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Last Updated on December 1, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively
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It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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    More by this author

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed 11 Ways to Think Outside the Box The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby) The Science of Setting Goals (And Its Effect on Your Brain)

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    Last Updated on July 27, 2021

    Can’t Focus? The Mistake You’re Making and How to Focus Better

    Can’t Focus? The Mistake You’re Making and How to Focus Better
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    What comes to mind when you think of learning how to focus better? Do you think of the attention or concentration it takes to complete a task? Do you consider the amount of willpower needed to finish writing a report without touching your phone? Do you think it requires sitting in complete silence and away from distractions so that you can study for an important exam or prepare for an interview?

    I’m sure many of you can relate to the above statements and agree that the ability to focus is about staying on task for a given period of time. Breaking that concentration would mean that you’ve lost your focus, and you’re either doing something else or trying to gain back that focus to finish up the intended task.

    With an ever-increasing amount of information—that is easily accessible online and offline—we’re faced with a lot more opportunities and avenues to create possibilities to experience things on a daily basis.

    Unfortunately, that can make it a lot harder for us to make progress or get things done because we’re either easily distracted or overwhelmed by the constant influx of information.

    That’s why many of us end up having problems concentrating or focusing in life—whether it be on a smaller scale like completing a task on time, or something much bigger like staying on track in your career and climbing the ladder of success. We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we blame our failures due to a lack of focus.

    Learning how to focus better doesn’t have to be too complex. Here is some information to help you get started.

    Focus Is Not About Paying Attention

    What if I tell you that you’ve been doing it all wrong this whole time?

    Focus isn’t just the attention span of giving 20 minutes to a task. It actually goes far beyond that.

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    The real reason why we focus is because we need to do something that exceeds our existing capability. We need to devote large amounts of time and energy to move the needle in life, to make that progress and positive change.

    And why do we want to do that? Because we want to spend time becoming a better version of ourselves!

    At the end of the day, the reason why we stay focused on any task, project, or goal is because we want to succeed. With that success comes progress in our lives, which means we eventually become better than what we were a month ago, or even a year ago.

    Let me give you an example:

    Say you’ve been tasked to manage a project by your boss. You have targets to meet and favorable outcomes to achieve. Your focus and attention has to be on this project.

    Once the project has been completed, your boss is happy with the results and your hard work. She rewards you with praise, a promotion, or maybe even a year-end bonus.

    That’s your success right there, and you feel good about your achievements. Looking back at who you were before and after the completion of this project, wouldn’t you say you’ve become a better version of your previous self?

    Focus Is a Flow

    This is what focus is and how where learning how to focus better starts. It’s not a one-off, task-by-task mode that you jump into whenever needed. Rather, focus is a flow[1].

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    Focus is the way in which you deliberately target your energy to push progress in something you care about. Because focus takes energy, time, and effort, whatever it is that you need to focus on should be something meaningful to you, something that’s worth shutting down phone calls, text messages, and social media for.

    So, why is it that we sometimes find it so hard to focus?

    Usually, it’s because we’re missing two major elements. Either we don’t know where we want to go—in that we don’t have a clear goal—or we do have a goal, but we don’t have a clear roadmap.

    Trying to improve your focus without these two things is like driving to get somewhere in a foreign country with no road map. You end up using a lot of gas and driving for hours without knowing if you’re getting anywhere.

    Let’s go back to the example of your boss assigning you a project to manage. The company is opening a new office, and your boss wants you to oversee the renovations and moving-in process of this new location.

    Now, if you didn’t have a clear goal or end result of how the new office should look, you could be busy arranging for contractors, interior designers, or movers to come, but have no clue what to assign or brief them on.

    The second scenario is that you know exactly how the new office should look and when it should be up and running. However, because you don’t have a clear roadmap to get to that end result, you end up working all over the place; one moment you’re arranging for the contractors to start renovations, the next moment you’ve got furniture coming in when the space isn’t ready. What do you focus on first?

    The Focus Flow

    Without a clear goal and road map, things can turn out frantic and frustrating, with many wrong turns. You also end up expending a lot more mental energy than needed. But, having a Focus Flow when learning how to focus better can help.

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    Let me show you how theFocus Flow works.

    1. It starts from a clear objective.
    2. This becomes a clear roadmap.
    3. Then it manifests into a state oftargeted attentionand effort.
    4. This results in pushing your progress towards your ultimate destination.

    Setting a Clear Objective

    To start off, you need to set a clear focus objective. If you don’t have an objective, how can you decide on which things are worth focusing on? You can’t focus on everything at the same time, so you have to make a choice.

    Like driving a car, you need a destination.

    In this case, you don’t want to drive around aimlessly. You want to arrive at your destination before you run out of gas.

    A good focus objective, therefore, needs to be concrete. This means that it should be something you can visualize, such as determining how the new office is going to look after you’ve completed the renovation and moving in. If you can visualize it, that means you have a clear enough picture to know what’s needed to achieve it.

    Drawing a Focus Roadmap

    The second step is to lay out a practical focus roadmap. Once you have your ideas, setting an objective is easy. The most difficult part is determining how you’re going to achieve your objective.

    There are lots of things you can do to work towards your goal, but what comes first? What’s more valuable, and how long will it take?

    That’s where having a roadmap helps you answer these questions. Like driving, you need to have at least a rough idea of which major roads to drive on, and the order in which you need to drive them.

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    Yet, creating a roadmap can get tricky because you have absolute freedom on how you’re going to achieve your objective.

    To create a good road map, you should include major milestones. These are targets you need to hit in order to achieve success. Your roadmap should also include feasible and realistic actions that you can achieve as you learn how to focus better.

    Need a little help in drawing this Focus Roadmap? The Full Life Planner can help you. It’s a practical planner to help you stay focused and on track with your most important goals and tasks in an organized way. Get yours today!

    Power Up Your Productivity

    I hope you now have a better understanding of how focus truly works. By harnessing your focus using the Focus Flow, you’ll be able to work on a task more productively, not because you’re able to concentrate, but rather because you know exactly what your end goal is, and you have a game plan in place to make that happen.

    Once there is clarity, I can assure you that you’ll be less likely to get distracted or lose focus on your tasks at hand.

    You may think it’s going to take you extra time writing out an objective and setting out a roadmap. You may believe that you are better off getting right down to the actual work.

    However, as I’ve mentioned, there’s no point in rushing your efforts that lead you to nowhere or cause you additional detours. You’ll end up expending more mental energy and time than needed.

    Once you’ve made your roadmap and found your focus, follow it up with unbreakable determination with Lifehack’s Actionable Motivation On Demand Handbook.

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    Featured photo credit: Paul Skorupskas via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Very Well Mind: The Psychology of Flow

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