In India, Mahatma Gandhi is known as the Father of the Nation. He was hands-down one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century. And he was, unsurprisingly, an extremely busy man. But every day, he walked nearly 18 kilometers (that’s about 11.2 miles). He wrote countless letters. He carved out time for his family. He stuck ruthlessly to his priorities.
In a 2012 Harvard Business Review story, Essentialism author Greg McKeown writes about Arun, Gandhi’s grandson, who grew up in South Africa. Getting beaten up for being both too white and too black, Arun was having a tough time, to say the least. He went to stay with his grandfather, and as Arun later recounted to McKeown, Gandhi spent an hour every day just listening to his grandson. It proved to be a life-changing experience, all because despite his historic work, Gandhi prioritized his family.
As CEO of my company, JotForm, this past year has certainly been challenging. With over 300 employees and 9.1 million users, I’ve had to reevaluate the normal way of doing things and figure out how to prioritize competing business and family obligations. But as I’ve found, not sacrificing my personal life is the key to doing great work at the office.
For entrepreneurs, prioritizing can be tricky, but it’s also critical. As bestselling author James Clear has said, “Choosing the priority is as important as working on it.” Now, as employees across the globe are rethinking their relationships with their jobs, it’s perhaps more crucial than ever.
As we navigate these times of transition, here are some expert-backed strategies that have proven helpful for me.
1. Start With the Obvious: Create a List With Deadlines
On busy days at JotForm, my list of tasks can feel like a swarm of bees. Without a plan of attack, I could easily get anxious, and begin to panic. In these situations, it’s tempting to knock out the quickest and most urgent matters without considering which are essential to business growth.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but the busier you are, the more important it is to step back, and prioritize, beginning with making a list of all of your tasks. That way, you’ll know exactly what’s on your plate. Add any deadlines to get a sense of which items are urgent. Then, with a clear picture of what’s at stake, you can figure out which tasks to take on, delegate or get rid of altogether.
2. Identify the Essential
How much time do you spend on activities that don’t contribute to your professional advancement? Maybe more than you think.
Harvard Business Review researchers found that knowledge workers spend an average of 41 percent on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be delegated to others. Imagine how much more fulfilling your work would be, not to mention how much better your business would do, if you could recapture some of that time.
The good news is: The same researchers found that by rethinking and shifting their work, employees could regain a full day per week. It begins with identifying which tasks are essential and which are low value, meaning “(a) not that important to either you or your firm and (b) relatively easy to drop, delegate, or outsource.”
Dedicate more time to the essential, the things that really add value, and your work will be more rewarding and lead to more results. Then, delegate or delete the rest.
When I first launched JotForm, I spent the bulk of my time putting out fires when user issues inevitably popped up. I was sure I had a great product, but the company’s growth stagnated. I knew something had to change. With time, I was able to hire good people and delegate those daily user issues, which freed me up to think about the big picture issues. Fifteen years later, the ability to continually reassess my priorities, as well as our priorities as a company, has made all the difference. It may require an initial time investment but in the end, identifying your needle-moving work will be worth it.
3. Tweak Your Language
Small changes can make a big difference in the way we evaluate things.
That’s why Greg McKeown recommends tweaking your language when it comes to your priorities. Instead of saying that you “have to” do something, replace it with “I choose to.” It’s a simple but effective way of reminding yourself that most tasks are not non-negotiable—we determine what’s essential to our day.
The alternative—knocking out tasks indiscriminately and letting other people decide how you spend your time—will rob you of growth, not to mention long-term satisfaction. It’s no secret that burnout looms larger than ever. Being proactive about how you approach your work and drawing boundaries where necessary is key to preventing it.
4. Remove the Relationship Factor
In an ideal world, we assess every request with an objective eye, and decide what to dedicate our energy to accordingly. But in the real world, relationships affect our decisions. Who’s asking can be just as weighty as what they’re asking. We don’t want to disappoint our client, boss or partner, so we say ”yes”—even if it’s not in our best interest.
To overcome this tendency, McKeown recommends separating the relationship from the decision and then choosing. If you have to say no, don’t fret, just figure how to reply judiciously.
That doesn’t mean that relationships will never weigh into the decision—I’m more likely to say “yes” to a soccer game with my son than a game of pick-up with my colleagues. But for me, time with my kids is deeply rewarding. Just like Gandhi’s moments with his grandson merited the time from his busy day.
The trick is not to let your people-pleasing tendency push you to do something that doesn’t align with your broader set of priorities.