Podcast 095: Prioritizing

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This is podcast 95 and it’s about prioritizing. I’m surprised to look back and see that I haven’t talked about this concept much! It came up last night with my coaching group as we started our month of focusing on time management.

Speaking of the group, May has just begun, so it’s not too late to join the group. You can find out details on my homepage, cluttercoach.net.

Lack of prioritizing is a big reason that people get overwhelmed and do nothing, or they focus on the wrong things because they’re not looking at the big picture. To me, the most important factor in choosing priorities for how to spend your time each day is how well they reflect your life goals. After all, there’s no point in being productive and efficient if you’re spending time on things that don’t matter.

This is an important topic. Many people never write down their goals, for a variety of reasons. It’s said that writing them down is a better indicator of achieving them than not, so it’s a good idea, but at the very least, you should have an idea of what they are.

A tool life coaches use is the Wheel of Life. You can google that and come up with tons of examples. Basically, it’s a pie chart with each slice assigned to an area of your life, such as family. There are basic categories, but you should feel free to add your own or rename them. It’s your life, they’re your categories!

A pie chart is a good technique because it shows you graphically how big each slice is relative to the others. Most wheels have each slice the same size, but it’s worthwhile to draw them to reflect what’s happening in your life and see where you’d like to make changes.

After you have a good idea of what your goals are, ideally in an at-a-glance format such as the Wheel of Life or a short list of evocative phrases, you can refer to it to screen your activities. Note that this is not only for being productive. Fun, recreation and social life should also be in your pie so you have some life balance. But even balance is optional! There’s no rule that says all your slices have to be the same size. They just need to reflect how you want to live your life.

If you think of projects and to do’s associated with your goals that you’re not ready to tackle yet, capture them in a master list. Podcast 35 was about this topic. Use this list for everything that pops into your head that you’d like to do, accomplish, be, have, experience, etc. That way your mind can rest and you don’t have to keep reminding yourself of things you can’t do right now.

Goals and therefore priorities change over time. Don’t be afraid to alter your list if you start down a path that turns out not to be right for you. As I’ve said many times, you don’t necessarily know where a path will go until you walk on it for awhile.

Often you’ll find that the slice that needs some help is one containing a goal you’re procrastinating on. Maybe it seems too big or not do-able at all in your current situation. It qualifies as something that’s important but not urgent and we all know that humans are prone to focusing on urgent tasks at the expense of ones that are actually important. But if you’ve affirmed it as a value in your life, it’s time to prioritize it.

So the sequence is this. Look at your to do list and make sure each to do is related to pushing forward one of your life goals. Screen it using your pie. If you don’t have such a list, make one now! This list is of current stuff, not your daily to do list.

Now you make your daily to do list, making sure to include tasks that are important along with all the urgent ones, although I suggest being honest about what is truly urgent and that only YOU can do. Mark each task as being urgent or important, although some can be both.

Next, prioritize your list so that you are doing as many important tasks as you can while still getting the urgent ones ticked off. Depending on how your particular list looks, you could alternate, starting with an important task. Or you could do only important tasks till lunch, then do the rest in the afternoon. I like this strategy because urgent tasks usually come with an adrenaline rush that can keep you going in the afternoon. You want to save your valuable mental energy time for the important tasks.

Mixing it up a bit can also help lower your resistance to the important tasks, which by definition will be small steps that advance your goals, not entire projects. Refer back to podcast 24 for more detail on that point. Small steps are ones that you are totally clear on and know you are capable of doing. Once you check one off you can go on to the next thing.

It sounds straightforward, but it does require some work and attention; first, to come up with your goals pie and second, to get used to screening your to dos based on your goals and values. But this is how you get to look back over the past year and feel good that you made some progress, however small, on what’s really important to you.

What you can do now: get one of those Wheels of Life and fill it in! If you’ve already done that step, start a master list. If you have that too, look at your current projects and apply the screening technique to the first one.

How to prioritize

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After a business group talk I gave, someone asked me how to figure out what the highest priority task is. He looked at his project list and felt they were all equally important, and then he ended up not doing anything because he felt unsure.

I told him about David Allen’s four criteria model for prioritizing, which takes into account more information than simply how important a task or project is. The criteria are context, time available, energy available and priority.

Context means “what can you do given where you are?” When you’re at the office, you can look at physical files on your desk, but you can’t when you’re home. When you’re in the car, you can make phone calls, but you can’t shop on Amazon (not safely, anyway!)

Time available means selecting tasks that fit into whatever time is in front of you. If there’s a fifteen minute break before your next meeting, you can probably slot a few short tasks in there. If you have the whole morning before a client appointment, it might be a good idea to do a planning session.

