One of the things you learn in a corporate environment as well as in a small business environment is that there’s always too much to do.
Some people react to this by working harder, and trying to get everything done within the day. They become workaholics, obsessed, with little social life. Although I’m definitely an obsessive type, I’ve always had too much of a sense of the meaninglessness of corporate work to spend my short time here on this Earth working my socks off for someone else. So I learned a different way to deal with the overflow of work. I call it ‘harsh prioritisation’.
This approach emerged after I started using task lists to track my work. If you’ve never used a task list, and if your work ever consists of many different bits and bobs (even in addition to a major, central task each day), I strongly recommend you try it. No need for technology here - a paper pad will do. You simply write out the tasks and cross them off as you do them. This takes your mind off the exhausting task of tracking all those little todo’s and allows you to focus on actually doing them.
The next step, to be able to spot what to do next more effectively, is to prioritise your tasks. This simply requires you to put a number next to each task, indicating whether it’s urgent (1), not-so-urgent (2), etc… I rarely went lower than 5.
One of the issues that emerges then is that priorities change. Mostly, they change from day to day. Preparing a powerpoint for tomorrow’s lunchtime presentation might be a (2) today, but it’s definitely a (1) if it’s still not done tomorrow morning. The way I’ve dealt with that has been by making my task list a daily task list.
This may sound tedious, but it only takes 5 minutes a day at most, and makes your entire day more productive and less stressful, so it’s a worthwhile investment, especially if you’re extremely busy.
What I did was that I copied out any incomplete tasks from one day to the next. Each evening, I would spend 5 minutes, before going home, putting together my task list for the next day, and prioritising it. This was very effective in reminding me of what was on my plate, too, so I didn’t forget anything.
In doing this apparently useless task of copying out my task list, I noticed something interesting. In busy times (but even in quiet times) there were some tasks that never rose to priority (1) and never got done. They got copied from day to day, hovering around (4) or maybe (3). Since there were always higher-priority tasks that needed to be done first, I never got round to doing those tasks.
There was a whole variety of tasks in that “never-done” category. Some were commitments to other people. Others were things I had intended to do for myself. Others were just random errands that I felt I probably should do and so had added to the list.
In not doing those tasks, I took a risk. I thought probably something would happen, someone would shout about those tasks not getting done. Well, you know what? Nothing happened. The world didn’t stop - in fact, it kept spinning on even more smoothly. As long as I kept doing the high-priority tasks, the less important ones were rarely ever mentioned.
I learnt an important lesson there: Some things are just not worth doing.
Put in other words, different tasks have different “Returns On Investment”. Some tasks have a low ROI and even though you said you’d do them, they’re not worth doing. And another discovery attached to this is that the vast majority of tasks fall into that “not worth doing” category.
If you look at all the tasks you have on your list right now, I’d wager that only 20% are actually worth doing. Those are the 20% that will give you 80% of the return on the time you invest. The key to being productive without overworking yourself is simply to become really good at judging which are the 20% that need to be done, and then blissfully ignoring the other 80%, no matter how worthwhile they seemed when you first added them to your list.
This, in my experience, applies in any environment. It’s harsh, but it’s true. Prioritise your tasks, discard the dogs, focus on the champs, and your life will become easier and more fulfilling.
Word of warning: this worked extremely well for me when I was most busy, just before I quit my consulting job. I was managing a small but challenging project, while at the same time staying up until 3am each night to work on my business. I was tired, and very tight on time - I got to work at exactly 9am and left at exactly 6pm. I knew I was quitting soon, so I applied this ‘harsh prioritisation’ with even more gusto. And it worked even better. Just before I quit, the client had just moved mountains to extend me for another two months. However, I must warn you that this is potentially a very dangerous technique. You need to be very confident about your prioritisation skills to make this work. If you somehow miss one of the 80%-ROI tasks, you could be in for a world of trouble when everyone uses that opportunity to hit you for all the other unimportant tasks you ignored!
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