A Simple Way To Prioritize Your Day

Why you shouldn’t start your day with email and what to do instead.

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This is the third of a 3 post series about prioritization frameworks. You can find the first (about the Urgent/Important Matrix) HERE, and the second (about 2 methods for prioritizing projects) HERE.

Today, let’s talk about how to prioritize within your day.

Let’s assume that you’ve properly prioritized the right projects (go you!), and the right tasks within those projects (breaking it down!), and now you’re starting down a day full of to-dos. You’ve even made sure to practice task realism, so you’ve only assigned yourself what you actually have time for.

But where do you start? What should you do first? Does it even matter? (If you’ve only given yourself stuff you actually have time for, then it shouldn’t matter when you do it, right?. Wrong.)

How you attack what’s on your plate can make a huge difference in whether you’re feeling calm and collected as you progress through your tasks, or whether you’re scrambling at the end of the day to get things done, hoping you won’t need to work late (again!).

Why? Well, because we don’t live and work in a vacuum. And we don’t always (ahem…ever) estimate perfectly . And while you don’t necessarily know what will come up today, you know that something will. Learning to anticipate the unanticipated keeps you realistic in your planning.

So, let’s talk about how to sequence your work for maximum productivity and minimum stress.

What do you think you should do first? Like as soon as you sit down with your morning brew? I’m going to bet that you want to start with email and Slack. You have to see what’s come in, right?

I want to share a strategy that might be counterintuitive.

#1 Start with your “Must dos” (and avoid email/Slack first thing)

You actually don’t want to start with messages. Why? Because the moment you check email/Slack you’re getting pulled in. And you might never pull yourself out! Sometimes, you start with email and Slack, and because it just keeps coming, you end there, too, not having crossed anything off the list.

Instead, you want to start the day with your “must dos”. These are the things that have to happen today, no matter what, or there will be consequences. It could be that report that’s due for your boss at noon. Or it could be plugging away at something that’s on the “important/not urgent” part of the spectrum. Either way, if you can spend an hour or 2 doing the most important things before you check messages, you’ll have set yourself up for success for the rest of the day.

Now, I hear you saying “I can’t NOT check email first thing”; there might be something important in there!”. And I get this, but here’s the thing: In most circumstances, whether you email someone back at 9:30am or 8:30am won’t make a lick of difference to them. But the amount of work you can get done in that hour, before your attention is pulled in the direction of obligations to others, will truly astound you.

(Caveat: there are some jobs where email is the most important thing, like if you work in customer support and email is literally your job, or if you’re someone’s assistant, or if the rest of your team is in a different timezone and what they’ve worked on overnight affects what you’ll work on today. In those cases, you might want to give email a quick once over to make sure there’s nothing truly urgent before you turn to your “must dos”.)

#2 Tackle the “Quick Hits (including processing email/messaging)

Then, you’ll want to tackle what I call the “Quick Hits”.  These are all the little tasks on your list that will only take a few minutes each, like following up on a response to an email, returning a call or text, submitting your expenses, etc. 

When you get to this stage you’ll feel a nice little dopamine hit as you start to cross things off the list. 

This is also the time to handle messaging for the first time of the day. Since the quick hits often are communication related, it makes sense to handle email/Slack and quick hits all together.

#3 Finish with the “nice to haves”

Finally, you’re going to do whatever is left on your list for the day.  These are the “nice-to-haves”.  It would be great if you got to it today, but if you have to reprioritize it for another day, nothing bad will happen. You want to end with these, because they’re like the icing on the cake.

Mid Day Reprioritization

Now, I can almost feel you jumping out of your skin, wanting to shout “This would all be great, but my days don’t always go as planned!  I work with clients who have unexpected needs!  I’m subject to my bosses whims!”  And I hear you.

The best laid plans are just that.  Plans.  And plans need to be flexible.  

And for that reason, I highly suggest the mid-day prioritization round.  Typically it’s best to do this right after lunch, as that’s the mid-point of the day for most people, and you haven’t yet gotten fully back into work mode yet.  When this point comes, take 10 minutes to look at what’s come in throughout the day and compare it to what’s left on your plan for the day.  Is anything that came in either more urgent or important than what’s on your plan.  Did a brand new “must do today” arrive in your inbox?  If so, incorporate it into your system and apply the workflow we just discussed.  Get any new Must Dos done, and then keep working on your list.  If the stuff that came in isn’t more urgent, important or impactful than what you had planned, then you can integrate it into your system, putting the next action dates where they make sense.

Tactical Tips:

  • If you are someone who prefers paper, this is the time when I’d suggest you use it.  You can look at your “Today” list, and you can physically write it out in your planner, notebook or bullet journal in the order in which you plan to tackle the items.
  • If you are using an app that has drag and drop capabilities, like TickTick, you can drag the tasks into the order in which you plan to attack them.

When you prioritize within this framework, you know that you’re not setting yourself up for a late workday or an all nighter. You’re setting yourself up for a nice evening where you can actually disconnect from work. mentally, knowing that you accomplished what was necessary and reprioritized anything that wasn’t for a realistic time you can do it in the future.

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