In a previous article, we mentioned that setting priorities helps solve the problem of being constantly busy. This article explores how exactly we can learn to set priorities and skyrocket our productivity.
SMART Goals and Task Lists
In order to begin setting priorities, we must first create clear goals, which provide us with direction and focus. If you don’t yet have any goals, use the proven and effective SMART goal method to set quality goals for yourself. A SMART goal is a goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Thousands of successful people use the SMART goal method to give themselves meaningful goals—you can view some examples of SMART goals here.
After setting SMART goals, the next step in setting priorities is to create a task list. A task list is a very specific list of actionable things we need to do in order to achieve our goals. We should list everything we can think of in our task list because our minds aren’t very good at holding and remembering information. Keep your task list in a document (or notebook if you prefer), and constantly revise and update it as you make progress. Make sure everything on the task list can be put into action. For instead of writing down “laundry,” write down “Put clothes in a washing machine.” If we make tasks extremely simple and clear for us, we are less likely to procrastinate.
Eisenhower Decision Matrix
After making a solid task list with at least 20-30 actionable items on it, it becomes necessary to organize this task list by priority. We can do this by making a 2 x 2 boxed table (called the Eisenhower decision matrix), and labeling each quadrant with the following titles. You can easily make your own table in a word document, evernote note, or notebook.
Now we should place every item in our task list in the quadrants they belong in, and focus on the top left quadrant (urgent and important) first and foremost. The urgent and important quadrant includes the activities that most align with our goals and require immediate attention. Next, we should focus on the top right box (not urgent and important). In a healthy task list, we should aim to have very little in the bottom quadrants and top left quadrant, and most tasks in this top right quadrant.
We should spend most of our time doing things that are important to us (aligned with our goals).
It is much better to spend time on things that are important rather than merely urgent. The biggest problem people have in terms of productivity is that they spend too much time on tasks that are urgent and not important (quadrant 3). They delude themselves into thinking they are being productive when they are really just reactively responding to trivial urgencies. Be sure not to confuse urgency with importance, because if you do you’ll end up wasting a lot of time on stressful things that aren’t really important to you.
We want to have as little in the bottom boxes as possible. Urgent tasks are not necessarily important, and we should remove and simplify unimportant urgent tasks if we can. If a task is unimportant, it likely does not align with our goals and therefore should be removed from our task list. It is sometimes necessary, however, to do trivial urgent tasks that don’t align with our goals (like responding to emails), because it is a polite and decent thing to do.
The tasks in the bottom right quadrant are distractions. We should consider removing tasks from this quadrant. However, distractions can be valuable at times and give us some perspective and a relaxing and entertaining break, so we can keep some tasks there if we want.
How does this work on a day to day basis?
Okay so now we have our goals, task list, and priorities chart. Yet it’s still unclear what we should do on a daily basis. At the beginning of every day, or even better at the end of the previous day, we should write down three things from our task list that we are going to do that day. Choose the most important things from the list, and just focus on those tasks for that day. Brian Tracy has a productivity method called “eat that frog,” which means starting your day with the hardest and least appealing task (like eating a frog, for example). If you start your day with the least appealing thing, the rest of the day will be very easy.
Once you’ve completed your handful of tasks for the day, be done with that day! You don’t want to be in a situation where you are stressing yourself out trying to do too much in one day.
Get started and make yourself some SMART goals, a task list, and a decision matrix chart. These three things are absolutely essential for setting priorities!
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