So many of us are overly busy. You might be able to relate to this fictional example.
It’s only Monday morning, but Mark — who works in a startup — is already feeling overwhelmed. The pile of tasks that he has ahead of him is starting to resemble Mt Everest. There are investors to appease, employees to manage, and it would also be helpful if he could pay enough attention to his wife so as to not risk a divorce.
Exhausted, Mark decides to set aside some time to plan the week ahead. Now, how should he go about the planning process?
Well, when I first got into weekly planning, I often listed everything I needed to do (or thought I needed to do).
But I eventually learned that great planning comes down to a single distinction: the difference between a priority and a to-do task. Whereas a priority is a task with a high payoff, a to-do isn’t that important.
It also bears pointing out that we cannot have multiple priorities in the same area of life. As Gary Keller and Jay Papasan explain in their book The ONE Thing:
“To be precise, the word is priority, not priorities, and it originated in the 14th century from the Latin prior meaning FIRST.”
For me, this was a revelation. Even though I had actually learned Latin in school, I (like everyone else) used the plural form of priority without even thinking about it.
The Difference Between a Priority and a To-Do
The difference between a priority and everything else is perhaps comparable to triage in case of an accident. Medical personnel will make sure that an injured person stays alive (priority) but they’ll probably not worry too much about cosmetic damage to their patient’s nose (not a priority).
Similarly, I have a lot of stuff on my to-do list that I haven’t done, without any real negative consequences. For instance, there are some emails I haven’t written and a lot of holiday pictures and videos I haven’t uploaded to social media.
If I never complete these tasks, here’s the “terrible” punishment that awaits me: my husband will tease me mercilessly the next time I bother to take pictures on holidays. In other words: I’ll be fine.
In contrast, not achieving my current priority — uploading my eBook to Kindle within the submission deadline — would have a rather negative impact. If I don’t do this, the pre-order for my book will be cancelled and I won’t be able to set up another pre-order for any eBook for a full year. In other words: not good.
That’s the difference between a priority and a to-do.
How, then, can we put this distinction into use? Well, it all comes down to four steps.
Step 1: Go through a to-do list brain dump
Create an ongoing to-do list where you dump every single to-do you can think of. Put that list somewhere where you can find it without needing to see it all the time (a desk drawer works well for this).
If you think of more to-dos, also add them to the list.
Then, give yourself permission to not get all your to-dos done. Because let’s face it: we’ll likely never get all our to-dos done because they just keep on piling up. Thankfully, it’s not actually necessary to complete our to-do list.
As Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang so beautifully put it:
“Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”
By dividing tasks into to-dos and must-dos, you’re eliminating the chaff from the wheat, the non-essential from the essential.
We’re not creating a to-do list so that you get all of these tasks done, we’re creating it so that your brain can relax, knowing that you’re keeping track of everything.
As McGill University neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains in his excellent book The Organized Mind, our mind tends to “loop” and to keep on reminding us of outstanding tasks again and again and again.
The reason our mental chatter can sound like a broken record is that our brains evolved in a much simpler time. Before humans were able to keep written lists, our brains needed to constantly remind us to get firewood, or food, or whatever else the task was. After all, you wouldn’t want to be stuck in your cave during winter without sufficient food or warmth.
While this “mental loop” worked great back in the days, it is not as useful anymore. Alas, our brains haven’t quite caught up to our world of productivity apps and digital calendars where the worst danger we typically face consists of rush hour traffic.
So, what are we 21st-century people to do with the Paleolithic-era hardware in our brain?
What we need to do is to calm our mind down and reassure it we’re aware of all the tasks it keeps on reminding us off. The simple act of gathering all outstanding tasks on paper can help stop that mental loop. Or, in other words:
“See, brain, it says it right there: ‘gather berries, collect water, create spear.’ No reason to worry about the saber-tooth tiger or starvation. I got this!”
Step 2: Each day, get clear on your must-dos
At the start of each day (or, ideally, the night before), get clear on your must-do items. Most of these should be connected to your priority. Here’s what that can look like for my current priority:
- Reach out to XYZ for permission to reprint my article in my book
- Ask ABC for a testimonial about the book
If you’re unsure what to focus on, answer this question (from the aforementioned book The ONE Thing):
“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
For instance, one of my coaching clients has a full-time job, a side business and is finishing a university degree. What should they focus on first?
On a macro-level (monthly, quarterly or annual goals), completing the university degree could be “the ONE thing” for this person. Once that process is complete, it will be much easier for them to focus on the business and job.
On the micro-level of daily priorities, my client might want to focus on the most important step they can take each day to finish the university degree.
Step 3: Each day, get clear on your want-do items
In addition to deciding on must-dos, you should also create a want-do list. This is for things you’d like to do as well as things that are not that important.
If you’re not at least 90% sure you will get something done, it also goes on the want-do list (because if you’re not sure you’ll get to it, how could it be a must-do?).
The difference between your must-dos and your want-dos is that it’s okay to not finish the latter. Here’s an example from my own life:
- Watch the next lesson in R’s course
- Tidy up room
- Continue reading the book I started
Step 4: Following through
Of course, deciding on must-dos is only part of the process. Now let’s look at how to follow through with them:
- Before you start your workday, decide on the minimum amount of time you will spend on your must-dos. For the first two weeks or so, I would recommend choosing something very manageable, such as 20 minutes per day. The idea here is to build up a consistent habit by aiming for at least 20 minutes daily — you can always keep going beyond that time, if you like.
- Whatever else is going on in your workday, spend this minimum amount of time each day working on your must-dos, and ignore everything else. It’ll still be there when you’re done.
- If at all possible, focus on your must-dos before doing anything else. Ideally, first thing in the morning.
- Rinse, lather, and repeat. Over time, you’ll want to increase the time you dedicate to your must-dos.
Related Content: How to Create a Schedule That Works for You
By going through these steps, our fictional entrepreneur Mark can set himself up for maximum productivity — and creating a “brain dump” of all outstanding to-dos will appease the caveman-parts of his brain.
Proceeding to ignore said to-do list in favour of his real must-dos will help him appease his investors, manage his employees… and, most importantly, not get divorced.
This article was first published on Medium.com.
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