It can be very easy to feel overwhelmed by tasks at work. In last week’s post, what we were really focusing on was completeness. The goal was to get all of the tasks for the day onto one sheet of paper. But if your inbox looks like this:
… where do you start? The answer is as obvious as it is difficult: you have to prioritize.
If you’ll look to the left of my list of tasks, I’ve put a number next to each task:
Here are the general guidelines I use to come up with these numbers:
“1”s: The Sleep Thieves. I really try to be judicious when applying the “1”s to my tasks. I don’t think I’ve ever had more than five of them. When deciding whether a task is a “1”, I ask myself a simple question: if I didn’t do this task, and then thought about it as I was going to bed tonight, would I get out of bed and do the work? These are the things I’m getting paid for, and they’re nonnegotiable. Sometimes these “1”s get added to the list mid-day (after all, fire drills do happen) but I have to be really careful with that. It can be tempting when an email comes in to all of the sudden decide it’s a priority, when really what I’m doing is trying to put-off something further down the list.
“2”s: The Grind. These are the day to day tasks. They’re important, but it’s not the end of the world if they don’t get done. Which, in many ways, makes them the most challenging. If an important tasks comes up out of nowhere and immediately gets classified as a “1”, I’ll often get an adrenaline rush and immediately dive in, working in a comfortable flow state until the job is done. But the day to day stuff? The grind? I don’t always get that same payoff. And unfortunately that sometimes leads to them getting put off, and before long my “2”s become “1”s as deadlines approach.
“3”s: The Wish List. “3”s are an interesting bunch. Sometimes they’re administrative tasks with far-off due dates. But more often they have no due date at all – things like personal and professional development, networking, planning, brainstorming. These tasks are usually associated with some sort of long-term goal, but I’m only allowed to touch them once the real “work” is done. Unfortunately that means that I don’t always get around to them. But they keep getting transferred to the next day’s list, which provides the benefit of keeping them at the front of my mind. The way I see it, “1”s and “2”s are what you get paid for, but the “3”s are what keep your career moving forward. So I try to make time for them whenever I can.
“*”s: My Timesheet. Some of you may have noticed a “*” next to the top task labeled “TS”. That stands for timesheet. It’s kind of in a it’s own category which is why it gets its own symbol. At my job, we have to record the time we spend on work. And ideally I’m updating my timesheet as I complete tasks throughout the day. I used to label this as a “1” task, but the problem was I couldn’t cross it off until the end of the day, and it became a distraction whenever it was time to go to my “2” (wait, what about that “1” up there?) So I gave it it’s own symbol “*”, allowing me to keep it on the front burner while still moving on to other tasks.
I used to have “4”s but found that there wasn’t much value in distinguishing between them and the “3”s. The only other thing I might write is a “D” for “defer”, and that’s just when I think of a task towards the end of the day that I definitely don’t want to get started on until tomorrow, and I just want to make sure it can get transferred to tomorrow’s list, where I can evaluate it objectively in the cold light of the morning the next day.
And that’s it! Planning and prioritizing is complete. This whole process usually takes me less than fifteen minutes, and I know exactly what I have to do.
I just have to do it.
And that, of course, is the most difficult part. Planning and prioritizing are kind of easy (even fun if you’re into that sort of thing), but eventually you have to do the work. I definitely don’t have all the answers on this, but I have picked up on a few tricks over the years that help, which I’ll be covering in next week’s (final) post for this series: Executing.
See you then!