How To Prioritize for a Productive Day

February 7, 2013

If you’re like me, you find that on a typical day, your to-do list grows longer, rather than shorter. It seems that you start a day with a set of tasks you want to accomplish, but the day ends with only one or two items checked off the list, and another three or four items added to your list. It’s easy to end the day with a net deficit of two or more tasks.

I am by no means the time-management expert, but I’ve found I need to build a system that allows me the ability to reset my priorities and workload each and every day. In order to work for me it must be low-tech and only take a few minutes. I’ve got it down to about five minutes (on the good days), and it’s been super helpful.

When are you most productive?

Find the time of day that you are the most productive, and use that time to prioritize. Some people are afternoon people. Energized by lunch, they see the latter half of the day in front of them, and the crunch puts them in gear. 

For me, mornings are best, hands down. When the new day is starting, it’s asking me to think about what’s ahead. I set my priorities first thing in the day, using the list as a guide as I engage each hour of the day. By taking five minutes to plot out my day, I can have hours of efficient productivity.

What makes a good to-do list?

Managing a to-do list is about knowing how to prioritize. It’s about understanding what items are absolutely crucial—the sun can’t go down until they’re accomplished. It’s about knowing what items are flexible and can move on the calendar. Some of the nuance of prioritizing comes with deep experience in your industry and at your workplace, but most often it can be a matter of common sense. Generally by asking “what will happen if I move this item?” you can determine its importance.

A key element in knowing the importance of the task is to know the stakeholders. Who assigned the task? Who will be affected if it’s done quickly and well? Who will suffer if the ball gets dropped?

The system I use isn’t original to me and it’s quite simple:

  1. Spend two minutes writing a list of absolutely everything you can think of that should be done that day.
  2. Give each task a priority ranking of A, B, or C. A is high priority, C is low.
  3. Go through your list of A’s and rank them in numerical order. Do the same for the B’s and the C’s.
  4. Execute from the top, starting with your A1.

By taking five minutes per day to prioritize, you’ll give your day a compass, or maybe it would be better dubbed a “GPS”. A good priority list is flexible and allows for re-tracking as you run into ground-level, real-life issues throughout the day. For five minutes of investment, you can identify not only what needs to be done, but you’ll start to see what’s competing for your time.

While it may seem simplistic, it may take some time to get into the groove. But stick with it. You may not check everything off your list each day, but you’ll rest assured knowing that you’re attacking the most important tasks first.

What system works for you? Is the tyranny of the urgent ruling your day? How do you need to invest in prioritizing your day?


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