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Easy ways to prioritise at work

Oliver Burkeman shares his tips on how to cope if your in-tray is overflowing

by Psychologies

The project

It’s the oldest time-management advice around: you need to prioritise. Self-help gurus advise dividing your to-do list into ‘A-tasks’, ‘B-tasks’ and so on. But it’s easier said than done. Usually, everything feels like a top priority. Just try telling your boss her favourite project ‘isn’t a priority’ for you, and see what happens. Actually, don’t. Learn the true art of prioritising instead.

The aim

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey urges us to distinguish between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ work: we’re so caught up fighting crises, he argues, that we neglect what matters most. Worse, it’s easy to tell yourself you’re prioritising, when you’re actually avoiding facing the fact that there’s too much to do and that you’ll never get to those lower-priority tasks. (In that scenario, be honest with your manager and re-negotiate your workload if you can.) Prioritising isn’t a magical solution to the fact that there’s not enough time.

The theory

The trick is to stop thinking in terms of importance, and start thinking in terms of energy: where possible, match your tasks to the energy levels required. When you’re full of juice – which, for most people, means the morning – go straight to the work that needs deep concentration. Later, when you’re bleary, catch up on calls, emails and filing. This way, though you may not fit everything in, you won’t find yourself facing demanding tasks when you’re too tired to do them. And if you do drop a ball now and then, it’s more likely it won’t be a crucial one.

Now, try it out

  • Use ‘psychological distancing’. Productivity expert Josh Davis recommends imagining that you’re looking at yourself from 3,000 miles away, or 30,000 feet in the air. Close your eyes and ask what that person, over there in the distance, should be focusing on. Strangely, studies suggest you’ll see your priorities more clearly.
  • Be honest about trade-offs. If a colleague asks you to drop everything for an urgent task, make sure they understand what won’t get done as a result. In the long run, saying ‘yes’ to work you can’t complete won’t enhance your reputation – honesty will.
  • Harness the power of momentum. ‘Do the most important thing on your list first, when you get to work in the morning,’ writes energy expert Tony Schwartz. You’re naturally likely to keep doing whatever you’re already doing. Start with something that matters and there’s a good chance you’ll make the whole day count.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock

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