“I want to complete 10 tasks today,” you tell yourself, pumping your fists in the morning. When you have finished the day, you have completed 5 other unnecessary tasks, wasted a ton of time, and done only 2 jobs that you actually planned. You tuck yourself to sleep, frustrated with how you went about your day.
Want to know what went wrong?
The answer is simple. You prioritized the wrong tasks to work on. But here’s the kicker, you can correct all your problems by focusing on the right things.
In this article, I will cover:
- The common reasons for time spent badly
- How to prioritize tasks that matter to you
I have spent years on poor prioritization and long working hours. I slogged for 14 hours each day and completed many jobs which I should never have touched at all. The whole reason behind my extended working hours was finishing tasks I cared little about.
Over the years, I optimized my schedule to pick up the jobs that matter. Today, I work fewer hours and produce better results.
Before we get to the tips on focusing better, you must learn why your time goes wasted in the first place.
- Common reasons for poor prioritization:
- How to prioritize tasks correctly
Common reasons for poor prioritization:
1. Other work shows up
You start your workday with the right plan, but then an email notification pops out of nowhere. “Hmm, let me start working on this. It won’t take more than 15 minutes,” you tell yourself. One thing leads to another, and before you can blink, it’s lunchtime.
Random work can originate from different sources. A coworker might send you a chat message about office work, a friend might call you, or someone can walk right up to you. At first, the task seems like a small deviation from the plan, but soon such spontaneous work becomes the plan for the day.
You will find small windows of time throughout the day that you can use if you want to. For example, you find 15 spare minutes before lunch where you have enough time to complete a small task on your list. Yet, what do you do?
“Well, let me take care of that after lunch. It is a simple job after all,” you convince yourself. But, here’s the deal – What is simple to do is also simple to not do. Throughout the day, many such opportunities pass by, and the little tasks that you postponed pile up and remain incomplete.
Nothing kills time more than the internet and the smartphone today. The phone beeps, and you pick it up. The notification says that your friend sent a group message about a funny video he found on Youtube. Not only had your friend wasted 5 minutes of his life, but he also urged all members of the group to do the same.
You watch the video and reply, “lol, so funny.” Some of your other friends reply too. Sure, it was hilarious, but 10 minutes just whizzed by.
You might be wondering, “What’s the big deal? 10 minutes in a day isn’t much.” But when you do that time, and again, you spend more time on your phone than doing the tasks you should.
The phone and internet today provoke your attention unnecessarily. Youtube videos, Instagram stories, Facebook Newsfeed, Netflix movies can gobble up hours of your time without your knowledge.
How to prioritize tasks correctly
To get more out of my day and prioritize work better, I started becoming more mindful of what I was spending my time on. To start, I took up an activity that tracked every 15 minutes of my day for a week to understand where I was leaking time. When I looked at the results, I was struck with a bolt of lightning. I was spending most of my day working on tasks that did nothing to help my life goals.
After experimenting and tweaking my methods for 2 years, I cut down most of my time wasters and channeled all my energy on the tasks that mattered to me.
Here are 7 tips to help you prioritize better. These time management tips have nothing to do with the tools you use. If you are looking for a task management software, here are 5 tools for prioritizing tasks.
1. Know your goal
The primary reason I was working on the wrong tasks was that I was myself not clear what I was aiming for. I had vague goals like, “I want to make a lot of money,” or “I want to build a successful business”. But, I had no definition or measure for “a lot of money” or “a successful business.”
I was like a blindfolded dart player shooting all over the place hoping to hit the target.
If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.Lewis Carroll
If you do not identify what matters to you in the long run, you will wander in all directions. If a traveler wants to travel, he can go anywhere he likes but still feels discontented about his adventures. In comparison, if he wanted to visit Hawaii, he can chalk out a plan to visit the place. Sure, there are different routes to reach Hawaii, but at least he knows his destination.
Likewise, you need to identify what is the long term goal you want to aim for. Without knowing what your target is, all your other effort will fall apart. If you do not know your life goals yet, you can use these 3 questions to narrow down goals which matter to you.
You can choose any other method and take as long as you like. But, until you find what resonates with your heart, you can never prioritize the right things to work on.
2. Ask yourself if a task helps your goal
Once your clear about your goal, keep asking yourself the right questions.
For example, when you have to prioritize tasks at work, ask yourself, “Which of these will help me achieve my long term goal?” Any job which helps you take one baby step towards your destination is a task you need to prioritize.
For example, I aim to reach a growth level that I have defined with numbers for this blog. Let’s say I have two tasks in mind.
- Write a blog post today
- Explore the new business idea I came across yesterday
If I have limited time today, this tip makes my priority clear. Only one of these two tasks helps my goal. I have to write a blog post today to ensure I reach my destination. I will complete the other task only if I have spare time left.
That said, you cannot merely allocate 100% of your time towards long term goals. You have responsibilities in the workplace and regular chores to take care of every day which you have no choice but to spend time on.
But, you can use this tip to decide on a dilemma. When you have limited time and multiple tasks to choose from, and you cannot decide which one to pick, always spend your energy on the job which brings you closer to your long term goal.
