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But I want it now!

Oliver Burkeman tells us how to prioritise when everything feels urgent

by Psychologies

The idea

It might just be the oldest time-management tip in existence: to get the right things done, learn to prioritise. Label your to-do list with As, Bs and Cs, or use coloured felt-tip pens to separate the must-dos from the maybes… but it’s not always this easy to prioritise.

Too often, everything feels important and, if you’ve simply got too much to do, prioritising won’t magically make things better. Above all, we are emotional beings, with energy levels that ebb and fl ow. So, when it all seems urgent and you can’t decide what to do, use these more human rules of thumb instead.

How to make it happen

Alternate minor jobs with hard work:

Begin with a small task that will feel satisfying to cross off, then spend some time tackling the big project you’ve been avoiding, then another small task… this way, you are effectively using one kind of task as a reward for the other, keeping your motivation high.

Aim for ‘two awesome hours’:

In his book Two Awesome Hours (HarperCollins, £15.99), neuroscience writer Josh Davis argues that it’s best to give up trying to be ultra-productive all day. Instead, aim for two hours, ideally in the morning, when you’re rested and won’t be interrupted. Do what matters most, then keep lesser tasks for when your energy is fading.

Admit defeat:

Depressing as it sounds, it’s actually hugely empowering to face the truth: there definitely won’t be time to do everything you’d like to get done. Dropping a couple of balls isn’t a crime; it’s inevitable. Accept that, and you’ll be far better placed to decide which ones you can afford to drop.

Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99).

Photograph: iStock