Focus. Not the F word you expected? Sorry for the gotcha. I’m not one to curse so it’s not what you think.

But now that I have your attention, let’s talk. One of the most common things asked when I work with productivity clients is how to prioritize their work when everything is an urgent priority.

One of the questions I ask in return is how much of a priority is anything if everything is a priority? You see if it’s all at the highest level, then everything is at the same level and it’s no wonder folks can’t decide on what to work on first.

That puts us in a very reactive state which is not how we want to work.

What to do?

Most of us have fuzzy priorities. When you don’t know why something is important or what to work on first, it makes it hard for you to focus. And focus is the word we’re targeting.

Filter the ABCs

On the path to focus, you first you have to filter. Our schedules have become just as cluttered as our physical lives. It’s impossible to focus when our days are crammed full of little tasks one after the other. Weeding things out so you can sort out the real priorities from the distractions is an uncomfortable but necessary task.

Here’s a way you can sort through your project and task lists. In his book Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy teaches one of my favorite methods for prioritizing project work. I’s called the A-B-C-D-E Prioritization method.

When you apply this method to your task list, you prioritize things according to the seriousness of the consequence for not doing it.

  • An A priority task is something that you have to do because there is a serious consequence for not doing it.
  • A B priority task is something that you should do because there is some consequence for not doing it.
  • An A priority task is something that you have to do because there is a serious consequence for not doing it.
  • A C priority task is something that is nice to do but there is no real consequence for not doing it.
  • A D priority task is something that you can delegate.
  • An E priority task is something that you can eliminate.

Go through each item on the list and assign it a priority. Once you’ve done that, I recommend keeping your A & B priority tasks on a separate list from everything else and assign them deadlines that matter.

Put the C priority tasks on their own list since they are usually shiny new objects that jump on your list because you had a “good idea” that isn’t really aligned with your goals. Every time you look at them, they distract you from the real work. Hide them away until you’re actually ready to take action on them. If you don’t go back to that list for a while you can probably go ahead and delete them.

Follow Through

Your list and deadlines don’t matter if you don’t follow through on them.  What good is it to spend all your time managing the list of things you need to do, if you never get to the things you need to do?

Don’t get caught up in the busy work of tracking your list, at the expense of the work itself. When you sort them, be quick in how you do it. Don’t dwell on it.

Because paper is hard to search and sort, I love using an electronic list—my favorite is Trello. I use it to keep track of work projects, wish lists, someday-maybe projects and even my shopping lists. If I have to work with someone, I can invite them in, share documents, links, etc.

It’s quick and easy to use.

You may decide it’s just easier to open up Outlook and use the Task tab to track your lists (hint, hint). It’s a great tool for not only tracking your work, but delegating to others.

Once you have your list sorted, make sure that you are setting aside time on your calendar to do the work.

Find a Rhythm

Routines make it more likely that you will follow through. Create a habit around when you’ll work on your projects. Are you a morning person? We’ll take a bite out of that project and eat that frog! Mark Twain was quoted as saying “if you eat a live frog first thing I. The morning, then nothing worse will happen for the rest of the day.”

So what’s that frog? It’s the project you’ve been procrastinating on for a while. Whether you’re a morning person or not, if you get in the habit of tackling that frog project first thing, then you’ll make progress and stress less when the rest of the day gets crazy.

Believe me, I know it’s not easy. I’m a night owl myself but I’ve found it makes a huge difference to my stress levels, mood and task list when I get my hated project work done first.

Forget Multitasking

If you have prided yourself on being a good “multitasker” I give you permission to stop. Multitasking is one of the worst things we did to ourselves in the name of productivity.

We have tricked ourselves into thinking that the can do more than one thing at a time. Instead we’ve created a recipe for distraction disaster.

Consider this, each time you task switch (interrupt your work to check email or answer the phone for example) it can take you anywhere from 11-25 minutes to get back to the level of productivity you were before you switched.

Let that sink in.

Each and every time.

It’s no wonder you can sit at your desk for hours and feel like you’re not making progress. Instead of allowing yourself to be interrupted, try working in what I call focus bursts. Set a timer for 25 minutes and do one thing during that time. Once the timer goes off, take a break and decide if you need to keep working or if you need to do something else. If you go back into the project, set another 25 minute timer. By the way, this is also called the Pomodoro Technique.

When you work in theses shorter bursts, you’re less tempted to get interrupted, because you know a break is just around the corner.


Ready to focus on the real priorities on your list? I know it’s not easy. But continuing to push the boulder up the hill with nothing changing is just insane. Pick an F word and start somewhere. Filter through the tasks on the list and actually prioritize them. Then create a follow through schedule. Decide what your preferred time of day is to eat, er¸ tackle that frog project. Get into a rhythm. Block that timeslot out on your calendar and get down to business.

Focus on just one thing at a time….forget all about multitasking.

Finally, give yourself time. Fighting through the clutter takes lots of patience, practice and sometimes a good friend to help you through (more on that in the next post.

Join Me!

On March 21st, I’m kicking of a new virtual learning series. Webinar Wednesdays will happen on the 3rd Wednesday of the month. This month, I’ll be sharing my Time Management Hacks, including some of the ideas here along with a little bit of show and tell. I hope to see you there.


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