How to decide what you should be doing

When trying to decide what to do, it is important that you can make a quick decision and keep moving through your tasks. It is easy to get caught up in the vast number of tasks that you need to complete. If you have to sort through a large list, you can waste a great deal of time attempting to work out which task you should be working on right now. However, if you are properly organised, you will realise that the number of options is actually quite limited by your circumstances at that time. If you have your tasks properly organised into contextualised lists, you can quickly eliminate any task which, for whatever reason, you cannot perform at that time. This leaves a small number of tasks, sometimes just one, to choose from. You can then quickly identify the most important task and get it done.

For this approach to work, it is essential that you keep up to date with a current list of tasks which need to be completed. If you fail to remove items which have been completed or, you fail to update your lists with new items, you will not be able to make an accurate assessment of your most important tasks. If you do have a current list, you are in a position to make an informed decision about what to do next. When you are in possession of all of the necessary information, you can make the best possible choice.

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Narrowing down your choices

Assuming that you have an up to date list of tasks which you need to complete, you can use the following questions to narrow down your options and identify the most important task to perform.

1. What can you possibly do?

In any given situation there will be tasks which you cannot possibly perform. If you do not have access to your computer, you cannot possibly perform tasks which require your computer. If you need access to physical files to complete a task but you are away from your office, you will be unable to work on that task. When you know what you need to complete a task and, you have organised your tasks into lists which reflect the way in which you work, you can quickly narrow down your options by eliminating tasks which you cannot possibly complete.

As an example, last week I encountered computer problems which took much longer than anticipated to fix. This meant that I had to work from my phone for much of the week. As a result, I couldn’t perform tasks which required access to my computer. There were many tasks which I could complete though as they did not require computer access. Now, while I am behind in my work, I do not have as big a backlog due to the fact that I was able to get these non-computer related tasks done.


2. How much time do you have available?

Tasks take time and over time, you will be able to gauge how much time each tasks requires to complete. When choosing which task to complete, it is important that you consider the amount of time that you have available to work on the task. It the time available is less than the time required, it is best to choose a different task. This is due to the fact that stopping and starting on the same task actually takes more time as you have to review the work you have completed and establish what remains to be completed.

Taking this approach makes it much easier to choose the most important task to perform e.g. if you know that you have to leave for a meeting in 15 minutes, you know that you need to choose a task which takes less than 15 minutes to complete. By completing the task before you leave, it will not be on your mind during the meeting and you will be able to give your full attention to the meeting.


3. How much energy do you have?

Your energy levels peak and trough throughout the day. If you try to work on a task which requires a high level of energy but you are feeling low on energy; it will be like beating your head against a wall and you will struggle to get through the task. In the end, the task will take much longer than necessary.

Alternatively, if you have an abundance of energy but choose a task which requires very little energy, you are wasting time and energy which should be devoted to a more demanding task.

It takes time to understand how your energy levels change throughout the day and, it is different for each person. By monitoring your energy levels, you will gain a better understanding. This will allow you to choose a task which matches your energy level and when you do this on a consistent basis you complete more valuable work.


4. Which task will give you the biggest payoff?

After asking yourself the previous questions, you will find yourself with a small number of tasks to choose from. This makes the decision easier but you are not finished just yet. Many people get stuck at this stage and spend far too long trying to decide which task to work on. This decision should be made using one criteria only – importance. The most important task that you can complete in any given moment is the task that you should be working on.

Determining importance is easier than you think – you simply need to determine which of the remaining tasks will have the biggest impact on helping you achieve one of your key goals. Most of the time, this will be obvious to you and you will make a quick decision and move on. You just need to trust in yourself.

Key point

Importance is not determined by others. It is the impact these tasks have on your goals, not the goals of others, which is important here. It is imperative that you do not let others determine the importance for you.


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5. What if you still cannot decide?

There will be times when 2 or more tasks appear to be of equal importance so, what do you do? It is important that at this point you understand that the only way that you could fail to make important progress is if you do nothing. Therefore, the true answer is to just do something.

You have identified some tasks which are of equal importance so you cannot fail to make progress as long as you take action. So, just pick one task and get working on it. You can make that choice by any means you like; you could even toss a coin. The important thing is that you get working on one of these tasks and knock it off of your list.

Organisation and Focus

When you are organised and focused, it becomes much easier to make the right decisions about your priorities as you have all the necessary information.


For more great advice to improve your organisation and focus, check out 'The Modern Professional's Guide to Organisation and Focus'.


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Conclusion

The main reason for establishing your own productivity system is so that you can determine what you should be doing in any given moment. When you are properly organised, it becomes much easier to make the right choice and make consistent progress towards your goals and objectives. When your tasks are organised into appropriate lists, a few quick questions will help you whittle down the options until you are left with the most appropriate task that you can work on in that moment. Use the questions provided and you will be able to make quick, effective decisions which will help you to stay on track to achieve your goals.