Want to Grow Your Business? Stop Making To-Do Lists.
Don’t focus on more — focus on more of what grows your business.
7 min read
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I have a proposition for you. Stop organizing your day based on time. Think in terms of priorities, instead. Once you do, you’ll progress faster toward your business goals. Let me explain.
When you’re launching, running or trying to grow a business, every day is a hustle. Even if you, like me, aim to maintain a solid work-life balance, your schedule can fill up before you even reach the office.
For many of us, our first instinct is to create a to-do list and organize our days into neat blocks of time. We feel a sense of accomplishment the moment we strike through another item on our list.
But, as it turns out, this isn’t the most effective way to manage our workday.
For starters, most people vastly underestimate how much time a project will require, a phenomenon known as the planning fallacy. It’s the same thing that causes home renovations to take way longer than planned and entrepreneurs to fall behind on revenue projections.
Guy Kawasaki, the chief evangelist of Canva, shared his method for dealing with this all-too-common problem:
“As a rule of thumb, when I see a projection, I add one year to delivery time and multiply revenues by 0.1.”
It may come from overconfidence in our ability to get things done, but in the end, we waste valuable time on scheduling when our efforts could be redirected elsewhere.
As CEO of JotForm, I receive a dozen calendar invites every day. It might seem easier to accept every invite and plan my day accordingly — meetings, calls, events — with the rest of my work falling somewhere in between. But this approach would give short shrift to the tasks that make the biggest impact and would prevent me from entering that valuable state of flow.
That’s why I propose focusing on priorities instead, and figuring out how to achieve your personal peak performance. Here are three strategies I recommend.
1. Prioritize the essential.
The first step is identifying your priorities based on importance. We tend to focus on the most urgent tasks or on accomplishing as many things as possible. Instead, we should dedicate more to the things we care about and do them better, an idea that Greg McKeown, author of The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, calls “essentialism.”
At the same time, we shouldn’t feel bad about demoting less essential activities that ask for our time. As McKeown writes:
“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ they ask, ‘What do I want to go big on?’
Of course, as an entrepreneur, there will inevitably be times when you have to handle an urgent task right away and delegating is out of the question. And still, other times when a task falls somewhere in between, and it’s challenging to decide its level of priority.
The first quadrant is a code-red quadrant: tasks that are both urgent and important, and you should tackle the same day.
Quadrant two includes tasks that are important for the long-term, but not urgent — the things that need your personal attention, but not right away.
Tasks that are urgent but not important fall in quadrant three — perfect items for delegating to other members of your team.
Finally, activities that are neither important nor urgent fall into the fourth quadrant. You know them well: searching for another productivity app or scrolling through your Twitter feed. You should avoid fourth quadrant tasks entirely unless they become more essential in the future.
2. Identify your prime times.
The next step involves capitalizing on your natural rhythms.
All of us have ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day, including our prime times — those precious hours when our thinking is crystal clear and we do our best creative work. For me, those periods are early mornings and early evenings — that’s when I tend to work on the big-picture areas of my business that only I can do.
By scheduling our priorities during our prime times, we tackle our most important tasks when we’re on top of our game — and that’s how real progress happens.
Studies have shown that the timing of a project can have a significant impact on cognitive performance. So, if you consider yourself a “morning” person, the same project you crush at 9 am might be a struggle at 4 pm.
According to Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, 75 percent of people experience their days in three stages: a peak, a trough (aka, a lull), and a recovery period. The other 25 percent experience it in reverse: recovery, trough, then peak.
If you’re not sure when your prime times happen, try keeping a journal for a few days and recording your energy levels every hour or so. It may seem like a lot of homework, but you’d be surprised at how quickly you’ll start to recognize your natural patterns.
According to pro investor Paul Graham, there are two types of schedules: a manager’s schedule and a maker’s schedule. A manager’s schedule follows the traditional approach, with meetings and other tasks organized on an hourly basis. Makers, on the other hand, see their day in terms of projects. They stop working when they’re satisfied with their progress; not when the next meeting begins.
In an ideal world, managers and makers would work according to their preferred schedules. In the real world, we work on teams and have to coordinate our schedules with others’. And while managers and CEOs often work on manager’s schedules, creative types — designers, programmers, UX specialists, writers, etc. — tend to work on maker’s schedules.
For innovation to happen, it’s important to enable makers to thrive, even in a manager’s schedule environment.
Some entrepreneurs do that by choosing certain days for their manager schedule, that way they can dedicate whole days to creative, “maker” work.
But most of us can’t go offline for an entire day, and that’s fine. A few hours of uninterrupted work each day is usually enough. I work according to a managing schedule in the afternoon and as a maker during the first half of the day when I block in precious time for deep work. And I encourage our employees to do the same.
Reimagine your day.
When we prioritize essential activities and work according to our natural rhythms, we see results sooner. Though we can’t ditch the clock entirely, we can carve out undisturbed time to find that sacred state of flow.
Consider it a new way of tackling each day — giving ourselves permission to do the work that fulfills us, rather than just filling our hours with work.