You’ll Only Get the Most Important Things Done

Start with the important and finish with a clear conscience.

Do you ever feel frustrated that you didn’t get everything done on your list? It’s a common feeling for high achievers. We have grand ambitions for the day: Many books will be written about it, paintings will be painted to capture it, and statues carved to immortalize it. Songs will be sung in fire-lit taverns as steely-eyed men gather ’round to tell their tales. “Where were you that day?” “Lad, I was there. I knew him.”

You may not go so far as casting the movie adaptation, but admit it—you have plans for the day. You have plans for your plans. And yet the day never goes quite the way you want it to.

It’s frustrating. We had a vision in place, a dream we were working towards, and now it feels like it will never happen.

Take a deep breath. You’ll get there, even if you have to write the books yourself.

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / Coloures_Pic

Why don’t we get everything done?

  1. We underestimate how long it will take to complete a task. We’re terrible at estimating. Have you ever had someone tell you to come up with your best estimate, then double it? That may get you closer to how long it will actually take (or cost), but it underscores the fact that we’re just guessing.
  2. We waste time. We drag our feet because there’s something else we’d rather be doing. Our process could be optimized, but we don’t have/take/make the time to improve it. We may even know full well what’s wrong and want to improve it.
  3. We try doing too much. We start the day overcommitted and don’t adjust our plan when new stuff comes in. We can do anything we want, just not everything, no matter how hard we try to jam it in.

At the end of the day, we haven’t done the things we wanted to. We’ve been busy. We’ve been conditioned to hold that busyness up as the noble ideal of a productive life. We should be thrilled we were so busy! Why, then, do we feel so frustrated?

Priority Inversion

You plan your day. A simple prioritized list is all it takes. You can get fancier if you want. This list captures our priorities (what we do first) for the day. You have things you need to do, things you want to do, and things you’d like to do. You start at the top and work your way down.

Priority inversion happens when we take our eyes off the prize. We lose focus. We forget our why. We start getting distracted by what’s right in front of us.

  • We planned to get up at 5:30 and go jogging. It’s dark at 5:30, and our bed is warm. So we turn the alarm off and snuggle under the covers.

  • We planned to eat a healthy, light lunch. But today turned out to be the day the cafeteria had poutine.

  • We planned to set some money aside for that big vacation next summer, but Amazon had the new game console in stock.

We planned to act on our priorities (what we want most). We ended up acting on impulsive desires (what we want now).

The regret behind priority inversion is that we may have gotten a lot done, but deep down we know we didn’t get the right things done.

“It might have been…”

How emotionally invested are you in the last item on your list?

We tend to look at our task list and think, “If I get all these things done today, it will be a good day.” That’s dangerous. You’re probably not going to get all of them done. If you aren’t willing to let go of the last task on your list, you’re going to feel frustrated when you don’t get to it. Every. Single. Day.

Instead, trust that you’ve put your task list in the right order. “These are the things I need, want, and would like to do. Some of them will get done today. I’m going to start on the most important thing and go from there.”

If you only get one thing done, guess what? It was the one most important thing you could have done. You can go to sleep, confident that you did the one thing that made the biggest impact on your life.

Do not regret the things you didn’t get to. Today, they were distracting you from something better.

This is what editing looks like. Take away the marble that doesn’t look like David and you’re left with an enduring masterpiece.

The things you don’t get to today are still good things to do. You aren’t saying they’re not important just because you’re not going to do them today. They just weren’t the best way to spend your time today. Save them for another day.

Question: What are you not going to do today so you can do something even better? Share your answer 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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