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Start prioritising important over urgent

Cedric Christie

If meeting short-term deadlines consistently takes priority over tasks that really matter to you then you’re not alone, writes Alice Boyes for Harvard Business Review.

Too many of us reach the end of the day feeling we haven’t achieved anything intrinsically valuable, even though we might have hit the due date for less-important work. According to recent studies published by the Journal of Consumer Research, it’s all because we make the choice to tick off the easier tasks first, even though the payoff will be less.

Boyes, a former clinical psychologist, and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, says that the most meaningful undertakings are less likely to have tight deadlines, which means we can be wide open for distraction into pressing, but lower priority, assignments.


She breaks down important priorities into four main categories – things that:

  • underline our beliefs, such as spending time with our families;
  • publicly acknowledge our value, such as sitting on an industry panel;
  • advance our own knowledge or skills, such as learning a foreign language; or
  • prevent failure or catastrophe, either personal or business-related.

These priorities tend to be downgraded to the bottom of the list when your monthly report is due in by the end of the week. So how can you change your approach and still meet your deadlines?


Here are Boyes's suggested strategies:

1) Plan specific and generous time in your schedule to tackle important tasks. If it’s something significant and time-consuming that you’ve been putting off, Boyes suggests “clearing the decks” and timetabling a whole day of your undivided attention to complete it.

For personal care, she advocates writing out a regular slot once a week when, for example, a doctor’s appointment could be arranged in work time if needed.

2) Cut larger important tasks into manageable chunks. The enormity of a big job can be off-putting. Make it more attainable by downsizing: cut your goal in half and see what it looks like. Keep crunching it down into achievable portions and get started.

3) Be prepared to face your anxieties. Starting something big often means looking at what could go wrong – a crisis management plan, for example. Or there may be large financial rewards attached to getting a project right. Work on your skills for coping with emotional fallout.

4) Keep a strict tab on the less important stuff. Give it only the time you’ve allotted to it.

5) Streamline the unimportant stuff. Boyes says it’s easy to fall into the trap of being “too busy chasing cows to build a fence”. Invest in systems that save time, such as templates for recurring tasks.

6) Keep an eye on the big picture. Find a way to help yourself maintain an overview – take more breaks, use spreadsheets, or catch up with contemporaries to focus on what you’ve each been doing.

If you want to stop self-sabotaging your greater objectives while still ticking off all the less-significant tasks, finding a strategy that helps you prioritise more effectively is a positive first step.