Real question: How do you figure out what’s on your to-do list for the day? If you’re like most of us, you add to the list as you think of tasks, then either go straight down or jump around as time and mood call for. Common? Absolutely. Efficient? Not so much. Fortunately for our productivity, there’s a better way. And it’s all about prioritization. Because when you set priorities for yourself, your day gets much better and your important work gets done much faster. Zero downsides.
How to Set Priorities For Your Day in 10 Minutes or Less
So how do you establish priorities? And how long does it actually take? Good news: It won’t take your whole morning to figure out how to set priorities at work or at home. In fact, it’s going to take less than 10 minutes of your morning.
Read on to find out how.
Minute 1: Get ready to focus
First things first: With only ten minutes, you want to make sure that you actually focus on what you set out to do (i.e., set priorities for your day). The key is to limit distractions and switching between other activities.
Research shows that when you have to quickly switch between several tasks, your performance on all of them suffers. And the cost of switching between them? Productivity. Research suggests that the time it takes to jump between tasks could cost people up to 40 percent of their productive time. It turns out that in order to perform well on the second (or third, or fourth) task, you need to completely stop thinking about what you were just doing, and shift your full attention. And apparently, we’re all pretty bad at it.
Don’t forget that multitasking doesn’t just refer to other specific tasks. Social media, email, and every quick Google search are all new tasks that take your attention and focus away from your goals.
So take this minute to go to a quiet spot where you won’t be bothered, and shut down all the websites and tabs you don’t need. Maybe even shut down your computer entirely and go old-school for the next few steps. Whatever it takes to make sure you can fully concentrate for the next nine minutes.
Minutes 2–3: Write it all down
It seems obvious, but you can’t set priorities your day without knowing exactly what your tasks for the day are. Take two of your ten minutes to write down everything you need to do for the day. No task is too small or too big for the list, from answering emails to running to the post office to hitting a work deadline for the quarter. Don’t worry about ordering the tasks—that comes next.
The goal of these few minutes is to just get it all down on paper. And out of your brain.
Minutes 4–7: Prioritize your priorities
Now that you have all your tasks written down, it’s time to slash and burn. Okay or prioritize them. There are a lot of ways to do this—if you have a favorite one, go for it. But for this amount of time, we recommend the relatively fast but effective Eisenhower Matrix.
This prioritization method allegedly helped Dwight D. Eisenhower organize his day in his long career as U.S. Army general, Allied Forces Supreme Commander during World War II, NATO’s first supreme commander, and president of the United States. We can’t say for sure if he used it, but if it might have helped someone with that many responsibilities, it’s worth a try, right?
The matrix helps you organize tasks by both urgency and importance. In the end, you should have tasks that are urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and not urgent or important.
By visualizing your tasks in these buckets, you can focus on tasks that are both urgent and important, as well as find those tasks that don’t really need to be done today. You can also figure out what to delegate (tasks that are urgent but not important) and what to plan to do later (important but not urgent).
To get set priorities, go down the list you made a few minutes ago and sort each one as quickly as possible—whatever your first instinct is, go with that. You can then take another look over your matrix at the end to make sure everything is in the right place.
Minutes 7–10: Make a plan
So you did a braindump and set priorities. All set, right? Not so fast. It’s time to make a plan about how to accomplish them. After all, you don’t want to waste all the work you just did. Having a solid plan can also free cognitive space for actually achieving your goals since you won’t have to waste precious time thinking about your approach.
Here are some tips to more effectively plan the rest of your day, using the matrix you just made.
Batch your tasks
You’ve already sorted your tasks by urgency and importance, but you can probably group even more within those categorizations. For example, your important but not urgent tasks might include answering several emails, running errands, and doing things around the house. Batching those similar tasks together helps you focus more deeply and get things done.
Take on your urgent and important tasks first
Maybe you have a bill due or a work deadline today. Whatever the urgent and important tasks are, make sure you schedule time for them as soon as possible. And don’t forget to plan for deep work at this time, to make sure these tasks get done effectively.
Don’t add tasks that are unimportant and not urgent
Sure, many of these things will get done eventually. But you don’t necessarily have to put them on your daily schedule. Just keep them on your more general to-do list, and fill your time with them whenever you get a chance.
Otherwise, they’ll just clutter up your schedule and can make you feel overwhelmed.
Some tasks that are urgent but not important can be delegated to others. If a task is easy to delegate, start that process now. If it will take a little more time to explain the task, build time to delegate into your schedule. Either way now is a good time to make a plan about how to delegate and whom to delegate to.
Okay, breaks may not help you set priorities for your day, but they are an important part of making a schedule and helping you focus.
To sum it all up…
When you get to minute 11, you should be ready to go for the day with a prioritized list of tasks and a schedule of how to complete them. And for that next minute? We think you’ve earned one of those scheduled breaks.
- Focus on setting your priorities to make this process faster and more efficient.
- Do a braindump of all the things you need to do today. Yes, all of them.
- Use a prioritization strategy, like the Eisenhower Matrix, to sort your urgent and important tasks.
- Make a plan for accomplishing those priorities: Task batch, schedule blocks, delegate, and take breaks.
- Repeat the process daily to skyrocket your productivity.
Your turn: How do you set priorities for the day? Tell us your best tips in the comments.
Want to quit wasting time now? Check out our post on maximizing your time and getting things done now.
Author: Erica Hersh
Erica Hersh is a health writer, editor, and communications strategist based in Boston, MA. In 2014, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of being on Jeopardy. She did not, however, fulfill her dream of winning on Jeopardy.