This is one of the biggest questions facing anyone that is facing a long to-do list: which task should you complete first?
For most of us, a typical working day – or even a typical weekend of chores – is going to involve a number of different tasks, each of which will challenge us in unique ways.
We might have a few big jobs to complete which may include things like filling out spreadsheets, clearing an inbox, tidying a room, or reading a book.
On top of this, we might also have a bunch of smaller tasks, which can include such things as:
- Answering emails
- Making calls
- Fixing errors from yesterday
- Taking out the trash
As well as varying in size though, these tasks will likely also vary in terms of importance and urgency.
Faced with such a huge list of tasks, it can sometimes be hard to know where to begin. And this indecision can lead to options paralysis – basically preventing us from doing anything even moderately useful.
So, how do you prioritize and approach such a list?
One thing to consider, and this is an idea that is popularized by Tim Ferriss, is which of your tasks are important versus which are urgent.
Important tasks need to get done, yes. But urgent tasks need to be done sooner.
So, an urgent task in this case might mean responding to an email regarding a decision that needs to be made in the next hour. An important task might be reaching out to a potentially lucrative new client.
Tasks that are urgent and important are the ones that should be completed first.
But after that, you should give priority to your urgent tasks.
And of course, once you’ve completed the important tasks next, you can then go on to look at your frivolous tasks.
Another tip that Tim Ferriss advocates is to “close open loops.”
What does this mean?
Essentially, it means ticking off those small unnecessary tasks at the start of the day that are going to nag at you.
Some jobs are quick and easy to complete, like responding to emails. However, they can nevertheless cause us anxiety and make us stressed. This, then, actually ends up stealing our attention away from the more important tasks that require more attention and focus.
Closing open loops helps you to stay fixated on the most important tasks – and that is crucial.
Finally, consider that at two points during the day, you are likely to be in what is referred to as “zombie mode.” Zombie mode occurs first thing in the morning (before that coffee kicks in) and at the end of the day.
With lowered mental faculties at this point, it becomes more appropriate for you to complete tasks that require less focus. Zombie mode tasks include things like responding to simple emails, entering non-critical data, and stuffing envelopes.
A zombie-mode task is anything that you could complete while holding a conversation.
Schedule these for the times when you aren’t firing on all cylinders.
Finally, once you get to the end of the day, start tomorrow’s most urgent task but don’t finish it.
Why? Because it creates a new open loop. But this time the open loop is a positive thing. That’s because we have a natural inclination and urge to want to finish tasks that we’ve already started. So, if you begin the next project, it will be that much easier to pick it up again tomorrow. In fact, it will be hard not to!
Use this process each day at work and each time you have a long to-do list. You’ll enjoy less stress and greater productivity.