Focus on the right things

Feeling overwhelmed? Too many To-do lists? End the day – late – wondering where the time went and what you actually achieved? You’re not alone – overwhelm is very, very common in this always-on age of too many tasks and even more distractions. What’s the smallest thing that will make the biggest difference? Focus on the right things. This takes effort and discipline, but it’s achievable if you take these 5 steps:

  1. Work out where your time is actually going

    This may sound astonishingly basic, but for the vast majority of us it’s the single most significant step we can take to gain some headspace. Truth is, many of us are unintentionally wasting heaps of our time, semi-sleepwalking through ingrained ways of working, getting distracted and losing focus. So work out where your time – such a precious resource – is actually going. You can keep a timesheet, use an app (I like HoursTracker) or your calendar – however you do it, ensure you check in frequently (30-minute intervals are ideal) and note down what you’ve really been doing. Honestly. Facebook status updates? Your team’s Twitter feed? Reading all your emails in no particular order? And let’s not forget meetings… Do this for at least 3 days and you will have a far clearer idea of where your time really goes – and what you want to change. For me, doing this was a major wake-up call – and why I’m such a fan. We take a light-hearted look at this at the start of Zoomly’s ‘How to plan & prioritise’ workshop and it’s always an eye-opener.

  2. Agree priorities and output

    One of the many insights I gained from tracking my time was the way I spent too much time on stuff I just liked doing – even if it wasn’t a high priority. Getting over ourselves on this one takes discipline and an honest conversation with your manager(s). Being my own boss I like to do this with a buddy, which might also work for you. So draw up a list of your current tasks, organised in what you think is the order of importance, and discuss it with your boss. They may have different ideas – which will help you focus on what’s really important not just for you but also for the team. They may also have some tips and techniques to help you speed up – ask them. Make sure you’re clear on what’s required – output. If you’re drowning in a swamp of tasks from multiple managers, time to assert yourself – this blog post on 6 essential questions to ask when you’re being delegated to might help.

  3. Put the big stones in first

    You know the demonstration where a heap of stones and other stuff are put into a jar of water? Several versions of this are on YouTube, including this very short clip here. So it is with your time – but here we’re talking about the big priorities. Allocate significant chunks of each day to these priorities and identify what needs to be done by the end of that time. Do that – then move on.

  4. Plan the time in

    Another one of those seemingly too-basic-for-words ideas but nevertheless one I’ve found helpful is to block time out in my calendar for the priority tasks. Some people like to do this first thing; others at the end of the day for the day to follow. Be prepared to move some of your commitments around as more urgent stuff may come up. The good thing about that is it forces us to ask ourselves, “If not now, when?” – which may mean we need to re-look at our priorities. By the way, I don’t recommend doing this until you’ve tracked where your time really goes – because that will help you assess how long stuff really takes. Then you can switch from tracking to planning.

  5. Accept you won’t get every single thing done

    Identify – with your boss if it helps – the top 5 things you absolutely need to get done today and focus on them. Work through your ‘must do’ list and stay focused. Yes, this means there’ll be other things on your ‘to-do’ list that may not get done They may be more important tomorrow; if so, allocate time to them. Remember that not every task is equally important or equally time-consuming, and it’s normal to carry some tasks over (notice how that notion makes you feel – you may be your own toughest taskmaster). But meanwhile, congratulate yourself for what you have accomplished this day.

You may also find this blog post useful: Have a ‘NOT To-Do List’.

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