People misrepresent their priorities, their calendars do not!

  • Jonas 

I would love to improve my software engineering skills. Move from sound theoretical knowledge to a position where I could confidently contribute to a large-scale real-world production system. For almost 10 years I have recognised the severe gap between my theoretical knowledge and my practical experience. And over the past 10 years, two to three days has been the longest timespan I have actually gone off and coded in one go, with months or even years of non-coding periods in between.

My father has been in love with the French language for 30 years, (semi-)retired for 10. The most progress in language learning he ever made was during a few months over a decade ago. He had a company-paid tutor during that time as speaking French would have actually been beneficial for his employer then. No lessons have been taken since retirement.

An executive goes on the record to talk about how the corporation is built with the customer at the core of everything. The executive however has not used the product in months or years. The only customer perspective he sees is through dashboards with aggregated numbers. Much better to get the whole view than sitting down with individual customers anyways who likely are non-representative edge cases or preselected by some assistants pushing a certain agenda.

In all three cases, there is a serious discrepancy between what is being communicated as priority and what actually is being prioritised in terms of time spent. Whether as individuals or organisations – we all hold certain beliefs on what we believe is important to us. And then far too often, we behave as if these things are not that important after all.

Some argue that they are applying something similar to the Eisenhower matrix, differentiating between urgent and important and then keeping these important but non-urgent items for later. However, that later never comes. And if that later time never comes, are these items really important for us?

Our self-perception is driven by a specific set of ideas, how we would like to be perceived. We love the idea of certain things. Many dream of fame and stardom. The increasing recognition of the downside and sacrifice required though lead to most of us being content with having the dream of being famous instead of wholeheartedly pursuing the actual thing.

Similarly, in companies leaders speak about people, about innovation or about being customer-driven – about many things that sound like great key priorities. But scratch beneath the surface and ask how companies, and in particular top management, spend their time. More often than not, an executive’s life is little more than a never-ending series of short-term and rather shallow activities like budget meetings or status update meetings.

The organization claims that customers are the number one priority – yet the top management spends five times the amount of time in a budget review process as speaking with actual customers. If customers are the most important, then how can leadership consciously delegate that responsibility down to create space for the more tactical aspects of running the company?

Fortunately, however, our calendars are a remarkably simple tool for running sanity checks on how big the gap may have become, for others as well as ourselves. Whilst time is not the only factor that matters – looking at somebody’s calendar and how they actually spend their time provides an empirical perspective on people’s choices.

(Successful) startup founders typically place the startup above everything else, including family, their health and everything else. There is no way that an important company meeting will be rescheduled due to a routine medical checkup, an upcoming birthday or some other family event.

This is a clearly visible communication of priorities – which gives founders legitimacy and authenticity when saying that they care more about the startup becoming a success than anything else. This kind of extreme obsession is rather dangerous and definitely not a desirable model for many. Just like Hollywood fame would be a nightmare for most people. But the alignment of claimed priority and demonstrated priority provides the authenticity that assures the claimed priorities are genuine.

To be fair on the many people living with conflicting communicated and demonstrated priorities, it is extremely easy to be pushed into such conflicting actions. We all are constantly bombarded with a plethora of external stimuli. Technology amplifies this exposure. Remaining focused on one’s key priorities therefore naturally is difficult.

Scientific fields like behavioural economics and humna psychology find us to be remarkably capable of self-deception or holding multiple conflicting self perceptions at the same time. Saying that one thing is key and then acting like another one is, therefore, is not necessary always intended hypocracy.

To assess the drift between genuine and disingenuous claims, measure between assumed and demonstrated behaviour, cold data is in short supply. Actions speak louder than words though and are calendars document our actions. Therefore, instead of just using calendars to plan our time, they are a great tool for observation and regulation as well. Look at your last few weeks and months in that light and see if a surprising pattern may emerge!

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