Take Tricia, for example, who came to me discouraged with her job and her inability to manage it. She was working long hours—most of them spent sitting in meetings and dealing with hundreds of emails—then rushing last-minute to finish marketing campaigns, which always seemed to turn into fire drills.
The “always on” mentality was getting to her. And she was ready to quit.
I immediately saw that Tricia was missing the most essential job skill I believe every employee must have: priority setting and management. That is, the ability to clearly identify the most important priorities and to focus the vast majority of your energy and time on those things.
Unfortunately, though we often talk about time management and productivity in the office, the art of prioritization is often lost. As a result, many people end up like Tricia: exhausted, frustrated, and burnt out.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by excessive hours and constantly shifting to-dos, here are a few telltale signs that you might need to manage your priorities better—and some easy ways to get back on track.
Sign #1: You Believe That Everything is Important
If you look at your to-do list and see everything as equally important, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with your volume of tasks, rather than the quality of your work. But consider this: The Pareto Principle suggests that 20% of your tasks produce 80% of your results—and that means that a small fraction of your daily work deserves the majority of your attention.
In Tricia’s case, she was accepting every meeting invitation she received. But that didn’t mean the meetings were worth her time or helped her accomplish any of her primary goals.
Solution: Get Clear on Your Goals and Objectives
Work with your manager to get a crystal clear idea of exactly how your performance will be assessed (e.g., will you be reviewed based on the dollar amount you brought in or the satisfaction level of your clients?). Once you have a better handle on your deliverables, you can break them down into weekly goals.
For example, if your ultimate goal is to generate new revenue, then your primary focus should be on following up with leads you got at a trade show and building relationships with potential customers—not spending hours each week helping plan the next trade show.
As you make decisions about work throughout each day, ask yourself, “How will this get me closer to my goals?” If it doesn’t, put it down and move on.
Sign #2: You’re Consumed by Activity Rather Than Accomplishments
Have you ever started with a list at the beginning of the day, felt busy all day, but left feeling like you didn’t get anything done? Frustrating, right? Tricia was certainly busy, but she wasn’t accomplishing much.
In reality, you probably got many low priority things done—like clicking through unimportant emails, sitting through inefficient meetings, or doing small tasks that don’t move your important work forward. Maybe you spent the day on projects helping your boss or co-workers, but not getting your own work done.
Solution: Make a Daily Plan and Stick to It
Create a daily plan that starts with scheduling your most important work. Those priority activities get first crack at your calendar, before you even think of doing anything else.
You’re most likely to complete certain tasks when you carve out a specific date and time commitment to them. If email is a constant distraction, turn it off, and only check it at two or three specific times each day. (When you’re entrenched in worked and get distracted by reading an email, it takes a full 64 seconds for your focus to recover. Think about that: You’re losing more than a minute of valuable time for every email you read while in the midst of important work!)
Sign #3: When You Get to the Important Work, You Get Distracted
You hear the continuous “ding” of incoming emails, texts, and instant messages and feel compelled to peek. You constantly get distracted by the siren call of social media. Procrastination keeps you from starting and perfectionism keeps you from finishing. And you mistakenly think that by multi-tasking, you’re getting more done in the same amount of time. Sound familiar?
Multitasking to some extent is inevitable, but remember: Even if you’re able to narrow down your work to the most important tasks, you won’t be able to make any progress if you can’t focus for long enough to finish them.
Solution: Develop Your Ability to Focus
Once you’re clear on the priority work that needs to get done, learn how to get—and stay—focused on those tasks. Try these go-to strategies:
1. Chunk Your Work: Use the Pomodoro technique to schedule 25-minute time slots to work on priority tasks. Don’t look up until the time is over, then take a short break. Repeat four times, then take a longer break.
2. Batch Your Work: Group similar tasks together in blocks of time on your calendar, so you can focus on one thing and get it done. Activities like processing email, returning phone calls, or reviewing documents can be grouped together and done in batches.
3. Stop Multi-tasking: In the end, each task will take longer—and you’ll compromise the quality of your work to boot.
As you go through the day, do frequent reality checks: Stop each hour and quickly ask yourself: Did the last hour contribute to my most important goals? If not, vow to make the next 60 minutes better and start again. If you do a reality check each hour, you’ll never let an entire day get away from you.
Finally, track your success. End each day with a review of what you accomplished and how it moved you toward your most essential deliverables. This makes it easier to let the other—nonessential—things go.
When you’re ready to take back control of your work life, remember that it’s not about time management or productivity. The point isn’t to get it all done—it’s to get the most important work done. I like to keep Brian Tracy’s advice in mind: “It’s not the time you spend working overall, but the amount of time you spend working on high priority tasks.”