We probably all have to-do lists rolling out behind us like Santa Claus’s naughty-or-nice list. I know I have writing lists, editing lists, publishing lists, promotion lists, blogging lists, email lists, family lists, calendar lists, personal lists, etc.
That list of lists makes me sound super organized, right? As though I always know what I should be working on and what my priorities should be. Ha! That would assume I have time to check things off the list.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not nearly as organized as I seem. (That’s assuming I do seem to be organized. *smile*)
“My schedule has been absolutely insane for so long that I can’t even remember when it last wasn’t insane. My inbox is a disaster where things go missing on a regular basis, my Twitter mentions are a stream of people I mean to get back to (but too often don’t), and my to-do list grows larger as I fall more behind Every. Single. Day.
I feel like I’m just barely not drowning. I joke about how my “method” is to flail randomly, but that’s not really a comfortable feeling for me.”
When I wrote that post, I was (secretly) staring down the to-do list for my publishing path, which included everything from edits and formatting to website development and learning how to put my books up for sale. Obviously, as I have two books for sale now and a third going up next month, I did manage to get things done.
So why does my to-do list never seem to relent? When I’m really focused, I get a lot done, so maybe part of my problem is that I’m not as focused on my priorities as I should be.
4 Tips for Matching Our Focus to Our Priorities
Sometimes I’ll focus really hard on…er, Twitter. Or Facebook. That’s not spending my time in ways that match my priorities.
Many of us are probably familiar with the story about rocks, pebbles, and sand and what that means for priorities. Summarized, the story teaches us that:
Our life—and the time we have to our life—is like a jar, and if we fill the jar with sand (busy work or procrastination time-wasters), we won’t have room in the jar for the big rocks (family or our life’s passions). Instead, we have to make time for the big stuff first and fit in the little stuff around those priorities.
I was reminded of that story when I came across a recent article about productivity by Laurie Merrill. Between social media and the need to keep up with our rapidly changing industry, we’re faced with a never-ending flow of pebbles and sand, and that avalanche can keep us from focusing on our big rocks.
So let’s talk about 4 things we can do to keep our focus on those big-rock priorities…
#1: Separate the Urgent from the Important
Just because something is urgent doesn’t mean it’s important. Social media, with the constant scrolling of our timelines and newsfeeds, can create a sense of scarcity—that the information will be gone forever if we don’t pay attention to it right now. (Dun dun dun!) But that’s a psychological trick to steal our focus and take our control.
Urgent causes us to react. We’re no longer in charge. Those who know me know that I’m a big Twitter user, but the best thing we can do is fit in Twitter around our must-do’s, our big rocks.
The same thing applies off social media too: Learn to differentiate between urgent and important so we can take action on the important stuff first. That’s how we maintain control.
#2: Overestimate Time for Priorities
Deadlines are great for making me focused, and I’m probably not the only one. But if we cut our deadlines too close, we can end up doing only a so-so job.
We can’t do an exceptional job with everything on our to-do lists, but our big rocks shouldn’t be shortchanged. Cleaning bathrooms? Eh, doing the minimum there is understandable. *smile*
But if something is important to us, we wouldn’t want to do a below-our-potential job just because we ran out of time. It’s far better to overestimate how much time we need for our priorities so we can do an extraordinary job with them.
#3: Label Activities for Priority Awareness
Some organizational systems encourage us to use tons of labels like A1, A2, B1, C1, etc., so every activity has a different priority. However, getting that nitty-gritty can eat up a bunch of time as we debate whether activity x or y deserves the A1 label. *smile*
However, it is good to label our activities to some extent, just so we’re aware of how we’re spending our time—and whether we’re doing a good job of matching our focus to our priorities.
I like the 4 simple labels from the article I mentioned above:
- Quadrant 1: Emergencies: Things we need to get done or the consequences will be severe. These crises and last-minute deadlines are important, but we don’t want to spend too much time here because it forces us into reaction mode, and we can easily burn out.
From a writing perspective, although we might get a lot done while under a crisis deadline, this mode can stress us out, which isn’t necessarily good for our muse or our creativity.
- Quadrant 2: Our Big Rocks: These are the priorities that we want to work on proactively for the best results and productivity. This is where we make goals and plans and learn. This is where we’re most active and not reactive.
From a writing perspective, anything creative, from brainstorming and drafting to business planning and learning, will have the best results when we’re in this mode.
- Quadrant 3: Distractions: These are the urgent but not important activities we all have to do. These are the emails we have to answer, the social media connections we have to stay on top of, etc. But there are no consequences if we don’t get these done right now, so we should fit them in around Quadrant 2 activities.
From a writing perspective, we do need to keep up with email and our platform, but these activities can usually be done in little chunks so we can save our big time chunks for our writing activities.
- Quadrant 4: Wasteful: These are the activities that don’t have to be done—ever. There are no consequences if we don’t surf that gossip site or if we don’t watch that TV show. There’s nothing wrong with wasting time sometimes—just not when we’re supposed to be doing something else.
From a writing perspective, we already don’t have enough time for writing, so we don’t want to waste the time we do have on unimportant things. If we find ourselves here when we shouldn’t be, see if we’re procrastinating because we’re stuck in our writing.
Whether we use these labels or not, the point is that whatever we’re doing, we can use labels to ask ourselves if that activity is the best use of our time. Awareness is often the first step to improving our habits.
If we use the quadrant system, each day we can run through a quick priority list: Do we have any emergencies to deal with? No? Okay, what big rocks should we work on? Etc., etc.
#4: Refuel Creativity by Finding Balance
As I said above, there’s nothing wrong with spending time in Quadrant 4. As long as we’re not ignoring Quadrant 1 or 2 priorities, we need to “play hooky” sometimes. There is a danger of pushing ourselves too hard and burning out or of feeling like we have to sacrifice everything for our goals.
Especially for our creativity, we have to “refuel” sometimes, and that refueling is often going to look like “wasteful” goofing off. As long as we’re goofing off in moderation, those activities can help us avoid burnout or recover from a Quadrant 1 burnout faster.
In other words, efficient refueling can get us back to our priorities sooner. So we need to find the line between wasting time that should be going to our big rocks and goofing off to refuel. The former isn’t helping us, but the latter can add balance to our life.
By staying aware of my priorities, I generally don’t lose too much time to Quadrant 3 or 4 activities, but I still have a way to go before I’m a poster child for productivity. And email will always be my nemesis. *grin*
For my own guilt and sanity, it helps to reflect on what I have gotten done sometimes too. That gives me the confidence that with the right focus, I can accomplish big things. *smile*
Do you struggle with too long to-do lists? How much time do you spend on non-priority activities? Are you able to focus most of your time on your big rocks, or do you struggle with a mismatch? Do you have other suggestions for how to match our focus to our priorities?Pin It