Get it Out of Your Mind to Prioritize and Focus

Some online articles suggest that busy professionals have an average of 200 hours of uncompleted work at any one time. Wow! Adding to that are the commitments we make in our personal lives (including managing a busy household), so it’s no wonder we can’t prioritize and focus.

“If you think unruly and unfocused committees in your company or your community can be a frustrating waste of time, try the one in your head.” ~ David Allen

I bet many of you store a list of your tasks and responsibilities somewhere in the recesses of your brain. The trouble with using your brain as a storage device is that it doesn’t know when you should or shouldn’t be doing things. In fact, your brain might tell you that you ought to be doing something at the worst possible time – maybe during an important discussion at work or (even worse) while trying to sleep at night.

Productivity experts like David Allen adamantly believe there is only one way to maintain your sanity and accomplish your most important tasks. Their suggestion is to use a system that is outside of your brain. The system needs to be bulletproof, as he calls it, in order for you to remain focused and engaged.

Five Steps to Prioritize and Focus

Allen identifies five phases of managing action:

  1. We COLLECT what we might or might not have to act on or pay attention to.
  2. Then we PROCESS it and decide what that action is.
  3. Next, we ORGANIZE the results into one of three categories:
    • act on it now
    • refer to it later
    • hold onto it for some other time
  4. At some point, we REVIEW what we’ve organized, and then eventually we…
  5. DO one or more of those actions.

The problem is that many of us attempt to use our brains for all these phases of action management. We collect information all day through requests from others, email, text messages, social media, and even self-interruptions. Then, we try to process whatever we can as quickly as possible to get it off the list. Much of the organization takes place in our brain (instead of a system), so we usually respond to the “latest and loudest inputs,” Allen says.

Therefore, the review process is incomplete, as we can only remember small portions of what we should be doing at any one time. As a result, we often default to doing the easiest things on our list instead of the most important in an attempt to stop the constant busy signals in our brains.

What’s the answer to this dilemma?

Well, the bad news is that you must set up a reliable collection system and use it every day, throughout the day. Whether it’s a single trusted notebook or an electronic list, capture the tasks or ideas into your system as soon as they enter your brain. Then, review that collection system daily and again in more detail once a week.

pen and notebook on desk beside plant representing a way to capture your thoughts to prioritize and focus

Once your system is in place, you will complete the important, priority tasks first, which will give you a feeling of being productive and in control at home and at the office.

What have you found helpful in keeping track of everything in your brain?

Leave a comment