Energy available means matching tasks to the amount of energy they need. At the end of the day, you may not be good for anything except some data entry or doing an expense report. During a high energy time, tackle a project that needs some brain power. That also means not wasting those energy-rich times on browsing your email inbox.

Finally, priority means that, given what you know about the previous three criteria, what thing makes the most sense to do right now?

Not everything can be #1 on your list. Using these criteria gives you a way to get something done that makes the most sense and allows you to use your time more effectively.

It’s more realistic than simply deciding what the most critical thing to get done is. We are all constrained by resources, time and energy, so it’s logical to consider those factors.

Are you Doing Important Stuff, or Just Urgent Stuff?

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Urgent sounds important, but it’s really not. It may be important to someone else, but your involvement is often just a waste of time. Tasks that are urgent require you to act quickly and that means you don’t spend time thinking about whether you should do them. They’re also often the result of poor planning (or no planning) and bad time management.

Slide1 The words urgent and important are borrowed from Stephen Covey’s four-quadrant division of work. As you might guess, people often find themselves stuck doing mostly Quadrant 1 and 3 tasks, just because they have a deadline and someone else is waiting for them.

You can’t completely avoid these, but at least make sure you minimize Quadrant 3 tasks, which are things like pointless meetings, requests for information, most email, many phone calls.

As for Quadrant 4, obvy, stay away from time wasters. A certain amount of brain shut-down time can help you be more productive; just don’t get carried away.

The most important area to spend time in is Quadrant 2. Why is this so hard? One reason is that sometimes these projects are only important to you. That means no one is waiting for it; there’s no outside accountability.

To make progress on important projects, you need to value them enough to carve out time in your schedule to work on them. You are not going to find spare time to devote to them.

Look for time in your week that’s not quite as busy as the rest of the week and block it out for personal project work. That means actually write or type it into your datebook at a specific time on a specific day.

Ultimately, these are the projects that will bring you the most satisfaction and pride of accomplishment. Not all the fire drills and all-nighters that seemed important at the time. Start today on honoring the commitments you make to yourself.

Starting Somewhere

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Starting is hard. It means going from a standstill into some useful activity that you may not feel confident about doing. Once you have started, though, it’s much easier to continue. That’s why I have a bunch of tricks for just getting started, any which way.

One typical problem people have is that everything they need to do seems equally important. Here are a few ways to handle it.

  • Assign each task a number from 1 through X (whatever the total is) randomly. Then do the tasks in that order.
  • Another, more fun, way is to write each one on a separate index cards and then shuffle the deck. Turn over a card and do that task. Keep going till you’re done.

If you realize when you do this that all the tasks are actually not equally important, feel free to reorder them. Sometimes you don’t know which is most important, or which is least important, until you put them in some kind of order.

It’s easier to make decisions like this when you get it all down on paper. When it’s just in your head, it’s too vague, too unreal. Writing down a list of tasks gets you to think more concretely about them.

What if you’re still not sure about the order you’ve chosen? Just get going. Even if you get to a point where you have to stop and do something else that, it turns out, has to be completed first, you’ll probably be farther along than if you tried to figure it all out in your head first.

Multi-tasking: Yea or Nay?

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Ah, the debate over multi-tasking continues to rage. Is it productive? Or is that speed an illusion of productivity? Is it required for success in business today, or is it just kind of addictive? In his daily roundup of relevant articles, Michael Sampson includes one from Inc.com about this activity.

First, let’s define multi-tasking. Literally, I say it means doing two or more things at once, such as responding to email while talking on the phone and listening to a conference call on mute. A more conservative definition is moving on to another task before the first one is completed.

I am generally against the first kind of multi-tasking, unless you are clear that only one of the tasks, at any given point in time, is being done well (and if the person you’re talking to doesn’t mind that you don’t hear half of what he’s saying).

The second variety can work quite well. Again, there’s a semantic issue. Are we talking about switching tasks every 20 seconds or every 20 minutes? It also depends on what kind of work you do. Not everyone spends the day writing in-depth reports. Work can be a barrage of rapid fire tasks.

I stand by my opinion that some multi-tasking is unnecessary. People do it because they like the rush. They crave the fast pace. If your boss is that kind of person and you’re not, whoa, you could be in trouble.

The question of whether or not multi-tasking is a good idea is less important than asking how it’s being done. If multi-tasking sucks you away from important-but-not-urgent work into urgent-but-not-important work, it’s not so productive. However, if you can quickly weigh alternatives and reprioritize on your feet, I think it’s a valuable skill.

Bottom line: take a moment to consider whether the next task is the most valuable use of your time right now. Once you do that consistently, you can multi-task to your heart’s content.

Managing Time in Your Home Office

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Here’s an interview that one of my coaches, Ann Ronan, did with me about the special problems people who work at home face.

