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Busy, Busy, Busy but not productive? How to prioritise your tasks in these testing times

We’ve all been there. You have 23 things that need doing. You’ve been rushing around all day but when you finally collapse into the sofa at night you don’t feel like you’ve actually achieved anything. Today’s modern life is intense, busy and full of distractions – and that’s without Coronavirus in the equation. Often, we fight the fires that need fighting and never actually get to those projects that we need to do to make progress towards our goals. It’s normal but still frustrating to live through.

Now, to make things worse, many of us are faced with having to do all of this from home for at least part of our time – and that means you need to up your game to make things happen more than ever before, as well as make the most of the hours available around the inevitable distractions that you are going to face.

Have you ever looked at other people in your life and wonder how it is that they are so successful AND have time for hobbies, holidays, family and friends? Do you have that one friend who seems to be very successful, doing amazing things day in day out but never seems to be running around like a lunatic? It’s possible that they are like the proverbial swan paddling away like frantic beneath the surface whilst remaining calm to all those that can observe. However, it is also possible that they have just cracked the code of busy vs productive.

Being busy isn’t actually what is important in being successful. It is why the most successful leaders take the approach of “I don’t care how many hours you work so long as the work gets done to the appropriate standards.” These managers recognise that being busy and working long hours does not mean that you’re being productive. So how do you ensure that you’re being productive and not just busy? From my experience, it comes down to two main skills: Prioritisation and Organisation. In the next two articles I’ll show you a few techniques for getting both of these right.

How to Prioritise for productivity

In my opinion, prioritising properly means identifying what is important and what is urgent. If you know where each task sits in regard to these two factors allows you to know what order things need to be done to ensure that everything important gets done eventually and everything urgent gets done quickly.

There is a very simple tool I use for this called the Important vs Urgent Matrix or The Eisenhower Matrix. It is a four by four grid with Urgent/Not Urgent across the top and Important/Not important along the side. The concept is that you decide whether each task is important or not and urgent or not and put them in the appropriate section of the matrix.

In theory you should spend most of your time working on tasks in the Important not urgent segment aka the Goals segment having dealt with the important urgent (Crisis) tasks quickly and moving on, minimal time in the interruptions (not important urgent) segment and no time in the distractions (not important not urgent) task segment. Sometimes just laying out your tasks in this way can help you see that you’re putting your time in the wrong place and adjust accordingly.

How do I decide what is important and urgent though? Often you will instinctively know whether something is important and urgent but other tasks are a little trickier. Here’s a couple of questions I ask when I’m unsure.

Important – What will the consequences be if I don’t do it?

If there are no consequences or they are minimal then it’s not important.

Important – Is this something I have to do or can someone else do it?

If it’s something only you can do then it’s probably important you do it but if you can delegate it without impacting results then it’s not important and you should delegate.

Urgent -Is there a date that this must be done by?

If it’s not in the next 48 hours then it’s probably not urgent.

Urgent – Is there a significant amount of work that needs to be done to complete this by the deadline?

If there is a lot of work to be done then the potential for there to be more work than you perceive is high. Personally I categorise things that have a deadline within the week with a lot of work as urgent.

Getting your tasks ordered and knowing what you need to be spending your time on vs delegating ensures that you’re using your time appropriately. Not spending time on distractions and minimising interruptions will also free up a lot of your time, you’ll be amazed how just seeing this will change your working day.

Personally I start each week with a clean board (after noting down anything that is still pending from last week) as priorities change. It also helps me to focus at the start of the week on what needs to be done. Reviewing this at the start and end of your day can also help you get laser-focused and execute where you will have the most potential effect.

Leo Whyte
Dr Leo Whyte grew up in the North East of Scotland in the 80's and 90's. During his young life, he was a victim of sexual, physical and mental abuse on several occasions. After diagnosis with CPTSD in 2017, he decided to use his past traumas to fuel his hunger for self-improvement and adopted the life goal of leaving the world a better place than when he entered it. As well as being a scientist Leo is an accredited Life Coach, Personal Trainer and Nutritionist as well as an experienced senior manager.

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