You have tried making a mental checklist each morning. Your desk is littered with reminders on sticky notes. On the wall, an oversized calendar is filled with your good intentions. You have tried making a to-do list on your desktop, in an app and on your phone. But none of this is helping you consistently meet your goals.
The secret is not in the to-do list – no one format works for everyone. It’s what you include in that to-do list that really matters. To achieve your goals, you first need to learn how to prioritize.
Why Prioritization Is Essential
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by all of the different items on your agenda? Though there are many things you should be doing, you don’t know where to start. You feel frustrated, stuck and unmotivated. Prioritization gives you the clarity you need to move forward. By focusing on what’s really important, you develop a better sense of purpose and direction.
Investing your time and energy in your key priorities increases the likelihood of achieving your goals. If you know how to separate truly important tasks from the rest of the clutter, you can spend more time doing work that matters. You will find yourself wasting less of your day on distractions, busy work and other nonessentials.
As one of the few things that money can never buy, nothing is more valuable than your time. Effective prioritization enables you to take control of your schedule. By eliminating tasks that are not vital, you can reduce stress and reclaim some of your precious time.
The Basics Of Establishing Priorities
Choose no more than three top goals. With limited time and energy, you need to narrow your focus to a few key areas. These core priorities will drive how you manage your time. For example, if you are the CEO of an expanding company, you may choose to concentrate on growing your client base and hiring top talent for management positions.
Focus on activities that drive growth. While there are many different ways to advance your business or personal goals, some will be much more beneficial than others. What are the key drivers that will help you meet your objectives? Prioritize those items first.
Understand the difference between urgency and importance. We often become distracted by whatever is demanding our attention at the moment. If your phone just dinged or a colleague invited you to join a meeting that starts in a half hour, you are probably accustomed to switching gears to focus on what is happening now or in the near future. However, those urgent tasks don’t always reflect your priorities. Focus on acting to accomplish your goals rather than reacting to what is happening around you.
Find a system that works for you. Whether you are a very methodological person or prefer to go with the flow, your priorities and schedule need to reflect your personality and values. The best agenda, app or organizational strategy is the one you will actually use on a consistent basis.
Give yourself flexibility to change your priorities. As time goes by, your goals may evolve, and your priorities should shift along with them. It’s important to consider both the present and future in your daily planning. Some of your priorities may be focused on short-term accomplishments, while others reflect your long-term plans.
Do more than check the boxes. Many of us learned to organize our days by making a long list of everything we need to accomplish. To improve on this basic process, savvy planners consider importance and urgency. However, focusing on completing the list each day can interfere with doing your best work. Advancing your main goals is more important than creating a false sense of achievement.
The Prioritization Process
Break down larger goals. To build your key priorities into your daily schedule, work through all of the steps that are involved in your projects. For example, if you are preparing for a client presentation at the end of the week, you might need to brief your team, research your competition, update your slides, etc…
Develop a list of individual tasks. You should be as specific as possible and include the most pertinent details. What exactly do you need to do, and when does it need to be done by?
Classify and group your to-dos. To begin prioritizing all of those tasks, start by considering whether each task is urgent and/or important. Urgency reflects the timeliness of a task. A company picnic registration that is due today is urgent, while an expense report that is due a few weeks from now is not. Then ask yourself whether each task is relevant to your goals. You will end up with four groups: urgent and important, urgent but not important, not urgent but important and neither urgent nor important. The last group can usually be dismissed altogether.
Rank each task on your list. With your three remaining groups, analyze the impact and effort of each task. Will it make a difference? How difficult will it be to achieve? You can get a better sense of how to structure your day by considering the time and energy involved in each task and the return you expect to generate on that investment.
How To Work Through Your Priorities
Cut the tasks at the bottom. To be more productive, make what billionaire investor Warren Buffett calls a “not to do list.” This list should include any tasks that are low impact and high effort. The items that have fallen to the bottom of your priority list are not tasks to do later; they are time wasters that need to be discarded.
Create a plan to accomplish your goals. The way you tackle your to-do list will depend on your work style, other obligations and the support you need from others. You may find it helpful to track daily, weekly and monthly goals to get a better picture of everything that’s currently on your plate.
Assign a specific time for each task. If it’s important, it should be on your calendar. Getting started tends to be the hardest part. By blocking off time for an activity, you communicate to yourself and others that it is a priority.
Map out your plan at the beginning of the day. Though you start out each week with the best intentions, you may find yourself slipping back into your old habits by Wednesday. Making a realistic plan of what you intend to achieve each day will help you stay the course.
Eliminate distractions. Unfortunately, the way you want to spend your time sometimes doesn’t align with the way you actually spend it. Set yourself up for success by eliminating as much “noise” as possible. If you find it difficult to ignore notifications, try setting a timer. Start by challenging yourself to go 30 minutes without checking your phone, email or social media. You may be surprised at how much time you can recover when you stop multitasking.
Take some time to reflect. When you’re busy, finding a few minutes to evaluate your progress and plan for the future can be difficult. You may feel like you always need to be accomplishing something, but reflection helps ensure that your priorities remain in order. Evaluate your progress at the end of the day, and plan for what’s next.
Remember that prioritization is always a work in progress. Successful leaders understand the importance of being strategic. Once you have developed your action plan, check in with yourself regularly to ensure you keep working toward your goals. Schedule time on your calendar each week to examine upcoming opportunities and map out your priorities.
Aligning your schedule with your goals takes time but will enable you to be more productive in the long run. Don’t worry if your process looks a little different from the one we described. With a little patience and persistence, you can learn to prioritize the activities that will help you and your business grow.