Do you do your most important work first?

Late Friday morning, our Internet connection bit the dust. A tree in the forest behind our house decided it no longer had the will to live and fell over, uprooting and destroying our FiOS line with it.

Conveniently, the tree fell minutes after I had finished my “must complete these tasks or lose my job” items on my to-do list. I had a lot of work left to do in the day, but all of it could wait until the connection was re-established or until I made it to the local coffee shop that has free WiFi.

While I was driving to the coffee shop, I thought about how getting the most important work out of the way first saved me a great deal of frustration. Had I put off the most important work, I would have been angry and stressed and worked into a frenzy about nature simply being nature. Instead, I was more entertained than anything else. A dead tree took out my connection — possibly the best reason ever for losing service.

I structure my day by doing the most important tasks first. This means I sit down at my computer and start writing before checking e-mail, Twitter, voice mail, or even comments on Unclutterer. If I’m at my desk at 6:00 a.m., I won’t get to the other tasks until usually 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. These other activities are a reward for getting through the high priority assignments.

When I leave work at the end of the day, I’ll often open up the most important task for the following day and place it at the center of my screen. (I learned this tip from Glen Stansberry, I would like to note.) Then, when I sit down to work in the morning, I can immediately start on what I need to do.

How do you structure your work day? Do you get your most important tasks completed first thing in the morning? Or, do you procrastinate and put off the hard work hoping that maybe it will just go away? Tell us how you structure your work and what works best for you in the comments.

45 Comments for “Do you do your most important work first?”

  1. posted by Kathryn on

    It depends on how my deadlines are stacked up. If I need to work on something “first thing” to meet an a.m. deadline, then I will do so. But otherwise, I prefer to spend the first couple of hours of the morning doing recreational surfing and small work-related tasks like e-mails and invoicing, because I’m also responsible for making sure my kids are up, ready, and off to school on time. I’ve got some ADD issues, and if I get locked in on “real work” I tend to shut everything else out. I try to focus my more efforts in the “sweet spot” when I’m in the house by myself.

    One important thing I’ve learned about my work/brain flow is that if I get a small task (less than an hour) that’s due the next day, it’s best to just do it right away, if I can possibly spare the time depending on my other commitments. I’ve never, ever blown a deadline on a large project requiring several hours to several days’ worth of work. It’s the 30-minute jobs that I’ve occasionally been known to lose sight of!

  2. posted by gypsy packer on

    I’m a night person working a day job, so mindless tasks are scheduled early and late, with tasks requiring attention scheduled after 11 AM and before 3 PM.

  3. posted by ami | 40daystochange on

    I don’t do the most important thing first – but I wish I did! My situation is similar to Kathryn’s in that I’m responsible for getting the kids ready for school (and the animals fed and the coffee made, etc), and it’s hard to settle down after that to focus on the most important thing. I’d be interested to know if many people – esp. those who work at home – get up hours earlier than the rest of their family in order to tackle the biggest thing(s) before the chaos.

  4. posted by Barbara Tako | Clutter Clearing Choices LLC on

    I try to structure my tasks based on my own personal priorities. Life circumstances, personalities, preferences, stage of life, and personal style all come into play for each of us in how we structure our time. I don’t think there is “one right way” to organize time, but there may be a “best way” for each of us.
    Personally, I am a morning person who likes to get a lot of priority work done right away in the morning. I am happier on a daily basis when I stay on track with my own priorities.

  5. posted by Lucy on

    I’m one who gets up extra early to get uninterrupted work time. I have 2 at-home jobs, one focused indoors and the other outdoors (but has clients that trail in and out all day), so I find any “concentration” work must be done before dawn. If it has to be done, it gets done before first light.

  6. posted by Khürt on

    I work in an office so my most important work can not start until I have checked my calendar and email. My priorities may change based on what I see there. Getting up hours before the family would mean getting up at 4AM. My kids are up at 6:30 AM and my daughter has a 7:15AM school bus.

  7. posted by crunchycon on

    A long time ago, I had a manager who told me to “do the worst, first.” I do the task I’m dreading the most first, which motivates me to complete the rest of the to-do-list. I’m a morning person, which means I have the most energy and mental capacity before noon, so the less important items get completed after lunch.

