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Do This, and Start Getting Stuff Done

If you're having one of those Mondays in which you feel like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, there's one quick thing you can do to stop running and start producing. (Bonus: you'll also feel less stressed, which never hurts.)

If you’re having one of those Mondays in which you feel like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, there’s one quick thing you can do to stop running and start producing. (Bonus: you’ll also feel less stressed, which never hurts.)

to-do list 

(Photo Credit: john.schultz/Flickr)

The magic trick: Pick something.

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“Prioritize the one or two most important things you need to accomplish each day,” writes Joyce E.A. Russell at The Washington Post. “Then make sure those things get done. As Steven Covey points out in his book, First Things First, we should consider whether tasks are urgent and/or important. Focus on the urgent, important items first, followed by the important but not urgent. If time permits, we can tackle the urgent but not important items or the issues that are neither urgent nor important.”

What if, like many of us, you have more than one or two “top-priority” items on your to-do list? That’s where things get tricky — and productive people get ruthless. If you find that you consistently have too many urgent items, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Am I the only person who can do this task?

Sometimes, too many top-of-list items is a sign that you’re not delegating. If you’re a manager, and you have too much to do, you might be trying to work on too many planes at once. This is especially common if you ascended from a role similar to the ones you currently manage.

Remember that management is a valuable, time-intensive series of processes, the results of which are sometimes harder to see. You’re not lazy if you’re not engaged at the micro level; leadership is essential, and often more effective if you know when to get your hands dirty and when to provide support for others.

If you’re not a manager, and you can identify tasks that are better handled by other team members, enlist your boss in helping you allocate those in a way that’s productive for everyone.

2. Which of these items furthers my goals?

Obviously, an every-man-for-himself approach doesn’t work, either in terms of getting stuff done or generating good will on your team, but neither does a totally selfless approach. If your time is getting hijacked by other people’s projects, and you’re spending hours and days working on things that will never come up at your review, you need to ask yourself if it’s time to reassess.

3. Where’s my 20 percent?

The Pareto Principle says that
80 percent of results derive from 20 percent of efforts. (Sort of.) Pareto was talking about peas in peapods and wealth distribution in Italy, but the principle has been applied by management consultants to everything from utilizing sales leads to preventing on-the-job accidents, and you can use a similar system to whittle down your to-do list.

“The best way I’ve found to identify my 20% work is this simple exercise: first, ask yourself what you’d work on if you could only do three things today,” writes Belle Cooper at Zapier’s blog. “Be ruthless; only pick three. Next, cut that down to two. And finally, just one. If you absolutely had to stop working after doing just one task, which would you do?”

Honestly, if you have to pick only one way to find your No. 1 priority, Cooper’s trick might be your best bet. In any case, it’ll help you practice the kind of ruthlessness required to push past an unproductive phase and get something done.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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