What does it mean to be productive? Your knee-jerk response might be "to get more done". More being the word most people use.
If you’re finding yourself buried beneath an avalanche of tasks and responsibilities, you’re not alone. A staggering 78.7% of burnout comes from too many tasks and not enough time to get it all done.
The average employee wants to spend at least 20 hours/week on productive work, but only manages to average 11.2 hours/week. This is largely because they’re overwhelmed with 21.5 hours/week in meetings, when they ideally want to spend only 10.4 hours/week in meetings. Without proactively managing your time – you can see how easy it is to get your priorities backwards.
So if your work is piling up and everything feels both urgent and important – you’re going to have to make some tough decisions around your priorities – it's about ruthless prioritization.
What is ruthless prioritization?
Ruthless prioritization is identifying and focusing on your most important goals – while eliminating or postponing less important ones. And while tasks are one of the most important areas to prioritize for productivity, you’re not going to get far unless you take a look at all of your priorities that occupy your time.
What are the hardest things people struggle to prioritize?
- Task work
- Family time
- Personal time
So instead of trying to take everything on at once, focus only on your very best ideas for meaningful work (which is how Sheryl Sandberg defines "ruthless prioritization"). And deprioritize (or cut) the activities that aren’t aligned with these goals.
The disciplined pursuit of less
Time is our most precious resource and a finite one. Most people these days are all over the place. They have hundreds of things to do, dozens of people to please, and never enough time to get it all done.
And poor time management is often driven by unclear or undefined priorities. The key to regaining control is identifying what truly matters, and ruthlessly prioritizing nothing but that.
You need to focus on what’s most essential - the "disciplined pursuit of less". It’s about consciously and systematically choosing to do fewer things, but doing them better – the opposite of the "more is better" mentality that leads you to overcommit and overwhelm yourself
And fast-growing companies pursuing greater success and growth can actually stray from the disciplined creativity that earned them success in the first place, known as the undisciplined pursuit of more, which can actually set you up to fall. But true productivity isn't about doing more; it's about doing what you can do great. As the late Steve Jobs once said, real focus is about saying "no."
How to ruthlessly prioritize in 6 steps
So how do you decide – what are the things I can do? Let’s take a look at the 6 steps you need to take to ruthlessly prioritize a more productive and work-life balance-friendly workweek:
1. Analyze where you spend your time
The first step you’ll want to take is to track your time so you can see what you’ve been prioritizing recently – and if this actually aligns with your goals. The best place to start is a calendar audit. Here are the big things to look for:
- How many meetings did you attend this week?
- Did you have enough time available for task work?
- Did you get through all of your regular work routines?
- How often did you have to work overtime?
- Did you have enough personal time (or PTO) to relax and reset?
Even though many of us get to Friday afternoon and wonder what did I actually get done this week – we still tend to overestimate our productivity.
Manually tracking this data every week is a pain, but there are free time-tracking apps like Reclaim.ai that automatically analyze your calendar for you so you can see where you spend time every week. Get detailed breakdowns on how much time you spent towards tasks, habits, meetings, even work-life balance stats to start making better decisions about your time. They even offer anonymous and employee-friendly People Analytics to analyze productivity and track priorities across your team.
2. Set your goals (high-level priorities)
Prioritization without clear goals won't do you much good, as it leads to multitasking, relentless context switching, disorganization, and mental blocks, which wreaks havoc on your productivity.. The entire process of ruthless prioritization revolves around goals – what are all the things you want to accomplish? Well-defined goals serve as guiding stars, directing your efforts toward what truly matters and motivating you to eliminate distractions. Outline both your short-term and long-term goals, and set them in the order of priority.
While many goals will be project-oriented, it’s also important to think about your goals in terms of time management issues you want to improve. Here are the top examples of high-level goals people set for work:
- Defend more time for heads-down productive work
- Reduce my time in meetings
- Optimize my meetings around which ones are most important
- Improve my work-life balance
- Coordinate better as a team
These goals are going to drive your ruthless prioritization today – but goals and priorities change all the time, so make a habit of reviewing them regularly.
3. Outline your tasks & routines
The next step is to create a master to do list of all your individual tasks and recurring work routines. Don't worry about cutting anything out quite yet. You want a holistic view of everything on your plate.
So, if your tasks are scattered across to-do lists, notepads, email, and probably even bouncing around your head – get them organized in one place. If you’re not already using a project management app – it’s time to get one. This is the best way to centralize your task list and goal planning – and coordinate with your team.
Pro tip: include the little stuff. When you start aligning your priorities with your time, you’ll want to accurately estimate shallow work items (like catching up on email/Slack, status updates, and organizing your task list) so you can defend dedicated time for these so they don’t bleed into your productive hours.
4. Prioritize your task list
Now that you’ve consolidated and organized your tasks, it's time to start prioritizing these to your goals. The Pareto Principle (AKA the 80/20 rule), asserts that 80% of your results stem from 20% of your efforts – so you want to focus on ruthlessly prioritizing tasks that provide the highest value.
