You walk into work on a Monday morning and there are 275 emails in your inbox, you have at least three reports to write, you have a to-do list that includes everything from an HR meeting to interviewing a job candidate, there’s shopping to do, dry cleaning to pick up, and oh… the deadline for filing corporate taxes is Wednesday. This hypothetical to-do situation may be exaggerated – but only slightly. Many of us face schedules not too far from that scenario on an almost daily basis. The pandemic has – unfortunately in some cases – resulted in firms giving more responsibility to fewer employees, and people report being busier than they’ve ever been in their careers. How can a person learn to prioritize tasks and manage their time effectively when everything is a priority… and there’s only 24 hours in a day but 30 hours of work that needs to get done?
One key is to immediately cut out digital distractions. We all waste way too much time on things that are not urgent. Perhaps we’re waiting for the coffee to kick in or we just aren’t quite feeling up to getting to work on that project yet. How do we fill this procrastination time? With the internet… which is available everywhere, including in that small computer in your pocket called a phone. Eliminating digital distractions will save you more time than you can imagine and cutting out e-distractions can start with something as simple as downloading a blocking app. Millions of people around the world are learning that there are ways of staying focused – and one of the best ones involves taking willpower out of your hands. A blocking app is free to download and – with your permission – syncs across all of your devices. After it’s in place, you go through a list of apps and sites and decide what times you are permitted to view what kind of content… and block everything else! This is extremely useful as it’s so flexible. You could block off social media and news blogs from 9:00 a.m. to noon on every weekday morning, for example, or you could choose to block shopping sites until 5:00 p.m. each day, or you could disable the entire internet for a while if you are studying or trying to get creative work done. Exercising digital discipline has never been easier with a blocking app, as after you’ve taken the first steps to set it up and decide what to block, it’s amazing how much easier it is to avoid temptation.
Installing a blocking app is the first step towards understanding that it is possible to prioritize. What’s required is a rejection of competing priorities. For starters, consider listing everything that needs to be done that day – from mundane personal things such as picking up the dry cleaning – to important work tasks such as finishing a report. Put all these things on a single list and, as you look at it, your prioritization instincts should begin to kick in. Bear in mind that what you’re trying to achieve is not actually immediate time management, but rather a strategy for achieving long-term goals. Think about what you’re really working towards. This will help you identify the tasks that will help get you to them. For example, answering an email from an old work colleague might not sound like a priority on the face of it, but if this person is a contact for a long-term project you hope to achieve, maintaining a good relationship with the person may in fact be a bigger priority than a report that can be finished tomorrow.
There’s an old strategy that’s been linked to various famous individuals but regardless of who thought of it first, the strategy is effective as it asks us to divide all tasks into four categories. 1: Urgent and Important – obviously, if it is both urgent and important it should be done first. 2. Important but Not Urgent – category two tasks should be assigned a definitive spot on your calendar, but they don’t supersede category one. 3. Urgent but Unimportant – all category three projects should be – if humanly possible – delegated to someone else. You’re not being lazy by delegating, you’re using resources wisely. And finally, there is category 4, which includes tasks that are neither urgent nor important… and these are simply scratched off your to-do list.
Using a blocking app, as we suggested earlier, can help you focus on a single task – and such single-mindedness is more important than most people think. Research shows that those in positions of power – such as upper management – are more likely to prioritize a single goal and complete it before moving on. Those without such power have been found to try to manage multiple priorities at the same time. The problem with a ‘dual-task strategy’ is that it isn’t humanly possible. We don’t multitask – instead we ‘task-switch,’ and task switching is exactly the kind of thing that slows down computers. Jumping back and forth between memories, data, and emotions is taxing and, in the end, counterproductive. Therefore, identifying likely distractions and actively avoiding them is the key to getting one thing done at a time – before moving on to the next thing. If email notifications are constantly jolting you out of your train of thought, or if the sidebar on your computer showing who won last night’s game takes you out of the moment, blocking all of these things with a blocking app, for example, is incredibly important as there is nothing more disruptive to productivity then constant minor distractions.
Finally, those learning to prioritize and better manage their time should remember to be realistic and don’t bite off more than you can chew, so to speak. Is it really possible to achieve the ridiculous list of tasks we started this article with… in a single day? Probably not. So don’t set finishing all of them as the day’s goal, as when you almost inevitably fail, you will succumb to discouragement and other negative emotions. Rather, with a realistic set of true priorities mapped out clearly, when you achieve them, you promote a virtuous cycle of productivity – and what’s more, if you’ve blocked out distractions for most of the day and gotten the important stuff done, you’ll have time to watch a football game, scroll through social media, hit the gym, play video games with your kid… or whatever else makes you feel happy. There is enough time to get things done; but only if we avoid distractions and learn how to properly prioritize.