5 Tips to Protect the Big Rocks

You know those days. We all have them.

You’re in the office, ready to go, two minutes early. Everyone else is shuffling in, looking for a parking spot, or sitting in traffic. Not you. You’ve identified your A1 task for the day. Your target is in your sights. Today will be different. Today will be the day you finally get through that backlog. Your desk will be so clear you can smell it.

…And then everyone else starts their day. Their work involves creating work for you. Emails. Meetings. Requests. New priorities. You do everything you can to fight off the onslaught. You bend the laws of time and space to fit in everything you did. But your list is longer at 5:00pm than it was at 9:00am. It’s only Monday, but your list for “today” will last you through Thursday.

Here are five tips to help you protect your sanity and keep your task list under control.


1. Don’t confuse your To Do list with your Today list.

Not everything you need to do will get done today. You have goals, projects, roles, areas of responsibility, and then there’s the wants and the fun stuff.

Even if you have just a single list that keeps track of everything you need to do, make a second list. This is the list you work from. Your first list is everything you need to do. Only a handful of tasks go on your Today list.

This is the principle behind the Ivy Lee method and the Today perspective. Copy just those things you’re going to do today onto a new list (or flag them in OmniFocus). When it’s time to go to work, execute from this shorter list. That’s all that exists.

2. Leave incoming tasks in the inbox.

New tasks that come in don’t automatically go on your Today list. Most will go in your inbox. You’ll get to them later. That’s the whole reason you have an inbox—it’s a place to hold incoming tasks until you can properly file them later.

If at all possible, hide your inbox. Don’t work with your email app open. Put the tray behind your monitor, or behind you, so you can’t see it out of the corner of your eye while you’re working. Whether you want to process it or avoid it altogether, it will distract you. Put it out of sight and out of mind until it’s time to process it.

3. Ask, “Do you need this today, or will tomorrow be soon enough?”

Before assuming that something needs done today, ask. More often that not, tomorrow will be fine. There have been times when I thought something needed turned around within the hour, based on the stress in their voice, but when I asked, “next week” was plenty early.

Now if you want to overdeliver to impress, that’s fine. Just make sure that something that does need done today isn’t getting pushed to the back burner for it.

4. Insert the task in its proper place.

Some tasks will need done today. Fortunately, you have a prioritized list of tasks for the day. Add the new task to its proper place in the list. If it’s now the most important thing for you to work on, park what you were working on and change gears. If it’s further down the list, go back to what you were doing. You’ll get to it when it’s time.

5. Don’t abuse the Two-Minute Rule.

The Two-Minute Rule says that if it will take you less than two minutes to complete a task, you should just do it now instead of filing it away to be done later. It comes into play primarily when you’re processing your inbox, filing tasks away for later. Use it sparingly when you’re interrupted.

It takes almost no time at all to drop a piece of paper into an inbox tray, and just a few seconds to capture a coherent thought in OmniFocus’s Quick Entry panel. Use the Two-Minute Rule sparingly when you could drop a task in your inbox and get back to work.


I like Ivy Lee’s recommendation of writing out your prioritized task list at the end of the day instead of at the beginning. The day is fresh in our minds, and we have a better sense of what we wish we could have gotten done if we’d only had more time. We instinctively know which tasks and activities will make a difference, and that’s where we start our plan for the day.

When the gravel starts to come in, it’s easy to get buried by it. The good news is that gravel has a way of disappearing if it doesn’t overwhelm you on its way in. Protect your big rocks. Keep your task list, calendar, and desk clear of gravel. A clean desk smells nice, and it doesn’t smell like gravel.

Question: How do you protect your big rocks? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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