How to work on the truly important things and prioritise tasks properly
So after we have emptied our heads and organised the individual things into projects and lists, we now learn how best to create projects, prioritise tasks properly and work on them.
First of all, it is important to design a project in a way that it is “doable”. Far too often we write down a single task, such as “plan a birthday” and don’t realise that this is not a small project, but one with many small steps. We see “plan a birthday” and feel overwhelmed because we only see the huge project without the clear steps. The mental effort of thinking each time about what steps this project actually consists of is far too exhausting for our minds. The following illustration underlines the difference between an overwhelming project and a doable project.
Hence rule number 1: Break your project down into as many small steps as possible.
To do this, you first need to brainstorm about your project. What could be possible steps to achieve this project? Write everything down.
It also helps if you talk to others who have already worked on a similar project to get more ideas or feedback. Even simple research on the topic can be useful to bring the project to life.
Prioritise tasks correctly
Now your project is full of small tasks. To find out now what the truly important tasks are, it helps to ask yourself a simple question described by author Garry Keller in his book “The One Thing”. The “One Thing Question” is: “What’s the One Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
Read that sentence again: “What’s the One Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
Rule number 2: Ask yourself the “One-Thing Question”.
Look at your projects and consciously ask yourself this question. You will be surprised that there is almost always one thing that is so important that when it is done, other things become easier or unnecessary.
Now ask yourself this question for all projects. In each project you define this one thing. This is your most important task. I personally call this one thing the “Frog”, based on the “Eat that frog” approach by Brian Tracy. The idea is to think of the one thing we definitely need to do today as a frog – and then eat that frog (i.e. do the task). So you use the One Thing question to filter out your most important task per project and then fondly call it “Frog”. David Allen would call this task “Next Step” in the GTD context and put it in the Next Steps list. However, since GTD does not offer a real prioritisation system, I recommend the combination of the One Thing question and the Eat That Frog technique to optimally prioritise your tasks.
If you now use a digital tool – Todoist – you can set a day for this. At the end, you have a “Frogs” list with the most important tasks from all projects (see picture). This should be the first list you open every day, because these are the truly important tasks that bring you and your projects forward.
But you also have to take the time to work on these things. Often these are not easy things that you can do on the side but are cognitively demanding. This is where the “Deep Work” method comes in, which is based on the book of the same name by Cal Newport.
The idea is simple. Deep Work is the ability to focus on a cognitively demanding task without distraction, allowing us to process complicated information quickly and achieve better results in less time. This graph illustrates that with Deep Work we get significantly more things done in less time (and the quality of work is much higher).
Rule number 3: Block your calendar to work on your Frogs.
The trick now is to look at your “Frogs” list and then mark Deep Work blockers in your calendar where you really only work on the Frogs. This means: mobile phone off, email programme off, don’t take meetings and preferably go to a place where you won’t be disturbed (e.g. home office, phone booths, café, etc.). This is often difficult in an open-plan office. One solution can be noise-cancelling headphones and the rule: if you wear headphones, you do not want to be disturbed. However, this must be clearly communicated with the whole team. This graphic gives you an example of a manager who actively saves Deep Work blockers in their calendar every week.
Procrastination: Eliminate blockages
Many people tend to procrastinate. Meaning that they prioritise – often subconsciously – small, simple things instead of the important “frogs”. There are some tricks you can use here too. Procrastination is often triggered by three things:
Some people don’t start a task because they want to plan more. They are afraid that otherwise the quality will not be good. This is where the “Swiss Cheese” technique can be helpful. “Pierce” your task with lots of little holes so that it ends up looking like a Swiss cheese. The holes can be as banal as:
- Opening the presentation and inserting page numbers
- Selecting the background colour
- Writing headings, etc.
The supposedly banal little things help us to get started on the task and break it down into small steps. We have already started and now it is often easier for us to just keep going.
The Wrong Mood
Oftentimes, we just don’t “feel” like doing something. Again, there are trivial tricks that can put us in a different “emotional state” so that we have more motivation to start a task. Things that help many of my clients include.
- Listening to a motivational playlist
- Chatting with a few colleagues in the break room
- Going for a walk around the block
- Having a phone call with a good friend
When we get back to work, we are often more motivated and get started on the task at hand.
Fear of Failure
Like perfectionism, fear of not doing something well can block us. Here it helps to visualise the desired result. Imagine how good the presentation you give next week will be and how everyone will applaud and be happy. This little thought alone can overcome the fear of failure.
In general, it always helps to be aware of your goals and to take a moment to go within yourself and understand why you are actually doing or should be doing something. We will learn how to set good goals in the next step.