Prioritizing to Reduce Time and Stress

There’s one truth about time- it’s always passing us by. Unfortunately, we don’t always know or have any control over what happens during that time. Ineffective time management, or even just ineffective planning, often leads to situations where an entire day can pass without us understanding what we did the whole time. Or even worse, we know exactly what we did all day, and not a single one of those tasks was something that mattered in any tangible, long-term way.

While this situation is all too common and all too frustrating, you can begin to reverse the problem by simply paying close attention to where exactly your time goes.

One way to understand where you spend your time is to journal it. By simply keeping track of what you do and at what times and for how long, you gain a precise idea of where you’re spending time wisely and where you’re wasting it. And once you accumulate this data for a short period of time (a week or so) you can begin to implement intelligent, informed changes to your schedule. As the saying goes- what gets measured gets managed.

Keeping a log of your day’s activities is easy. Your log can be extremely simple, or you can make it more detailed with more metrics to keep track of. For instance, all you really need to know is what you’re doing at what times. So, the simplest way to keep a time-log is to simply note what you’re doing once an hour. If you want to take a little more information, you can note the exact time you start and complete a task. Of course, your journal can get more and more complicated, incorporating notes and priority assignations if you want. If you want to be really detailed about it, you can even incorporate non-work tasks such as watching tv in the evening. Ultimately, what really matters is keeping track of what you do, and how long you do it for.

Once you’ve accumulated a couple days to a weeks’ worth of data, you’ll be ready to start making some assumptions and changes. A good way to get started deciding what to cut and what to spend more time on is to start prioritizing the things you’ve done. Look over your time logs, look at what you’ve done, and rate their priority on a scale of one to three. Priority One items are the necessary items that have a positive and tangible long term impact. Priority two items are items that might have a positive long term impact, but definitely have a positive short term impact. Priority three items are all the mini-crises that dominate most peoples days, who ultimately don’t seem to have much impact at the end of the day regardless of what happens. The next step is, of course, to start weeding out the priority three items and start spending more and more time on the priority one and two items. A good way to do this is to do the priority one items first thing in the morning. Get them complete and out of the way before you even take anything else into consideration. Once they are done, start work on the priority two items. Finally, at the end of the day, when all the real work is complete, take care of whatever priority three items you have time to deal with. Ultimately, I think it’s beneficial to completely remove the priority three items from your schedule and to focus fully on the priority one and two items, as these are the things that will ultimately make a real difference- both in your work, and how you feel about your day. Putting out small fires day in and day out makes you feel busy, but dealing with real work all day makes you feel like you’re actually making progress.

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