How I Decide What to Do: Working with an Endless to do List

Do you ever feel like you have an endless to do list? I certainly feel that way often. And, prioritization is one of the main things my clients ask me about when they’re struggling with time management.

The reality is that we live in an attention economy. And learning to prioritize where your attention goes is harder than ever. Apps and websites are designed to monopolize your time and attention, making it harder and harder to focus on what matters to you.

Because of this reality, I do my best to be intentional with my time.* I’ve gained several tools that have helped me frame my thoughts around what I should get done, and today I’m going to share with you the three questions I ask myself to figure it out.

*Note that this does not mean I sometimes mindlessly scroll through my FYP for an hour longer than I should… because I definitely do.

Question 1: What’s most urgent/important? (Eisenhower Matrix)

The first question I ask myself is a quick categorization exercise: is this urgent? Meaning, it is time-sensitive and if it isn’t done within a certain amount of time, something bad will happen. And second, is this thing important? Meaning, is this important to the grander scheme of my priorities and strategic plan?

I’ve found it is so easy to get caught up in doing the easiest or most attractive thing on your list. And starting with that can be a great way to build momentum, but with limited time, it’s best to take a step back to ask those questions. And your answer will tell you how you should treat that task:

  • Important and Urgent: this is your #1 priority; start with this
  • Important but Not Urgent: schedule it for later to make sure it gets done
  • Urgent but Not Important: see if you can delegate it; if not, schedule it for after the most important, most urgent work is done
  • Not Important and Not Urgent: can you delete it from your list/brain? If yes, forget about it! If not, then I like to keep a “back burner” list so it still exists, but I can only work on it if I have the space. And I check it about every week to make sure nothing on the list has escalated in urgency and importance.

Here’s a graphic to help you remember:

The Eisenhower Matrix for prioritization

Question 2: What has the biggest ROI?

When you hear of “Return on Investment,” or ROI, you probably think of something to do with financials, and while that is a commonly applied context, I like to think of it in terms of my tasks. And this one is really important when it comes to helping me avoid burnout and focus on my mental health.

There are two pieces to the ROI equation: amount gained and amount spent.

Amount Spent in this context answers the question: what is it going to take for you to do this task? Immediately we will think of the amount of time we expect it to take, but what about the energy? Mental energy? Emotional energy? Maybe even physical energy? This question should take into account your current state of mind.

For instance, sometimes we just aren’t in the “mood” for certain types of work, and there’s a lot of mental resistance to doing that work. Sometimes, I’m in a super creative mood. Sometimes, I’m not. So to do a task like, say, writing a blog post, if I’m not feeling creative, it’ll take significant more investment than if I were.

Amount Gained in this context means the mental/emotional satisfaction you would get out of completing the task, or the actual benefits like payment or praise from a boss or coworker.

Are you gaining more than you’re spending? Often times if the answer is no repeatedly, it can lead to burnout. I’ve found being mindful of this balance can help me a lot to keep my stress levels at a reasonable level. Of course, sometimes the things that are most urgent and most important require us to go into a bit of a deficit, and that’s okay, too. This is just another tool to think about if you’re stuck not sure what to do from your list of priorities.

Here’s the actual ROI equation you can use to think about it conceptually:

The ROI Equation as it relates to Prioritzation

Question 3: What’s the 20%? (Pareto Principal)

Finally, when I have a lot to do, I want quick wins that will produce results. So, I think about things in terms of the Pareto Principle (also called the 80/20 rule), which states:

“80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes”- Investopedia

When applied to productivity, this means you should take a look at your inputs, AKA your to do list, and identify which ones will have the greatest output, or overall affect on your life/work/health/whatever else you’re trying to improve by doing that thing.

I’ve found it’s super easy to get caught up in little things that don’t have a lot of long-term value. So thinking about this really helps me focus on the work that will have a high impact, whether that be on my grades, my relationships, my team, or my health.

Here’s a visual to help you remember the 80/20 rule:

The Pareto Principle

If you ever feel like you have way too much to do and not enough time, you aren’t alone. Take back a sense of control by being mindful about how you tackle your mountain. These three help me do that, and I hope they help you, too.

❤ Alicia

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