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Productivity 101: The Art of Prioritization

If it was a science, it would be easy

A professional woman looking at sticky notes posted on a window
This person's priority is organizing their sticky notes; what's yours?

The Bridge Between Chaos and Completed Goals

Do you ever feel guilty because you know you should be doing a list of tasks? Does that list’s size feel intimidating, exhausting, and prevent you from even starting? Productivity can take a hit when goals are too daunting to start on, or when there are just too many things to do to work at all. You could try to multitask, get everything done at the same time, but we both know that's doomed for failure. Besides, isn't it nicer to hop on your phone and scroll through just a few social media posts? Or better yet, just ave it all for tomorrow! 

As tempting as it may be, interruptions, attempts at multitasking, and procrastinating just put a goal further and further out of reach. The costs of trying to multitask are well-documented. For example, trying to multitask regularly leads to “switching costs”. These tolls are larger the more complicated the tasks are. And when there’s something BIG you need to do, being productive would be the ideal.

So what is the missing step between having ‘things you need to do’ and reaching a goal? The Art of Prioritization. 

Catch CLCI Live’s team here as Jen Long (ACC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC), Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Misha Safran (PCC), and Samuel Gozo (ACC) cover the art of prioritization and the skills & tricks that might go into your toolkit in the future. There are quite a few techniques that can be used to prioritize better. Some of them might not be 100% compatible with others, but that’s to be expected: what’s important is finding out what works for you.

Identifying Priorities

First tip in our new toolkit: Self-Care.

Taking care of yourself will improve productivity and increase the mental strength needed to tackle prioritization. Without it, it will be difficult to decide on priorities, and then sticking with them. Get plenty of sleep, stand up, stretch, take a walk in fresh air if accessible, make sure to hydrate, and get a bite to eat. Remember that constant working can limit and decrease productivity by leading into burnout. You might want to make breaks for yourself throughout the day, or pick a day or more in the week to be ‘break days’.

For some of us, prioritization works best if only one big task is chosen for a day. Sometimes, multiple minor tasks can be tackled in one day. To figure that out, start listing out what tasks you have. Think of freewriting for a school project, or brain dumping for personal journaling: just get those tasks onto something physical, whether that’s a screen or a piece of paper or something else altogether. Using SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goals is one way to identify potential priorities, but sometimes, SMART goals aren’t enough.

2x2 Eisenhower matrix

One of the most discussed tricks for prioritization is to make a square diagram and use it as an importance / urgent matrix (Eisenhower Matrix). To create one, make a 2x2 diagram and then, outside the whole square, label the columns and rows. One will scale importance vs less important. The other is going to scale what is time-sensitive (urgent) and what isn’t. Then, put tasks into the corresponding box. As an aside, HBR offers another suggestion if a universal list of tasks is too overwhelming: “try organizing to-dos by different projects, teams or spheres such as work, home, kids.”

Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast criteria for ‘important’, but, in reality, there shouldn’t be: because each of us is too different to fully rely on another’s rubric. This doesn’t mean that others don’t offer ideas for how to narrow down what ‘important’ and ‘urgent’ mean most to you. One HBR article suggests including factors such as the probability of success, value alignment, cost, competitive advantages, and more as pieces of what will define importance for you. It likewise gives some ideas for urgency, including deciding whether it will mean time frames or consequences/benefits of completing/delaying tasks. In another HBR post, clinical psychologist Alice Boyes shares even more ways to identify what you might label important. They include:

Enacting your values (for example, volunteering or spending more time with your children)
Achieving public recognition (getting invited to sit on industry panels or writing a book)
Improving vital skills (upping your knowledge of statistics or learning a new language)
Averting disasters (scheduling an annual checkup at the doctor or creating a crisis management protocol for your business)

Do any of those feel pretty important? Likely, yes. However, as Boyes notes, oftentimes these will be overcrowded by “low-importance, time-specific tasks” like clearing out an email inbox.

For as clean as the diagram might be, don’t look at it as a rigid thing. LMSW and coach Ariadne Platero warns to not get tripped up by changes in the matrix, which is not set in stone. It will change as priorities do, as tasks get completed and new information shifts focuses or timelines. Platero suggests reviewing the priority matrix daily, as an ideal, but remember that it’s meant to be a tool that decreases stress, rather than a new worry to obsess over.

