Cutting Through the Clutter – Personal and Business Strategic Planning

Despite a lot of talk about the desire to simplify and focus, many professionals fall far short of their longing. As responsible people doing our best to satisfy competing demands, we tolerate, and maybe even thrive a bit on figuring out how to squeeze in more and more. How do some people go from more to less with better results?

Juggling personal interests, work commitments, family obligations, social schedules and community activities, while trying to please everyone along the path, leaves little time for big picture thinking. Without a compelling reason (often health related or a work crisis) we don’t stop the motion to think about whether all of the activity makes sense. Once in a while we take vacation, and even these escapes seem to be getting shorter and shorter (an Expedia poll shows that, on average, most Americans get two weeks off, but 21 percent of them fail to use more than six of their vacation days. Most took one week and scattered the rest of their days throughout the year). By the time our mind starts to clear, it is time to return to the daily routine.

We may feel like a bit of a superhero when we count the number of tasks we regularly check off the daily ‘to do’ list, but it is likely that we never stop to think about whether we are actually moving forward. Activity in and of itself, without a clearly focused plan can drain energy and distract us from what’s really important. The real challenge is not to get it all done, but to figure out how to cut through the clutter and focus.

So where to begin? While it may seem overly simplistic a good starting point is to think seriously about the following question:

If you could spend more time each week doing what makes you come alive, what would you be doing?

Let’s look at an example: One of my clients runs a large transportation company with about 300 employees. The activity that she loves most in her business is working with prospects and clients on innovative strategies to save these companies money. When I asked her what percentage of her is spent doing this during the week, her response was – maybe 10%. My second question to her – if she was able to spend more time with clients and prospects working on money saving strategies, would there be a benefit to her business? The answer- absolutely, these conversations generate new business. Motivating and productive!

I know it is not shocking to hear that when you spend more time in activities that motivate you, it naturally leads to greater levels of happiness and success. The catch is that it is often hard to identify and act on the ideas that can make a difference in our own situations. Even with the best intentions for ourselves, our businesses and our teams, the natural inclination is to think about all of the reasons it can’t work, as opposed to what is possible. When you feel yourself starting to discount good ideas because of the challenges, enlist help.

A good strategic planning process will guide you through the assessment and decision making process in a way that can help you optimize your time based on priorities. Without a sharply focused picture of what’s important, it is almost impossible to figure out the right action steps. The unfortunate result, an overflowing calendar filled with the wrong things.

When trying to grow a business, the most effective way is not with a shot-gun approach that tries to cover every possibility. A better use of everyone’s time requires an investment in thinking about what kind of growth is most important. Spending time to identify and develop the right skills, processes, and clients is usually a better long-term strategy than running after every good idea. The quality of daily decisions increases with our ability to stay focused on long-term goals. The feeling of pressure to deliver short term results can be paralleled to the challenge that public companies face. The tradeoff is often long-term value.

With all of life’s daily demands and seemingly pressing priorities, what is the best use of your time and money? The answer lies in having a framework for decision making. The decision to take on a new opportunity (job, position, volunteer role, or a favor for a friend or family member) is a tough call without having a well defined set of values, and a plan. Strategic planning, requires time away from the daily routine to dream, assess and develop meaningful, motivating well-though out courses of action that take into account personal preferences and the realities of the world.