The Ultimate Guide to Prioritization, Part 1: How to Decide What NOT To Do (When Everything Feels Important)
To get clarity on what to do first, you need to get clarity on what not to do first (or even at all!). Become a good procrastinator.
My good friend Claire is the founder of a successful business called Unbelts, which makes ethically made stretch belts for all body shapes and sizes (highly recommend, I own 9 in different colours). Several years ago, prior to Unbelts, her company was named Flatter:Me Belts. When she was getting ready to launch her rebrand from Flatter:Me to Unbelts, Claire came to me with a task list well into 80 items and a deadline of 6 weeks to get it all done. With a small team and a five-month-old baby, Claire was understandably overwhelmed. 😳
She needed help prioritizing the list.
The challenge: Everything seemed essential but not everything could be done in 6 weeks. It felt paralyzing.
The real-life factors: She also had a baby to take care of and, as any parents in the crowd can relate, she wasn’t sleeping much and blocks of focused work time were difficult to get into her schedule.
Over the following weeks, Claire came to my office once a week and, together, we deprioritized and reprioritized everything on her list (which continued to grow), and then mapped it out for the week ahead by time blocking it in her calendar.
There were tears (mostly from exhaustion). Hard decisions. “F*ck it” moments … but she did it. Claire successfully launched her rebrand and she nailed it!
Did she complete every single item on that list? Not even close.
Did the world end because of missed to-dos? **Looks around** 👀... appears not.
Not only did the world not end for Claire, but it went on to bigger and better things! Claire’s baby is now 6, mercifully sleeps through the night, and has inspired Unbelts’ line of kids’ belts.😁
If any part of this sounds familiar (a to-do list so long that you are considering just marking them all as done, uninstalling your task management app/crumpling up paper list, and declaring task bankruptcy, AKA the IMPOSSIBLY LONG task list)...I got you.
Prioritization is really hard, but through this two-part series, I will present different approaches to help you both deprioritize to narrow down your list and then reprioritize what remains so you can actually move forward in an intentional way.
Part 1. How to decide what NOT to do (when everything feels important)
Time management is task management, which is prioritization
In my article, True Time Management is About Deciding What Not To Do, I made the argument that time management is really about choosing what not to do. I quoted author Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks which states:
“The core challenge of managing our limited time isn’t about how to get everything done—that’s never going to happen—but how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it.”
Taking that argument one step further I will add that time management is more about task management. We all have the same amount of time allotted to us each day, but the challenge is juggling too many priorities to fit into that allotted time.
Everything seems important but there isn’t enough time to do it all. You convince yourself that if you buckle down and work harder and longer, you can manage it. Maybe you can get it all done.
Truth bomb: You can’t and you won’t.
The more work you do, the more work there is, and you can never get it all done.
So now what?
Procrastinate with intention
To get clarity on what to do first, you need to get clarity on what not to do first (or even at all).
In the words of Oliver Burkeman, you need to learn how to become a good procrastinator. Paraphrased from his book, Four Thousand Weeks, Burkeman says:
“The good procrastinator accepts the fact that she can’t get everything done, then decides as wisely as possible what tasks to focus on and what to neglect…By contrast, the bad procrastinator finds himself paralyzed precisely because they can’t let go of the idea that they will get it ALL done. You can’t get it all done."
Trying to get it all done results in decision paralysis and fear-based decision-making.
Let’s narrow it down and become good procrastinators!
4 ways to decide what not to do and become a good procrastinator
1. Review your task list via the 4Ds
There are things on your list to remove, things that someone else can take care of, and things that can wait. A way to help you decide what NOT to do is to go over all your commitments, meetings, and tasks, and go through the 4Ds.
In this order:
Delete: Remove it from your list
- What on my list can I delete?
- What on my list can I say “no” to?
- Is this my priority or is it someone else’s priority?
- What are the consequences of this not getting done (if any)?
Delegate: Ask someone else to do it
- What on my list can I ask someone else to do?
- What on my list can I ask for help with?
- What on my list is something I should not be responsible for in the first place?
- Is there someone who is better suited to doing this task than me?
- Can I hire someone to do this task to take it off my plate?
