Knowing what task to do at any given time is an important skill if you are looking to maximize your productivity. The time and effort we put into doing things is too often misplaced, and that energy would be put to better use on another task with a greater ROI. The tricky thing is that the value of the task you choose is fluid and depends on other factors such as the time of day, day of the week, physical location, and so forth.
But your core tasks are also likely to be consistent, depending on the nature of your work and your personal interests. So with a little pre-planning it is possible to make a list of exactly what you should be doing at any one time. Forearmed with that knowledge you will waste little time determining what you should be doing, while avoiding the pitfalls that come by focusing on the wrong thing.
The Most Valuable Task (MVT) List
The first part is easy. Take a sheet of paper and begin writing down any and all MVTs you can think of. You can categorize them under Personal and Professional, or keep them all mixed together. They will get sorted in the next stage. Try to consider which of the tasks give you the greatest bang for your buck; the greatest return on your time invested.
Time truly is our most valuable resource, yet it is ultimately a diminishing one. The point of this exercise is to think about and identify those tasks that move you ahead the most, with the least amount of energy. As you’ve no doubt seen in your own life there are some things you do where the return seems disproportionalely large compared to the work put in, where other tasks take a valiant effort yet fail to move the needle in any appreciable way. The idea is to identify which tasks provide the biggest payout; not so that you can do less, but so you can go farther on the same expenditure of energy.
There are plenty of stories of self-made millionaires out there. While luck surely plays a role in many of those stories, I think that what those people focus on at any one time is what really gets them tehre. We all have the same amount of time in a day; some just use theirs more wisely than others. But every one of us has things we could be doing to go as far as possible in our current situation, or move us towards our ideal lifestyle. But we need to focus on doing the things that will get us there rather than wasting time with unimportant or Low Value Tasks (LVT).
Back to the list. You should have a number of tasks listed that will help you reach your goals, succeed in your job, and thrive personally – both physically and spiritually. Check that you only have actions listed, not goals themselves. “Lose weight” or “Learn Esperanto” are not actions, they are end results. We are focusing here on specific actions or tasks that you are (hopefully) already doing daily.
Now comes the hard part.
The Hierarchy of Completion
Armed with a list of MVTs it should be clear that, while they are all important to you, some are more valuable than others; at least at certain times. This next step organizes your list in such a way that you will be taking care of your top priorities first, then moving down the line to get your other things done. While no one can tell you exactly what order your personal list should go in, there are some similarities in most circumstances.
Work and/or school – These sit at the top of the list. One pays for everything you do, the other elevates you to another level, and you pay dearly to do so. Both are large, formal commitments, any must be treated with respect and integrity. If you have agreed to a job then you should do that job to the best of your ability, no matter if it is exactly what you want to do or if it is just a means to an end.
Physical activity – Yoga, running, weightlifting. No matter what you like to do to stay in shape it needs a daily time slot. This may come natural to some but if you are struggling to maintain a workout habit then this needs to be very close to the top of the list.
Personal development – This might also be termed hobbies, or creative pursuits. Art, language acquisition, secondary education. Something you are working on in your own time that you like to do.
Family Time – It goes without saying that you spend time with youor family when home, but are they getting all of your attention? I shift my priority from work to family on my days off and make sure that I am not distracted by work, and that they are getting my full attention. Anything less is a disservice to them.
Developing this list is really about identifying what your priority is in any situation and ensuring you are making progress towards your goals. For example, my list currently looks like this:
- Chargeable projects
Now don’t get all excited that family is at number four! And don’t assume that this is the order I do things in a day. On a typical workday at home I write first, then run, have a little family time, then head to work. I practice Spanish in the car on the way there. But I’m on the road a lot as well so the family time reverts to a phone call.
If I’m on a big project then I’ll try hard to get my run in, but may need to sacrifice my writing time. Its all about choosing your priority for the situation you are in that day.
Cut the Dead Weight
As you work through this exercise you’ll notice that you’ve likely made a big list, but are finding it difficult to organize. If that is the case you’ve got too much going on. If everything is a priority then nothing is.
We want to do it all these days. But if you jump from thing to thing you’ll never get any good. You need to put some of those things aside and focus on what truly matters to you and what will move you forward. People overestimate what they can get done in a month, but underestimate what they can do in a years. Give youself a long enough timeframe to really learn a skill, then after you’ve given it an honest try you can replace that with another item on your list.
I run six days a week and am training for the Houston Marathon. I’ve set this goal and have given myself a year to complete it, so this is my focus. Once I’ve finished it I may change things up and get back into the weight room, or focus on martial arts. But I’m not going to focus on all three at once because I’ll end up failing at all of them.
So make your list and organize the points to your hearts content. Then cut everything past the first five or six. You’ll actually get something done that way.
I think of this as my Hierarchy of Completion but really it is just a mental exercise in confirming what your priorities are in different situations. By identifying what your most important thing is you’ll maintain focus better while working on it, getting more done, faster.
Are your actions congruent with the goals you have set for yourself? I’d love to hear what your top three personal development priorities are, and in what order.