I talk about:

  • How to avoid working all the time (!)
  • How to control distractions like friends calling because you’re not “at work”
  • Why your home office isn’t working for you
  • How to be your own boss

You can listen right here, or download it for later.

[cincopa AILAa-KNrvId]

Brain Dump, Take Two

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The other day I was talking with some of my biz peeps about my offer and it came out that the term “brain dump” was scaring some people off. It could get too personal and that was scary, or that I might think they were silly if they didn’t have enough to dump, or if it wasn’t big, important stuff. My description wasn’t specific enough so they weren’t sure what, if anything, would be expected of them.

For some, it seemed too broad and therefore overwhelming.

So, here’s what the brain dump, AKA mind decluttering, AKA mental clearing can be used for:

  • I have too many ideas and can’t focus
  • I keep making lists but they’re not helping
  • I get distracted by, um, everything
  • I don’t know what to work on first
  • I don’t have enough time to get my work done
  • I’m afraid to let go of things

Those are all typical problems that people have day to day. Why would you need mind decluttering right now?

  • I’ve been forgetting appointments
  • I’m embarrassed to contact people when I haven’t followed through
  • I frantically look for things that I need right now
  • I’m not ready with what I promised to someone

Mental clutter is stressful. When you’re stressed, you’re not doing your best work.

Clearing your head brings you clarity, focus and calm. You can see how things fit together and what you need to get rid of. A plan becomes clear so you can move forward with confidence. You’re re-energized to get things done because your plan makes sense and is do-able.

These free sessions are ending on Friday, so pick one up now. If you miss out, though, I’m cooking up a new offering; a shorter, more laser-focused version of this.

Autofocus with the Master List

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To do list The master list is one of my favorite tools. I love making lists and I usually make them by hand in a notebook because they’re simpler to work with.

Time management coach Mark Forster is a man after my own heart. He’s written several books about personal effectiveness and he’s now sharing his Autofocus system on his website for free.

The Autofocus system is simply what I described above, one very long list in a notebook that you keep adding to and crossing off of. The cool thing about this system is that it doesn’t involve prioritizing. Forster asserts that as you scan the list, you’ll be able to select the important items naturally, using the “balance between the rational and intuitive parts of your mind.”

This is really important because so much of procrastination results from just not really wanting to do things. People do what they do. If They don’t want to do a particular thing, they just won’t, no matter how “important” they’ve decided it is. This system forces you to be honest with yourself and either favorably recast (meaning figure out a way to achieve the same goal in a way that you prefer) or delete the to do’s that aren’t getting done.

List from Carissa GoodNCrazy’s photostream.

Get a Deadline

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Calendar At a presentation I did the other day, one of the participants came up with a great way to manage her time better: get a deadline. Someone had asked her for information and she wasn't willing to take time from her own work to give it right away. However, she didn't want to leave the person hanging either. If she knew when the info was needed by, she could work it into her schedule and not let it interrupt her.

Be proactive and give deadlines yourself. Make it easier for others to help you by letting them know exactly what you need and when you need it.

What Should You Focus on Today?

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Okay, this is not one of those posts that gives you a formal method for prioritizing your to do list once and for all. That’s not really my style. Here’s a post about not prioritizing, though.

Today I’m offering you a different way of looking at figuring out what to do next. A way that I hope will make you go, ahhhh. Because a bunch of rules to follow about what to do when just makes you cranky sometimes. Here goes:

Do the thing you’re inspired to do.

That’s it. When you are feeling full of good juju about a project, the work you do on it is going to be fabulous. And you’ll feel good about it. What could be better, I ask you?

Now, this might sound like you get to wait around for the muse and you can just go eat ice cream because you’re inspired to. I’m betting that eating ice cream is not on your to do list, though (because, really, no one should need to be reminded to eat ice cream. That’s just scary.).

To be clear, we’re just talking about the things you’ve already decided are a good idea to do.

We’re also not talking about the stuff that has a looming deadline. Yes, you have to do that stuff. The projects that don’t fall into that category are all prospective candidates for your work-energy today. So work you do on any of them is progress.

If you’re totally in love with all your projects, fantastic! You still have to choose something to work on now, today, because we live in a space time continuum that does not allow you to work on more than one thing simultaneously (even multitasking is not truly simultaneous. And I don’t recommend multitasking anyway.

This actually does dovetail with more standard advice about prioritizing, that you should use your most mentally alert time to do work that requires you to think hard. Use your low energy times for shuffling papers and sorting emails.

This strategy will bring out your best work.

When you pick something to focus on that inspires you, that project gets a rush of happy oomph to move it forward. And you’ll feel great. Did I mention that part yet?

Get out your listy list and scan down it, hunting for the thing that makes your heart sing. Whee! Then go do it and bask in the fulfillment of doing great work.