Have you ever felt your day just get away from you? Looked down at the clock and realized it's almost quitting time, and you haven't even started those things you planned on.
We all have days that seem to get away from us. When our best laid plans are derailed just minutes after we open our eyes.
Losing a day's worth of productivity hurts. But for many people, those endless to-do lists at work and at home are a fact of life. They find themselves caught on the treadmill of other people's priorities. Constantly running in place, and all too often, leaving their enormous potential untouched.
There's no difference between you or I, and the best in our fields. So how do they do it?
How do top performers retain their focus day after day?
Top performers know that to remain the best in their field, they need to focus on delivering value. Day after day, month after month, year after year. The moment they stop producing the results they are paid for is the moment they slip off the top of the podium.
We’ve looked at this before. Top performers know what they need to do to create massive value. But that knowledge isn’t worth much if we can’t escape the prison of those endless to-do’s.
What practical steps can you take to keep yourself off the hamster wheel, and focused on the things that matter to you?
Bucket your Task List
The first step in overcoming overwhelm is identifying what actually needs to get done.
We’ve talked about being 1% better every day, so let’s use 1% of our time to get clear on what is important. This 15-minute planning exercise is deceptively simple, and alarmingly illuminating on what is important.
First, decide on the 3-5 projects and tasks that are important for you to get done. It’s important to limit this number to just a handful, to really reap the benefits of your mind focusing on just a few problems. In a corporate setting, these priorities should be aligned with your KPI’s. The better you perform on your priorities, the better your performance, and the more value you add.
Once you have your priorities, take a look at your To-Do list. Assign those To-Do’s to a priority. I prefer to simply number my priorities (more on this next).
For every given priority project (numbered 1-5), you may have any number of tasks and to-do’s assigned. That simple structure will help you understand what you need to do now to move the needle. Of those priorities, you will also be able to look at which one is most important / valuable. If time is a constraint, focusing on the most valuable activities will still help you deliver.
As you go through this exercise, you will undoubtedly come to the same realization as everyone else. You have more items on your To-Do list than you can reasonably allocate to your priorities. These tasks are distractions, and the reason that most people fail to realize their potential. Spending your time and efforts on tasks that don’t impact your priorities means that you are working on someone else’s priorities. For these tasks, simply delete them from your task list. You’d be surprised about how infrequently someone even circles back on those items.
Prioritize your Priorities
You know what you want to get done. You’ve identified the 3-5 priorities that you have already. Now it’s simply a matter of scheduling the time to work on it.
Make sure you have dedicated blocks of time in your calendar where all you will work on is those priorities. I prefer sending myself meeting invites, and sitting in a conference room alone. This gives the clear message to everyone else that I am not to be disturbed.
Other strategies are to put on your out of office, or simply exit out of email and internal chat programs. A cautionary note re: going AWOL - some companies and bosses will take offense to not being able to reach you at all times. Make sure you set clear expectations in those circumstances, to ensure that you are measured on your results, not your attendance.
As you begin to solidify your planning practices, you will undoubtedly be surprised by two things. The first, how incredibly efficient you can be when you have uninterrupted moments to get your work done. And the second, is that despite your best guesses, everything always takes longer than you planned. Make sure you’re setting aside enough “extra” time to close off anything you don’t get squared away in your original focus session.
Prioritizing in Practice
When I approach this, I always start with 3-4 priorities for the week. Deciding on what my most important, or most valuable, project is for the week, I label that #1. #2 for the second most important, and so on and so forth.
Then I do the exercise of assigning those numbers to my To-Do list. Since my lists are all electronic, anything that doesn’t get assigned a number gets deleted. While that might seem extreme, I have learned that even just seeing other people’s projects on my task list drains away valuable mental energy.
Then, I take my calendar, and start scheduling off time for me. Anywhere from 45 minutes to 4 hours at a time. But the sweet spot is usually between 60-90 minutes. Any longer than that and I will inevitably distract myself with email or other such distractions.
Starting Monday morning, I assign priority 1 to my first time block, eventually moving to a block for 1 or 2. Then just priority 2. Then 2 or 3, always allowing an extra “shared” block of time for work that spills over. This keeps me accomplishing the most valuable tasks first.