Proactive Priority Solution - John Maxwell


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Proactive Priority Solution #1: The Pareto Principle


A veteran of many years of decision making gave me this simple and direct advice: decide what to do and do it; decide what not to do and don’t do it. I love that, but the evaluation of priorities often isn’t that simple.

Many times, knowing what to do is not black or white but many shades of gray. Many years ago, while I was taking business courses, I was introduced to the Pareto principle, named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. It is commonly called the 80/20 principle.

I quickly saw the value of the concept and began applying it to my life. Forty-five years later, I still find it a most useful tool for determining priorities for myself, for anyone I coach, and for any organization. The Pareto principle, when applied to business, says:

20 percent of your priorities will give you 80 percent of your production, if you spend your time, energy, money, and personnel on the top 20 percent of your priorities.

Here are some examples of how the Pareto principle plays out in life. Some of these are humorous, but all of them are true:

Time: 20 percent of our time produces 80 percent of our results

Counseling: 20 percent of the people take up 80 percent of our time

Products: 20 percent of the products bring in 80 percent of the profits

Books: 20 percent of the book contains 80 percent of the content

Jobs: 20 percent of our work gives us 80 percent of the satisfaction

Speeches: 20 percent of the presentation creates 80 percent of the impact

Donors: 20 percent of the donors give 80 percent of the money

Taxes: 20 percent of the people pay 80 percent of the taxes

Leadership: 20 percent of the people make 80 percent of the decisions

Picnics: 20 percent of the people will eat 80 percent of the food


Look at just about any situation, and you’ll find that the 80/20 rule applies. Why? I don’t know. It just does. As a leader, you need to understand this principle, because it comes into play in everything you do as a leader. Visually, here’s how the 80/20 rule looks if you have ten priorities:

The upper left rectangle in the illustration represents your top two priorities. Spending time, energy, money, staff, and so forth on those two items would result in a fourfold return in productivity.

However, the remaining eight items would give a minimal return. The implications are clear: since the top 20 percent of the items on your to do list give you an 80 percent return, you should focus on them.

The top 20 percent of your staff give you an 80 percent return: focus your time and energy on them. The top 20 percent of your clients give you 80 percent of your return: focus on them.

The top 20 percent of your offerings produce 80 percent of your return: focus on selling them. The place this principle impacts leaders most is in the people they lead.

Employees do not impact an organization equally. The top 20 percent carry thegreatest load and make the greatest difference. Unfortunately, the people who require the most time and attention are often those in the bottom 20 percent.

In contrast, the people at the top often demand the least from their leaders because they are motivated and self-directed. But who should you be taking time to invest in? The top 20 percent. Here’s how to apply the Pareto principle to the people on your team:

  • Determine which people are the top 20 percent when it comes to production. 
  • Spend 80 percent of your people time with this top 20 percent. 
  • Spend 80 percent of your personal development dollars on this top 20 percent. 
  • Help the top 20 percent to determine what their top 20 percent return is, and allow them to give 80 percent of their time to it. 
  • Allow them to delegate the other 80 percent of their tasks to others to free them up for what they do best. 
  • Ask the top 20 percent to do on-the-job training for the next 20 percent. 

How do you identify the top 20 percent on your team, in your department, or in your organization? If there are five people on your team, your number one person is your top 20 percent.

If ten, then the first and second on the list. If twenty, then the top four. You get the idea. Your top 20 percent are the people you should be investing in, giving resources to, and providing with leadership opportunities. They will make or break the team.


Proactive Priority Solution #2: The Three RS 

If you are from my generation, you remember teachers talking about the three Rs: reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic. (I know—two of the three Rs don’t even start with R!) I want to offer you a different three Rs to help you become highly proactive in identifying and living your priorities.

To do that, you have to look at your life from a bigger-picture perspective. Think of it as a thirty-thousand-foot perspective. The three Rs are requirement, return, and reward. (See, they actually start with R.) You can discover your major priorities by asking yourself three questions based on these three Rs:


What Is Required Of Me?

Every role has responsibilities that are nonnegotiable. There are things you must do that you cannot delegate to anyone else. Do you know what they are? 

When I became the leader of Skyline Church in San Diego, I asked the board who was hiring me, “What must I do that only I can do and cannot delegate to anyone else?” We talked it through for a couple of hours.

They decided there were only a few things only I could do, such as being the primary  communicator most Sundays, carrying the vision of the church, and maintaining my personal integrity.

These were my non negotiables and could be fulfilled by no one but me. In the end, a leader can give up anything except final responsibility. If you work for a boss or a board, they can help you answer the requirement question.

If you work for yourself or you own your own business, the question may be more difficult to answer. But it’s critical. Otherwise, you’ll end up focusing on the wrong things, which could waste your time, talent, and energy.


What Gives Me The Greatest Return?

What are you good at? I mean, really good at? This is at the heart of the return question. What brings the greatest return on your investment of time and energy for your organization? That’s a question I continually ask myself.

I understand that activity is not accomplishment; productivity is. I’m at my most productive using my best talents, gifts, and experience to do three things: communicating, writing, and leading. Those give the greatest return to me and to my organizations.

