Welcome to another Tidy Tuesday!

We’re now in Week 3 of Mindset Month, where we consider different ways to approach digital organization and related challenges to become more effective and successful. In the last two weeks, we covered making choices based on the fact that you can’t do everything, and then the idea that your attention is the most precious resource you have to give.

This week, we explore the idea that you can do more by attempting less—as odd as this might seem! As always, check out the Tidy ’24 Calendar to catch up on earlier topics.

Mindset Week 3: Limit Your Priorities

This week, we’re focusing on a principle that applies everywhere, not just to digital organization. But it’s essential if you perpetually have a long to-do list: limit your priorities.

Since we talked about tasks a couple of months ago and discussed some apps that help manage tasks last month, it’s worth looking at this principle specifically.

Assigning priorities to what we need or want to do is challenging. We often think of things as either urgent, must-do tasks or things we can postpone for a day, until the weekend, or until some other unknown time in the future.

Many ideas exist to help overcome this challenge. One of the more well-known tools is the Eisenhower Matrix, which provides four quadrants where tasks fit based on urgency and importance. Another is the Action Priority Matrix, which categorizes tasks based on the effort required and the impact of completing them.

While these and similar tools work well for some people, I want to focus on something other than those systems today (though you’re welcome to check them out). Instead, consider only the idea that whatever your priorities are, limit yourself to a narrow set of significant goals.

First, let me explain “significant” in this context. A significant goal probably takes more than a few minutes, maybe even a few hours, but can still be accomplished in a day. It moves you forward on a project or even completes it. It might stand alone as a single task or be part of a longer process that you’ll continue later.

Also, it doesn’t have to be objectively significant according to some measure like timephysical effort, or cost; it might be something emotionally or psychologically challenging or draining that takes only a minute but feels much more demanding than that—maybe a phone call or email about a serious topic.

The point is to make sure what you plan for yourself on a daily basis is achievable. With digital task management apps, it’s effortless to maintain a giant running list of everything you might accomplish. Having a comprehensive master list like this is helpful, but working against a list like this feels interminable and unsatisfying. No matter how much you do, there’s always more.

This is part of the human condition that none of us can escape. But we can employ tricks to help us achieve satisfying goals that motivate us to get up and do it again the next day instead of feeling like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up a hill. One of the easiest tricks is intentionally limiting our immediate goals so we can’t get distracted by hopping from one task to another.

Action Steps

As in the last couple of weeks, this week there’s only one thing for you to do:

  • Limit your priorities to three or fewer significant tasks each day. If that still seems daunting, or you particularly struggle with task-hopping or prioritizing in general, allow only one significant task for the day. Pick the single goal that you want to accomplish, and then make it happen.

It might seem counterintuitive, but allowing yourself only a tiny to-do list to focus on gives you a better chance of achieving those goals. Most of us take the opposite approach out of a sense of duty or a need to feel productive, but day after day, only achieving some (or none!) of our goals breeds discouragement and a sense of failure. Flip that model on its head. Tell yourself you’ll do exactly one thing, then celebrate when you succeed.

This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else significant or that you can’t do anything insignificant (feed the cat, water the plants, check your email, do the dishes, and so on). But if you’re like most of us, those things tend to happen anyway; putting them all on a to-do list—at least, the same to-do list as your high-priority goals—diminishes the importance and satisfaction of completing the big goals. Instead, it provides an empty sort of productivity: you feel like you did a lot but also, somehow, nothing.

Example Implementations

I do love a good task management app, and I do have a giant master list of all my projects and tasks, so the way I approach this is to set the “High Priority” flag on just a few tasks for each day. Then, I switch to a filtered view that displays only those tasks. Everything else is still there, but for most of the day, I’m presented with only my significant goals to work against.

Even this small change makes it easier to stay focused when needed. I’ll switch back to the complete list, maybe right before or right after a break, and deal with some of the faster, easier tasks as a sort of productive context shift—those things also have to get done, after all. But then I switch back to the high-priority view until I finish everything or run out of time. Then, I set new priorities for the next day so I’m ready to go when I get back to it.

If you’re more of a pen-and-paper person, you can write down the day’s priority tasks on a piece of paper or a sticky note you keep with you or refer to throughout the day to track what to work on. When all the goals on the paper are complete, you can stick it on a receipt spike and watch your accomplishments grow. (If you have a receipt spike, that is.)

Summary

To recap: your action step for Week 3 is to limit your priorities to no more than three significant tasks per day, and you can even cut that down to one significant task per day to start with.

See how it goes. If you finish with time to spare, go ahead and start on something new, or celebrate with an early break. If you can’t finish that limited set of tasks—or a single goal—in a day, that’s okay too; return to it the next day until you’re done. If a task doesn’t fit into a day, try splitting it up. Define it differently so you have four 2-hour tasks instead of one 8-hour task. The psychology of it matters. That’s the whole point of Mindset Month!

Watch how much you get done and how you feel about it. Is it more or less satisfying and motivating than what you were doing before? Let me know in the comments!

Happy data-taming!

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