The One Essential Productivity Skill We All Need to Master
When I think of productivity, I imagine to-do lists, calendars, and time management techniques. These are tools we use to get things done. We can get many things done using any productivity system. But how many of the completed tasks would matter to us in say five, or ten years?
The thing that I tend to underestimate, or sometimes completely ignore, is the most important skill we need in order for any technique, or tool, to work effectively and efficiently.
This skill is Prioritizing. It’s crucial for productivity, and more importantly, for our peace of mind.
The ability to prioritize does not only cover tasks and actions. It’s needed in relationships, personal interests, and other parts of life.
In modern times prioritizing has been unconsciously outsourced to smart phones and social media. If we’re not fully aware of where our attention is going, we’re at the mercy of notifications, trending topics, and countless shared images and videos.
Prioritizing is about determining, with clear intention, what’s important to you in every aspect of your life.
We have lost our way insofar that some of us forget to prioritize something as essential as eating for the sake of work or other demands.
Prioritizing is about choosing consciously what you want to do—first.
So in order to prioritize effectively, we need to examine every aspect of our lives, and determine what’s the most important thing.
Three essential clarity questions
We’ll keep things simple and look at our top choices in the following areas of life.
What’s the most important relationship to you?
In all likelihood, it will be family. If not, decide who you want to spend time with, and give attention to, the most.
Think of your family, friends, coworkers, or people you’d like to get to know. Who’s number one right now?
What’s the most important area of work?
Regardless of how much you have on your plate, what’s the most important area at work that you’d want to focus on right now?
If there is something that’s urgent, it might be your top choice for now—until you get it done.
If there are more than a few urgent tasks, think of the consequences of not doing them, and go with the one that has the most beneficial outcome (or most punishing consequence, if not done).
If you don’t have any urgent projects or tasks, look into all the things you want to get done, and choose the most important one right now. If your boss, or a colleague can help, ask for their advice.
What’s the most important area of your personal life?
This may get a bit dicey because we have many things we’d like to do. Again, choose the most important one—right now.
Your choice may change over time, and that’s okay. Just focus on the thing that you really would like to start and work on right now.
This can be an exercise program, developing or changing a habit, learning a language or skill, or clearing clutter in your space. Whatever it is, just go for it.
Use this tool if, and when, needed
If you are not sure about what’s the most important thing to you, use the prioritizing grid. It will help you in arranging your options, till you’re able to reach your number one choice.
When you answer the above three questions to the best of your ability in this moment, you’ll have three things to work with.
Now it’s time to move on to the next step.
Three essential steps
For each area, what’s the most important step you can start with?
Decide on the action required for your three choices. If it’s just one step, then you’re set. If the choice requires more than one step, decide on the first and smallest step you can start today.
If you’re feeling confused about the step to take, use the prioritizing grid for non-sequential steps. If you have a project, break it down to its smallest parts and start with the first step.
This exercise will give you three simple action steps you can start today. Your list is simple enough that you can remember it, or write it down on a 3x3 sticky note.
Optimal Time, and energy
Now it’s time to decide when you’re going to work on your steps.
Examine your focus and energy high and low points, and determine the optimal time—the time you’re more likely to have enough motivation and focus to get something done. Whether it’s at work or at home, where are you going to fit your basic action steps?
If you’re unsure, pick a time and work with it, and then change it as you learn more about your focus and energy levels.
Take the first step, even if you’re not 100% sure. Only time will tell if you’re taking the right step. You started and that’s what matters.
Once the priorities of the day are met, we can relax into whatever the day brings. Or we can prioritize other choices.
As you put your priorities to action, you’ll gain more clarity about what’s working, and what’s not.
If things are working, you simply keep going. If things are not working, it’s time to do something else.
If the circumstances change, or we change, we can revisit our choices, and explore other options.
Prioritizing doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes. We will. But at least we’ll be making mistakes where it counts. This means we’ll learn and grow in areas that matter to us most.
Gandhi said action expresses priorities. When it comes to productivity, this should be everyone’s mantra.
If the priorities are not consciously and clearly yours, then they’re someone else’s—and that can be anyone, or any loud attention grabbing gimmick.
The choice is always ours, even if we allow someone (or something) else to make it on our behalf.
When we prioritize, we choose to focus on the relationships that matter, the work that’s meaningful to us, and the interests that express who we are. And like any other skill, mastery is the child of constant practice. The more we prioritize, the better we become at it.
There is art in mastery of any skill. And the art of prioritizing ultimately becomes an expression of love in our relationships and truth in expressing our highest joys and value.