You know the feeling. You’re at the end of a long and busy workday. You’ve completed your list of pressing tasks and met your deadlines, but in the back of your mind, you can’t help feeling like you haven’t accomplished anything that’s fundamentally important.
Don’t worry. You’re not alone.
According to a recent study by the Journal of Consumer Research, people often choose to focus on urgent tasks with short completion windows rather than prioritizing more important, longer-term goals. This is to say, they focus on immediate deadlines first, while allowing bigger projects to fall by the wayside.
If you work in a fast-paced industry, you’re probably familiar with facing a barrage of last-minute deliverables and deadlines requiring immediate attention. But what you might not know is that you may subconsciously be focusing on urgent tasks because they provide immediate payoffs, while allowing larger tasks to take second priority because they’re more challenging and the reward of goal completion is further away.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution and it simply won’t be possible in every scenario, there are ways in which you can focus on important tasks rather than just urgent ones.
Here are some strategies to consider.
Schedule Assigned Times for Important Tasks and Be Generous About It
If you’re like most people, scheduling when and where you’ll do something drastically increases the odds of it getting done.
Consider clearing the schedule for a set period of time and assigning a dedicated amount of time to that one pressing task – whether a few hours or a full day.
Be realistic about your time needs. Large tasks are often unfamiliar, which can make executing them feel more clumsy than efficient, so book more time than you’ll likely need to ensure you’re not setting yourself up for a time crunch. And if you work with a team, make sure they’re aware that you’ve dedicated this time to completing this task, so they give you the space required to dedicate your full attention to it. Even adding it to their digital calendars – and yours! – can go a long way in helping you get it done.
Start with the Most Impactful Elements of the Task
Big tasks can be daunting – in turn making them unappealing and easier to put off. The best way to deal with big tasks can often be in increments of progress. When looking at a big task, do your best to unpack it and determine its most impactful elements. Chip away at those important elements first and, once you’ve made your way through those, wrap up the task by completing the elements that are less impactful and quicker to finish.
Embrace the Anxiety
Important tasks generally come hand-in-hand with higher stakes, greater rewards, or bigger repercussions for underperformance or failure. And this almost guarantees you will experience anxiety about what could go wrong.
The ability to manage your thoughts and emotions in order to better tolerate uncomfortable emotions. And while there’s no set formula for coping with anxiety, there are some exercises that can help. One way is to envision the feeling of success to counteract your worry of what could go wrong. Another is to practice mindfulness and a few minutes of meditation before digging into an important task in order to gather your thoughts and calm your mind.
But the best way to manage your feelings of anxiety is to repeatedly experience the process of starting and seeing through an important task.
Draw Boundaries and Time Limitations on Unimportant Tasks
Have you ever noticed that the least important tasks seem to end up taking the most time to complete? It’s all too easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of menial activities – but it’s imperative to ensure that you draw boundaries and time limitations for them. Not only does it take valuable time that could be better used on something else, it can make you frustrated and exasperated, which ultimately takes a negative toll on you.
For example, if you find yourself reviewing a team member’s work but wasting time redoing it all, set a limit on how many revisions you will make before you simply send it back to be reworked.
Do What Helps You See the Big Picture
In the midst of a busy day, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. That is to say, it’s can be challenging to have enough mental space to see the big picture.
It’s important to find ways to free up valuable mental space so that you can see the bigger picture and put context to tasks that might feel important but ultimately may not be.
Whether it’s taking more breaks to clear your mind and avoid going down a rabbit hole; connecting with a colleague to discuss what you’ve got on the go; or tracking your time to determine how better to allocate your efforts, make sure you don’t slip the things that allow you to see the bigger picture.
Mastering the art of focusing on important tasks rather than just urgent ones can be challenging. In your professional life, you’re faced with an endless barrage of deadlines and decisions. But with a little bit of focus, you can go a long way towards tackling those seemingly daunting important tasks.