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The Free-Time Formula: 'Your 'priorities' are making you less productive'

We can truly only ever do one thing at a time, and in any given moment we only have one task that is at the top of the list, writes Jeff Sanders.

Jeff Sanders Author

ON MOST DAYS my task manager displays anywhere from five to twenty-five different tasks that I have scheduled for myself. For years I thought of these tasks as a list of priorities, but a few years ago I threw out that term.

My guess is that you have a dozen or more individual tasks to complete on most days. But how many of them are must-dos? How many absolutely have to get done today?

Most importantly, how many of those tasks would you qualify as priorities?

Priorities do not exist

In Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he points out that our use of the word “priorities” is a modern invention and it does not make any sense. “The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and start talking about priorities”.

In other words, we have misconstrued and abused a simple word. We think we have two, three, or twelve priorities at any given time when in actuality we only have one because we can never have anything else.

Our misuse of the word priority is backfiring on us and causing a wave of overwhelm in our already busy lives.

Your “priorities” are making you less productive

Having more than one priority is a lie. Every time you use the plural form of that word you are lying to yourself about what matters in the present moment.

We can truly only ever do one thing at a time, and in any given moment we only have one task that is at the top of the list. We may have many tasks we would like to accomplish over the course of the next twenty-four hours, but only one task is the supreme task right now.

When you view your to-do list as a collection of priorities you are trying to live in two worlds at the same time: the present moment with one important task and a future moment with another.

Because our brain can only consciously do one thing at a time, we end up switching back and forth between ideas. This is the plight of multitasking and why it makes sense to use focused blocks of time (distraction-free time with a singular purpose) to ever do anything important.

Living in two worlds is exhausting, overwhelming, and only makes us more stressed out. What happens when you imagine a huge project, a long task list, or an overstuffed calendar?

This may be your reality every day, and if so, it is mayhem. It is undeniably overwhelming to imagine doing a hundred things at the same time, let alone deciding which one to do first.

Five questions to assess your task list for today

Go ahead and get out your to-do list for today. Look at it closely and ask yourself these five key questions:

1. Are there any tasks on the list that I already know could be eliminated forever?
2. Are there any tasks on this list that I already know could be rescheduled for another day?
3. How many of these tasks are due today and could not be rescheduled without a phenomenal effort on my part?
4. Are there any tasks on this list that could be quickly and reasonably delegated to someone else?
5. If I had to pick just ONE task on this list to accomplish today, which one would it be?

What amazes me is that when I analyse my task list using these five questions, I always find many ways to simplify the chaos. I always end up deleting unnecessary tasks, rescheduling projects for another day, and clearing up a lot of needed margin so that I can maintain my sanity and sense of presence throughout the day.

Jeff Sanders is the author of The Free-Time Formula: Finding Happiness, Focus, and Productivity No Matter How Busy You Are. He is a keynote speaker, productivity coach, personal development fanatic, plant-based marathon runner, and author of The 5 AM Miracle. On a mission to help you dominate your day, he speaks on how to form powerful lifelong habits, bounce out of bed with enthusiasm, and tackle your grandest goals with extraordinary energy.

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