three things we really want to accomplish for that day.

We could do the same for our week ahead. We can then plan around those things — to make sure they occur.

Designate a time each week to organize your important/not urgent activities.

Covey says we could create a personal mission statement to help us in figuring out what is really important to us and in making sure we plan for it. To do this, we would think about our various roles in our lives and our goals for each of those roles.

We can label on our schedules things that are time sensitive versus things that can be done at any time. This can help us in planning our days.

Periodically ask ourselves “what are we rushing for?” and really think about our answer here.

Share our vision or mission statement with a friend, family member or close colleague. Get someone to help us stay focused and accountable.

Remember to use part of your commute time to relax and make transitions to the next part of your day (e.g., going from work to home). This can enable you to be more peaceful once you see people in that next environment.

Find some time each day (even if just a few minutes) for quiet and reflection. It could be time for stretching or yoga, meditation, prayer, etc.

Spend some time each week just thinking about a particular issue. For most of us, we never find the time. Take an hour a week and write down your ideas and then break them into next steps.

It is important to review and evaluate our week at the end of it. We can examine which goals we achieved and didn’t. Only by reviewing our week, can we then figure out what to do differently for the following week.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Time lost is never found again.”Let’s make sure that we are spending our time the way we really want to spend it—on those things that are most important to us, rather than how others want us to spend it.