They are my sweet spot. Anything else I do is second-rate or worse. Knowing what activities give you the greatest return is vital. What do people continually compliment you for doing? 

What tasks or responsibilities do colleagues continually ask you to take on? What do you do that makes the biggest positive impact or brings in the most revenue? These are clues to help you answer the return question.

Activity Is Not Accomplishment; Productivity Is


What Is Most Rewarding?

Life is too short not to be fun. Our best work is accomplished when we enjoy it. It gives us great internal rewards, which can be mental, emotional, or spiritual.

And here’s the standard I often teach to help people answer the reward question. Find something you like to do so much that you would gladly do it for nothing.

Then learn to do it so well that people are happy to pay you for it. Here’s a clue for knowing what’s most rewarding. When you do something and you think to yourself, I was born for this, you’re on the right track.

Your long-term career goal should be to align the tasks that answer your requirement, return, and reward questions. If what you must do, what you do well, and what you enjoy doing are all the same things, then your career priorities are in sync and you will live a productive and fulfilling life. It often takes time and hard work to bring those things together.


Three Rs Worksheet

List your main responsibilities below. Then use each column to evaluate them. Beginning with the “Requirement” column, score them with either a 3 (high importance), 2 (moderate importance), or 1 (low importance).

Then do the same for the “Return” and “Reward” columns. Once you’ve created ratings for every item in all three columns, add the scores. Based on the scores, rank your responsibilities in order, using the far left column.


Proactive Priority Solution #3: Make Room For Margin

For years I’ve practiced the discipline of spending a few hours during the last week of the month planning out my time schedule for the upcoming month. I would literally schedule my priorities and requirements into hourly time blocks, day by day.

And I used to pride myself on how I valued and prioritized my time. I had mistakenly convinced myself that if I could keep to the schedule and work fast and long enough, I would get to a place where I was caught up on everything. And that would create margin in my life.

After years of this fruitless exercise, I discovered that I was deceiving myself. I realized that Parkinson’s law is true: work expands so that it fills the time available for its completion.

Unless I did something intentional to create margin, I would never have it in my life. Physician and author Richard Swenson has written extensively on the idea of margin.

In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, he wrote, “Margin is the space that exists between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed.

It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload.”

Margin Is The Space That Exists Between Our Load And Our Limits. Richard Swenson Instead of filling every space in my calendar, what I needed to do was create some white space.

If I didn’t, nobody else was going to. People who keep burning the candle at both ends aren’t as bright as they think they are. I needed to change by creating margin in my life.

By no means do I follow through with this perfectly, but I do work persistently to create margin in my life. If you desire to be a leader who lives according to your priorities and reaches your potential, then you need to learn how to create margin too. Here’s why:


1. Margin Improves Self-Awareness

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and to apply this awareness so that you manage your behavior and your relationships with others.

There are few abilities more important than EQ when it comes to leadership. The training and consulting organization TalentSmart has tested more than a million people for EQ and found that 90 percent of top performers rate high in EQ.4 One of the fantastic things about EQ is that, like leadership, it can be developed.

A foundational characteristic of EQ is self-awareness. A strong recognition and understanding of your own emotions can be developed  during times of reflection, often when you’re alone.

Those windows of time don’t come if you’re overloaded and never have time for self-reflection. Margin creates such times, which provides you with the opportunity to grow in your EQ.


2. Margin Gives You Needed Think Time

Most leaders I’ve met have a strong bias for action. I know that’s true of me. But if I spend all my time acting and never thinking about what I’m doing, I won’t be a very effective leader.

When I lead others, it’s my responsibility to try to see more and before others see. I have to think more and before the people I’m leading. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, told me, “We need to be thought leaders before we can be market doers.” Creating margin lets us do that.

“If You’re Constantly Running From One To-Do Or Appointment To The Next From Sunup To Sundown, You’ll Never Become A Better Thinker

It is true that we are today where our thoughts have brought us, and we will go tomorrow where our thoughts take us. That’s why I’m dedicated to reflective thinking and have written about it in so many of my books.

If you want to become a good thinker, you need to create white space in your calendar for it, not just settle for a minute here and a few seconds there. You need to schedule significant blocks of time for it.

If you’re constantly running from one to-do or appointment to the next from sunup to sundown, you’ll never become a better thinker.

3. Margin Provides You With Energy Renewal

We live in a culture of busyness, and leaders are often the busiest people of all. Founder and CEO of the Energy Project, Tony Schwartz, has studied and written extensively on energy and performance.

He wrote in a New York Times article, “More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace.” His solution? “Paradoxically,” he said, “the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less.

A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office, and longer, more frequent vacations boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”

All of the things Schwartz described as beneficial require margin. And he said that human beings are designed not to expend high energy continuously, but to alternate between spending energy and recovering energy.

So if you want to be at your best, you need to find ways to recharge. You can do that by creating space for relationships, exercise, recreation, travel, music, and so on. Whatever recharges your personal batteries is good. But you need to find margin for it.



John C. Maxwell, 10 Lesson Developing The Leader Within You, pg. 48-61

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