THE BLOG
05/07/2013 12:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2013

Prioritizing for Productivity

Have you noticed that solopreneurs and small business owners everywhere are talking about being overwhelmed these days? Whether it's due to being "caught up" in email or social media, not knowing how to find your niche market, or doing all the mundane, routine tasks for your business yourself, everyone knows what it feels like to be overwhelmed. And everyone knows, whether consciously or subconsciously, that being overwhelmed is the mortal enemy of productivity.

What does it mean to be productive? In business, it means "yielding or furnishing results, benefits, or profits." If our thoughts and actions in our businesses are random, then the results and benefits that we generate will be random. If we flit from one task to another or allow the phone and email to distract us from a given task, we burn valuable mental and physical resources that diminish our capacity to produce results efficiently and effectively. If we work diligently and effectively on a given project or task but the result does not align with our goals, then we have wasted our time and energy. In all the aforementioned scenarios, our ability to turn a profit will be directly or indirectly minimized.

Each of these situations can be avoided if we learn to prioritize. Put simply, this means deciding what merits our attention first. (Of course, this implies good decision making ability, which is a topic for another blog post!)

I teach that business owners should prioritize from the "top down" rather than from the "bottom up." If we begin our prioritization efforts at the level of our business goals and determine which of them is most important to pursue first, then we will naturally make better decisions about selecting projects that will move us toward that most important goal. If we then look at all the projects that we might accept with that goal in mind, we can decide which project will move us toward it most rapidly and with the least effort. Finally, we can prioritize the tasks that are required to complete the project that we have chosen. These decisions will be based on whether tasks need to be done in sequential order, the amount of time that each task requires, and the type of energy that we need to bring to each task.

There are many reasons that the prioritization of tasks can overwhelm us. We may have scheduled more tasks than we can reasonably accomplish in a day. We may begin the day with a perfectly conceived to-do list, only to be blindsided by something mid-morning that throws our entire day off track. We may have multiple tasks of seemingly equal importance and be unable to decide which one to do first.

There are four simple, yet important questions that we can ask ourselves about each task to resolve the issue of "What should come first?":

• Which tasks are critical to the success of my project?
• Which ones are important, but not critical?
• Which ones are optional?
• Does working on this task help me or hinder me in completing my project or achieving my goal?

Critical tasks are those without which your project will fail. Important tasks are those that will help you complete your project, but can be "worked around" if you are not able to perform them. Optional tasks are the "icing on the cake" -- those things that will add a touch of class, reinforce your brand or otherwise make you memorable (in a positive way) for your clients and colleagues, but are in no way required for completion of the project.

It would seem obvious that we should work on the critical and important tasks first, yet we cannot do so if we do not classify our tasks in this manner. To rectify this situation, what we need is a plan. Taking the time to reflect on each project that we undertake, look at the resources that we need and identify where and how we can access them, and schedule the time required to complete the project will eliminate most of the uncertainty that otherwise arises when we create our to-do list every day.

As much as possible, we should also plan to complete one project at a time rather than divide our time among multiple projects. The project that we finish can then begin to yield revenue while we begin working on the next one. If we divide our time among multiple projects, it is likely that we will take longer to finish all of them and therefore take longer to generate revenue from any of them. With this in mind, we can select the project that is likely to bring in the greatest yield the most quickly and prioritize the tasks that will allow us to complete this project first.

The fourth question may seem counter-intuitive, but it is a very important question to ask. Every business owner has non-project-related tasks to complete in her business. These include bookkeeping and invoicing, Web site maintenance, and filing, among other routine activities. These tasks must be completed but they take precious time away from tasks that support marketing activities and revenue-generating projects. If you find that you are spending more time on routine tasks than on finding and serving clients, I strongly recommend that you create an OP plan -- outsource or postpone -- for these tasks. They are rarely urgent and can generally be scheduled for a defined, limited time during the work week. If they are complex or numerous -- or if you simply dislike doing them -- then make it a business priority to find someone to do them for you.

We must always remember that even the best prioritization is worth nothing if we do not take action and complete the tasks and projects that we have identified as being important for our businesses! So my challenge to you is to look at your agenda for today, identify the two tasks that will have the most impact on your business, and complete them before the day is done. Even if you don't achieve anything else today, you will have made real, tangible progress in moving your business forward. Share your two tasks in the comment box below and tell us how you feel when you've accomplished them and scratched them off your to-do list!

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