It’s standard productivity advice: Do your most important task during your most productive time. But even if you know when you work best, it’s not always easy to figure out what deserves your attention.
Prepping for a meeting with your CEO is probably more important than editing a memo on office fridge policies, but many tasks at work are more ambiguous. Given that time is limited, how do you establish priorities?
First, list everything you’ve got on your plate. Then, before you stop working each night, identify three to five items that must happen tomorrow. Here’s when something should earn a spot on this more limited, precious list:
In life, it’s always easy to shove off important—but not urgent—tasks. A colleague wants an email answered, so you do. You don’t have to work on that book proposal, so you don’t.
But keep in mind, people who accomplish great things in life prioritize those great ideas alongside mundane tasks. To be sure, you shouldn’t brainstorm how you’ll reform health care when your boss needs a document turned around in an hour.
If you put in an hour in your home office before commuting, or you get to the office early for some quiet time, then that can be a great slot for putting first things first.
Good managers strive to create a risk-free environment for people to ask what matters and what doesn’t. If you’re not sure what work should be done first, stop by your boss’s office and ask him or her to choose. You’re not bothering the boss. Assistance with prioritization is the core of management.
This is especially important if your manager has given you multiple high-profile projects concurrently. He or she may be dealing with shifting deadlines, or shifting priorities higher up the ladder, and you want to be helpful.
Not everyone has a boss, but most of us aim to make cash one way or another. In her book Never Check Email in the Morning, time management guru Julie Morgenstern advises people to "dance close to the revenue line."
"In tough economic times, your ability to make or save your company money is where your greatest value lies," she writes. Revenue enables everything else. If time is tight, then reaching out to a new client is more important than getting to the bottom of your inbox.
Sometimes difficult tasks expand in our mental accounting to consume far more time and energy than they will in reality.
If you’re worried about a difficult phone call, then don’t fret about it all week. Just schedule it in at 9 a.m. the next day and do it. By 9:30 a.m. you’ll be done, and can devote your attention to knocking off other priorities.
Some tasks are more time sensitive than others. If your mentor is flying all day tomorrow and you want his or her feedback on something that’s due tomorrow, then you’ll need to prioritize calling him or her today—even if that call might not naturally leap out as a high priority.
If it doesn’t happen today, it won’t. So if you want it to happen, it goes on the list—hopefully above organizing your office supplies.