First Things First


For many people, the hardest part of getting organized is deciding what’s most important. Procrastinators are sometimes paralyzed by the fact that they simply don’t know where to start on a project. It’s easier to get started on what you enjoy, or what’s in front of you, instead of working on what’s most important.

Julie Morgenstern is the founder and owner of Task Masters, an organizing firm based in New York City. She’s written a handful of New York Times best sellers, including Making Work Work: New Strategies for Surviving and Thriving at the Office. Her advice to help you figure out what’s most important is the same whether you work for yourself or for an employer: work as close as you can to what she calls “the revenue line.”

Morgenstern defines the revenue line as the point where you’re actually making money or saving money. In a business, delivering product or service to a customer is one step from the revenue line, as is billing, since that’s how you get paid. Presenting at a conference to build your reputation, writing marketing materials or a blog post might be two steps from the revenue line. Filing and doing expense reports might be three steps away. You get the picture.

In your job search, you’ll want to do the things that get you closer to your own version of the revenue line; we’ll call it the “job offer line.” Applying for jobs, making follow up calls after interviews, and editing your resume for specific positions gets you closer to the job offer line. Meeting people in the industry and attending workshops to improve your skills is a step away. As you plan your day, consider organizing your tasks not by what you enjoy doing most, but by what gets you closer to your next offer.

As you prioritize what to do next, think about your tasks in terms of how much time you should invest and what the payoff will be. Long time to perform a task plus a small payoff means that you should probably work on something else instead. Morgenstern suggests that you focus on “the joy of completion” to motivate you to start something that feels daunting. It works for me when I have to tackle something I don’t enjoy. Instead of dwelling on how much I dislike the task, I focus on how good it will feel when I’m done. I may even plan a reward for finishing: a walk around the block or a piece of chocolate.

If you’re still stuck on where to start, it may be that you have confused a project for a task. Many people make the mistake of putting a giant project on a to-do list as a single item: Do Taxes, for instance. Because it’s such a big job, you might be putting off getting started. The secret is to break down the project into a series of doable tasks. Your task list might look like this:

  • Sort receipts into categories (medical, business, charitable donations)
  • Make sure all W-2s and 1009 forms are received and in order
  • Download the new version of Turbo Tax

By breaking down the project into tasks that are specific and short, you can start to “Swiss cheese” the project. Prioritize the tasks based on how much time you have right now, or by which tasks will hold up the whole project (request another copy of a missing receipt or form that may hold up the process, for example.)

Morgenstern also suggests that when you do the most important things first, you get some breathing room for the rest of the day. Not only will you have done the big things early, when you have the most energy, but you don’t have to worry as much when interruptions or emergencies intrude later in the day (and they will.)  When you finish dealing with the crisis, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that the critical items are already done and what’s waiting for you on the other side is the easy stuff. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did the first things first.

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One thought on “First Things First

  1. Pingback: Making Work Work « @work: a career blog

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