INCREASE YOUR PRODUCTIVITY – PRIORITIZE
Instead of busyness being a state in which one finds oneself from time to time, it’s come to be a way of life. Busyness is the modern human’s normal state.
To be busy means to be occupied. More specifically, to be “actively and attentively engaged in work or a pastime.” Random House has two definitions for busyness:
1) the quality or condition of being busy and
2) lively but meaningless activity.
The first definition is innocuous enough, but it’s usually reserved for things like phone lines and wallpaper. It’s that second definition that is troublesome.
Lively but meaningless activity? Is that what we’re doing every day?
Saying “Are you busy?” to someone nowadays is not really asking if they are doing something. It’s assumed we’re all doing something every minute of the day. What it really means is “Are you doing anything important, and, if so, can you set it aside for a minute?”
That brings us to priorities.
A PRIORITY is one thing that takes precedence over another. In government, national security occasionally takes priority over individual liberty.
YOUR PRIORITY is something that you choose over something else based upon relative values or circumstances. If you choose something just because you happen to like it better, that’s just a personal preference, like preferring the color blue over yellow.
But if you value something more because of other influential factors, it’s your priority. For example, you may enjoy yoga more than cardiovascular exercise. That’s a preference. But if your doctor tells you that you need more cardiovascular exercise than yoga because of your individual health condition, then cardiovascular exercise becomes a priority for you over yoga. Your health is that influential factor that causes cardiovascular exercise to become more important than yoga.
All day long, you make conscious decisions about what to do next, but those decisions are most often a result of subconscious thought processes. For example, you consciously choose to open Facebook instead of your calendar, but that choice is based on a subconscious prioritization of social media stimulation over work. Thus, our priorities affect our behavior, all day, every day.
When prioritizing your activities becomes a conscious thought process instead of a subconscious one, you have taken a key first step in increasing your productivity. Now, you are controlling your choices and, as a result, your behavior, through a system of prioritization.
Prioritization is simply the process of choosing one thing over another, but for the purpose of our discussion, prioritization is our personal, tailored system by which we choose one activity over another for maximum impact.
This system goes beyond basic time management in that you’re not just trying to optimize your time, but your productivity as well. How is that different? With time management, you attempt to avoid wasting time by controlling it to its smallest increments. It’s not as important what you fill the time with, as long as it is filled, and not wasted.
Prioritization, on the other hand, forces you to develop a type of ranking system, attributing certain characteristics to certain activities, and then basing your choices on the rank achieved by that activity.
It sounds complex, but it doesn’t have to be. It sound like it takes a lot of time to do, and that is true, but usually only at the beginning. Once your system becomes habit, and once you see the rewards it offers in terms of increased productivity and progress toward your personal and professional goals, you will consider the ritual more of a necessity than a luxury.
This is only true, however, if you take the time to establish a set of priorities and a system of prioritization that positively impacts your personal and professional goals.
To understand how dramatically prioritization can affect your level of productivity, consider the Pareto Principle, which states that 80% of the results of anything can be attributed to 20% of the causes of it. This is a rule of thumb, of course, but the maxim has withstood the test of time.
The Pareto Principle can be applied to many different things: 80% of sales come from 20% of clients; 20% of a sport’s professional athletes win 80% of the awards; 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of criminals.
Now, apply the Pareto Principle in general to your daily activity: 20% of your daily activities contribute to 80% of their impacts on your life. Or this way: 80% of your accomplishments are a result of 20% of the total work you’ve done.
When you look at it that way, prioritization is intrinsically related to productivity. To achieve a high level of productivity, you must learn how to prioritize your tasks effectively.
Before delving into methods and techniques for prioritizing your daily activities, let’s look first at the problem. You are likely reading this article because either you don’t know how to prioritize or you don’t know how to do it well. That’s the problem. The solution can take many forms, but begins with basic self-analysis.
As you drink your first cup of coffee, or at the moment you sit down to work, how do you choose what you will do? Do you check email? Do you listen to your voice mail messages? Straighten your desktop? Check your calendar? Likely, you have a routine you go through every morning, but how did that routine develop? Was it a haphazard evolution of whatever you thought of first, second, and so on, or was it a result of a systematic determination of what works best for you?
