Deciding what's important is one of the most useful skills you can have in business.
There's no point looking at your list and wondering how to fit everything in. You have to decide what to fit in, and ignore the "noise" that will have little to no impact, and distract you from your most important tasks.
This comes back to scheduling your priorities, which you should do in order to ensure your most important tasks get done.
Get comfortable with saying no to people
Do you stop what you're doing every time there's an interruption or distraction?
Saying "yes" to emails, meeting requests, phone calls, etc. and spending time dealing with those means you let your priority work sit untouched, not being done, while you react to the needs of others.
Does the day ever get away from you because you're answering phone calls, replying to emails as they come in, and in and out of meetings? It's likely that you're not very productive on those days.
Why prioritise distractions over the work you know you should be doing?
Saying yes to all of those interruptions and time/energy sappers means you're saying no to your important work.
In order to prioritise the work you need to get done, you need to start saying no to others.
How to decide what to work on
"The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing" - Stephen Covey.
Tim Ferriss recommends blocking out 2-3 hours each day to focus on ONE task that ticks the following box:
If this were the only thing I got done today, I'd be satisfied.
If you have anything like that on your list, that's your Most Important Task.
Once you've decided on your most important thing, you must ensure you treat it as such, and don't put trivial tasks ahead of it just because they're "urgent".
One of the first things you need to do in order to achieve this is blocking distractions. Don't make it so easy to reach you when you need to focus.
Tips to Prevent Distractions and Interruptions
- Put headphones on.
- Put your phone on aeroplane mode.
- Disable all app notifications on your phone.
- Close your emails and set up an autoresponder on your emails telling others you only process email at set times, and to expect a delayed response.
- Listen to music that gets you into a flow.
- Proactively pre-empt interruptions by letting people know you will be busy with work.
- Don't have your desk phone part of the main ring group. Only allow important calls to be put through.
- Work away from your desk with a laptop in the meeting room, or out of the office.
- Block out time in your calendar for important work, showing yourself as busy.
- Enforce a company policy - "no Monday or Friday meetings", or "Meetings only on Tuesdays."
Why you MUST begin the day right
Once you know your Most Important Task, don't delay working on it.
I've found setting out my to-do list for the next day at the end of the current day, an effective strategy.
This way, you start each day with a new list - with one item at the top which is the priority for the day.
Every morning you know exactly what you are going to be working on. Instead of beginning your day with emails, you make headway on something important. Your emails can wait 99% of the time.
Due to the phenomena of "ego-depletion", prioritising unimportant tasks over the really important work means that you don't have enough mental energy to make sound decisions or even begin to tackle "deep work" once you get back round to it. Your emails can wait. Beginning the day with them just increases the likelihood you'll be sidetracked away from the high impact work you already decided was the priority.