  8. posted by Amanda on

    I’m a morning person, too, so I try to structure my day with that in mind. I don’t necessarily do the “worst” first, but I definitely do the most mentally challenging first. After checking my personal goodies (email, Facebook, a little news), I dig into my email to put out any fires, then I CLOSE my email (or I’ll keep checking it and doing that all day)before moving along to my tasks.

    When things are really insane, I only check email/answer phone/return calls at 7am, 10am, 1pm, and 3pm. Email and phone can wait when there’s a lot to be done, and I find that that helps me be super efficient and focused if I need to be.

  9. posted by gooseling on

    haha I check unclutterer first.

  10. posted by Anita on

    At the end of each day, I look at my schedule for the next day and assess all my ongoing projects according to importance and urgency. Then I write out my to do list starting with the important and urgent, then urgent but less important, then important but not urgent. Everything else goes into a “whenever I get to it” list that I can pull out on slow days.

    First thing each morning, I check my email for any new developments on my projects, then start on my to do list. Works well enough for me.

  11. posted by Sarah on

    As I sit here checking Unclutterer while avoiding the “important tasks,” I absolutely agree with you. It’s great to get the big, dreaded (or just important) things done first while you have the patience, focus and mental energy to complete them. Also, rewarding yourself for completing the big tasks by doing a small one as a little break between is helpful as well.

  12. posted by Karen on

    I usually plan to spend my first hour at work reading email, doing small tasks, and if I’m at the office, checking in with coworkers. I’m not a morning person, and I don’t do my best work first thing in the morning. It takes me a while to wake up. Also, if there’s anything urgent, it usually appears in my email box first thing in the morning. And if I’m at the office, I tend to be interrupted more in the morning. (The two things go together – since I’m not that busy in the morning, I tell people to come and see me then.)

    I usually schedule my long term tasks in late morning or in the afternoon, when I’m more productive and when I can work uninterrupted for longer periods. I usually get a burst of energy in the late afternoon and that’s when I really get a lot of stuff done.

  13. posted by Karolina on

    I like to hit the snooze button on my alarm clock in the morning. I’ve found that if I spend the snooze time thinking about what I have to do that day at work, and what’s the first thing I’m going to work on, I’m a lot more likely to be productive in the morning. If I get to my desk without a clear idea of what I need to accomplish, I tend to just get lost in email.

  14. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    I do my best “thinking” in the morning, after at least one cup of coffee. Like you, I tackle the most important projects then. But over the years I’ve learned to add my least favorite projects to my morning routine, too. I founded Habitudes.info a website that offers family and household management software as a service. I love everything I do except the financial stuff. Doing the bookkeeping in the morning while I’m “fresh” gets it off my mind and allows me to do more enjoyable things the rest of the day.

  15. posted by Ben Hayman on

    I must admit that I honestly don’t really have much of a system! However, I do generally tend to do smaller tasks first because I feel like I’ve accomplished more when I complete most of my things on RTM and I feel much better because of it!

  16. posted by Ruckus on

    I work two part-time jobs and I am at one job only Tuesday and Friday. I find that if I don’t plan out my day before I come (plan Friday’s work on Tues.) I get lost and forget what I need to do. I usually jot down three things to get done that day and play the rest by ear. I also usually check email and vm to see if I need to respond to anything, then ignore it for several hours. I am still tweaking my system (as always!) but this works better than going to work with no agenda.

  17. posted by Kari on

    I tend to do things I either dislike the most (like grading) or have to concentrate the hardest on (like writing) in the morning; especially for grading, I tend to set a goal for the morning and once it has been met, I go on to something else (with grading, I need to not do to much at a time or I get cranky and that’s not fair to students). Afternoons I either teach or I go to the gym, then come back to do less mind-focused stuff, like responses to my students’ discussion boards or reading in preparation for my next class session.

  18. posted by Annette on

    I’ve done it both ways, and they both work, though doing the important stuff first has gotten me more kudos from bosses than leaving it until the end. One time I chose wrongly and missed a deadline and a $10,000 discount which my boss had to fix. That was actually the last time I didn’t do the most important things first.

