How To Find Your Priorities (and Stop Working Overtime)

The hour hand is creeping towards 5pm, but your to-do list is only a little over halfway done.

The day’s been one never-ending chaos train as emails, impromptu meetings, and emergency tasks are thrown at you. Some of it can wait until tomorrow, but there’s still that one – let’s face it, two – major tasks that have to be done today.

Looks like you’ll be working late again.

Working overtime is a big problem – particularly for salaried workers who don’t get extra pay. If the above scenario sounds familiar, you may be one of the 50% of full-time workers who typically work more than the standard 40-hour work week.

But while working overtime can result in a small boost in productivity, it doesn’t work in the long-term, as Geoffrey James writes for Inc. So why do we do it?

Partly it’s cultural. If those in management come early and stay late, we feel like we have to, too – even if it doesn’t result in actually accomplishing more work. Or, an organizational lack of priorities and systems can create constant emergencies that force employees to stay late or work weekends.

But partly it can be a lack of priorities on your part. Yes, there will always be chaotic emergencies, but if you’re not scheduling your time effectively you could be working longer hours than you need to be.

Do you have clear priorities?

Without clear priorities, facing the daily to-do list is a daunting challenge. Every item on it will seem just as important, and each request throughout the day will cause you to drop everything to meet it.

When your priorities are crystal clear, it’s much easier to identify the day’s most important tasks and organize yourself accordingly. You can weigh incoming requests against your priorities, and instantly know whether it’s worth breaking your stride to accommodate them.

But what should those priorities be? Ideally, they’re those core responsibilities that help your organization fulfill its mission. Go back to your original job description, and talk with your manager and your team members to get their take.

What are the core responsibilities listed? Which responsibilities best support your team? Which are best aligned with your career plan?

Which can only you do?

Realign your time with your priorities

Once you know what you should be focusing on, you need to make time for it.

Before you can figure out how to spend your time in the future, you need to know where it’s going today. I use Toggl to keep track of my time throughout the day. I track big projects, as well as time spent on emails, procrastination, and house work so I can get an accurate view of how much of my day I spent working, and how much I spent “working.”

I also find it valuable to see how often I’ve switched tasks throughout the day. The days when I’m at my most productive, unsurprisingly, often just have large swaths of time devoted to one task. The days when I feel frazzled often have snippets of tasks scattered throughout the day.

Looking at this time map can give you valuable insight into what your priorities currently are. Are you spending the bulk of your time on the parts of your job only you can do? Or is the bulk of your time spent on stuff that’s not so important in the long run?

If you want to get really serious, map your tracked time against your productivity heat map to see if you’re using your body’s natural productivity rhythms to your advantage.

Put your priorities first

If you’re finding that much of your workday is spent on tasks unrelated to your main priorities, it’s time to prune those away.

Are there meetings you don’t need to be a part of? Is your email inbox eating up your day? Are you constantly being interrupted when you get into a flow?

Have you slowly accreted tasks that were never part of your job description? It may be time to talk to your manager about redistributing some of them to someone that makes more sense.

When you’re scheduling your day, make sure your priorities get the bulk of your time, energy, and creativity. There will always be interruptions and chaos, but if your priorities are in the right place, it’ll be that much easier to clock out with a good conscience at the end of the day.

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