How NOT to Choose Your Next Task

If you’re like most professionals, you work from a daily to-do list, checking off each task after you accomplish it. Ideally, you base your task selection purely on priority, value, and impact, so profitable activities like prospecting, calling clients, setting appointments, mentoring, working on new campaigns, and creating sales materials are at top your list. No doubt your daily lists also include a few lower-priority tasks such as reading blogs, checking LinkedIn, answering email, filing, and de-cluttering your desk. These items fall off the list if a sudden high-priority task emerges or if you just run out of time…right?

We all know that’s not how it always works. In today’s go-go-go sales environment, priority often gives way to expediency and distraction. It’s just so much easier to do something relatively simple and get it off your list. Plus you want to be responsive to clients, so it’s best to answer immediately, right? We all have days when we get tangled in low-priority items and other people’s dramas and don’t produce as a result. I suspect it happens more often than most of us like to admit.

To stay on track, you need a set of simple rules specifying how to choose what to work on next. Perhaps you even have such a system, as there have been countless time management experts over countless generations writing about how to prioritize. But when’s the last time you thought about how not to choose your next task? Instead of deciding what you should do next, how about not deciding—based on one of these five factors—and see what’s left?

Emotion. You can’t chose tasks based on what you feel like doing, because let’s be honest here: usually you’d much rather focus on getting your desk sparkly clean and your email empty than on making those calls and risking rejection. Often we can suddenly find a million other “very important” things to do to avoid the selling activity.

  1. Leave the housekeeping for later—if you have time. Take care of the calls first.

When the task arrives. If you’re working on a sales presentation and get an order, unless it’s a rush job, finish the job you were working on first. If you stop to process an order the instant you receive it, you’ll lose your flow. When the phone rings, and you see from the caller ID it’s likely to take 30 minutes to talk, let it roll to voicemail and call back after you’re done with the presentation. Emails don’t arrive in the inbox in priority order, so stop checking them the second they arrive. You can turn off your alerts and create a rule to play a sound when you get an email from your best client. If you interrupt yourself then, at least you know it’s worth it.

What’s up next.

Unless you’ve arranged your to-do list by descending priority, don’t pick a task just because it’s next on the list—especially if a new, more profitable task has arrived that outranks it, or another project has taken on a higher priority due to a crisis or sudden status change. Picking up a sticky note, business card, or random scrap from your desk doesn’t mean you should do it next

What you think about. When you’re working on a high-value task, don’t stop to do things your brain tells you to do. During times of focus, you’ll get random “brain traffic,” reminding you to log a conversation, make a call, or return a contract. Whatever you think about, it’s rarely an emergency, so it can wait until you finish with the first task. Instead of doing it, write the thought down, and go back to what you’re doing. You can deal with it when you finish your original task.


Who’s making the most noise. You may have a client, co-worker, subordinate, or superior who insists you work on their task right now. If it merits the rush, or the person screaming is your boss, then get right on it. Otherwise, perform the task according to your priority list. Some people have a talent for letting everything blow up into crises; but just because something’s a crisis for them doesn’t mean it’s a crisis for you. Don’t let them convince you otherwise.

You’ll face the process of choosing your next task numerous times a day. This little “don’t” guide can help you stick with your standard priorities, because sometimes a not-to-do list is just as important as a standard to-do list. Once you’ve internalized these concepts, it shouldn’t take you more than a few seconds to decide on each new task. This assumes, of course, you’ve conquered the temptation to slip in a game of solitaire or a quick chat with a co-worker over coffee first. If it’s break-time, take a break. Otherwise, push on in order to push up your productivity.

© 2013 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, Certified Speaking Professional, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, her talks have helped professionals, leaders, and teams execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the author of five bestselling productivity books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, most recently What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do. Her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy, hits bookstores in spring 201


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