When your to-do list is epic and you don't know where to start.
It’s Monday morning and I just sat down at my desk in my home office.
My head is buzzing. I have been mulling over some thoughts about a corporate client project since yesterday afternoon. I listened to a podcast that gave me some great ideas about a strategy for their business. I’m eager to put some numbers together to see if it makes sense.
I also got an email from another corporate client yesterday. The client asked me to extend their current project into two new areas. But it was clearly an email dashed off on their phone in the midst of something else. So we agreed to talk this week to determine the scope and pricing of these additions. And I need to get my thoughts together for that before I speak with him.
Plus, I have writing to do, and a weekly newsletter to put together. And end of the month invoices to send out. I’m working from a client office all day tomorrow and I need to figure out the best use of my time while I’m there. And we’re having some issues with water pressure in our house. Do my kids need haircut appointments this week? And why does my dog smell so weird?
All these items feel both urgent and important. But which ones are priorities? Where do I start?
Where do I focus?
I’ve written a fair amount about how I plan and schedule my days. How I calm my anxiety at times like this by writing things down and put them on a calendar. I keep a physical representation of my day on my desk so I can refer to it whenever I start to panic that I don’t have enough time.
But sometimes I really don’t have enough time to do everything on my list. Sometimes I know that I’ll never get to everything, at least not today. But if I don’t prioritize, I’ll end up running around in too many directions. And will have that worry in the back of my mind all day — is this what I’m supposed to be doing?
So I know I have to prioritize.
Prioritizing is hard. Because the importance of some tasks is bigger than my interest in doing them. What I want to do right now is start working on that potential new business strategy for the one client. It’s the most interesting. But is it the most important?
Here’s three things I do to figure that out.
Figure out the “theme” of my priorities for the day
Kind of an awkward way to describe it. But each day has a different theme for me. Mondays are the day when I have the most uninterrupted time to work at my desk. So anything that needs concentration and/or Excel or Powerpoint gets prioritized on this day.
As I mentioned, I work in a corporate client office for most of the day on Tuesdays. That is naturally my focus on those days. Wednesdays and Thursdays are when I do the bulk of my calls — with individual clients, vendors, and potential new partnerships. So phone calls are what I prioritize on those days.
On Fridays I try not to work if at all possible. So self care, house care, kid care, dog care. Those are all the priorities for Friday, over anything else.
Back to today. I know that my focus needs to be on creating and producing. So, writing and creating some financial models would make sense for today. Talking to the client that emailed me over the weekend doesn’t fit with the priorities of the day. I will email him and set a time to talk on Wednesday, when I’m already going to spend much of my day on the phone. Otherwise I will defer the work on that project for today.
That takes one thing off the list, but I still have a lot of other stuff. So, for my next step:
Decide which tasks will bring me closer to my goals
I still have a pretty long list. And again; I’m itching to do that fun shiny new analysis this morning. But will it bring me closer to my goals?
When I scan my list, I know that one boring task needs to come first. Setting up monthly invoices to send out tomorrow. Tomorrow is the last day of the month but I won’t be in my home office. And sending out invoices promptly at the end of each month brings me closer to my goals in two ways. First, I want my business to maintain my reputation as punctual and organized. While a lot of what I do is not directly “productivity” related, it is baked into what I provide for clients. And if I want to keep my clients happy and grow my business, I need to maintain this reputation. That means sending out timely, punctual, and accurate invoices. Second, of course, I want to get paid for my hard work. And that won’t happen without invoices. So, even if it’s not interesting, it’s definitely a priority for the day.
Prepping for my client day tomorrow is also important, for similar reasons. I like to be prepared before I walk into meetings. It makes the time with the client the most productive and that is important to me. It won’t take a long time, but I need to do it today.
I look at each remaining task on the list and decide using the same thought process.
Decide which tasks can wait
On the other end of the spectrum are the tasks that feel urgent but aren’t all that important. My kids both do need haircuts. How is it that young boys’ hair grows so quickly? But that isn’t a priority, at least not for today. I have a few other tasks like this — call a plumber, bring the dog to get a bath. They have been hanging over me for awhile now, but they aren’t important for today. I can set aside about 30 minutes at the end of the day (or even after dinner) to schedule these activities for Friday. That feels like the perfect day to get this all done.
And I already deferred that other corporate client conversation to Wednesday. Because I know that it is important but not a priority for today.
See What’s Left On The List
After I work through my list, I see what my priorities are for today. Invoices. Writing. Prepping for tomorrow’s meetings. And hooray! There is time for that fun analysis today. I need some uninterrupted time at my desk for it. I will still have time in my day after all my other priorities, and today is the right day this week to do that kind of work.
I’ve been prioritizing in this way for awhile. So in less than 30 minutes I’ve figured out a plan of attack for my day and a rough outline for my week. And from here, I put everything into my daily calendar and I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing and when. And I know that it makes the most sense for my day.
No system is perfect, and surprises always come up. But you can’t be perfectionist about your plan. If I am able to execute on 80% of this, I know that I am making major progress each week. And I do this once, for 30 minutes, at the start of the week (and then revisit briefly each morning). And I don’t have to think about it again. It creates space in my head to focus on the task at hand, whether it’s invoicing or financial analysis. I don’t have to worry in the back of my mind if its what I’m “supposed” to be doing. The decision was already made.
After I do this, as they said in the song “(You Gotta Have) Heart” back in the 1950’s:
There’s nothin to it, but to do it.