We're all familiar with the adage "Work smarter, not harder". But what does that really mean?
For me, working smarter is all about prioritization. It's about knowing which things are musts, and which are nice-to-haves on any give day. (Because as time goes on and deadlines approach, the nice-to-haves sometimes become the musts.)
So, it's important to know what you plan to do on any given day, but it's equally important to do things in the right order on any given day. This is what I call conscious prioritization. If you have a list of things you plan to do today, and you don't think about tackling it in the right order, you may wind up at the end of the day with your nice-to haves done, but find that you didn't have time to accomplish the most important task. There are several strategies for accomplishing this:
Eat That Frog! (BEFORE You Check Email)
I'm sure you've heard this saying before, but what it means is simply to tackle the most important thing (or hardest thing, or thing you are dreading the most) first. Block 60-90 minutes in the morning BEFORE you check any messages (yes, that means email, Slack, voicemail, text, all of it!) and tackle the thing(s) that you MUST get done today. Maybe it's making headway on a big project, maybe it's your monthly client billing, but whatever it is, just wake up, and get it done.
Doing so not only ensures that your most important items are completed, it also puts you on a momentous path for the day and it relieves anxiety because now this task/project isn't looming over you all day. So, you might be thinking "fine, I get it, do the most important thing first, duh", but the really important piece here is that you are doing this BEFORE you check any messages. And why is that so important? Because it means you aren't going to be derailed by someone else's priorities. We all know how easy it is to check our messages and assume/feel that it's all so important, and urgent, and we must do it NOW. But the reality is, it can all wait 90 minutes in the morning. If someone really needs you urgently, they'll call you or track you down in person. But emergencies occur much less frequently than we think.
Prioritize Throughout the Day.
It's also important to take stock of your priorities in the middle of the day, or even a couple of times a day. I like to do this right before or after lunch. Look at your list, take stock of what you've accomplished, review what's left (and what's been added to the list in the morning), and see if your priorities for the day still make sense. If not, adjust. Just because something was the most important thing 4 hours ago, doesn't necessarily mean it is now. And if you don't adjust, you won't be as successful.
Reprioritize Things That Didn't Happen on Time (or When You Wanted Them To)
Sometimes (and let's face it, often), we don't accomplish everything we set out to do on a given day. Sometimes things take longer than expected because humans aren't great at estimating how long things will take. Sometimes there was a true emergency that derailed our plans. Sometimes we were just too ambitious to being with. Whatever the reason, if you didn't get to something, at the end of the day, you'll need to reprioritize those items.. Maybe they are still really important and you need to prioritize for first thing tomorrow. But sometimes you realize that the landscape has changed and these items are no longer top priorities and can wait. But keeping these items as "overdue" is a recipe for disaster, anxiety and guilt, and it doesn't actually help you to accomplish your goals.
Choose a Stopping Time Each Day
Ensure that you have a stopping point each day, that is prescribed in advance. This will give you a goal to strive for, it will force you to prioritize and it will ensure that you have time to disconnect and recharge at the end of the day. If we just work, work, work, we'll eventually burn out. Committing to a stopping point each day ensures that we will be recharged and ready to tackle our priorities the next day. And that we will have the presence of mind to be able to see the forest through the trees and be able to prioritize effectively.
We all have those nice-to-haves/dos that we just keep pushing off: those magazines you wanted to read but now are in a 3 foot tall stack by your bed, the items you wanted to review and categorize before donating, the list of work-related articles that exist on tabs in your browser. At a certain point, it's important to just let go of this stuff. If you aren't making time for it, it's a not a priority. Stop feeling guilty about it and let it go. Toss those magazine, close those browser tabs, drop it all of at the Goodwill in a big, unorganized bag. Sure, you'll feel a twinge of guilt, but it will be followed by a deep sense of relief.
In short, prioritization is an active process. To do it well and to do it consciously, you need to do it frequently. And when you start to prioritize consciously instead of simply doing what comes your way, you reach your goals faster, and it will all seem easier. Because you are in control.