The hardest part is getting started.
When there’s a long list that needs tackling every day, the hardest part is tackling what needs to be done first. You may feel intimidated to start your next big project or pull your colleague aside for an awkward, but much-needed confrontation.
And prioritizing isn’t getting any easier. In his book Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff blames this modern-day condition on our "continuous, always-on ‘now’" world which has made us lose our sense of direction.
Successful people know that planning, organizing, and protecting your time is no easy feat, but if you don’t have your priorities straight, who will? Below are four unconventional methods that keep the brightest minds focus on exactly what they need to:
Reflecting on death might not be what comes to mind when you want to tackle your to-do list, but studies find it helps you re-prioritize your goals and values. Buddhist teachings encourage reflections of death with the idea that a better understanding of mortality also helps us better understand our purpose in life.
Steve Jobs believed thinking about death helped him make better decisions. In his famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, Jobs said that he looked in the mirror every morning and asked himself, "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" If the answer was "no" for too many consecutive days, Jobs knew something needed to change. He told the graduates that year:
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
In 2012, artist Candy Chang gave a TED talk titled "Before I die, I want to…" where she explains how easy it is to get caught up in the day-to-day and thinking about death is a way to bring busy people back to clarity.
When you downsize your closet, you also cut down on the number of choices you have to make every day, which means you can now focus on what’s most important: your priorities.
Plenty of CEOs adopt this "uniform" strategy. Steve Jobs wore the same jeans and black turtleneck day in and day out. Oracle’s Larry Ellison also preferred black turtlenecks, but often wore them underneath fashionable slim jackets. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos sticks to khakis, blue shirts, and sometimes a dark jacket. A spokesperson for the company once said: "[Bezos would] rather spend his time figuring out how to cut prices for customers than figuring out what to wear each day."
Leo Widrich, cofounder of Buffer, despises these daily decisions so much, he wears the same clothes every day (he owns five white T-shirts and two pairs of pants) and also eats the same dinner six times a week. Widrich believes that the fewer decisions he has to make, the better his decisions will be.
In an interview with Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair, President Barack Obama agrees with Widrich’s way of life: "I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia."
Like Rushkoff, Dwight D. Eisenhower knew how easy it is to lose track of goals if the importance of tasks are confusing. To differentiate between "urgent" and "important" tasks, the 34th President of the United States broke the two into very basic distinctions:
- An urgent task requires immediate attention and is often performed in a hurried, reactive mode. An example of an urgent task is calming the baby or attending a meeting.
- An important task contributes to long-term values and goals and is performed in a responsive mode that leads to new opportunities. An example of an important task is planning the company’s next relationship-building mixer. Important tasks can sometimes also be urgent, but often are not.
Author Stephen Covey popularized Eisenhower’s Decision Principle in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Warren Buffett knows that you can’t be amazing if you focus on everything you’re interested in at once. This is exactly why, to keep his focus laser sharp, Buffett advises making a list of the top 25 things you want to accomplish in the next few years. From this list, pick the top five that are most important to you.
Now you have two lists and Buffett suggests you "avoid at all cost" the longer one. According to the business magnate, adding your second most important items into your focus only prevents big things from happening.
Whether it’s reflecting on mortality or getting rid of your wardrobe, the smartest people know that there’s never more time in the day—only better ways to manage your time through prioritizing. And if you’ve tried it all and still get sidetracked from what’s really important, it’s time to learn the most simple, yet effective way you can prioritize: Start saying no.