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All projects aren’t created equal. “Creating a new sales presentation” and “implementing diversity and inclusion measures” may both be important and urgent. But the consultants at Nobl argue those different tasks require totally different resources, have different timelines and affect different parts of the organization.

Our tendency is to just consider them equal to-dos if they land on our plate (unless the boss has been pushing strenuously for one or the other). And that means we have to compare each to the other, which is folly. “Comparing that sales presentation to D&I initiatives is like comparing apples to zebras – you can’t make a fair comparison,” they write in their weekly newsletter.

Instead, they suggest we put to-do projects in buckets of similar items, such as internal or customer-facing tasks. Now you’re ready to make a choice within the categories you developed as well as between categories – or to have your colleagues make a choice, if you head a team that is currently overburdened and using this approach.

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They add that it may be helpful to reflect, as individuals and as a team, on what you’re hoping to accomplish with such prioritization in the first place. Do you really want to prioritize, or do you just want approval for what you’ve already decided to do?

Consultant Alli Polin says managing projects involves planning backward. Don’t just put the due date in your calendar – put in all the steps to be completed, working back from that end point rather than forward from today. What needs to be done three days before completion? Three days before that? “Roll it back to today, so you’re not working on a blob but creating a step-by-step plan,” she writes on her blog. It will help you anticipate what’s ahead but also help to thwart procrastination, encouraging steady progress.

She also recommends planning your rewards. “Big to-do due? So what are you going to do before moving on to the next item? Zoom wine-tasting with friends? Movie? Great book?” she asks, insisting life is more than a checklist of to-dos organized by colour and priority.

Procrastination, as she notes, can plague our project efforts. But Kingston-based productivity consultant Chris Bailey says you need to be wary of “precrastination” as well. That’s when we rush too quickly into tasks. Haste, after all, can make waste.

He urges you to ask which tasks on your agenda might benefit from added time before beginning. Again, not all tasks or projects are equal. “Those that require creativity, thoughtfulness or emotion will benefit from a slower response,” he writes on the CNBC website.

Georgetown University professor Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, adds that not all e-mails are created equal. He rates them by how much they drain you. And for him, the prime villain is scheduling e-mails – trying to organize a meeting, phone call or other event. He rates the cognitive toll of three or four back-and-forth scheduling e-mails, spread out over a day, as much greater than three or four stand-alone e-mails that each require, at best, a one-time reply.

“The back-and-forth e-mails hurt more because they conflict with a social brain that has evolved to prioritize back-and-forth conversation with members of our tribe. When we send an e-mail to someone and are awaiting their response, there’s a corner of cognitive real estate occupied by this ongoing transaction, nervous about the open loop, fuelling a gnawing background hum of minor anxiety,” he writes on his blog.

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He tries to delegate those, when he can. Other people reach for the telephone to close the loop quickly. As with precrastination, scheduling and prioritizing between apples and zebras, they require some skillful self-organization.

Quick hits

  • If you usually need an energy booster in the afternoon or some other time of day, set up a phone call with somebody you like.
  • In job interviews, ask about on-the-job training opportunities. Even if there aren’t many opportunities available, simply asking about them could impress the hiring manager, says blogger Steve Adcock.
  • Business coach Taylor Slango suggests scheduling reminders that go off multiple times during the day, asking “How could this day feel better?” or ’Is there anything more energizing I could be doing right now?”
  • With COVID-19, virtual tours have become a popular substitute for the actual thing. But the Nielsen Norman Group warns most users find them to be high effort, slow and of limited value. At best, they should supplement high-quality still photography, well-written descriptions and even traditional video tours.
  • Entrepreneur Seth Godin says hard decisions that happen often are probably a sign the system you’re relying on isn’t stable, which means that the thing you did last time might not be the thing you want to do this time. On the other hand, easy decisions may signal you’ve got a habit going. An unexamined habit can become a rut, in which you’ll become trapped, sinking deeper and deeper each time.

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