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It’s easy to waste time on things that are urgent, but unimportant. This simple fact bothered me for a long time before I learned how to manage it.
Rather, before I learned to manage myself.
Our brains are trained to respond to urgency. Urgency used to mean “a lion is about to kill you”. Now it means “you have unread emails”. That little red notification bubble is hijacking the same system that kept your ancestors alive.
Understanding this helped me separate urgent from important. You can usually tell when a task is urgently unimportant if someone else is imposing the deadline on you. I’m surprised by how many people let their inboxes in the morning determine their routine for the whole day. Substituting your inbox as your to-do list is abdicating responsibility for your actions. This won’t cut it if you want to take ownership of your work. Choosing to prioritize importance over urgency means knowing what to work on and then giving yourself the room to do it.
Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to keep yourself on track:
Avoid slot machines
Slot machines are applications that pump out notifications like a Vegas casino. To maximize addictiveness, they are designed to send notifications at random intervals. This keeps you engaged and waiting on the edge of your seat.
I’ve learned that I’m especially prone to notification addiction. Until I made the conscious effort to avoid slot machines, I was glued to my phone like a drowning man to a life raft. This also had the side-effect of destroying my attention span. Instead of focusing, I would find myself constantly refreshing or scrolling, waiting for that little kick of dopamine when a new message landed in my inbox. Emails are the main suspect here, but text messages and push notifications also trigger the same response. Instead of working on what you’ve prioritized, you’re stuck waiting for someone else to tell you what to focus on. The people putting items there aren’t doing it to help you, they’re doing it for themselves.
Email is both the most personal and the most spammy medium of communication that I deal with regularly. I use email to conduct a majority of my work activities, yet for some reason I am expected to give out my email address to every coffee shop with a reward point system. Over the years this has turned my inbox into a public dumping ground. A random sampling of my inbox reveals promotions from a restaurant I haven’t visited in five years, important tax information from my bank, and a personal note from a friend. Trying to manage this stream of information in real-time is a recipe for disaster.
Avoid these applications. Delete them from your phone. There is absolutely no reason why you need to follow a to-do list that anyone can drop a task onto. Especially one with a direct line to your consciousness 24 hours a day. If you can’t delete the application (hint: you can), then change your email settings to disable the pop-up notification. Keep the application out of your taskbar to avoid seeing that little red bubble. Inform your team that you will be checking emails once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and then stick to it. Batching notifications allows you to concentrate without getting distracted by a flood of requests. If you’re worried about pushback, try the following message popularized by Tim Ferriss:
Greetings, Friends [or Esteemed Colleagues],
Due to high workload, I am currently checking and responding to e-mail twice daily at 12: 00 P.M. ET [or your time zone] and 4: 00 P.M. ET.
If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until either 12: 00 P.M. or 4: 00 P.M., please contact me via phone at 555-555-5555.
Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency and effectiveness. It helps me accomplish more to serve you better.
I’ve been in a long battle to kick the habit of these applications, but they keep finding ways back into my life. Keeping them out is like pruning a garden — you need to constantly work to stay on top of it, otherwise you’ll find yourself covered in weeds. Don’t beat yourself up if you get lost in the notification vortex. Just exit the app, delete it from your phone, and continue with what you were doing.
Cash-out and delete the slot machine.
Set a trigger
Urgent tasks tend to sneak up on you. Before you know it, you’ve spent an entire day on tasks for someone else.
The best way to recognize when this is happening is to set a trigger for yourself. There are plenty of free apps that allow you to block distracting websites like Gmail, Twitter, Instagram, or Reddit. I use Focus, an app that provides a 25 minute Pomodoro timer with website blocking. When I need to concentrate, I turn on the timer and get to work. If the force of habit pushes me towards distraction, I’m met with a reminder that looks like this:
Cheesy? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.
The purpose of a trigger is to kick your brain out of autopilot. This prevents distractions caused by errors of omission. When I see this screen, I’m forced to ask myself “did I really need to visit this website, or am I just looking for an excuse to procrastinate?”
Important tasks tend to seem intimidating because of their size. Completing a large project or achieving a personal goal can seem unattainable if it’s too big to get your head around.
The advice here is simple: break down that big goal into something you can complete in a day. Before you go to bed tonight, write down the most important task you need to accomplish tomorrow to make progress on that goal.
At the end of the day, ask yourself whether you completed the task you set out to accomplish. If not, was it really that important? Did you let urgently unimportant tasks get in the way?
Here is your template. Try filling it out right now:
Don’t focus on weeks or months. Determine what you can accomplish today, tomorrow, and the day after. Fill out the chart above and prioritize these tasks above all else. Don’t try to fit more than one or two tasks into a day until you get a feel for sizing them accordingly.
After a few weeks you’ll be surprised by how much you’ve achieved.
One of the best ways to maintain progress on an important goal is by sharing it with a friend. I like to call these people “accountability buddies”. This relationship works best when both sides share something they are trying to achieve.
Doing this forces you to clearly articulate your goals. Try sending the following message to a friend:
I’m going to be working on a new project over the next few weeks. To keep myself honest, I’d appreciate it if you could check-in on me. Here is the plan:
- In 2 weeks, I will have accomplished “x”.
- Two weeks after that, I’ll be able to show you “y”. My goal from doing this is to accomplish “z”. I’m sharing this with you to make sure that I don’t get sidetracked.
Can I send you an update in two weeks? If you don’t hear from me, this email is permission to remind me that I committed to working on this.
The “accountability buddy” system is used by high performing leaders and athletes. These professionals often have a group that they meet with on a recurring schedule to keep track of goals, deadlines, and to provide perspective outside of their everyday lives.
Peer pressure is a strong force. Use it to keep yourself on track.
Knowing when to prioritize importance over urgency will give you compounding gains in life, work, and health. Urgency is an addiction that has become so common we’ve stopped noticing it. Like any addiction, your brain will come up with reasons why you can’t delete these applications.
Ignore that little voice — it’s not in charge.
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