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Last Updated on December 1, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

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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    Last Updated on March 2, 2021

    How to Not Get Distracted: 10 Practical Tips to Sharpen Your Focus

    How to Not Get Distracted: 10 Practical Tips to Sharpen Your Focus

    You sit at your desk, ready to finally get some work done. “Okay, lets do this,” you think to yourself. You scroll over to Word (or Excel, or Office, etc.) and open up a fresh document. You have some idea of what needs to be done, but what happens next?

    You write a few words down but just can’t stay focused. Then you say “Maybe I should wake myself up with something fun.” You go to Facebook, 20 minutes gone. Then comes Youtube, 60 minutes gone. Before you know it, lunchtime has come and half the day is gone.

    Does this seem familiar? Do you ever find yourself wasting your day?

    Well it doesn’t have to be this way, all you need to do is focus on finishing this article to find out how to not get distracted easily.

    But before we move on to the tips, here’re some important notes you need to know:

    • Avoiding distraction is tough. You’re not alone when it comes to distractions. It’s not easy staying on task when you need to work for hours at a time, but some people are able to do it. The question is: why them and not you?
    • You were never taught how to focus. It’s funny how all throughout our school days we were never taught HOW to learn and be focused, even though that’s all we did. It was just assumed, and ultimately it was hit or miss on whether or not you ended up knowing how to do those things at all.
    • The tools to help master your ability to focus. Since everyone’s left to their own devices, it’s up to you to find ways to master your focus ability. That’s what these tips are for, so you can finally stay focused and on track with what we want to accomplish for ourselves.

    So without further ado, let’s get started. 

    1. Keep Your Vision and Goals in Mind

    First things first, why do you even need to focus? Do you want to become a skilled guitar player? Do you want to write a novel? Do you want to start working from home?

    Think about it.

    Knowing why we need to stay focused can help us push through the tough and tedious parts of accomplishing our goals. That’s when our ability to focus is really tested and when it’s most needed.

    2. Reduce the Chaos of Your Day by Focusing on 2 to 3 Important Tasks

    If you have 20 tasks you need done everyday how effective do you think your focus ability will be? Terrible, right?

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    You can’t expect to do those things with sophistication if you’re too scatterbrained to focus. You need to break it down to the essentials.

    Focus on only doing 2-3 important tasks a day (even one is okay), but no more than that. It’s all you need to take steps towards accomplishing your goals. Slower is much better than giving up early because you took on too much, too early.

    3. Do Those Tasks as Soon as Possible

    In order to make sure you get those 2 to 3 tasks done, you need to do them early. This means as soon as you wake up, you’re already plotting how to do them.

    So get up, use the bathroom, eat breakfast, and do it (Yes, BEFORE work is the best time to do it).

    It’s tough, but waiting to do them only invites distraction to take over. Those distractions WILL come, and they will drain your willpower. This makes working on your goals harder to do, so don’t wait do work on your goals, do them as early as possible.

    4. Focus on Only the Smallest Part of Your Work at a Time

    An easy way to kill your focus is to see a goal for the big giant accomplishment that it is. Most goals will at least take a few weeks to months to accomplish, and knowing that can make it feel like it’ll take FOREVER to do.

    This will cause you to do one of two things:

    • You become discouraged because the goal is too big; or
    • You fantasize about what it’ll feel like to achieve the goal

    Either way is terrible for your focus and always a potential problem when focusing on the big picture or using visualization.

    So what should you do? Focus on doing a very small, minimum amount of work instead.

    For example, which seems easier:

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    Writing 200 words per day or writing a minimum of 2 sentences per day?

    20 pushups per day or a minimum of 1 pushup per day?

    The key here is to use minimums. Chances are you’ll push past them.

    Eventually your minimum will increase, and you’ll slowly improve your ability to stay focused on the bigger tasks.

    5. Visualize Yourself Working

    I briefly mentioned in tip #4 that visualization techniques can hurt you more than help you sometimes. But there is a proper way of using visualization, and it’s by visualizing yourself actually WORKING (not as if you’ve succeeded already).