3. Postpone spontaneous work whenever possible
I had the habit of checking and attending to emails as soon as they popped in. I had convinced myself that keeping a tab on my emails all the time was crucial to success. I took many years to realize to understand how flawed my mindset was.
Most of the emails you attend do not need immediate attention. Most of the random work that shows up on a given day does not have to be completed immediately either. Yet, you somehow prioritize current tasks over those which help your real goals.
Try reversing that approach. Whenever a random task requires your attention, check if you can procrastinate that instead of your actual plan for the day. More often than not, it turns out that you can. Procrastination isn’t always bad, especially when you postpone tasks for a real reason.
4. Work on your long term goals first
Even if you plan to complete tasks related to your long term goals by the end of the day, some work or the other will take over. To fix the problem, you must aim to finish some important tasks related to your goals at the beginning of your day even if they’re not urgent.
Today, I make sure I write 1000 words before performing any other tasks on a working day. I don’t check my emails or chat messages until then. If you have a job that requires all your attention once you step in, wake up 30 min to 1 hour earlier to make time.
You cannot expect the time necessary to complete your goals to fall into your lap. You will have to put an effort into making time yourself. If you let your day run on autopilot, you will never manage to free up the time required to make your dreams come true.
Your mornings are the best time of the day to focus on your goals. But, some people have better concentration levels during evenings or night time. Irrespective of whether you an early bird or a night owl, choose the time slots where your focus is the best to work on your long term goals.
5. Cut down working hours
Yes, you read that right. Every 2 weeks, allow yourself lesser time to complete your daily tasks. As per Parkinson’s Law, the more time you have, the longer you take to finish the job. You also believe you’re working at your maximum potential, and you can’t speed up any further.
But, almost always, you’re nowhere close to the efficiency you’re capable of. Only when you stretch your limits, you will improve your speed and accuracy of the job you’re doing. Until then, your brain and body take the path of least effort to get the job done.
When you reduce your working hours, you force your brain to find ways to optimize performance. It brings you closer to your maximum speed and accuracy.
During my first few months of writing, I could manage to put together 500 words in an hour. By cutting short my available time repeatedly, I now write 1500 words per hour on average. I have days when I struggle with words and occasions where I go on a spree and write over 2000 words. But overall, my current benchmark is 1500 words per hour.
No matter what your field of expertise is, you can increase your speed without losing accuracy until a certain point. It is your brain that acts as a barrier from inching closer to the limit. Force your mind to improve, and you will surprise yourself with your results.
6. Have a to-do list for the day
“I already have a to-do list,” you argue. I had one too, but it never helped me prioritize the right tasks. I was still working over 14 hours and not getting the right things done.
A to-do list grows over time because we all have a ton of things to finish and limited time to get them done. A list that starts short and cute ends up with tens or hundreds of tasks. The longer the list grows, the more you feel like procrastinating.
If you have an endless number of tasks to finish on your app, it can be even more harmful to your productivity than not having a to-do list at all.
To focus on the right tasks, pick about 5-8 jobs a day that need the most attention. Make sure at least 3 to 4 of them aid your long term goals. Do not go aggressive. If you plan to finish a cartload of tasks on one day, you will end up completing only a handful of them.
Setting a modest goal you will meet is far better than an unrealistic target that you will procrastinate for the next day.
For your tasks for the day, you can either use a separate list on your to-do app or resort to pen and paper. I use a notepad to write down 5-8 things to finish on that day and leave it on my work table open. Every time a new task shows up, I peek at my notebook to decide if I must complete the task that day or not.
7. Turn off distractions
You will never manage to get work done if your phone is beeping at every notification, and your email is throwing popups now and then at the corner of your screen.
The best thing you can do to your focus and prioritization is to set your phone on DND. Today’s smartphones allow setting up a daily schedule where your phone goes into DND automatically. My phone automatically goes on DND throughout the day, except 8 PM to 11 PM.
You can allow calls to ring on DND if you like. Most of your distractions occur due to text messages and app notifications than someone calling you. If you believe your work does not allow putting your phone on DND, ask yourself if that is true.
I thought my job required me to check work messages now and then. Over time, I realized I was only lying to myself to take a peek at my phone. You’re not in a hurry to check those likes or messages you receive. People are not expecting you to reply immediately either. It is your brain itching you to pick your phone and check the notification right away.
Likewise, disable notifications from your mail and chat on your computer. Most of the emails you receive can wait. If any task needs urgent attention, let people know they can call you.
Sure, you may not be able to make that expectation clear in a day or two. But you know what? You’ll never free yourself from the shackles of emails and chats unless you try.
Most people blame their job and hectic schedule for not being able to work on their long term goals. But that’s far from the truth. The honest answer is, you have poor prioritizing skills and you are not making an effort to optimize your time.
The problem is, you expect results to occur without making any changes in your daily life. If you change nothing, nothing will change.
Consider yourself in a boat with an oar that is flowing in a river with a minor current. Your random daily tasks are the current pulling you in the wrong direction with a mild force. The more you allow your priorities to drift, the more you will drift with the flow of the day.
It isn’t hard to ram the oar into the water and take control. But, if you never even try, you will flow with the current and end up in a waterfall. If you take the initiative to put in a little effort to row in the right direction, you will reach greener pastures in no time.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.