Identify Your Must-Do’s
What are the essential things that only you can do? In our overwhelmed and overloaded state, we often lose the ability to prioritise effectively. Simon unpacks a simple framework for pausing and identifying what matters most right now. The most effective leaders never get everything done. Instead, they identify their Must Dos and relentlessly pursue them.
Well, what’s the most important thing for you to focus on right now? If you’re in that state where there’s so many things on your to-do list and the time to get them done just feels utterly insufficient. What you might need to do is to pause for just a moment from taking the next action and to step back and do a reprioritization task. One of the problems of getting just overwhelmed and overtired is that the first thing we lose is the author Greg McEwen says, is our ability to prioritise. It’s such a good insight because it helps me understand that actually the first thing you lose when you’re tired is not your ability to do the work. Sometimes we think, oh, I’m so tired. I’m burned out. I can’t do the work. Now that happens later. That happens if you wait too long. No, what I’m really interested in is the first thing that happens to educational leaders is they keep grinding out the long hours, but they lose their ability to prioritise.
And in the exhaustion of it all, we will tend towards the lower energy tasks of clearing out our inboxes, responding to certain messages and requests because it gives us that little dose of dopamine, a sense that we’re moving forward, we’ve done the next thing. We’re digging ourselves out of this hole. But often the influx is so great that we end up getting a few of the lower-order things done, but the big things, the things that we really need to progress are overlooked for yet another month or another term. So a really simple tool that I use is a prioritisation map, and what we start to do is just think about two axes, and one of them is on the, uh, more beneficial or higher impact and lower impact relative. And the other one is, uh, on the level of urgency, uh, sooner and later.
You could just draw that up if you want one axis, the y-axis, higher impact, lower impact, and the x-axis would be sooner and later. And what you’re trying to identify is what are the things that are the on the higher potential impact and really need to be done sooner? Mind you, this doesn’t always mean that sort of the thing that’s flashing red or the thing where people are following you up, that might be their urgency, but it may not be yours. And what we ought do is start to map out and take five, 10 minutes to, to work out, okay, what are the things that are coming at me right now that are on the highest potential impact on the things I’m working on? There might be some things there that actually are not, they’re not always coming at us, they’re not always, and people aren’t interrupting us about it, but they’re unbelievably important things to do with our strategic thinking, things to do with booking and designing certain professional learning things to do with, um, work with our teams in building the professional health of our team, like unbelievable high residual impact and compounding impact.
If we can get those right, maybe some of those things also need to be done on the sooner category, and there’ll be other things that are moderate to low impact. And to be honest, they could be left, they could be pushed back into a later month into a later time. So as you start to play around with the things that are coming at you and start to consider the priorities, you can end up mapping those ideas across that matrix. And I often then create three clusters. The first cluster is what are your must-dos right now? What are your musts, the things that only you can do, the things that are essential for your task? Do you know in the coming one, two or three weeks, what are your must-dos? The second cluster, uh, you could dos, these are important. You’re gonna make a good effort to get ’em done.
You won’t prioritise any of those could-dos before you close out the must-dos. But you’re starting to say, yeah, there’s a cluster of things here. They’re important, they’re in the could dos, and then the third cluster is the probably will not do. Now, I’d use the word probably will not do because I find many leaders like you, like me, find it so hard to make that decision. Oh, I feel terrible if I don’t get to that, and I’d already committed to that. And so just, just do it as the probably will not do, and there probably will not do Category, therefore doesn’t close out the possibility that in, uh, some sort of strange miracle that occurs that you get through all the must-dos and the could dos and you have spare capacity. Sure, get to the probably will not dos, but it helps you start to realise that time and energy are limited resources and it’s very likely that you are gonna run out of both of them before you get through all of this list that’s a given.
So let’s be clear about the few things that matter most that you will get done with that limited time and energy. And the few things that you probably hope to get done that could do is in the end, you’re not gonna get it all done. So it’s better to be clear about it from the outset. And on this, the key thing that’s most important when you pause and prioritise is to try to look for some of those essential things that you need to do that may not always be popping up in your inbox or people aren’t interrupting you about, but are crucial for the long-term impact of your work. I remember when I was doing my doctoral work in the UK, I was told by my doctoral supervisor to go to a project management course, and, uh, just for the record, I don’t think it’s ever a good, uh, sign <laugh> when your doctoral supervisor says, Hey, can you take half the day off and go to a project management course?
Hint, hint, well, I went to this project management course and I remember that the leader of this course used a very English analogy to talk about identifying critical tasks that are often overlooked. And the person said, hey, if you’re making a cup of tea, what’s the first thing you need to do? And if few keen people in this course put up their hand and said, um, choose what tea you’re gonna have or take a cup out, but of course the answer is put the kettle on because the kettle is the limiting factor and will take substantial time. You’re gonna have to fill up the kettle and turn it on and wait for those few minutes. And during that time, you’ve got plenty of time to go and choose a cup and choose what tea you’re having or whatever else you’re doing. You see, the thought here is whether it’s a PhD, whether it’s a large-scale improvement project, there are things right now that need to have been turned on or that you need to act on right now because they’re gonna have long-term impacts if they’re not in place.
And in your tiredness and your exhaustion, there might be a tendency to, oh, I wonder what tea I’ll have. Oh, I’ll just, I think I’ll use this cup. Oh, let me check in the fridge if there’s any milk. And we do all these things. It’s not that we haven’t taken any action, but we’ve actually left the one thing that we’ll end up waiting for at the end if we haven’t initiated now. So have a think now about what might be on your must-do list. That’s the equivalent of turning on the kettle to be honest. It’s in your wheelhouse, it’s in your accountabilities. You need to get this in place, and yet you are busy with all the urgent things and you’re turning up to all the meetings and you’re pretty responsive on your emails, but you haven’t done that thing. And therefore six months down the track or at the start of the next term or school year, things won’t be set up on the trajectory they need to be because once again, the term just disappeared on us and we didn’t get to our essential thing.
So make a habit on a regular cadence when you’re feeling overwhelmed to put a timer on your phone, on your watch for 10 minutes and say, before I begin, what I want to do is not just complete a task, I want to look at the landscape of all the tasks in front of me and to engage in a process of prioritisation. Have a think about the things that are in front of you on your to-do list and not just on your to-do list. Probably on the extra post-it notes that are hanging around your desk. And oh, by the way, the three emails that you sent yourself last night because you were thinking about something and you were trying not to work, but you didn’t want to forget about it, so you emailed yourself. Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve been there. And just pause for 10 minutes and try to think about and the coming month, what must be in that must do list, what am I could do and what am I probably will not do? And make sure you reprioritize and reset your time and energy to progress the things that really matter over the long term.