    Champion runners use this technique to great effect, usually by working backwards. They imagine themselves winning at first, then they act out the whole process in reverse, feeling and visualizing each step all the way to the beginning.

    A quicker and more relevant way to apply this would be to imagine yourself doing a small part of the task at hand.

    For instance, if you need to practice your guitar but it’s all the way across the room (let’s assume maximum laziness for the sake of this example), what should you do?

    First, imagine standing up (really, think of the sensation of getting up and then do it). If you really imagined it, visualized and felt the act of standing up, then acting on that feeling will be easy.

    Then repeat the visualization process with each step till you have that guitar in hand and you’re playing it. The process of focusing so intently on each step distracts you from how much you don’t want to do something, and the visualizations “ready your body” for each step you need done.

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    All you need to do is apply this process to whatever it is you need to focus on, just start with the smallest motion you need to do.

    6. Control Your Internal Distractions

    Internal distractions are one of those problems you can’t really run away from. You need to find ways to prepare your mind for work, and find simple ways to keep it from straying to non-essential thoughts as well.

    A good way to prime your mind for work is to have a dedicated work station. If you always work in a specific area, then your mind will associate that area with work related thoughts.

    Simple enough, right? When you take breaks make sure to leave your work station, that way you’ll know when you’re “allowed” to let your thoughts roam free as well.

    Deadlines are useful here also (use Pomodoro method for example, see tip #9). This method helps keep your mind from wandering around since you’ve got that looming deadline coming along.

    If you can build your focus muscle, you will be able to take control of your internal distractions all the time. How? Join this free Fast-Track Class – Focus Like Top Achievers to find out.

    Ultimately though, silencing those unwanted thoughts is all about getting some traction going. So instead of focusing on what’s happening internally, focus getting something done (anything!). Once you do that, you’ll see that all your thoughts will be about finishing your task.

    7. Remove External Distractions

    This tip is straightforward, just get away from things that distract you.

    Is the television a distraction? Work in another room. Are the kids distracting you? Get up earlier and work before they wake up. Is the Internet distracting? Turn off the modem.

    It’s usually obvious what you should do, but you still shouldn’t overlook this piece of advice.

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    8. Skip What You Don’t Know

    This is a tip I don’t see often enough, if you hit a snag in your work then come back to it later. Focus your attention on what you CAN do, keep working “mindlessly” at all costs. All this means is that you should focus on the easy parts first.

    Eventually you can come back to the more difficult parts, and hopefully by then it’ll have come to you or you’ll have built up enough momentum that it won’t break your focus if you work on it.

    9. Improve Your Discipline With Focus Practice

    There’s a few focus exercises you can do to improve your overall discipline.

    The first one is meditation, which is basically the definition of focus in practice. Think about it, you’re literally just sitting there doing nothing. It’s a great method for building focus ability, de-stressing, and giving you greater control over your emotions. You should definitely give meditation a shot.

    The second exercise is the Pomodoro method. These are basically “focus sprints,” and each one is followed by a solid break. Like real sprints, you’ll get better and better at doing them over time. Each interval improves your ability to stay focused when it matters, so it’s more than worth your time to try this out.

    10. Manage Your Momentum

    Momentum is like a discipline lubricant‒it helps ease the process of sticking with goals. That’s why I think it’s important that we never take true breaks from our goals; we end up losing momentum and relying on discipline to get back on track (not an easy thing to do).

    This means each and everyday we need to do something significant to further our goals (yes, even weekends and holidays). And when I say “significant,” I don’t necessarily mean a big task‒but rather, any task that brings us closer to our goals.

    For instance, if your goal is to be a freelance writer, then write one single pitch on a weekend. If your goal is get healthy, then go for a short 5 minute walk even on Christmas day.

    Nothing big, nothing crazy, only stuff that is significant enough to contribute to the success of your overall goal.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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