Defer: Push off to a later date and time
- What on my list can get pushed back without consequence (or at least minor consequence)?
- When does this task actually need to be done?
- Can I reschedule this commitment to a more convenient time?
Do: DO IT
This is the list of tasks that remain.
The first 3Ds cut things from your task list so you have only the things that you have decided to do, which you can then prioritize using some of the tactics that follow in this article and the next.
Like in Claire’s seemingly insurmountable list, hard decisions will have to be made. Deleting, delegating and deferring items is a process that requires discipline. You can’t look at your list and say, well I HAVE TO DO ALL THESE THINGS. Because you almost certainly CAN’T. There is only so much time each day.
Be realistic and remember that the world won’t end because you didn’t finish your to-do list (probably 😅).
2. Consider your tasks based on your mental energy
Mental energy is an important factor when thinking about what you are going to work on and when. Different types of tasks need different kinds of mental energy.
It’s hard to do deep, strategic thinking when you are exhausted or at the end of a long day. Writing a blog post is different from taking a client meeting which is different from doing a 2-hour strategic planning session.
When you are planning what to work on and when think about:
- Which parts of the day do I tend to have the highest mental energy?
- Which parts of the day do I tend to have the lowest mental energy?
Plan your most mentally demanding, focused work when you have the highest mental energy. Things like strategic thinking, writing, problem-solving, and planning.
Plan your least mentally demanding work when you have the lowest mental energy. Things like email, administrative tasks, social media posting and filing.
For example, most people are at their highest mental energy first thing in the morning. It's often the best part of the day to do anything that requires a lot of focus. Mid-afternoon is a common slump time for many. It's a good time to plan administrative tasks, or even meetings, because meetings require a different kind of mental energy than a focused task, like writing.
3. Don’t clear the decks
Clearing the decks is when you say to yourself, “I am going to do all these small things before I get to the bigger more important thing”.
It seems like a reasonable approach, but the problem is you will often waste your best mental energy on the little, less important tasks instead of putting it towards the larger, more important tasks. Beyond that, working on the smaller tasks ends up being a form of procrastination because you are avoiding starting a larger task or project!
Don't clear the decks first, clear them second! Do (or at least start) your big task first. If the big task is too overwhelming, break it into smaller tasks, and then do one of those first.
Those smaller tasks are often better left to later in the day when (you guessed it) your mental energy levels are likely lower. The smaller tasks require less of you but you can still get them done, versus leaving something a large, mentally taxing project until later in the day … and deciding you will leave it until tomorrow (again).
4. Plan ahead, but be flexible (and be kind!)
Sometimes life happens and what you planned is not realistic. Plans change all the time and it’s ok to decide to do something different, despite the plan.
When you actually sit down to do the things you planned, ask yourself:
- Are the tasks I plan to work on mentally demanding?
- Is there a deadline I have to hit?
- How do I feel right now?
I mention this particular tactic because I tend to be on the inflexible side when it comes to THE PLAN. When I don’t do something according to THE PLAN, for whatever reason, I will often beat myself up about it and feel bad OR I will try to force my way through it and not do a good job. Neither has a good result.
Maybe you had a bad sleep, caught a cold, or are dealing with something hard in your life so the high-focus work you planned on is not in the cards. Try to do some low-focus work instead.
Or maybe you are feeling energized after a nice walk, or got some good news and are motivated to chip away at a big project when you planned on doing administrative work.
When you can, be kind enough to yourself to choose what you feel up to (assuming you have some flexibility to choose). You will still chip away at things on your task list, but in a different order and without the mental anguish.
Now that you have decided what not to do, you can take what’s left and decide how to prioritize the remaining tasks.
In the next article, The Ultimate Guide to Prioritization, Part 2: How to decide what to do... and do it!, I cover how to prioritize your DO list.
Does your task list feel so overwhelming you don't know where to start? Let's chat about how I can help you deprioritize, reprioritize, and get it to a reasonable place!
Productivity consultant, writer, speaker, serial entrepreneur, chaos calmer, introvert, cat-lady. Lover of books, fitness, old fashioned’s, basketball, and video games.
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