  19. posted by Amy Crook on

    I’m also a night person, so I do the most important work of waking up fully before anything else — which usually involves a lot of internet surfing and the like. Since I started giving myself this lead time guilt-free, I’ve been more productive in the rest of my day, because I’ve given myself a soft start instead of trying to force myself straight into doing things I’m not yet awake enough to do.

  20. posted by Catherine Cantieri, Sorted on

    I do the most important things first, but before that, I “ease into” the workday with one minor task. I think of it as a warmup, or an amuse bouche for a big meal.

  21. posted by Diane on

    Generally, yes, and ideally finish it by lunch. That way the afternoon is less stressful.

  22. posted by Paul on

    As a non-morning person who does support work on a core business system, I try to get in as late as possible – usually 9:30 or 10 – and then get the little things out of the way by lunchtime – 12:30ish – because I don’t function well in the morning. Something light to eat, then assuming nothing has blown up today I can get down to the meat of my day from about 1:30 or 2pm onwards and usually working until 7 or later. Unfortunately my work time is frequently peppered with interruptions which make it difficult to get much done during other people’s normal working hours – I often find I spend my time dealing with other people’s problems and attending non-negotiable meetings, and then from 5 onwards I can finally start to do my own work once other people start leaving for the day. Fortunately 4pm onward tends to be my natural high-productivity time or I would never get anything done. It’s not an ideal way to work but given the nature of the job and particularly the organisational culture – it’s a media company, everything is based on personalities and acts of heroism rather than processes – that seems to be the way it is. So effectively I leave my most important things until the end of the day!

  23. posted by chacha1 on

    I’m like gypsy packer – a night person with a day job. In fact, I now have to be at work at 8:30 a.m., which is about 2 hours before my brain is really functional. So I use the “slow brain” time to catch up on blogs ;-), read and attend to email, organize my desk, send out completed work, and otherwise clear my decks for a burst of real productivity in the middle of the day. I’m fortunate that my job is NOT high stress … used to work in a real pressure cooker. My focus is to accomplish important tasks before I leave for lunch, or by early afternoon, so that my bosses have time to turn it around and there is still time in the day to get it out.

  24. posted by Beverly D on

    This is so dependent on the nature of the “work”. I am a Nurse Practitioner in an inpatient hospice. I see all the patients in the facility every day, and they fall under 2 categories, new admits and follow ups. My superiors would likely say that the most important priority is for me to see new admissions. But the first people I see in the morning are follow ups who had problems the day before, to see if what I prescribed had any effect and if I should make any adjustments. Having done that, I can then focus on the new people, who tend to take much more time. If there is a computer glich, I can always make paper notes or use the Word program. Another thing that will move someone up the priority list is if a family member is waiting to see me, then I will see that patient sooner.

  25. posted by Mletta on

    No matter how I schedule my day, life interrupts. I have a home office, which seems great except that I live in a NYC apartment building that has had numerous work being done that required access to all of our apartments–with no prior notice. (13 months, just finishing up)

    Try scheduling a client call when someone is ringing and pounding on your door demanding access. Or in the hallway with jackhammers. Or having a delivery person ringing the bell, and you must answer or risk losing a delivery.

    Not only that, but for whatever reason, if you work from home, friends and business associates seem to think you are/or should be available 24/7. (Ignore a call and you get an email saying: Why aren’t you at your desk? Seriously.) Text messages and IMs are always issues and again, because they involve clients, you are expected to instantaneously drop whatever and respond.

    Sometimes taking an interruption and dealing with it as it occurs is the best way.

    I’d love to do a lot of my work at the end of the day and into the night, but that doesn’t work if I need to call and interview people, etc. or get information.

    I block out my time, but sometimes things shift because I’m not feeling well or simply cannot concentrate due to fatigue.

    For me, the thing is to do the work when I am most mentally alert. And to forestall interruptions when possible. Sometimes, with clients, that’s just not possible.

