It’s the start of the new year, and I am asking you what your priorities are. Notice that I did not ask what your goals are. Why not?
Well, there is nothing wrong with setting goals for the new year. But nearly everyone suggests setting goals and I am sure you’ve gotten that message by now.
And really, I think what most people need to do at the start of the year is to learn how to set priorities effectively. There is no point in setting goals if you cannot execute those goals throughout the year by effectively setting and managing your priorities—you need to start there.
The Focus on Priorities
Priorities refer to shorter term, more tactical activities, compared to goals. They often refer to tasks and small projects. If you keep a to-do list, your higher priorities are what’s at the top of that list.
The problem is, even with a to-do list, most people fail at prioritizing their activities and instead spin their wheels. Too many people spend day after day, month after month, consistently focused on various small stuff—stuff that keeps them feeling busy but not moving ahead.
The Problem with Priorities
The problem with setting priorities is in answering the following question: on what basis does a to-do list item get a high priority? Most people say that things that are important should get a high priority.
Okay fine. But, what’s important? Well, that’s where the problem starts. There are a hundred different ways to measure importance. It can be based on urgency, it can be based on financial matters, it can be family, it can be career, it can be what your boss wants, and so on. There are many, many dimensions of importance.
And unfortunately, almost any task can have one of those dimensions used as a justification for making it important. Which is why after only a few weeks or months of using an unregulated to-do list, it seems like everything ends up in the High section of that list.
What should you do? I recommend the following. In your to-do list, focus almost exclusively on urgency.
Now wait. Most self-appointed time management gurus state that urgency is exactly what you should NOT prioritize with. They say if you do that your day will be spent fighting fires all day and you’ll never get to longer-term priorities. And there is some truth to that.
But here’s the thing. It’s because you don’t have a formula for dealing with urgency that unregulated urgency derails your days.
So, my solution is to do this: address urgency head on, first thing. Get it under control. And then take a step back, and from a calmer perch address your important things.
The key distinction is this: getting urgency under control is very different from focusing only on urgent items all day. Those are two completely separate and distinct things.
The Trick is to Manage Urgent Items
Here is what I mean by that. If you scan your issues for the day or week—your problems, your regrets, your missed opportunities, your complaining customers or bosses, then, yes, everything will look urgent. You’ll likely have tens or hundreds of items that seem to need urgent attention. That list will always be long, and it will always be there.
But here is the trick. Pick only 5 of them, no more. List those 5 and only those 5 at the top of your list and commit to doing them today. I know you have way more than 5 urgent items on your mind but pick the 5 most urgent and put only them in the top-most position. That’s the key, you are not committing yourself to a day full of fire-fighting, rather only committing to a short list. And guess what? That opens your time to more thoughtful and core-important activities.
So do that—pick only 5. Then below those 5 in a new section on your to-do list, list the 20 things you’d like to get to today, or this week, or next. Be sure to list a number of your important items there so that you can address them calmly, once the 5 urgent things are managed.
Then below that section create a space to list the very large number of things you’d like to get to eventually, when the above lists are done or become less urgent. Store things there for later reconsideration.
Obviously those 5 urgent things at the top should be bite-sized, action-oriented things that are doable in a relatively quick sitting each. So instead of recording “Write the Great American Novel” do this: list the next step for that, like: “Pick my topic for my Great American Novel.”
Again. 5 maximum urgent items for today. 20 at the next level. And unlimited at the third level.
This is your priority list for today. And here is the amazing and stupendous outcome: You now have urgency under control, because you’ve made a decision to limit your fire-drill activities to 5. It’s likely those 5 items will not take all day, and now your day is largely open for important but less urgent work—work that you can now do in a more thoughtful way.
Power and Clarity
It’s amazing how much power and clarity you can gain when you make a firm decision like this. You see, the feeling of being overwhelmed is just a feeling. It’s one that you can allow or not allow based on how you manage your day. And the above method gives you a firm way to manage your day, every day. Just refresh the top part of that list each day, and throughout the day, and be firm with your 5-item urgent list. If you do that every day, I promise, the rest of your year will be successful and will have an amazingly calm demeanor to it.
And by the way, the approach I just showed above is the core prioritization approach that I use in both my One Minute To-Do List (1MTD) system, and my Master Your Now (MYN) system. There are more details of course, and I encourage you to take a bit more study, but that’s essentially it, that’s how both systems work.
So, start your year with a good manageable list of priorities, and celebrate the control you finally have.
Enjoy the year!
PS: I dismissed setting goals at the start of this article, but goals are still important, you just need to do them right. If you want to learn more about my recommended way to set and achieve goals, check out my book Master Your Workday Now. That book shows goal-setting methods significantly different from how others do it, and they really work!