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The first task of the day is easy for me – exercise! I know before I go to sleep precisely what I will do when I wake up. It happens according to plan. I have a morning routine that is optimized to set up my day for success. The next part is not always natural. I have to decide, “What am I going to do today?”

The most obvious next step is to do a quick review of my task manager. My system is a combination of OmniFocus and Evernote. I am a list maker by nature. I love making lists, including to-do lists. The problem is that there are too many options. At any given moment, I have 80-100 individual tasks in OmniFocus (plus a few more scribbled on post-it notes). Every one of those tasks is a commitment I have made with myself to do something. Each one is asking for my time, my energy, and my attention (TEA Framework)

Too much to do. Too little time. 

Like most people, I believe I can accomplish more in one day than is realistic. Except for simple repetitive tasks, most things take twice as long as you estimate. Most likely, you are not the only one adding items to your to-do list. Productive people are in demand. Someone always has a question they want you to answer or a problem they want you to solve. A quick glance at the notifications center on your phone will provide you with all the evidence you need that there are too many things to do and not enough time to do them.

You may have more or fewer items on your list, but the principle is the same. You need a reliable guide to help you make the best decisions about how to use your time. The answer you are searching for is priorities. Determining your priorities and acting on them is one of the most effective ways of increasing your productivity.

What is a priority?

According to dictionary.com, a priority is “the right to precede others in order, rank, privilege, etc.; precedence.”

In a great book called, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown explains, “The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.” The idea is that if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Simply put, it means something comes first. Not all tasks are created equal. Priorities help you identify your most important tasks.

The power of priorities to double your productivity

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 8.5 hours every day. However, less than half of the day is productive work. An article published by Inc. suggests “that in an eight-hour day, the average worker is only productive for two hours and 53 minutes.” With a clearly defined set of priorities, the average worker could more than double their productivity.

At Asian Efficiency, we are no strangers to busy days. We know how it feels. We are all fighting this battle. The good news is that we have learned a few things that have helped us and thousands of others to stay focused on their priorities, do their best work, and deliver results. We have some solutions that will help you make the most of your day.

Three steps you can take to double your productivity

1. Determine your priorities 

In 2011, I moved to Spain from the United States. There is a lot to do when you move your entire life to another country, but I felt ready for the challenge. I made a list of all the things that I wanted to accomplish during my first week. When I showed it to a friend, he laughed because he saw how many things I put on the list. I fell into the trap of writing down every possible thing that I thought could be done…without any filter. Just because something could be done does not mean that it should be done. I was going to do “all of that.” However, no one can do all of that. You need clearly defined priorities to clarify what is most important.

The first question you need to ask yourself is, “Am I crystal clear about what I should be working on today?” Your mission every day is not merely to do things. It is to do the right things. Busyness and productivity are not the same things.

Be more than busy

In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, author Cal Newport says it like this:

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Here are some indicators for the tasks that have the most value for your work:

  1. Is this something that only I can do? If not, consider delegating the responsibility or eliminating it.
  2. Is this directly related to my proficiency? If not, seek ways to work in the areas of your greatest strengths.
  3. Am I passionate about this? If not, then perhaps this is not the best use of your time.
  4. Is this where I add the most value? If not, then defer to the tasks that make the most significant contribution.

2. Focus on your priorities

Once you have clarity about your priorities, you need focus. Focus helps you transform good intentions into actions. Focus puts you in the right position to finish the task, solve the problem, and achieve your goals. Without focus, you will get lost on Twitter for 20 minutes or scroll through Instagram until you forget the real reason you picked up your phone in the first place.

Here are some suggestions for practical things you can do to protect your focus:

1. Consider limiting or turning off notifications on your computer and mobile devices during times of focused work

Every notification is the equivalent of someone walking up behind you and tapping you on the shoulder to ask for your attention. Every notification interrupts your focus and has the potential to steal it completely. In a study from the University of California Irvine, researchers concluded that following an unplanned interruption, it could take more than 23 minutes for someone to return to the state of focus they had before the break.

2. Schedule time for distractions

Use a technique like the Pomodoro to encourage times of focused work while giving yourself scheduled breaks. Use the breaks to indulge in distractions. If you are faithful to a commitment to do focused work and eliminate distractions, then you will feel like you have productivity superpowers at the end of the day.

3. Keep your commitments in a trusted system

One way to improve your focus on your priorities is to put them into a trusted system. David Allen, the creator of the popular Getting Things Done productivity methodology and the book by the same name, says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

A trusted system is a tool or method to focus your attention on the essential tasks that are in alignment with your priorities. When you open your task manager, do you see an endless list of possibilities, or do you see a focused agenda of high priority tasks?

I mentioned that I use an application called OmniFocus (Mac, iOS, or web). It is where I collect all of my commitments to myself. When a task is created it goes in the Inbox until it is reviewed. In the review process, I assign it to a project, and I give it tags. As I said, I have 80-100 tasks pending at all times. To help me surface the critical tasks, I assign tags to each task based on the indicators that show the value of a task.

OmniFocus allows users to filter their task list based on the tags assigned to each task. I use these filters in my “Today” view. I may have more than 100 tasks in my database, but when I open the Today view, I am only looking at my top priorities.

Whatever system you use, including pen and paper, give yourself a visual reminder of your most important tasks that agree with your top priorities.

3. Act on your priorities

Every person has to take extreme ownership of their priorities. No one calls you on Monday morning to say, “How can I help you complete your most important task today?’ Every input is another choice you have to make about how to spend your time and energy. Many people find it difficult to say “no,” so they add another item to the ever-growing to-do list.

Author Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, noted that “Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.” Every day that you act on your priorities, you are choosing what the best is…even if it requires saying no to something good. If you would like to take a deeper dive into the power of saying no, read this great article by Asian Efficiency founder, Thanh Pham.

Next Steps

Our brand promise at Asian Efficiency is that everything we deliver will be simple and actionable. Here are some simple strategies that you can start using today to double your productivity.

1. Determine your priorities

  • Review your to-do list and find three pending tasks that pass the test as high priorities.
  • Add those to the top of your to-do list or place them on a list by themselves to create a clear visual representation of your top priorities.

2. Focus on your priorities

  • Download a Pomodoro app (if you do not already have one) or use an analog timer if that is your style to help you prepare for a day of focused work sessions.
  • Limit or turn off your notifications for the duration of your focused work time.

3. Act on your priorities

  • Commit to doing focused work eliminating as many distractions as possible until you complete your top three tasks.
  • Give yourself permission to say “no” to everything except your top priorities.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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