    In the end, deadlines dictate everything (when and if I eat, etc.). You learn to go with the flow and to realize that no matter how well you plan, trees will fall, broadband will go out and some vendor will fail to deliver and your schedule will need the Plan B thru maybe Z version.

    FYI: Depending on where you live, if your broadband goes out (really as bad as losing electricity or gas), you have to just head for the nearest place with wifi (free or otherwise). I’ve done that around the U.S. when the hotel WiFi wasn’t working. (hotel wifi! Ah, the stories.)

    The numerous methods of communication today actually eat into work time. Before, you got one call. Now you get emails, voice mails on two phones (cell, office), plus text and IMs for the SAME THING. It’s a waste to have to go through all of that.

    We need to Unclutter our communications methods.

    That would really help me get my work done.

    M

  26. posted by infmom on

    It really depends on what I have to get done that day. Some things really do need to be done first, but most of my days, since I am not a morning person, I do the relatively unimportant stuff first (email, forums and so forth) till my brain’s waked up enough to tackle the things that require me to use it.

    Our internet connection isn’t as flaky as it used to be (I finally connected with someone at Charter who was able to figure out what the problem was and not blame it on my equipment, yay!) but in days gone by when the connection was out, I always had other things I could get done. I still do. I make myself walk away from the computer completely during the day to make sure I don’t just start clicking on stuff to avoid getting anything else done.

  27. posted by Gina on

    I don’t really have a lot of choice. I am scheduled into a whole host of meetings every workday morning that I have to attend or else I’m in trouble (albeit that only one of them, from 10-10:30, is actually worth my time). But no matter that it’s inefficient. I’m expected to be in these meetings that stretch between 8 or 9 am (depending on the day) until 11 am or noon. Daily.

    So, the job pays the same regardless of if we’re being efficient or wasting time in meetings, and since the meetings have been clearly identified as more important to upper management I do it.

    Then I guard my afternoon ferociously and try to cram in everything that needs doing. I try to take an hour for lunch after the last of the morning meetings (sometimes only getting 30-45 minutes. Also, I insist on leaving for the day no later than 5:30 — hopefully with everything done. If not, well I’ll try to get it done the next day. I refuse to put in heroic hours since my company insists I waste much of my morning.

    My evenings are devoted to planning my escape from this job.

  28. posted by Mary Anne on

    I am not a morning person, either, so I do warm-ups until my brain is online and then tackle something important. It’s not only mornings, though, that interfere with my concentration, and I have learned that putting something off is better than trying to do it when I can only do it badly.

  29. posted by Christine Simiriglia on

    I find that planning my day out, first thing, is what helps me most. Doing the important “stuff” comes a little later. I’m not a morning person and tend to do my better work in the late morning, early afternoon. For me… scheduling my most important tasks in at peak work times is best. You can read more about how I schedule at http://www.organize-more-stres.....racle.html

  30. posted by sue on

    I front load my week, and each day. I have one quiet hour between arrival and when the phone starts to ring.

    Sometimes, tho, an email or a phone call unravels everything or creates a Domino effect of changes. Those days are pile-it-up-and-start-at-the-top days.

    I am called the checklist person in the office, because I have created checklists for all the detailed stuff, some of which we only do once a year, or upon significant occasions.

  31. posted by adora on

    After reading “A man’s search for meaning”, I now try to do the most unpleasant tasks first.

  32. posted by Rachel on

    I always keep a current to-do list on my desk. I have my top three or four tasks starred, as a reminder to start with those. But when I sit down at the beginning of the day, I do take a half-hour or so to scan my emails and respond to anything pressing. (If I don’t, I usually get a phone call from someone wanting to follow up on an email, which just slows me down further. It’s also why I keep an eye on my email all day, even though I know that switching over to email slows me down.)

    At the end of the day, I rewrite my to-do list in order of oldest to newest tasks. I once again star the most important items, so that the next day I am ready to go. I like keeping the list in chronological order, so that once I am past my priority tasks I know which ones have been sitting on my desk the longest.

