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Commentary: How to prioritise your to-do list in the stressful fog of competing demands

Don't get lost in the weeds of distraction, says Financial Times' Emma Jacobs.

Commentary: How to prioritise your to-do list in the stressful fog of competing demands

A focused man working on a sticker-covered laptop in a coffee shop. (Photo:Unsplash/Tim Gouw)

LONDN: Are you in a mental fog, the result of a hundred competing demands on your attention? You just need to focus — but on what?

Finding a way to make the right choices in the right order has become something of an obsession for many stressed workers.

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed, says that when we are deluged by work, we tend to get tunnel vision, “limiting your ability to see clearly or make wise choices”.

“Your cognitive bandwidth can literally only focus on what is directly in front of you; the emergency that’s sprung up at work, the sludge flowing out of the inbox, all the meetings that have popped up on your calendar.”


Overload is exacerbated by the blurred division between work and home life. Julie Morgenstern, productivity expert and author of Never Check E-mail In The Morning, says her clients find they have barely tackled their to-do list by the end of the working day, and end up doing them at home facilitated by technology.

“They are so tired that their mornings are collapsed.” They might sneak in a few domestic tasks while in the office to make up for it, she adds.

This “blurriness” between home and work life is “very depleting”, says Ms Morgenstern, putting people in a perpetual state of catch-up and reaction mode.

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Flat structures and organisations’ lack of attention to employees’ ability to manage their workload can add to the overload.

A report by McKinsey said that “the myth of infinite time is most painfully experienced through the proliferation of big strategic initiatives and special projects ... The result is initiative overload: projects get heaped on top of day jobs”.

In addition, many people are confused about their roles, says David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. When there is ambiguity about roles or strategy, it is easy to get lost in the weeds of distraction.

A man in an office. (Photo: Pixabay/StockSnap)

He describes it as the “stress of opportunity”, pointing out that if you “caught on fire you would not have any problems deciding on your priorities”.

People prefer to do things rather than think about why they are doing them, says Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus: How to Work Less to Achieve More:

Busyness makes us feel important. 

In fact, he says, regardless of your position in the hierarchy or job, very few tasks are “important”.


Research into emergency doctors’ workload found that “under conditions of increased workload individuals may choose to complete easier tasks in order to manage their load”. The researchers called this task completion bias.

In the short-term (one hospital shift), doctors seemed to be more productive, by seeing more patients. Yet they were more likely to put off harder tasks. Doctors with a less demanding workload were likely to take on more complicated cases.

Bradley Staats, associate professor of operations at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina, says it is important to identify patterns in the way employees organise their work:

There may be a time when it really is better to take on the easier task, as we do need the break, and that will give us the boost we need to then do the harder work.

In another study he found that radiologists reorder their queue of tasks in unproductive ways. 

“The broader point here is that we often make suboptimal choices in how we do our work without realising it. As well as looking at the complexity and volume of tasks, systems (including IT tools) may be useful in making recommendations.”

(Photo: Unsplash/Annie Spratt)


Relentless pursuit of the perfect prioritisation tool can itself become a means to procrastinate.

The popular Eisenhower Matrix, for example (created by former US president Dwight Eisenhower and cited in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), divides tasks into quadrants — do, plan, delegate and eliminate.

“The thing about productivity is everyone is wired differently”, says Mr Bailey. “Some people are chief executives and some are admin assistants. I don’t think there is one thing that works well for everyone.”


When you are unable to see clearly, stop to think and clarify your goals, every list maker knows that writing down tasks helps to clear the fog. Research has shown that making a plan to return to a task at a later date stops the brain becoming preoccupied with it.

As the study’s authors put it, “The unconscious knows how and when to act, and so in a sense the uncertainty of the unfinished task is resolved”.

Ms Morgenstern asks clients to identify a goal in their working life — perhaps to get a promotion or to be a good team member. Then they name the activities that will help them achieve that goal.

This, she says, is “grounding” and gives you a methodology to prioritise: Does this activity get me to my goal? — if not, do not do it.

(Photo: Unsplash/Dane Deaner)

She explains how to handle situations where your intentions could be derailed. “Someone asks you to do something that doesn’t get you to that goal, but you don’t want to be a jerk. You have to ask yourself, ‘If I say yes to this, what am I saying no to?’”

She suggests you explain that you are saying no because of other priorities. “If you do have time, say ‘you happen to have caught me in a rare moment, I am happy to help you now’. This sets expectations that normally you cannot, and will not, be pulled into future indiscriminate requests.”

Most people, she acknowledges, have jobs that are mainly reactive, such as sales or being a doctor. Often, “you can’t fill your day with your own stuff and hope that nobody bothers you”.

She suggests trying to study how much time you can control and focus on your priorities in that proportion of the working week.

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Email and workplace collaboration tools such as Slack should be looked at in batches, she says: 

Don’t continually process. Checking every seven minutes is completely inefficient.


Others have different methods of strategising priorities. Neuroscientist and author of The Organized Mind Daniel Levitin goes for an old-fashioned method. He carries 3-inch by 5-inch index cards everywhere, and writes down ideas about projects under way and things to do on the cards.

He sorts them into order of priority before he goes to bed, then again when he wakes up and makes adjustments. “It dramatically increases my focus and reduces mind wandering while I’m working.” Between five and 10 cards is the optimum. If there are any more he puts them in a “later” or “abeyance” pile.

Mr Bailey works by a “rule of three”. At the start of the day he asks himself what three things he would like to accomplish by the end of the day. He does this every day, every week and every year. He does point out, however, that most people need to do more than three things a day to keep their jobs.

Elizabeth Emens, author of Life Admin: How I learnt to Do Less, Do Better, and Live More, examines her priorities each week, dividing them under various roles (parent, individual, writer, teacher, academic) before deciding which of those needs prioritising.

She also suggests pairing up with someone else to talk through tasks and figure out priorities. They can hold you accountable — although it might be demoralising if you do not achieve as much as your admin partner.

Source: CNA/sl


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