One of the best ways to get more done every day is to make sure you get your most important task done first, from start to finish, without interruption. Focusing on that one task exclusively can be simple, but not easy. The problem usually isn’t lack of effort, but lack of clarity. How do you decide what’s most important?
Maybe that’s not the right question. Perhaps it’s not how you decide, but when. I’ll suggest that the one of the worst times to decide your top priority for right now is right now. It’s usually more effective to have already made your priority decisions beforehand. If this is true, then the best time to decide what your first task should be in the morning is the day before — ideally at the end of the work day.
Are You a Morning Person?
The blogosphere is teeming with self-help posts on how to become an early riser, but most people are not early risers, as determined by their circadian rhythms.
About 10 percent of the population are natural early risers, or “larks.” They wake effortlessly between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., experience their peak energy between noon and 2:00 p.m., and start feeling sleepy between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. About 20 percent of the population are late risers, or “owls.” They naturally wake between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., and feel like going to bed between 2:00 a.m and 4:00 a.m.—or they would if their work situation allowed for it. Even with eight hours’ of sleep, they feel sleep deprived by early morning schedules. The other 70 percent fall in a continuum between early and late risers, and can adapt to either early or late work schedules without much difficulty.
This means that for most employees and managers, making decisions at the start of the work day is suboptimal, and requires more effort than the same decision making done in the late afternoon. It’s better for them to think later, and do earlier. Work with your natural energy cycles rather than against them.
Set up your first task for tomorrow morning
The more setup time you eliminate, the less inertia you’ll have to overcome, and the more flow you’ll experience. If you need to edit images in Photoshop tomorrow morning, boot it up before you leave work this evening. If you know the first image file you need to edit, open it now. When you turn on your monitor in the morning, you won’t have to ask yourself, “What should I do first?” The file right in front of you is your one-item to do list.
If you were going to email someone tomorrow morning to get information you’ll need later that morning, send it now. It doesn’t matter if the recipient won’t answer it until tomorrow anyway. The point is that you won’t have to break your momentum on your most important task tomorrow just to finally send the email, and you won’t have to remind yourself to do it.
Declutter your workspace
End-of-day decluttering isn’t comprehensive elimination of every item that’s arguably nonessential. It’s getting things out of your visual field that aren’t relevant to your immediate focus. Tomorrow morning, I need to work on a new spreadsheet in Excel, so this evening I closed and filed the spreadsheets and documents I worked on earlier today; that way, I don’t have to sort through them tomorrow to get to the new file.
If you’re not a methodical filer, it helps to have at least one drawer where you can put all the paperwork on your desk that’s not related to the one task you’re currently working on. There’s nothing manifestly wrong with having a messy desk, but if you can corral it and segregate your piles from the paperwork you’re actively using (using at that moment, not in general), you’ll find it much easier to focus on the task on hand.
Estimate how much time needed
It’s usually not necessary to block out the entire morning to finish your critical task. Before doing it, ask yourself how much time it will take, and write the answer down next to the task entry. Whether or not the time estimate is accurate is less important than creating an awareness of the time you’re spending.
If you estimate that a task will take an half an hour, but it actually takes 45 minutes, you’ve got some valuable feedback. Either your time estimates are unrealistic, or you’ve succumbed to distraction. If it’s the latter, you can reexamine what transpired in that time and identify the source of distraction. If that distraction is something routine, figure out how to block or eliminate it the next time you need to perform a similar task.
Suppose the time estimate was unrealistic. Suppose further that you underestimated the completion times for all of your activities by 50% on average. This is a huge source of why so many people experience time famine. Because their time estimates are based on intuition rather than explicit examination, everything takes longer than assumed, leaving no time for things that matter—so they get pushed into the neverland of “tomorrow.” Reasonably accurate time estimates don’t require deep analysis. It’s usually enough to consciously ask yourself, “How long will this take?”, instead of operating from hunch.
Visualize the next morning’s actions
This one’s optional. Relax, it’s not as New Age as it sounds. The point of visualizing yourself carrying out your most important task in step-by-step detail isn’t for motivation, but for clarification.
Mentally see yourself performing each action necessary to complete the task. Visualization doesn’t have to be lengthy, 3-D or in Technicolor, but it should be complete. You’re looking to ensure that you have all the steps, and that you won’t be stuck due to a missing piece. If it helps, visualize yourself successfully completing the task, then work backward to the first step. This will highlight and identify any missing dependencies in subsequent actions.
Anticipate and eliminate distractions
Does your work get derailed in the morning? Where’s the monkey wrench? If you anticipate getting distracted by your email tomorrow morning, close the email client this afternoon don’t open it until after you complete your most important task. If secondhand employee chitchat will break your concentration, grab some headphones and (preferably instrumental) music queued up for tomorrow morning to neutralize it.
Even if you’re not a morning person, how you start the day sets the tone for how the day unfolds. Use the end of your work day to set up how you start your day. Get the planning out of the way ahead of time, so that you can start your day by diving right into action.
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