Depressing truth: most of us suck at getting stuff done – as in, the really important work that actually counts. Dozens of small tasks, colleague requests and last-minute responsibilities eat away at the time we put towards it, evaporating our day and leaving us without any real sense of direction or achievement.
This frustrating cycle is unsurprising when you realize most of us still prioritize tasks based on deadlines rather than importance. We promote what’s most pressing to the detriment of what matters most. But the habit can be broken – here’s how to prioritize to actually get work done.
Identify what’s important vs urgent
You need to be able to categorize which tasks are important and which are simply urgent. Known as the "Eisenhower Principle" – ever since the former U.S. President adopted the approach to organize his workload – the theory maintains that good time management means being effective as well as efficient. Essentially, we should focus on things that are important, not just those with the tightest deadline. Here’s the distinction:
Important tasks have a conclusion that results in us accomplishing our aims;
Urgent tasks require immediate attention, and are often linked to accomplishing someone else's goals.
We often prioritize urgent tasks, since the effects of not dealing with them are instantaneous. While it’s hard to train yourself to step away from tasks set to conclude the soonest, it’s essential to get stuff done. We need to reject the desire to concentrate on inconsequential-yet-urgent tasks to save time for those that are critical for our own success.
Understand how you actually spend time
Critical point – you can’t manage your time better if you don’t know how you spend it in the first place. Getting the bigger picture of exactly how you spend your time at work has a ton of benefits – from seeing what limits your productivity, where tasks take too long, where you get interrupted or distracted, whether peripheral tasks hog all your focus, and where you need to improve workflows and processes.
When you’re stressed and flat-out with work, it can be difficult to take a step back to see if you’re actually making the most of your time. Nor do you actually have any disposable time to collect all that time data yourself. Luckily, time tracking apps can now completely automate the process – capturing everything you work on in a day so you can just quickly review and analyze your performance. It’s the easiest way to ensure you’re actually keeping to your priorities, and identifying the problems that get in the way of getting quality work done.
Don’t waste time on unimportant activities
To focus on the things that are genuinely important, you need to isolate the activities which steal your time away. Many people aren’t aware that they spend large amounts of time doing arbitrary activities out of politeness, habit or broken processes. So constantly examine your own work behavior to identify your own time drains.
As an example, consider your last working week. Did any unexpected tasks work their way into your schedule? Maybe a colleague asked you to “quickly” check something – and before you knew it you’d spent an hour reworking the entire thing. These surprises are a necessary part of working with a team, and while it’s great to stay flexible at work, you need to set limits for the time you spend helping others or managing tasks that aren’t your responsibility.
Manage anxieties and stay positive
We often put off our most important tasks because they’re difficult and fiddly, and the stress to “get it right” can be overwhelming. We build up in our heads all the things that could go wrong, especially when the work takes us outside our comfort zone – especially presentations and pitches. While this pressure is completely natural (some even find it helpful!) the sum negativity can effectively stop us from getting the work done.
The trick lies in managing those negative feelings effectively – acknowledging and labelling our negative feelings to help reduce them. Stop and formulate it plainly: “I am resentful because I worked harder on this project than X”. Take responsibility for how you’re feeling, forgive past injuries and focus on positivity. Happiness is a miracle worker for our motivation, so make sure you protect time for your own self-enrichment and give yourself space to refocus.
When it comes to prioritizing tasks, aim for focus and simplicity. Steve Jobs has proved the approach seriously pays off, explaining in his own words: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."