Making Work Easier

A toolbelt around the waist of a person
The right tool for the right job

What are some other little tools we might use to turn our priorities into completed tasks? 

One useful tool is scheduling. In Canfield, Hansen, and Hewitt’s “4 Ds of effective time management”, ‘delay’ can be thought of as determining what needs to be scheduled soonest and what can be delayed. Boyes points out to readers that researchers, such as Peter Gollwitzer, back up that scheduling when and where “makes it dramatically more likely that the task will get done.” But there’s another interesting aspect of scheduling seemingly unrelated to the “4 Ds”: providing free space in your schedule, and being mentally prepared for unseen, important interruptions. This mental scheduling can help you feel more at ease when one of these interruptions happen, and aid in adjusting back into the ‘groove’ afterward when you return to the task. 

Let’s take a look at the rest of that time management model: delete, delegate, and drop are our remaining options. Specifically, think about delegation. Cutting out the extra noise means having a clearer picture of what road you need to take. Whatever parts of a goal that can be delegated, do so. Delegation also applies for the ‘to-do’ list. Find what can be split and what can be condensed; use a team if you can, and eliminate what is unnecessary altogether.

If you find yourself lacking in team members to handle multiple tasks simultaneously, you might be tempted to do it yourself: DON'T!

Regardless of the person, research currently finds little difference in multitasking abilities between people and also warns that the process and results of multitasking are less efficient. Frequent media multitasking has been linked to being more distracted by the different streams of media being consumed, as opposed to infrequent multitasking, which is linked to effective attention allocating “in the face of distractions.” Bottom line? Put multitasking aside.

Sometimes, the goal set just seems too big. Boyes offers a method up to counter this: consider a half-size version of that goal, “Mentally put your original version and the half-size version side by side, and ask yourself which is the better (more realistic) goal”, and keep shrinking it down until it is no longer intimidating and instead feels achievable. 

Another idea that might work for some is to track time. Boyes gives an anecdote of using RescueTime, and similar applications, which can be useful for people who want a more in depth look at time allocation and automatic process for keeping track of their time spent working. Using a ‘sprint’ method can work with few resources: set a timer (for example: a half an hour or an hour) and then put down your baseline, starting status (example: a word count on an email or report). At the end of the time, take your new progress and compare it to the original starting status. While ‘sprinting’, keep all distractions away and mentally keep it a task-only headspace until the finish line gets crossed. 

You can also bribe yourself: nothing wrong with that! Specifically, you might set up a mental bartering agreement. Maybe you’re procrastinating because you want to go watch a new episode of your favorite show or get a few achievements in a mobile game. Rather than thinking about that or pausing work to go do that, let it be held hostage until after you finish the task that is most important for you to work on. Afterwards, it gets to be your reward. 

In the end, many of these tips can be found in the list suggested by UA Professor Julianne Dunn:

  1. Shut your door

  2. Clear the clutter

  3. Curb your technology

  4. Write it down

  5. Schedule it

  6. Consolidate routine actions

  7. Do not start the day with emails

  8. Stop multitasking

  9. Do not finish everything you start

One Thing At A Time

Let’s consider coaching for a moment. 

In coaching, clients will be the ones with goals that they intend or need to reach. How does that look on a session by session basis?

Clients can come in with a small list of things they want to talk about, and there won’t actually be time to get to them all. Have them focus on the single thing they want to talk about today, in the time that you have. See the emphasis? Yes, you should be there to steer the conversation away from rabbit holes. But don’t prescribe tools to the client, and don’t tell them what would be the most/least important out of their list of pressing concerns. 

But what if they don't know? Perhaps what the coaching session can then focus on is the exploration and ultimately the prioritization of those goals for future sessions.

Prioritization is an important tool in coaching not just for the overarching goals but in the moment-to-moment problems that can arise. Platero reports that oftentimes, clients will become stuck regardless of importance or passion. She finds the main drain on enthusiasm and endurance in achieving goals comes from having too many demands competing for attention- the treatment? Prioritization. “There is a pressing need to prioritize goals in order to clear the way for those first steps and, ultimately, achievement,” Platero writes. 

Think about the tools suggested here. Some might work for you, and some may not. It’s going to be about finding the best fit for you and like any art it takes trial and error!


Thank you,

Jen Long (ACC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC), Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Misha Safran (PCC), and Samuel Gozo (ACC)!

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