  33. posted by Another Deb on

    I am knackered by the time I have spent ten hours at school, so I try to do some brain-easy tasks at the desk at night, check e-mails, gather resources, do laundry and attempt to set myself up for the next morning. I wake at 4 AM and work on the lesson for that day, record grades, get lunches made, shower and read Unclutterer
    :-). By 6:20 I am out the door and headed down the highway! I generally have a list in my hand for several tasks that have to be done before the first bell rings, since there is no break until after five classes and lunch tutorials. Luckily I have a strong bladder!

    I am deadline driven. We receive e-mails all day long from other teachers, administrators, departmental people, who forget that we are in front of 35 or so lively kids each class and are juggling attendance programs, detention programs, e-mail demands and the lesson technology. I feel like an air traffic controller!

  34. posted by Andy on

    A few years back I suffered from an intermittent internet connection which forced me to prioritize my work in order that I got done what was needed on the internet first and then had other work left which wasn’t so internet critical. I still have the same routine now despite having a far more reliable internet connection. So my most important jobs I do are always those which require the internet and then these are followed up by ones which just require the pc as a stand alone machine.

  35. posted by Elizabeth on

    I have amazed the administrators in the school district where I work by announcing that I do NOT check email first thing in the morning. Oh the gasps! :-) I start my day by reviewing my schedule, checking on my staff, and doing the work I have that requires real thinking – not just managing information (like email does). I’m most creative first thing in the morning so I take advantage of that time. When I feel the creative juices drying up, I’ll get a cup of coffee and listen to phone messages. Somewhere around 9:30 I’ll check my email. This is a BIG deal for a lot of people – I work in the technology department of a large school district. I remind people that if they have an “urgent” message, they should call me. I handle phone calls before email.

  36. posted by Mary on

    Also a night owl, so anything important is scheduled around dinner time or later. My brain refuses to function until the sun sets.

    Unsurprisingly, I continue to search for a way to make a living that would allow me to work at home and design my own schedule.

  37. posted by The Simple Dollar » The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Next Project Edition on

    [...] Do you do your most important work first? I used to have a very organized morning routine, where I would do most of my “routine” tasks before starting the day. What I found is that I got my “routine” tasks done, but most of the real meat of my work – the creative tasks – didn’t go nearly as well. (@ unclutterer) [...]

  38. posted by Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome on

    Given that all my work comes through email, yes, I check that first as well as deal with all my client-related work. That I get done by 8am, then exercise then take off to the library to do all my writing. By noon I’m done all the things I *have* to do for the day and if I don’t have other things planned, then I spend a few hours in the afternoon on marketing related stuff.

    Being a morning person, this particularly works for me. ;)

  39. posted by Surfin’ the Net: The Swine Flu Edition | Organizing Your Way on

    [...] Do you do your most important work first?, [...]

  40. posted by The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Next Project Edition | Frugal Living News on

    [...] Do you do your most important work first? I used to have a very organized morning routine, where I would do most of my “routine” tasks before starting the day. What I found is that I got my “routine” tasks done, but most of the real meat of my work – the creative tasks – didn’t go nearly as well. (@ unclutterer) [...]

  41. posted by Sandbox » Blog Archive » Weekly inspiration #16: Have more fun at work on

    [...] it helps to get the most important work of the day done first. After that, you can think about creative ways to solve problems – like the “invisible [...]

  42. posted by nXqd on

    I’ve tried to do the MIT first but when I stay at my computer I just do a lots of small tasks and it keeps me away from my MIT task.
    I really love the way you put the task in center of desktop. For me, the best way to keep track meeting, task is put all of them on your desktop. I use Rainlendar now, but I wish something which can increase Rainlendar font :)

  43. posted by Pay Yourself First, In Hours & Minutes « Conscious Me on

    [...] worrying unproductively about finances and doubting myself in regards to my goals. Thankfully Do You Do Your Most Important Work First, a blog on Unclutterer, reminded me how smoothly things were going when I was following this [...]

  44. posted by Reduce Work Stress: Do Your Most Important Work First | Life Compass Blog on

    [...] Unclutterer shared this tip recently:  Do your most important work first, at the beginning of your day. That way, you ensure that you do your best and most important work when you are at your best, and before you get bogged down by other distractions that may come your way later in the day. [...]

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