Preparation and task prioritization precede success. Without prioritizing your tasks, you will probably work on the ‘small wins’ so you feel successful. But feeling successful does not translate into true success. Take time before starting a project or beginning your day to prioritize and assign tasks to reach measurable milestones.
Plan in Advance
Plan and prioritize before you begin your project or day. Why? Because we all forget something during the planning stage. Time away from a problem and sleep are key ingredients for remembering the things we forgot and solving problems. This is why writers are encouraged to write, relax, wander about, and then edit. The Psychology Today article, Sleep for Success: Creativity and the Neuroscience of Sleep, talks about 6 research studies linking sleep to problem solving, insight, and the strengthening of perceptual and spatial memories. So, even a short nap can help plan and prioritize.
The time line for planning and prioritizing tasks depends on project complexity. General guidelines for everyday projects are:
12 hours before you start your day. Write down your tasks and rank them in order of outcome importance before leaving the office. Check your tasks and priority list again when you come back to work to see if you still agree.
24 hours before shopping (groceries, back-to-school, etc.). List all the things you need and then put the list in an accessible place. Add to the list as you think of new items. If you have time, use one of the price comparison websites to find one or two stores to grab everything so you limit the number of stores you visit. New inventory technology used by big box stores allows users to see if their items are in stock.
1 week before a day-long home project (planting, fall pruning, spring cleaning, etc.). Walk through the project both physically and in your mind a week before. Write down the major milestones, necessary tools, and the person working on the project. Keep the list close for the next week to refine the priorities and add missing steps.
Project planning should never exceed the real contact hours* of the project … although all of us have seen the opposite. Project complexity and novelty dictates the length of required planning. Projects that are somewhat routine and risk-free need less time to plan than those that are novel or the risks are not well-defined. General rule of thumb is 1 hour of planning for 3-4 hours of project work. By the way, this is the opposite for teaching where lecturing represents just a fraction of the work.
Everything cannot be a #1 priority. Take some time to consider the most valuable outcomes before assigning a priority. Priorities shift all the time so give yourself freedom to re-prioritize at key milestones or if the situation changes. If your stove has just caught fire, your #1 priority is to use your fire extinguisher to put out the flames and your #2 priority is to get to safety. If fire has engulfed your house in flames, your #1 priority is to get to safety.
The LiquidPlanner has 6 great ways to prioritize when everything seems like it is a #1-Priority. If you are still having problems prioritizing, write a list of tasks and then hand it off to a trusted friend to prioritize for you. A decision must be made and, sometimes, a 50% solution is better than never making a decision at all.
You have a prioritized list. Now, it is time to cut out the non-value-adding, fluffy work. A perfect example of ‘fluff’ is creating a Gantt chart for a project when only two analysts will be working on the project. Gantt charts are awesome but if it does not deliver better results than the hand-written sketch or Post-It note SCRUM board, you should scratch it off your To-Do list.
I use this rationale all the time with the task of making my bed. If it is 6pm and the bed is still not made, I see no value in making it now. There is, however, great value in making sure the cat hasn’t burrowed her way into the blankets because I don’t want to crush her in the middle of the night.
Sprinkle Your Projects Throughout the Day
Make sure your day’s tasks are diverse. Don’t put two cognitively or physically demanding tasks back-to-back. For maximum results, alternate a cognitively demanding task w
ith a physical task and then a more routine task. Cycle through this process to minimize burnout and keep your body healthy. Michael Breus’ The Power of When can help figure out when it is best for you to conduct strategic planning, work out, eat, etc.
The second half of this is identifying when you will do it. First thing in the morning? At 5pm? Identify a time and, even if you miss your mark, you will subconsciously be moving toward your internal deadline.
Still not convinced that planning will help you succeed? Try it for a week. Create a menu for dinners this week. Write a list of ‘Honey Dos’ for yourself to finish over the weekend. It should help you get control over whatever is causing you to feel a lack of control. Good luck 🙂
*Contact hours are the actual hours (measured minute-by-minute) that it takes to complete a project. Subtract your trips to the bathroom and the 10-minute chat you had with a co-worker to calculate your contact hours.