Everyone knows setting goals is important, but how do you know which tasks you should focus on first when everything seems to be a priority? I used to struggle with this problem as I often start with a list of to-dos on Monday, but as the workweek progresses, I catch myself adding more items to my list as my co-workers ask for help on projects, new clients deliverables, and more. By the end of the week, I have found myself deprioritizing my initial tasks and not having enough time for my initial goals. Especially since it’s the summertime and many employees are still working from home; we might be discouraged to start that big project and just sit behind our desks when it’s warm and sunny outside.
Here are some tips and tricks to help you stay focused on your goals, prioritize correctly, and make those tough calls on what tasks you have to say “no” to so you can be more effective at work.
Take Back Control
I always feel like there are millions of things to do, but never enough time to do it. This often leads to feeling overwhelmed with no direction or idea of how to start. The first step to taking control and not being overwhelmed is to simply write down a list of everything you need to do. It may sound like a simple and menial task, but it will make all the difference in the long run. As tasks start to pile up, I would take mental notes and remind myself throughout the day to work on that one project or respond to those sets of emails. Although this method may work, it keeps your subconscious constantly aware, reminding you at inopportune times to get those things done. Instead of staying up at night with hundreds of thoughts floating in your mind, write these tasks down so your brain can relax. This ultimately will help you direct more focus to the current task at hand and will lead to fewer distractions throughout the day.
I’ve Created my List, Now What?
After you have created your to-do list, begin mapping each task on your calendar. That means selecting a due date for each item, but also a time. For example, I have a report I must develop, revise, and debrief with my team all in the same week; but where do I begin? On Monday from 10 AM – 12 PM, I have set aside time to create a report, and that will be my focus for that allocated time slot. Tuesday from 1 PM – 2:30 PM I will revise and edit my report, and on Thursday from 12 PM – 2 PM I will meet and debrief the document with my team. By mapping out these dates and time slots in advance, you will not have to worry as much about when the task will be done, as you have now set a concrete time to finish your work. Another tip – if you use Outlook in your organization, block out times on your calendar when you know you will be working on certain deliverables, so when your co-workers come to ask for last-minute help, they can see when you are available.
Influencing Your Priorities
Over time, your values shape the choices you make, and those choices add up every day. When thinking long-term about what to prioritize, it is ideal to categorize this into three separate time frames: Right now, one year from now, and five to ten years out.
- The “right now” is crucial to understand what is most important at the moment. Is your manager pressing you to get a project done as soon as possible? Are your clients waiting on you for feedback? Do you have everything you need for your presentation tomorrow? You are making the right decision if you are prioritizing these first. Sometimes it’s not always obvious where you should be exerting the most effort. Is that networking meeting tomorrow worth your time? What professional development course should you be taking? These are examples of items that are not pressing at the moment but can be a focused goal for one year from now.
One Year from Now
- When there are goals that are not immediately urgent, it’s important to take a step back and reevaluate them. Goals you set for one year from now focus on your future development and can be tackled in smaller chunks through that timeframe. When developing this prioritized list, be sure to include personal and professional objectives. Maybe you are working towards a promotion, and you want to make yourself stand out. Volunteering yourself to lead a 6-month project and managing a small team may seem like a hassle, but having that leadership experience a year from now will help you stand out in the sea of other candidates.
Five to Ten Years Out
- After you have prioritized the goals, you don’t want to stop there. Thinking about five to ten years from now is just as important. What choices are you making today that will benefit your future self? Say you want to relocate to a different department or even a completely different company, what objectives do you need to master before you can even think about such a large move? Looking at your priorities with a long-term lens will help you make better decisions in the current moment.
Viewing priorities in this 3-step framework should be referenced as a template. Maybe you need steps in between, like monthly or 6-month goals. Once you have developed a list of tasks, you can better assess a time frame that will work for your needs.
Steps to Take Action on Your Goals
Now that you have identified what to do at a high level, here are 4 steps to begin tackling your objectives:
Write Down the Time it Takes to Complete a Task
- This loops back to what we discussed at the beginning, which is to allocate time to each task. But how do you know how long the task will take? At first, there will be a lot of approximation, but with repetition, you will learn it actually takes 30 minutes to write up your meeting recap, as opposed to the 10 minutes you thought it would take. Regarding the execution of your goals, a common point of failure is underestimating how long a task will take. By learning to make accurate estimates, we can learn where to slot certain tasks on our calendars and get them done more efficiently.
Cluster Tasks into Groups
- Need to make some phone calls? Are you backed up on responding to emails? Do it all at once to maintain your rhythm, instead of scattering them across the day. This way you can guarantee to be more effective and work through your items faster.
Tackle Projects to Make the Rest of Your Day Smoother
- What tasks can you get out of the way now to make it easier on yourself later? This can be anything from organizing your desk space for finding documents easier or getting preliminary project work done. Having a clean workspace means less distraction throughout the day, and a better headspace to get work done.
Do Something, No Matter the Scope
- Often, we struggle to start a new task. We might be intimidated by the scope of a new project and thinking about the big picture makes some work seem impossible. One technique that can help you breakthrough is the Pomodoro Technique. This is a method of setting a 15 – 20-minute timer, and you perform as much work as you can. Usually, all we need is that initial forward momentum to get ourselves in the cycle of work.
Wrapping It All Up
Life can feel out of control, especially when your to-do list is a mile long. It can be even more stressful when all those items seem like a priority. Just looking at your list can lead to paralysis where you end up making no progress. It’s your job to step up and take back control of your competing priorities. By implementing the discussed techniques, we can influence how we prioritize our goals by the level of importance, and effectively take action on each goal. These steps will ultimately help us become more productive in our day-to-day activities, in turn, driving happiness and better wellbeing. Be mindful of your goals and stay persistent!
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