by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
How to accomplish important things, no matter what
We all have 24 hours in a day. But not all of us use this limited time effectively.
Too many times we leave our health at the bottom of our to-do list, especially because it isn’t urgent. For example, moving your body today isn’t urgent, but it matters if you want to do things on your own when you are much older, like crossing the street.
Eating your 5 a day isn’t required for you to stay alive right now, but it’s important to reduce your risk of disease in the long run. Stress won’t kill you today, but if sustained over a period of time it can severely shorten your lifespan.
So what can we do about this? Is it possible to manage your time to live healthily and yet handle urgent commitments?
You can start by applying two simple strategies that will help you prioritise and be more productive:
1. Finish something important today, no matter what
Biologically, our brains are wired to deal with urgency first. This came in handy thousands of years ago from a survival perspective, when escaping the lion was more critical than gathering food for the winter or building a family shelter.
Emergencies and rush tasks tend to accumulate as your day goes on. This creates a permanent competition for your attention:
– Important things – profitable work, moving your body, or completing a course you’ve signed up for (!)
– Urgent things – paying bills, answering your phone or opening mail.
Important things allow you to grow and evolve, both personally and professionally. Urgent things, on the other hand, allow you to “get by” and stay safe. Because it’s easier to justify actions that demand an immediate response, we often postpone the important and more meaningful things.
An effective strategy to counteract this tendency to postpone what matters most to you is to ask yourself: “What’s the single most important thing I want to get done today?” Note that we’re talking about the most important (not urgent!) thing that you ultimately want (not need!). Once you answer that question and establish your priority: Do it today, no matter what.
Let’s use H2O as an example. Not everybody hydrates as well as they could, but if you force yourself to have a big bottle of water with you, you’ll make time for it. If you don’t, you’ll feel the effects much later on (dehydration) which takes a while to rebuild. It may not be urgent, but it’s certainly important.
Moreover, having accomplished something important will also make you feel much better about yourself. And you’ll benefit from that in the longer term (better well-being).
2. Turn off all distractions
Revolutions in technology haven’t reduced our number of tasks, but actually created more! Emails, text messages and virtual networks make it really hard to accomplish the important things.
How this affects the body: The same dopamine circuit that triggers addiction is fuelled by interactive screens – they exert some form of hypnotic power over us. If you thought you were in the only one feeling there’s something irresistible about an unopened email or message, you’re not alone.
Take for instance social media. “I’ll quickly check my Facebook,” but an hour later you’re still there and you’ve lost track of time and the opportunity to spend that on the important things.
According to Harvard’s Dr Ned Hallowell, it’s estimated that out of every hour we spend at least 20 minutes dealing with unplanned interruptions.
That is one third of our valuable time!
Not to mention that it takes an enormous amount of energy to: a) pick things up from where you’ve left, and b) re-establish your focus. Like airplane fuel, most of it is used during the takeoff. Frequent distractions can deplete your takeoff fuel. The result? You lose your rhythm, do things half way, and end up stressed.
A proven way to deal with this problem is to block out sufficient time to complete what you want to achieve today (e.g. a work project or a course lesson). Put your phone in a drawer on silent mode and close your email, Facebook and Twitter. This way you create a continuous flow of uninterrupted efficiency, reduce stress levels and you’ll end up having a far more productive day.
(Bonus Tip: Just make sure that you build in enough time for breathers; it’s also proven that short breaks increase overall productivity!)
Whenever you’re presented with a task, ask yourself: Is this urgent OR is this important?
Invest your time wisely and get the maximum return from your limited hours. Don’t spread yourself too thin and make sure to accomplish something today, no matter how small or big that is.
The cumulative impact in the long term can be enormous and highly rewarding.