Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar…
You get into work early, planning to get through a TON of work and have an amazingly productive day, so that you can head home (at a reasonable time) with an immense sense of satisfaction about how much you’ve achieved.
You arrive at your office.
And then you open your emails.
And the next thing you know, it’s mid-morning and you are still responding to emails, having completed nothing else since you arrived at 7:30am.
Sound familiar? Yep, it happens to everyone. Maybe for you personally it’s phone calls or meetings instead of emails, but the general pattern is the same – it isn’t until lunchtime or so that you actually have the ‘head space’ to start thinking about what else you need to get done. And by then you’re tired or hungry, or feeling anxious about the fact that half of the day is already gone.
So here’s the good news.
One simple adjustment to your everyday routine can change ALL of this.
All you need to do is implement ONE of the key actions recommended by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work and director of the NeuroLeadership Institute.
Start prioritising prioritising
That’s it. Simple, huh? If you want to become more productive at work, then from now on start each and every working day by prioritising prioritising.
What exactly do I mean by that? Well, upon starting work for the day, before you do anything else at all – spend some time identifying and mapping out your key priorities for the day.
Here’s why. As David Rock explains in Your Brain at Work, prioritising is actually one of the most mentally taxing activities that your brain can perform. In fact, he refers to prioritising as the “triathlon of mental tasks”.
The majority of difficult and complex thinking tasks are performed by a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex – a small area in the front of the brain just behind your forehead. What most people don’t realise is that the capacity of the prefrontal cortex is significantly limited, meaning that it essentially runs out of ‘fuel’ very quickly.
And put simply, using this ‘fuel’ to perform tasks that require a lot of attention (but aren’t all that complex or difficult) is a waste. Especially as ‘refuelling’ isn’t that easy – over the course of the day this part of your brain only becomes more and more tired, and less effective. For most people, the prefrontal cortex functions most effectively in the morning, after waking from sleep (and perhaps downing a coffee or two!).
So the upshot is this – ideally, you should aim to use your brain ‘fuel’ wisely by starting your day with the hardest, most mentally challenging and complicated tasks. One of which is prioritising.
And if you think about it, spending 10 or 20 minutes identifying your key priorities will also help to ensure that you spend the rest of the day productively, by focusing on what’s important. So as well as being supported by neuroscientific research, this approach just makes good sense, right?
The common mistake that most people make
Making this shift might require a change in habit – especially if like most people, you start your day by knocking off the quickest, easiest items on your ‘to-do’ list – which in many cases involves responding to emails.
To make this shift, you will definitely need to avoid this temptation.
That is, DO NOT start your day by checking your emails, reading the news, browsing your favourite blog, or chatting with colleagues about what happened in yesterday’s staff meeting. Basically, don’t start your day by performing ANY task that is fairly ‘automatic’ in nature and doesn’t require a whole lot of brain power.
Instead, make the most of that optimum brain power and work out what really needs to go on today’s “to do” list.
And after that, use up all of your remaining brain ‘fuel’ to get started on the most mentally challenging task you’ve identified as important on today’s priority list.
If you want to learn more about the science supporting this advice, read David Rock’s Your Brain at Work.