We all develop routines in our everyday lives. They often save us time by doing things in the same order, in the same way. They can help us make sure we remember everything we need to do. But they can also be a detriment to productivity if they become habit without any cognitive analysis of whether it produces results.
For example, pulling up Facebook may be part of your everyday routine, but chances are it does not increase your productivity in the morning, no matter how hard you may try to justify it. Even if you are a social media manager and Facebook may be one of the most vital tools for your job, if you didn’t take time to figure out when it is most effective to use Facebook and when it is not, then it’s not part of your prioritization system.
So instead of choosing your first or your next task arbitrarily, let Mush Monday help you develop a customized system of prioritization that allows you to make choices that have maximum positive impact on productivity. Let’s face it, you will always be busy. What’s most important is to be productive.
Every method of prioritization begins with a to-do list. There’s simply no other way to capture all the things that you want to do. If you have several lists, this is where you try to merge them into one or two. If you don’t have lists already, this is where you perform a massive brain data dump and pour onto paper all the things you would like to get done, whether today, tomorrow, or sometime in this lifetime.
This step is not where you filter the list. That will come later. For now, just get all the items down on paper, even if the list spans multiple pages. You will pare it down significantly, so don’t get intimidated or feel bogged down already. One of the ancillary benefits of getting these to-dos onto the paper is that it clears out some of the clutter in your brain that can lead to disorganization of thought and inability to focus.
I mentioned above that you want to get your lists down to one or two. Two is probably the limit for a prioritization novice, and that is if there is a clear separation between your personal life and your professional life, and you choose to prioritize within each separately. Then you might have one to-do list that mentions all your client projects, software training, or networking events, among others, and then another to-do list that includes tasks such as an oil change for your car, a personal debt reduction plan, or vacation planning.
Now to rank your list. There are a variety of ways to go about this, such as according to completion length or deadline, but the primary focus should be relevance to your personal or professional goals. If they don’t relate to your goals at all, some argue they shouldn’t be on any list at all.
Not everyone’s system will be the same. Some people are habitual procrastinators and need to put their most dreaded task first in order to be productive throughout the rest of the day. Some thrive on achievements, and may rank their list in order to scatter little victories throughout the day.
However you go about ranking your list, once it’s complete, at its very top should be your biggest priorities in all their shining glory.
One popular tactic for prioritization was used by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and developed further by Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Wise words.
The system involves classifying to-dos by importance and urgency, and then putting each task in one of four categories (what Covey called quadrants): 1) important and urgent, 2) important and not urgent, 3) not important but urgent, and 4) not important and not urgent. As one can imagine, the items that find themselves in categories 3 and 4 are precisely the ones which have little impact on our personal and professional goals, but on which we waste a lot of our time.
Some believe that trying to prioritize all your daily tasks becomes too cumbersome and argue that your daily task list should only have 2-3 focused items, your most important tasks. This grants you much more freedom and is less tedious to maintain. After you do those, you are free to arrange your day as you wish, although with practice, you may find it much more comfortable to go right back to your ranked list and grab 2-3 more.
Some find a simple A-B-C priority determination is the simplest route, with A-items being critical, urgent items that come up unexpectedly but which need your full, immediate attention; B-items being “business as usual” items, your repetitive yet inescapable daily activities; and C-items being everything else. Another source adds two other categories to whittle down the list and increase your level of productivity: D-items are those that can be delegated to someone else and E-items are things to eliminate completely.
You may find a simple numeric 1-10 ranking system, with 1 being the most important item for the day and 10 the least important item, is just as effective for you and meets your prioritization and productivity goals sufficiently enough.
Deciding on a method of prioritization is a highly personal decision, but the key element is the impact it has on your goals. Whatever form it takes, the ranking system allows you to establish your priorities for a day, a week, a year, or longer.
With a diet, you don’t expect to lose weight if you keep all your bad eating habits. Similarly, you can’t expect to become more productive if you don’t put effort into prioritizing your activities.
Make prioritization a routine part of your daily life. Some find it best to do it in the morning, others prefer to do it at the end of the day. Some do it twice a day or more, though that might get cumbersome, especially if you are unused to prioritizing. Try it more than one way. This is about what works best for you, not for someone else. This is about accomplishing your goals and dreams, not someone else’s.
You will be amazed at how well a system of prioritization works to further your personal and professional goals, but that’s only true if you take time to make it work.