In an effort to be more efficient, we all try to prioritize tasks each day. Most of us have our daily to-do lists to help try to keep us on task and focused. If you’re like most business owners, however, I’m guessing your list tends to be an unwieldy beast that always seems to grow instead of shrink. For every item you check off, you think of three more to add. And prioritizing those items often feels like just a pipedream—every item seems to be of equal and urgent importance.
Unfortunately, rather than helping us concentrate and reduce our stress, our daily to-do list only seems to scatter our attention and add to our ever-increasing stress load. When it seems like there is more and more to do, it’s easy for us to begin to equate being busy with making actual progress toward our goals. The reality is, being busy and making progress are two completely different things.
At the end of each day, when you look at your list, you should be excited about what you’ve accomplished. You should feel like you’ve made forward progress. You should be able to lay your head on your pillow and drift off to restful sleep, confident that you’ve done your best to tackle your tasks and move ever closer to your goals.
If this doesn’t describe you, know that you’re not alone. Thankfully, help is here. This list of five simple tips will help you prioritize tasks, keep you moving forward and give you confidence that the energy you expended that day was used on activities that were actually important.
Be honest about your big picture goals.
A to-do list is essential for a lot more than just short-term goals and making sure you don’t forget to do something during the day. Task lists are a key strategy that can help keep you focused and make sure you continually drive forward with small steps toward your bigger, long-term goals.
When working to prioritize tasks for each day, you need to allow yourself time to pause, think and give serious consideration about which tasks will actually help you move closer to those all-important future goals. While unexpected, urgent items can, and will, come up, those items directly related to your long-term objectives should always be given highest priority.
Consider both importance and urgency.
In the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey introduces readers to the Eisenhower Matrix. This popular system helps you determine if a specific task should be addressed immediately or if you can hold off on dealing with it (or remove it from your list altogether.) The system utilizes the following four categories and suggests how to deal with each:
- Category 1: Urgent and important. These tasks need immediate attention and should be tackled first.
- Category 2: Not urgent and important. These tasks are important and are most likely related to your long-term strategy. Time should be made each day to work on these.
- Category 3: Urgent and not important. There are two options with these – do them only if/when you have time or delegate to someone else.
- Category 4: Not urgent and not important. These time wasters are doing nothing to help you move forward or be more productive. Remove them from your list.
It’s important to note that most people focus the majority of their attention on tackling those items in categories one and three—those marked “urgent”—while ignoring category two. That’s a mistake though, as items in this category can often have the biggest long-term impact. It’s crucial that you don’t ignore them and make time to work on these each day. Even baby steps will keep edging you ever closer toward your larger goals.
Another popular strategy that takes urgency and importance into account is using Most Important Tasks (MIT). According to The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business author Josh Kaufman, “most important tasks” are those two or three tasks that will make the biggest difference. Each day, identify two or three MITs, and get them done first thing, before anything else. It’s also helpful to establish a deadline each day of when you’ll get all your MITs done. A lot of us tend to be most productive earlier in the day, so shooting to have them done by say 10am for example. That then frees up the rest of your day to tackle the other items on your list (or any unexpected things), confident that you’ve already done those things necessary to keep moving forward.
Review, evaluate and be honest.
Time should be set aside every day to review your to-do list. It’s paramount that you allow yourself the time to look over your list, think about which items are most important, and be brutally honest about which items can be removed. If there are items that you never seem to get to and continually move to another day, you need to look at why that’s happening. If it’s because the task just isn’t important to you or doesn’t move you closer to your long-term goals, remove it. If it’s important, but time consuming, consider ways to break it down into more manageable pieces that you can tackle over a longer time. If it’s important, but you’re avoiding it because it makes you uncomfortable, buck up and add it to your MIT list to get it done and out of the way first thing.
Allow yourself enough time at the close of each day to look over your list, make any necessary adjustments and prepare for tackling the next day.
Focus, focus, focus.
Unless we make a conscious effort to block out the endless stream of notifications, dings, prompts, and alerts our devices subject us to, it can be virtually impossible to focus. Even an innocent, quick “5 minute” detour to social media can unexpectedly turn into an hour-long time suck. When working on your daily tasks, especially those MITs, you need to stay off social media and ignore incoming emails and calls. If you’re lacking in the self-restraint arena, consider using one of these apps to block off time each day where you can focus exclusively on your tasks without distractions:
- Cold Turkey makes it possible to block certain websites, social media platforms, apps, even the whole internet or your entire computer for specific amounts of time. The pro version even gives you the ability to block the use of certain passwords during scheduled blocks.
- FocusMe is a fully-customizable tool that lets you block or limit the use of specific websites and apps; limit or block apps and games; set your break times for hours, days, weeks, even years; and set “launch limits” to only let you open your email a specific number of times per day.
Prioritize tasks on one list.
In order to prioritize tasks, it’s essential that you can easily see everything you need to accomplish in a given day. This single list should include both work items as well as personal—everything from important meetings and projects to running by the grocery store on your way home.
Forget about the sticky notes, notebooks and scraps of paper. And while I’ve talked about the benefits of using index cards before, they aren’t an ideal solution for your daily task lists either. Wunderlist used to be my go-to solution, but I bailed when Microsoft bought them and replaced it with Microsoft To Do late last year. My current favorite app is Todoist.
Todiost is a user-friendly app that gives you all the tools you need to keep all your tasks in one place, easily add sub-tasks, highlight your highest priority items for each day, add reminders, filter tasks by due date, project, and more. With Todoist, you can easily see daily tasks, move them as necessary, delegate to other users, and be more productive each day. Best of all, because you can access it via your phone or computer, your list is always with you.
When you’re working with a never-ending, always-expanding to-do list, it can be easy to become overwhelmed and frustrated. Eventually we either resign ourselves that we’ll never get anything done, or forget that there are only so many hours in a day and burnout trying to do everything. Neither of these is a recipe for success. If you apply these tips when working to prioritize tasks, you will get more done, feel more satisfied about what you do accomplish, and move a little closer to your ultimate goals each day.