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What Science Reveals About The Art Of Prioritization

Because not all work is equally important

These days, it feels like everything is a top priority. (Or, as half the emails in our inbox put it, URGENT). Managers and direct reports alike interrupt us, asking for just two minutes of our time, unaware of how costly task switching is to our attention. And deadlines continue stack on top of each other like piles of unread magazines.

With all of this inbound, it’s a struggle to be effective in how we’re outbound—to make the projects that are most important to you happen. That’s why it’s so important to become skilled in the basics of practical productivity and learn to ruthlessly prioritize, so you can focus on the projects that truly matter most to you and the company.

The stats around distraction are downright scary. Simply put, distractions are both more frequent and more costly than we realize. Let’s run through the high level, highly dispiriting findings:

  • In a workplace survey, Gensler found that 52 percent of employees are disturbed by others when trying to focus, and 42 percent use makeshift solutions to block out distractions.

  • McKinsey talked with 1,500 executives worldwide, and found that only 9 percent were ‘very satisfied’ with their time allocation, and just 52 percent said that how they spent their time matched their organization’s priorities. (And remember, these are company executives.) The key quote: “One company’s weekly senior leadership meeting directly consumed 7,000 hours per year for the attendees – but 300,000 hours companywide among subordinates in preparation and related meetings.”

  • Bain measured the time budgets of 17 large corporations, and found that 15 percent of a firm’s collective time is spent in meetings.

  • Research shows that being inundated with email leads to burnout. And another McKinsey study found that 28 percent (!) of a typical work week was spent just sending and responding to email. Yikes.

But, with the right strategies and tactics—which we’ll get to in a moment—we can avoid distractions and get our best work done.

Welcome to The Thrive Guide to Prioritization

Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and burnout while increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.

This Thrive Guide will show you the fundamentals of prioritization, and give deep insights into how to run your day more effectively. It’s the subtle art of getting done what you truly need to get done, while also honoring all your commitments.

To start, we’ll outline the latest research on how people set goals and follow through on them. Thrive Global is centered around Microsteps — small, science-backed changes you can immediately incorporate into your daily life that will have a big impact. (Want to skip right to those? Here they are.)

You’ll meet the New Role Models of Success who show how effective prioritization can enhance your life and work. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner shares his rigorously thoughtful approach to email with Thrive, artist Marina Abramović reveals the way she keeps perspective, and Queens Museum president Laura Raicovich riffs on how she’s learned to be more careful with what she says yes to.

In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ve curated the best technology to aid your goals.

And it isn’t just about you as an individual: prioritization also means helping your team pursue what they need to get done. Our Managerial Takeaways section offers advice for leaders to not only model prioritization, but serve as a catalyst for their direct reports’ professional growth.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have the latest science and everyday tips for mastering prioritization. To begin, let’s look at the science.

Rather than thinking of your time in tasks, think in performance episodes.

To Georgia Tech organizational psychologist Howard Weiss, you can’t really “schedule” your tasks. While a meeting will (hopefully) stick to its allotted 60-minute time slot on your office calendar, any creative or technical task—whether crafting furniture or code—is going to take its own time. So Weiss has come up with a better way to think about the chunks of time we spend working on things. He calls them “performance episodes”: the discrete segments where we’re working on a task, be it writing a quick email (one five minute episode) or preparing a high stakes presentation, which could be an 80-minute episode, followed by a 32-minute episode, and then another 67-minute episode .

What makes complex tasks hard is that they have lots of pieces, and you have to get all those loaded into your mind before you can begin to move forward. That’s why even short interruptions — like a 15-minute check-in meeting — can be so deadly. They take an eraser to the chalkboard of attention and we have to start the process all over again. (It’s also why tasks don’t fit neatly on a “To Do” list. Most of them aren’t actually one-click items to check off your list.)

After those interruptions, it takes time to reacquaint yourself with the details of the task at hand: One study found that it takes about 25 minutes to get back on track after an interruption. What this means is that breaking up a task into too many performance episodes — if your day is getting peppered with meetings, for instance — caps how well you can perform on a given day.

So to protect our performance episodes, we need to be very deliberate about avoiding distraction. We need to be in control of what’s coming in. That requires giving ourselves broad swathes of uninterrupted, meeting-free time—and, just as important, making sure not to interrupt ourselves through drifting attention. You can batch your meetings back-to-back in the morning or afternoon to leave space elsewhere. Or you can commit to only checking your email every 30 or 60 minutes, so long as that’s communicated to your team. If we want to do our best work, we need to protect the time we save for it.

Protecting “deep work” and “flow.”

You know that feeling when you’re completely absorbed in a task and your skills perfectly match the challenge—whether it’s sinking deep into a yoga pose that twists your spine, reading something that expands your mind, or getting lost in a conversation with a thoughtful friend. These are all experiences that noted positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” — those moments where you are perfectly in tune with what you’re experiencing, and your brain isn’t distracted or commenting on what’s happening.

To Csikszentmihalyi, when we experience flow we’re increasing in “complexity,” as he observes in his best-selling book of the same name. By getting deeper into a practice or skill, we’re doing things that make us different from everybody else, and becoming, in a literal sense, more exceptional and complex. When you’re completely attuned to whatever it is you’re doing, you’re getting better at it. But that can’t really happen if you’re constantly getting interrupted.

The computer scientist and writer Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and other productivity books, captures a very similar sentiment with his idea of “deep work.” To Newport, success is a product of focus; when everybody else is distracted, you’re homing in on your most important things. The tactics to guard against distraction are simple enough: schedule time at work for using the Internet, make “no response” a regular email habit—except for the ones that really are important. Mark your day-to-day progress on tasks on a physical calendar, and note how many consecutive days you’re trying, failing, experimenting and learning– a productivity secret that, believe it or not, can be traced back to Jerry Seinfeld.

Commit to Making Changes Now

Now let’s put theory into practice. Here are a couple microsteps for making prioritization a priority:

  • Block time on your calendar to manage your email.

    Studies show that it takes an average of 25 minutes to refocus after being interrupted, so setting aside time for email can help you avoid constant inbox distractions.

  • Take just a few minutes to write down your priorities for the day.

    Setting aside time to decide what’s important and what’s not is key to reducing stress and improving productivity. Determining that something isn’t a priority – or isn’t worth doing at all – will open up new space, time and possibilities.

  • If something takes less than two minutes, do it immediately.

    Known as the two-minute-rule, this productivity tip is a huge time-saver. Finishing a quick task is often simpler than reviewing it, putting it in your calendar, and returning to it later.

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