It is fascinating that when you study the most effective individuals throughout history, you see the same theme coming back again and again in how each of them managed their time. The key was focus and concentration on a few very significant priorities, always keeping in mind what is centrally important at the moment (that is, what’s best next).
We see this especially in Winston Churchill. Here’s how Steven Hayward very effectively summarizes Churchill’s approach in Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity:
Despite his wide-ranging attention and interests, he always kept in mind what was centrally important to the moment. He was always able to focus his full concentration on the immediate task at hand, and he sent clear signals to his subordinates when an inquiry or directive was of special importance. “When his mind was occupied with any particular problem,” Sir Ian Jacob wrote, “it was relentlessly focused upon it and would not be turned aside.” Ultimately this served as the cornerstone of his time-management system.
….His general method of work…was to concentrate his personal attention on the two or three things that mattered most at any given moment, and to give to each of these all the time and attention that it merited.
This is the same observation Peter Drucker made about effective executives in the midst of his 50 years of observing them: “Effective executives put first things first, and do one thing at a time.” That’s the key.
Note one misunderstanding we can fall into, however, about what it means to focus on a few core priorities. It doesn’t mean that you are getting less done and doing fewer things overall. Rather, it means you are doing more things overall. That’s why you do one thing at a time — precisely because you have so many things that need to be done. Hence, you focus on one thing at a time because “doing one thing at a time means doing it fast. The more one can concentrate time, effort, and resources, the greater the number and diversity of tasks one can actually perform” (Drucker, The Effective Executive).
So the key is you identify that which is centrally important, and work on that all the way until it’s done. Then you work on the next thing of central importance until it is done. And so forth. (And, of course, above all of these and governing the choices you make about what to do next are just a few, overall, chief goals for the current quarter or year or season.) Drucker summarizes this well:
Effective executives know that they have to get many things done — and done effectively. Therefore, they concentrate — their own time and energy as well as that of their organization — on doing one thing at a time, and on doing first things first.