Lab Rat: Do Your "Most Important Task" First?

If you’re like most of the working population, you check your email as soon as you get to work, if not immediately upon waking up. I must admit, I’m a reach-for-the-smartphone-upon-waking type, and as I lie in bed scanning emails, I get a picture of what my day will be like.

When I do sit down at my desk in the morning, my singular mission is to clear things out – emails, small tasks, phone messages – so that I can have ample mental and digital space to work on the big stuff. Of course, when I actually get to the big stuff sometime in the afternoon, my best focus period has passed.

Last week, I decided to experiment with Leo Babauta’s “Most Important Task” first approach (aka, MIT). Instead of devoting my mornings to “clearing space” by taking care of all the nagging little tasks, I would try to focus on my MIT’s first thing, shifting the small stuff to the afternoon.Identifying the right MIT is key. Choose something that requires a mental commitment, not just a time commitment. You don’t want to waste your best focus time on something mindless that will take just as long no matter what your attention level is. I chose a big project – creating a series of communications templates and writing year-end reviews for 20 people  – that I’d been working on piecemeal for weeks, making negligible progress.

The first few days, I got started on my MIT straight away, and wasn’t surprised to find how much easier it was to make headway on a larger project. The office was quiet, the phone wasn’t ringing, and best of all, I didn’t feel rushed. The whole day stretched out ahead of me, so I felt comfortable being truly thoughtful about my work, rather than working under a time-crunch.

Yet, even as I worked away, all of those unanswered emails loomed large. I dreaded finding out how many messages had piled up in my inbox. When I did finally tackle my email, it was a bit oppressive, and took far longer than usual to plow through because I had less mental energy.

The next day, I altered my regime a bit to correct for my morning anxiety and the afternoon energy slump. First thing, I took 30 minutes to quickly scan all of my emails to ensure that there weren’t any fires to put out. I also responded to a handful of key messages. When I shifted my attention to my MIT afterwards, I felt calmer, knowing for sure that I wasn’t neglecting anything urgent. After my MIT time block, I took a lunch break, which allowed me to return to my regular work duties in the afternoon feeling refreshed.

All in all, I was able to make substantive headway on the “MIT” project by the end of the week, at almost no expense to my regular work.

My Revised “Most Important Task First” Model:

Step 1: Spend 30 minutes scanning email and responding to urgent items.

Step 2: Turn off email and other distractions. Focus for 2-3 hours on completing your “Most Important Task.”

Step 3: Take a lunch break away from your desk. Leaving your computer and recharging is the key to being productive after your MIT time.

Step 4: Devote the post-lunch day to taking care of ongoing tasks and other “reactionary work” that requires less mental stamina.

The Caveat

Although tackling hard work first seems like a no-brainer, I did have to alter the model a bit for it to work for me, which made me realize that this approach really depends on your personality. For some, it may be an easy switch that will exponentially increase productivity, but for others, it might cause extra stress.

Is the “Most Important Task” First approach right for you? It depends on a few factors:

Are you more focused and energetic in the morning?

Doing your “Most Important Task” first assumes that you’re most focused first thing in the morning. The idea is to shift this big task to the time when your mental powers are at their height. If you’re naturally inclined to be more focused later in the day, this model might not work for you. You’ll want to calibrate your MIT time to your natural creative rhythms.

How much does “inbox zero” matter to you?

If having an empty inbox is really high on your priority list, you may want to sit this one out. The goal here is to harness your mental clarity to get a tough task done, but if it’s going to stress you out more to ignore your inbox for the first few hours of the day, you’ll probably want to stick with your current approach.

Can you stop when you need to?

When we’re on a roll with a big task, most of us tend to want to keep at it until it’s done. If you start a project late in the day, you can always just stay late to get it done. But if you start at 9 AM, you probably won’t want to work straight through normal business hours, ignoring other pressing concerns. In short, you have to be disciplined about your stop time.

One variation that works well for some creatives is blocking out morning MIT time, then doing an afternoon interval of less creative work, followed by a return to the morning’s MIT output for review and revisions.

What Works For You?

Have you experimented with doing your “Most Important Task” first? Was it helpful?

What other approaches have you found effective?

Sarah Rapp

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In addition to contributing regular interviews and tweets to 99U, Sarah keeps her finger on the pulse of Behance's immense network that stretches around the world. Aside from keeping Behance's customers happy and increasing our web presence, she searches for new ways to engage our members, both on and off-line.
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