How to Focus on the Priorities in Your Work and Life
We all know that multitasking is a bad idea. It lowers your IQ and it’s draining to switch from task to task. Yet it’s hard to stop and easy to keep taking things on until you feel overwhelmed and out of control.
It’s hard to change the way you’ve been doing things. After all, it’s gotten you this far.
But what if you could be just three decisions away from regaining control of your work and life and no longer feeling frazzled, like you’re just getting by? Three decisions away from living a life that’s focused on your true priorities.
Well, the good news is you are! We all are. It’s just that we put off these decisions.
The 3 Decisions to Focus on Your Priorities
A fellow mastermind member – let’s call him Stephen – had open heart surgery which led to a stroke. He’s fortunate to be recovering well, but he says he’s not the same as he was before the operation.
He used to be a “go-go-go” kind of person, multitasking, taking on a ton of projects at a time. Now, he feels like his brain is processing things 30% slower than before.
His advice to me was to use the same strategy he’s been using, which allows you to focus on what matters most so you can live your life on purpose and with no regrets.
I’ve dubbed this the “SEO Strategy”. It stands for the three decisions to take, which are:
- How can I Simplify?
- What can I Eliminate?
- What can I Outsource?
Decision #1: How Can I Simplify?
This is about making things more streamlined, direct and efficient.
Here are three areas to consider when you’re deciding on how you can simplify your work and life.
1. Identify what’s essential
Get clear on what matters most to you. What are the values you want to be guided by? Which tasks and projects are aligned with what’s essential in your work and life?
This acts as your guidepost for what you choose to take on and the standard to which you do it. If the work isn’t essential to your path you don’t have to take it on, and if you do it doesn’t have to be your best work. As one professor put it, “sometimes you have to give yourself permission to do B+ work”.
2. Unclutter your space
For years, I’ve held on to the excuse that “an uncluttered desk is the sign of an empty mind” to avoid creating a workspace that I love. In reality, having a clean, clear, inviting space to work provides a sense of calm and also helps you to be more creative.
From personal experience, it’ll be simpler to find things too. I’m great at taking notes and documenting things, but struggle with being able to retrieve it from the clutter.
3. Think before you do
When you’ve got way too much to do, it’s tempting to dive right in and get through as much as you can without “wasting time”. When it comes to simplifying, the key is to think first and create a mini-plan so you can execute on it more smoothly.
When you take the time to think upfront, you’re more likely to do the right things in the right ways. And that saves time. When you’re tempted to get going before you think, remember this saying I learned in the UK: “more haste, less speed.”
As you implement “think before you do”, look for ways you can create templates or other repeatable processes to save time the next time you have to do that task. For example, researching potential clients, onboarding new team members or writing letters of recommendation. I call this “template-izing” your work.
You’ll also find it helpful to batch your tasks as another way to simplify. Grouping the same kind of tasks so you can do them in the same sitting is a great way to save time and reduce the cost of switching between different activities. Like setting aside different chunks of time for doing administrative tasks (such as filing or travel planning) versus returning phone calls versus writing presentations.
This also allows you to do those batched tasks at the time of day that’s best for you. For example, I’m best at thinking and strategizing in the morning and doing administrative tasks in the afternoon.
Decision #2: What Can I Eliminate?
This is where the real magic happens. In fact, Stephen tells me that more than half of the changes he’s made using the SEO Strategy have been in the “eliminate” category.
While there are some things Stephen simply can’t do for medical reasons, I’m guessing that most of us could easily eliminate at least 25% of the things we’re doing.
However, this is also the hardest of the three decisions because letting go is not easy whether it’s thoughts, things or relationships.
Here are a few areas to consider when you’re deciding what to eliminate.
Are there invitations you say “yes” to out of habit, like monthly meetups with a group you’ve outgrown or dinner with people who drain your energy? Perhaps you could call a “truce” on expensive birthday gifts?
Which ones are not leading you to your bigger aspirations? Are there some that are holding you back from doing what you’ve identified as mattering most? How many are things that help someone else at your expense?
You may find there are some projects you wanted to get rid of, but on reflection are actually important to your future success – then you can pursue them with greater motivation!
What’s on your plate that causes you anxiety? To what extent are you experiencing unnecessary worry and stress?
What would happen if you eliminated this “internal churn” and directed that valuable mindspace and energy to your true priorities?
Are there things you do (or do a certain way) because that’s how you’ve always done them?
Are there rituals that are unnecessary or counterproductive for you, like checking email first thing in the morning before you even get out of bed?
Who drags you down versus lifts you up? What could you do to eliminate contact with them or at least minimize their effect on you?
I once “fired” a client because I could no longer trust him (he made a statement that I passed on to my senior management, and it became a huge embarrassment when it turned out that he had lied to me). Is there someone you need to “fire” from your life?
Decision #3: What Can I Outsource?
While “eliminate” is about the fact that not everything has to be done, “outsource” is about the fact that not everything has to be done by you.
