It seems like it should be easy: Organizing your to-do list by order of importance. And then simply tackling each task one by one until you’ve checked everything off. You complete the list by 4:59 p.m., and you’re happily driving home at 5:00 p.m. sharp into a glorious sunset.
It’s a lovely dream. But so often, we are overloaded with too many tasks on the list. We either can’t decide what’s actually important or we’re paralyzed by the sheer number of looming tasks. So we just default to doing the easiest thing to check off the list (which is seldom very important).
Not choosing the right priorities leads to stress and overwhelm, missed deadlines, wasted time, and zapped energy. So what are we supposed to do when everything feels equally important and we can’t quite get a handle on our day’s agenda?
Here are eight specific ideas you can implement in order to choose the right priorities and be ridiculously productive during your workday.
Widen your lens.
When you are trying to decide what to do on any given day, you are looking through a zoom lens. But in order to know what you’re looking at up close, you need to have an idea of the bigger picture. You have to trade in that zoomed-in lens for the wide-angle version to see the full image. What are the overarching goals of your company and your specific team or department? What are your personal goals for the year ahead of you? (If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’ll want to figure them out so you have a guidepost for how you choose your daily priorities.) You then narrow down that big picture to monthly goals, then weekly goals, on down to daily goals. The things you spend the most time on day-to-day should be in line with the bigger picture goals.
Make organization a mainstay.
So much of prioritizing comes back to goal-setting. And in order to keep track of all these goals, you should have them written down. And they should be in one place. There are countless apps and programs for organization and keeping notes these days — not to mention plenty of platforms for coordinating team projects (Trello, Asana, Monday, etc.). You could also make use of something simpler like Google docs, MS Word, or your computer’s basic notepad. You could even use an ACTUAL paper notepad! The point is that you don’t want to be at the place where you are choosing your day’s priorities and you aren’t sure what options you have to choose from.
Step into the Matrix.
The Eisenhower Matrix, that is. It’s a four-quadrant grid where “Important” lies on the X-axis and “Urgent” on the Y-axis. With so many tasks on our plates these days, it’s hard to tell what is truly important to our bigger goals. This grid allows you to place a task into one of four categories: Important/Urgent, Important/Not Urgent, Not Important/Urgent, Not Important/Not Urgent. And that’s the order you should do them in. The last category you shouldn’t do at all. It’s a simple system that forces you to assess list items accurately.
Audition every task.
This is a system you can implement side-by-side with the matrix. You are essentially auditioning every task on your list. Does it deserve a place there? With each one, you can say:
- Can I delegate (or outsource) this to someone else? Or is it crucial that I do it?
- Does it need to be rescheduled for another time? Or does it need to be done now?
- Could I automate this? Or does it need a singular focus?
- Is it aligned with my bigger goals? Or is it a distraction?
- Has it been on my list so long (as not important/not urgent) that I should just strike it from the list entirely? Or is it worth doing?
Prioritize your catalyst tasks.
There are some things on our lists that tend to be the first to go when we are busy. And those generally relate to our own health and wellbeing. (I call them catalyst tasks because they are the ones that give us mental, emotional, and physical boosts to get through the day.) Have you ever skipped a meal because you had so much to do? Or stayed up too late? Or neglected to get outside to feel sunlight — or even get up from your desk? These tasks rarely make the priority list when things are busy, but they are vital to maintaining your energy. If you can prioritize these catalyst tasks, even for a few minutes throughout your day, you will have better focus and increased productivity when you ARE working towards the goal tasks.
Stop putting 47 things on your daily list, when you will never get to them all. It sets you up for disappointment. You should underestimate how much you can do in a day and overestimate how much time each thing will take. And actually write out a number of minutes next to each item for approximately how long it will take. Then you can actually schedule tasks into time slots on your calendar and create a realistic picture of what you can accomplish. This helps you be more selective about what you allow on that day’s agenda.
Only list actions.
When you write out your to-dos and you’re choosing what the priorities are, make sure that (in addition to being real), you are being specific. List the priorities according to ACTIONS, not just a general goal. (i.e. don’t list “Miller Project” on the to-do list. Write out actions like: “Call James to clarify details” or “Brainstorm 10 ideas for the proposal.”) Again, you want to set yourself up for success. Creating opportunities to give yourself clear “wins” is going to make the priority-choosing process even easier. And it will make achieving goals easier, too.
There are all kinds of approaches to prioritizing and productivity. Ultimately, it comes down to taking clear-headed action. Don’t get stuck in decision paralysis. Don’t get distracted by things that don’t matter. And be ready to make the effort and let your dynamically valuable light shine!
“Don’t be afraid to give your best to what seemingly are small jobs. Every time you conquer one it makes you that much stronger. If you do the little jobs well, the big ones tend to take care of themselves.” – Dale Carnegie