The Secret to Prioritizing Your Time

How to stay focused on meeting your business and career goals and dispense with all the noise.

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By Steve Tobak

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I'm not a big believer in reading about other people's work habits. That's probably why I rarely write about mine. I mean, just because something works for me doesn't mean it'll work for you, right?

Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not talking about those rare business insights that bring complex concepts into focus and really help you up your game. I'm talking about individual methodologies that offer marginal improvement, at best.

For example, you do need to learn how to prioritize your work and make effective use of your time. But spending precious hours reading how everyone and his brother does it in search of some sort of holy grail of personal productivity is really just a waste of time.

I say find a logical system that works for you and go with it. Then you can get back to the business of, well, whatever it is you do to make money. You know, like developing and marketing products, performing services for customers, advancing your career, that sort of thing.

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Long ago, I learned a way of prioritizing that's so simple, so logical, so useful, so obvious, it makes me wonder why everyone doesn't just get off the whole dumb personal-productivity and time-management bandwagon and just get back to work.

This system has done a remarkable job of keeping me focused on generating results while keeping me away from frivolous activities and wasteful pursuits that tend to marginalize even the most well-intentioned and achievement-oriented workers.

Here's how it works. I prioritize everything as A, B or C, as follows:

Priority A: Critical things. Anything that has to be done right away or something important will go terribly wrong.

Priority B: Business as usual. Everything you have to do to meet your short- and long-term business and career goals.

Priority C: Everything else. Busy work, organizing, wants (as opposed to needs), nice to haves, and goofing off (95% of what you do online).

I spend all my time on B-list activities, except for Priority A interrupts, which come up from time to time and always go to the top of the priority list. And I never start on C-list activities until all the B work is done which, for the most part, is never.

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That's the beauty of the system. You actually never get to the Priority C tasks. In fact, this system forces you to be very clear on your goals because anything that doesn't play a significant role in helping you achieve them gets pushed to the C list.

Now, I should probably tell you that I classify a lot of things as Priority B that aren't necessarily obvious. To me, activities such as schmoozing, networking, meeting with stakeholders and customers face-to-face, and management by walking around, have always been important to meeting my business and career goals.

Everything else, I simply forget about. The funny thing is, you never end up missing the C stuff. In fact, nobody ever does.

Using this basic system, all the mission critical work always gets done in a timely manner. Of course, if you're a hard-working overachiever like me, you sometimes have to work longer hours to get things done. But that just comes with the territory. Besides, if it's not super critical (Priority A), there's always tomorrow.

I should also mention that you shouldn't be spending more than roughly 25 percent of your time on Priority A interrupts. If you are, that means you're not organized, managing or planning effectively. Nobody is productive in constant-interrupt mode.

Over 30 years in engineering, sales, marketing, executive management, and running my own management-consulting firm, that's the way I've done things and it's always worked out fine. I've had a successful career, met all my commitments, and built a reputation as someone who always gets the job done.

Most importantly, when I'm done working for the day, I feel good. I don't feel stress or anxiety about all the things I haven't gotten done because I know I've set my priorities right and done the best job I can. As for all the Priority C work I never get to, to tell you the truth, I'd rather go out and have fun instead.

Related: 9 Reasons Why Most Startups Fail

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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