Women, especially mothers, are particularly at risk of believing that you personally need to do a whole lot more than you actually need to do. So if that’s you, pay special attention!
Resist the urge to think that you have to do every step of the work to deserve credit for the result. Of course you want to give credit to others for their contributions, but you’re past the days of proudly declaring to your parents “I did this all by myself!”
At work, you can think of this as delegating. Frankly, you can get more credit for leading a team that delivered the result or for being someone who collaborates with others instead of doing it all yourself. Plus, you’ll have preserved time to work on something else that potentially creates even more value.
What could you have delegated this past week and what would that have freed you up to do? How could you apply that to future situations?
At home, this could be outsourcing homework help (by hiring a math tutor, my friend improved her relationship with her son and he got better grades), cooking, cleaning or any number of household tasks and errands.
More broadly, some prime candidates to outsource or delegate include:
Things that many others can do, such as:
- running errands (think dry cleaning pickups, food shopping, ironing),
- household tasks (like cleaning or cooking), and
- routine tasks at work (for example, filing or making travel plans).
Things experts can do better than you can (assuming you’re not the expert), such as:
- Tax preparation
- Analyzing legal documents
- Making your PowerPoint slides look gorgeous
Things that are cheaper for others to do than doing it yourself.
Things that don’t bring you joy.
Your brain has a limited ability to make decisions, so sometimes you need to outsource them to someone else or create an automatic/default process.
When you leave it to someone else to decide, whether that’s allowing your family members to choose the vacation destination or how to implement a new program, don’t bring it back onto your plate.
And creating a default process means deciding in advance on certain routine choices that come up regularly. For example, what to wear (e.g., Steve Jobs and the black turtleneck look) and what to eat (a former CEO I know always orders Chicken Caesar Salad for lunch). While this may not result in the greatest variety, it will save you time and energy for the true priorities in your life.
You Have a Choice
Maybe you’re like my good friend, Stephen, who felt a sense of accomplishment from juggling so many tasks and keeping all the balls in the air. I’ve been like that too, but it comes at a price and it wears thin after a while.
When Stephen shared the three decisions with me, it was from painful personal experience of having to make a change.
But you have a choice. So why wait until a life-changing event forces you into making a change?
You can substantially improve your life right now by choosing to…
Which of these would help you the most if you implemented it right now?
Leave a comment and let me know.
Hi May, LOVE this blog! Elimination definitely. So many appointments, calls to make to get information, etc. I have to put ALL of it on my calendar.
A side note – when we were kids my father once said “If you put a little more effort in the B+ could be an A-“. It has long since become a family joke but your comment about doing a project at a B+ level instead of A+ really cracked me up 😆
Hi Joanne – I LOVE your comment and especially your side note. Yes, it’s great that you put ALL of it on your calendar. It’ll be even better once you’ve done the “Eliminate” step!
Thank you for this blog post as I am currently struggling with being over-committed. For me, the top two is to simplify and eliminate. Simplify would be the most ideal option to help in my need to re-prioritize but taking the time to “think” what can be simplified and then create the templates or processes to do so. It may be time consuming in the beginning but I can already imagine the benefits.
Eliminate would be the easiest to start with since it is a matter of contemplating the activity and then whether I can live without that experience. Thank you again. I am committing to moving 2-3 projects off of my plate and that could involve delegating. I am feeling motivated to start.
You are welcome, Tonya! So awesome that you are committed and feeling motivated. Looking forward to hearing how things go. I’m rooting for you!
Hi may thanks for these 3 steps it is proud moments to be associated with you i pray to god daily bless us happy friendship day
Many thanks for your kind words Yogesh!
Great blog, May! These are things to do and think about on an ongoing basis.
Thanks, Kathryn. I agree it requires ongoing focus, having just had a reminder today that I STILL need to do more SEO’ing!!!
Great blog post and love the simplicity of SEO. My company is operationalizing Lean which is principally around eliminating waste so your encouragement to “E” is not just great advice, its also consistent with a leading industry framework.
Thanks for sharing this! Yes, simple and Lean are both great.
Great advice May as always and I’am grateful for that but I can’t help thinking about the “gifted ones” (I don’t know how to call it in America) for whom multifasking is a way of life. I’m not saying it is better, all I”m saying is that it can be another effective way of handling tasks and not being bored. I know you’re writing to the “majority” but I still wonder if there’s a truth into that (for example going to walk or run to clear your head). Thanks for your thoughts.
Hi Cécile, here are my thoughts:
I agree there are many ways to live a joyful life, and some people do have greater capacity to “switch gears” and take on multiple tasks. What we don’t know is whether their results and lives would be even better if they focused on the areas of greatest importance rather than multi-tasking. In the end, we each have to figure out what suits us best and go do that.
As for going to walk or run to clear your head, in my experience this feels different than the kind of multi-tasking that reduces one’s IQ. It’s even helpful to do something repetitive that doesn’t require brain power, especially when you’re out in nature, in order to improve your creativity and clarity of thought.
Smart way to optimize life!