Learning how to set priorities is the first fundamental step to becoming more productive. When your focus is in doing the rights things (instead of doing things right), you become a productive machine that seems to be able to get everything done.
In reality, it’s this shift in mindset and priorities that creates a snowball effect in making progress in meaningful work.
This is part 2 of the “How to Be More Productive: The Ultimate Guide to Productivity” series. In part 1, we discussed what an increase in productivity will mean to you.
By now, you should have figured out your deepest why. This is what is going to fuel your mission to become more productive.
To continue our productivity journey, we are going to do a two-step exercise:
First, we need to find where your time is leaking
Second, we will proceed to declutter your routine.
In this post, we are going to focus on the first part: finding your time leaks. In the next part of this series, we are going to take the conclusions you have reached today and apply that to a specific framework so you can focus on what matters for your personal growth.
The Importance of Setting Priorities
We live in the “smartphone age”, highly accessible and distractible, always on. Time pressures are multiplying at a dizzying rate. It’s an unquestioned truth of modern life: we are starved for time.
Time is a nonrenewable resource. That’s why you need to protect it, plan it out, and make the most of it.
While there’s nothing that can be done for past time, there are certain things you can do to create more time now. To do more great work, you need to start taking ownership of your time.
And that means learning how to set your priorities.
In order to do so, we are going to have a look at your activities and how they are related to your priorities and progress. Then, we will reverse-engineer the way you normally set priorities so it becomes goal-oriented first.
Brain Dump Your Tasks
Let’s do a simple exercise:
Grab a pen and paper. While you can do this in a word document, I recommend the old-fashioned way, as it makes it easier for your brain to process information.
We are going to start by doing a “brain dump,” i.e. having a look at your last month of work:
At the top, list your top three priorities/projects (let’s call them “goals”) from the last month
Below, draw a line through the middle of your sheet
On the left side, write all the activities that brought you results. This is what I like to call “meaningful work.
On the right side, describe the tasks that slowed (or even stalled) your progress. These are your “meaningless work” actions
Think of everything you did in the last month and then ask yourself this question:
“Did this activity help me achieve my goals?”
If yes, it goes on the left. Otherwise, add it to the right column.
List everything you can think of—the more, the merrier: meetings, internet surfing, grabbing coffee with coworkers, preparing presentations, etc.
As an example, here’s a sample of mine:
Take some time and do the exercise yourself.
When you’re done, let’s analyze your results and draw some conclusions.
Finding Your Time Leaks
I will continue using my example, but you can use the same reasoning with your own list.
I could have listed more activities, but just a few serves to illustrate the point. At its core, my goals and action tasks are quite straightforward:
There are some sub-activities within those on the right, but everything else is pretty much wasting my time. Reading email newsletters or browsing Reddit is a sure-fire way to not make progress in my goals.
You often discover that a small part of your work contributes to your big wins (this is a mental model called the 80/20 rule, or “The Pareto Principle”).
Here are some of the biggest time-wasters:
- excessive email
- online and offline conversations with coworkers/team members
- pointless meetings
- constant interruptions from phone or computer notifications
- non-work related internet surfing
- social media
Keep in mind that some activities might be meaningful and meaningless at the same time.
An email or meeting that makes great progress in one of your goals should be put on the left column. However, being in a meeting of a team project that you are not working on won’t move the needle on your projects, so it should go on the right side.
By now, you already know of a couple of tasks that are cluttering your work. These are your time leaks.
Let’s move on to reverse-engineer how to set priorities.
How to Set Priorities at Work
Time leaks are dangerous. They are just like fog: you can see just enough to keep going but not the whole road ahead. When you let them rule your work, you are only focused on the short term.
A better way on how to set priorities is, of course, to focus on the long-term. And in order to do that, you need to ask the priority question before scheduling your tasks.
List down your goals and tasks for the upcoming month (here’s an effective to-do list format for daily use). Once you are done, ask yourself:
“Does this activity help me achieve my goals?”
Everything that turns to be a no to that question is equal to productivity fog. It’s just there to confuse your path and leave you astray.
But how exactly can you make sure that you don’t end up doing those tasks anyway?
That’s exactly what we will cover in the next part of this series. We will take the information you listed today and start decluttering your routine.
This will lead to more time to do the stuff that matters: your goals. And I will also teach you what goals you should pursue.