If I could boil down everything I have learned about productivity into one simple message, it would be this one: Do What Matters Most. Start your day with your most important task. Focus on your ONE thing.
It’s easy to know why: If you get your highest priority things done first thing in the morning, you’ve already won the day, no matter what comes later. But if you start your day unfocused, you are a lot less likely to get your important tasks done at all.
Sounds simple, right?
It is — if you actually know what your priorities should be.
So here are 5 effective ways to choose your priorities wisely so you can be sure you are doing the right things and not just doing it the right way.
1. Choose your Tasks Proactively, Don’t Let Them Choose You
In 99% of cases, whatever is lurking in your inbox or externally incoming in any other way (your boss stopping by with that “urgent” task, a client calling with some last-minute changes) is NOT your priority. It’s someone else’s. If you make other people’s priorities your own, you will never make any progress on what is actually important to you. This is true for both personal goals and business goals.
The key to choose your priorities intentionally is to plan your week before it starts. Trust me, if you make it a habit to set your priorities on Sunday evening or Monday morning, it will change your life.
Starting your week with 100% clarity on what is important will significantly increase your chances of actually getting it done and not get pulled in 1000 different directions.
2. Pick the Tasks that are Important, not just Urgent
When picking our priorities for the week, we tend to pick the most urgent tasks we need to get done and procrastinate on important, yet not urgent, activities like planning, preparation, systems set-up, reading, and learning, hiring and training people and working on high-leverage projects with a long-term impact. The result: we stay stuck in that urgency hamster-wheel.
A great way to better understand this problem is to look at the Eisenhower Matrix also called Urgent-Important Matrix. It’s a simple tool that has the potential to 10x your effectiveness at work! It was invented, as the name says, by Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States when he was struggling to prioritize his many tasks. The result was a matrix consisting of 4 quadrants that classify activities according to two parameters: urgency and importance.
In today’s world, the Eisenhower Matrix looks something like this:
The most effective people spend 70% of their time working on high leverage projects from quadrant II. As a result, they are able to make significant progress towards their goals, actively prevent crises from happening and lead a more balanced, calm and focused life.
The majority of people, however, spend almost no time in quadrant II because they are so busy with quadrant I, III and IV activities. But with a few simple shifts, you can claim back valuable time in your job to spend more time outside the office or focus on new exciting opportunities.
3. Choose the Tasks that are related to your GOALS
Whether it’s a personal goal (lose weight, run a marathon, find a new apartment) or a professional goal (start a blog, get that promotion, change careers), a task is only important if it is actually to one of your goals.
Your to-do list is full of goal-related tasks? Great! Rate your tasks according to the impact they have on achieving your goal. Your high-priority tasks are the ones with the highest (potential) impact.
In my work as a business coach, I also like to call these tasks your “strategic bets”. If your goal is to increase your revenue by 10%, don’t run around trying 1000 different things, instead, carefully pick the 3 strategies with the highest potential impact and execute them well. Only switch strategies when you have enough data to prove the others don’t work.
4. Choose the tasks that make other things on your To-Do list OBSOLETE, FASTER or EASIER
This one takes some practice, as it usually requires coming up with a priority that is not already on your list. Screen your task list for long, inefficient and tedious tasks and think of a way to eliminate them, make them faster or easier.
Here is an easy example: You are a business owner spending 1hr a day replying to customer service emails. Investing time in hiring a good customer service rep will free up 1hr of your day in the long-run. The irony though is that you might feel that you don’t have time for hiring…don’t fall into this urgent vs. important trap (see 2).
5. If you are still unsure what to focus on, pick the task that makes you the most UNCOMFORTABLE
It makes you anxious. You are dreading it. You feel overwhelmed. Which is why you have probably put it off for a few days, weeks or months even. Now this task is exactly what you should be doing.
Achieving your goals is not meant to be easy. So doing things that make you uncomfortable and scare the sh*t out of you is a great indicator you are on the right path!
How you spend your time and energy this week should be a representation of your priorities. Choose them intentionally by focusing on important goal-related tasks that make other things easier and yourself a little uncomfortable.
Liz Huber is a Mindset & Productivity Coach and the Founder of Refined Life. Sign-up for her email list to receive a weekly digest of her best articles and the free ebook “6 Mental Blocks that Keep You Stuck in Life”.
This article originally appeared on Medium.