2 questions that will help you prioritize your tasks when everything seems urgent

Every morning, you have a choice: add something else to your to-do list, or get one of your tasks done and out of the way. But how do you prioritize where to start?

Usually, we let other people set our priorities. Wake up, check Whatsapp, reply to that Tweet, and then once you’re at the office, it’s always emails first. Then, once you finally get to that to-do list, it’s nearly lunch time and you really don’t have enough time to start something something important. That “morning buzz” is long gone by now, so you choose something lighter, a smaller thing to do. By the end of the day, you’ve done a lot, but you haven’t actually accomplished much. …but you have done a lot!

How’s this possible?

choose your one thing

I talked about the difference between todos and objectives before.
A todo is something you approach reactively: it’s there, and you gotta do it.
An objective is something that you set proactively: you look ahead at what you want to actually accomplish, not just tick off.

Now, how can you prioritize what’s worth doing?

Prioritizing what matters: you

We have a tendency to put other people’s requests first.

Think about the last time you were having a chat with someone, and they picked up a call mid-conversation. The receiver will blame “the call” for the interruption, but when you think about it, they didn’t have to pick up. It was actually their decision to accept the interruption that allowed it to happen in the first place.

Lots of us do it all the time. We have notifications for everything. Because we need to action stuff NOW. Someone’s waiting on us.

It’s the illusion that we matter so much. That the world is incapable to go on without our answer to an email. Let go. Stop lying to yourself.

While the bad news is that the world can totally do without your emails, the good news is that you have a lot more to offer to the world than just filling someone else’s inbox.
The paradox here is that being selfish is the most altruistic thing to do: by not accepting interruptions you’ll free up time and concentration to do work that can really impact other people (as well as yourself).

You step out of the hamster wheel, and you choose to create real value instead.

[Tweet “Step out of the hamster wheel, and choose to create real value instead.”]


Initially, it won’t be a piece of cake. Your brain is used to associating worthless tasks to a sense of accomplishment, so you’ll have to keep determined and be aware that chemically, your body will miss that easy hit of dopamine. But it will get used to it.

How to find your top daily priority

For a brief period of time, I used to use a custom version of something called the Bullet Journal method to organise my day.
It’s basically a simple list of tasks and events for the day, except you use a different symbol next to it to distinguish between todos, meetings, reminders, notes, etc.

In the end, it didn’t work out for me. The main problem was that all tasks looked the same, and that using a journal gives you plenty of space to fill your todo list with unimportant fluff.
But two principles stayed with me:

  1. Your todo list should fit on a post it note, and
  2. Always follow the black star.

Once I had set my list of tasks on paper, I would mark the most important one by drawing a star next to it. Using a notepad meant that the list was generally pretty long, so I started to have two stars, and then three stars. So I started forcing myself to choose one: the most important task would get the star symbol filled with ink. The black star.

find daily priority

Work your way up to your “one thing”

The first step is elimination: work your way through your todo list and ask yourself two questions:

  1. Would it make any difference if I did this tomorrow instead?
  2. Is it going to impact my bigger goal?

The point of question one isn’t to postpone tasks until the last minute, but rather to help you understand whether there is something more time-sensitive to tackle first, before it becomes too late.
Asking these questions will help you prune your todo list until you’re left with a few essentials.

Once you’re left with only a few, big tasks, it’s up to you to find your “black star”: which task will make you feel better, and which one will really help you move forward?

[Tweet “Which task will help you move forward?”]


Do that first.

Now that you’ve got your daily priority, you only need to do one thing: do that first.

This can sound counterintuitive: we’ve talked above about how we are sucked into working on the unimportant first. But also, it just feels right to “get a bunch of stuff ticked off first”, so you can warm up on smaller tasks and then move onto “the beast”.

This is the same logic as going to your favourite restaurant, ordering your favourite meal, and then stuffing yourself with two baskets of bread while you wait.

It just doesn’t make sense. You are tiring yourself on the unimportant, and postponing what would really make the needle move. Make sure you tackle your most important task first, so you can insure yourself against a bad day, and use the time when you have the most energy to do what really matters.

What’s your number one thing today?
Let me know via email: I’d love to know more about your day and what you’re working on.

— Matt

inbox management