If you’re having a hard time determining what’s most important, check out the Eisenhower Matrix to identify your highest priority tasks – that are both important and urgent (from those that are not).
There are also important questions you should ask yourself when prioritizing tasks – this simple exercise will make it much easier to determine what stays and goes:
- Is this task the very best thing I can do for my work?
- Is this task essential to my work?
- What is the reward/outcome of me completing this task?
- What are my task dependencies – which do I have to complete first?
- How much time do I need for each task?
- What’s the risk or impact to my team if I don’t do this task?
Be ruthless! By the end of this exercise, you should have a concrete list of all of your tasks ordered by priority. And it’s okay if your task list is still long if it’s prioritized – but this is also a good opportunity to cut the low-value tasks (that are both not important and not urgent) from your list.
5. Time block your calendar
Congratulations, you now know your top priorities! Now it’s time to make sure they actually get done – let’s get these on the calendar. The simple act of time blocking can boost your productivity up to 80% – so you’re not only defending time for your ruthless priorities, you’re reclaiming more of your time back too.
Take a look at your calendar, and see what time you have available outside of meetings, appointments, or personal events. Pull up your task list on the side, and start blocking time for your top priorities on your calendar. As mentioned above, it’s also important to defend time for the small low-level tasks that continually interrupt your productivity throughout the day. We recommend setting 20-30 minutes in the morning and afternoon to catch up on things like email and Slack so you’re distracting yourself all day checking in.
Time blocking is a very manual task that ends up eating a lot of your time – so we recommend automating it through Reclaim.ai. This free AI productivity app connects right to your Google Calendar, and allows you to automatically time block your tasks, by priority, right in your schedule. The best part is it keeps your schedule flexible for changes, and doesn’t jam up your calendar so you’re unavailable to meet.
6. Say no
As you probably discovered in the above step, even after ruthless prioritization of your task list, you still probably don’t have time for everything you need to get done. It’s time to start saying no to things that aren’t top priority:
- Unproductive meetings
- New projects with low value
- Tasks outside of the project scope
- Work requests during personal hours
- Personal events you don’t want to do
This is the "ruthless" in "ruthless prioritization" – but it doesn’t make you a bad person. While it sucks to feel like you’re letting someone down, you can say no without belittling the priorities of the requestor. This is done by sharing context around your priorities – a simple response explaining why you can’t help at the moment – “Hey, I would love to help you out, but I have these high-priority projects on my plate that are occupying all of my time this week. Let’s add this to our planning meeting to discuss when we can get this prioritized”.
It becomes much easier to say no when your colleagues can see your priorities through your calendar. And with smart time blocking, you can say no directly through your schedule — if you don't have the time for a medium-priority task or meeting that comes in, Reclaim.ai won’t allow it to sneak into your calendar this week.
AI ruthless prioritization
There’s no doubt about it – ruthless prioritization is hard. It’s something you need to consciously enforce every single day to stay focused on your top priorities and keep low-value time wasters from creeping into your schedule. But you can save yourself a lot of time by automating your ruthless prioritization through AI.
AI calendar Reclaim.ai offers an insanely powerful prioritization system that allows you to ruthlessly prioritize everything you need to get done – all through your existing Google Calendar schedule – while maintaining the flexibility you need to stay open for collaboration in your organization. Here are some of the ways you can step up your prioritization game with AI:
- Task prioritization: Automatically schedule your tasks to your calendar in order of priority, and use an “up next” bucket to make sure your top to-dos are scheduled first.
- Habits prioritization: Create smart recurring events for routines you need to get done on a regular basis, and prioritize them against tasks and meetings on your calendar.
- Google calendar events prioritization: Set priority levels for regular Google Calendar events, such as low-priority recurring team meetings, so you can offer more availability on your calendar for urgent meetings you need to get scheduled.
- Scheduling link prioritization: Share your availability for meetings with smart scheduling links with priority levels so you can book meetings faster over lower-priority meetings you don’t necessarily need to attend.
- One-on-one meeting prioritization: Automatically find the best time for your one-on-one meetings across both attendees calendars, auto-reschedule around conflicts and PTO, and prioritize which meetings to schedule first.
With the ability to set a priority level for everything on your calendar – you can finally take back control of your time and keep your schedule oriented around only the stuff that matters. Teams are able to focus on goals, team members can better understand each other's priorities, and you can say no to low-value time wasters that pull you away from your important work.
Start ruthlessly prioritizing today
We all know time is the most precious resource we have – and it’s too valuable to waste. Get started with ruthless prioritization today, and bring the concept back to your team so everyone can realign their time to the most important priorities they need to focus on at work.
By cutting the unimportant stuff from your schedule, you can get more done every week and reach the high-priority goals you need to achieve faster than ever before. Remember – ruthless prioritization is a mindset you need to adopt every day – don’t fall back into bad habits of allowing unnecessary tasks and meetings to creep into your schedule.
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