The myth of productivity is that we will somehow find a way to get everything done. Over time, we realize (and hopefully accept) that there will always be more on our to-do list than available hours.
Often, I talk with leaders who get an amazing amount done each day, yet at the end of the day, they feel like they worked on the wrong things. Others know intellectually what they should be working on, yet cannot focus on that task, allowing themselves to wander to something more inviting, albeit less important.
Today, I’ll share several prioritization techniques that have served my clients well. I encourage you to experiment with the ones that resonate with you. It’s worth noting that a foundational component to support any of these techniques is a daily planning ritual.
One of the most straightforward and effective techniques I have for prioritizing is asking myself what my #1 Win is. You’ll find several flavors of this technique out there. My primary source is Brian Johnson of Heroic, and he calls it your #1 W.I.N., which stands for What’s Important Now.
Every morning as part of my daily planning ritual I pick my #1 W.I.N. for the day. This is the most important thing I want to accomplish for the day. It isn’t necessarily a to-do. Sometimes, it’s being fully present in a particular interaction with someone. It could be nailing my workout. The key is that when I look back at the end of the day, I will feel a sense of accomplishment if this item is done.
I also use this technique in the moment, when I’m procrastinating or thrashing about what I should be working on. What’s important right now? What’s the most important thing I should be working on? I review my list and commit to working on that #1 win.
ABCs and 123s
A more thorough and rigorous method for prioritizing your to-do list is what I like to call the ABCs and 123s. This technique also surfaces in several methodologies. I learned it early at Datatel when every employee was given a Franklin Planner. When using a Franklin Planner, the Franklin-Covey system worked something like this:
- Write down all the tasks on your to-do list on the current day of the planner.
- To the left of each task, write an A, B, or C priority:
- A: Must get done today
- B: Should get done
- C: Could get done
- D: Low priority
- Assuming you have multiple A priorities, stack rank them. The most important is A1, the next important is A2, etc.
Using this system, you now have a prioritized plan for the day. Start working on A1, then on to A2, etc.
I show this method in action with my blank sheet of paper exercise, a fantastic tool when you feel overwhelmed and in chaos.
The 90% Rule
If you find yourself overcommitted in general, and your plate is full of tasks that don’t feel like the best use of your time, consider the 90% Rule. This rule comes from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. As the title suggests, this is an excellent book for helping you limit the work you have in progress, focusing more time on the critical few things that will have the greatest impact.
You rank each initiative on a 10-point scale, 10 being most important and 1 being least important. Unlike the stack ranking of ABCs and 123s, you don’t then proceed to work on the 10s, then the 9s, then the 8s, etc. Instead, you deliberately eliminate anything beyond the top 10%. That’s right, you completely ignore everything that was an 8 or lower. If this task isn’t in your top 10%, it does not add enough value.
This technique works best with larger initiatives. It isn’t great for prioritizing a bunch of smaller tasks that all need to get done sooner or later as part of your day job. I find it most valuable when examining how I spend my discretionary time—all the things I could be doing that I do not have to do.
For example, I have free access to a course I thought would be interesting. It is 24 hours of recorded content. For my Q3 objective of “Continue to learn and grow,” I set a key result to complete this course. As my progress fell behind schedule and my task list grew longer, I realized this course didn’t make the top 10%. It didn’t even make the top 25%. I stopped the course. If it makes it to the top 10% in the future, I’ll pick it back up.
You Get Three
If you tend to get over-committed and say “Yes” to more things than you should, “You get three” is a simple mantra that may serve you well.
I learned this gem from a coachee last year. He worked for a leader who was an idea factory. The leader had a new initiative for his team to tackle daily. One of his direct reports managed this by telling the leader, “You get three.” He would only work on three of these big ideas at any time. Whenever the leader came to him with something new, he reminded him, “You get three. Here are the three I’m currently working on. Do you want me to stop one of these to work on this new idea?” This simple strategy managed his bandwidth while allowing the leader to shift priorities when appropriate.
One coachee I shared this with observed, “I need to use this rule with myself!” This was brilliant. How often have you decided of your own accord to spin up more than you can handle? The next time you get a big idea, ask yourself if it’s worth displacing one of your big three.
Many of these techniques break down when a single to-do is extra-large. For example, I’m actively working on an upgrade to my website. At the start of that journey, the item on my to-do list read, “Complete website upgrade.”
Choosing “Complete website upgrade” as my #1 W.I.N. for the day was demoralizing because I couldn’t complete the upgrade in a single day. I’d have a similar experience if that was the A1 item on my to-do list. I could spend 8 hours working on the task and get nothing else done and still be far from complete.
The task does align with my 90% rule. And if I only get three, this makes the cut. These extra-large tasks lend themselves to the 90% rule and the “You get three” mantra.
The key to success in this situation is to recognize that you are not dealing with an individual task. You are dealing with a project that consists of multiple tasks to get to completion.
So, I created a project called “Complete website upgrade” and decomposed that project into all the individual tasks required to get it done. Those tasks included:
- Select website theme.
- Decide on site navigation.
- Draft home page content.
That’s just a tiny sample of the tasks involved. In decomposing this, I could set meaningful goals for the week that moved the ball forward with the project. “Draft home page content” is a reasonable task to take on as my #1 W.I.N. for the day. In my weekly review, I examine each active project to see what tasks should be scheduled for the upcoming week.
Putting It Into Practice
Consider these strategies to aid your prioritization and focus on the right tasks:
- Choose your #1 W.I.N. (What’s Important Now) for the day.
- If you have many tasks, assign A-B-C priorities, then stack rank the As to decide on the right prioritization.
- Use the 90% Rule to focus on the critical few things that will be most impactful.
- Use the “You Get Three” mantra to manage a boss gifted with ideation or to manage yourself if you have that same gift.
- If a task feels too large, it’s probably a project. Decompose it into more reasonably sized tasks.
If you’d like to go deeper on productivity or any other growth area, schedule time with Josh.
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