Priorities in Threes to Spur Your Productivity

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By Stacy-Marie Ishmael

Named by Business Insider as one of the 30 Most Important Women Under 30 in TechStacy-Marie Ishmael is one of the most productive people we know. Currently VP of Communities at The Financial Times and creator of the #awesomewomen newsletter, Stacy-Marie offers one of her most effective productivity tips.

Top Three Priorities

I think a lot about lists (a side effect of an ongoing and enduring fascination with GTD) and I make quite a few of them. One of the most valuable lists I make is my top three priorities for the day.

I’ve long been an advocate of taking a moment every morning — after coffee, before email — to set my top three priorities down on paper or in pixels. This simple process that takes no more than ten minutes has had a consistently profound and positive effect on my productivity.

Why after coffee? Because part of my morning ritual is brewing coffee or steeping tea before I get down to the business of the day. This ritual is one of the highlights of my day, and it makes waking up at unreasonable hours that much easier.

And why before email? Because once you get into your inbox, you’ve handed over control of your schedule to other people, and priorities are about what you want on your agenda.

The Basic Art of the Priority List

It doesn’t matter whether you write these three items down on a scrap of paper or in your favourite notebook, or type them into your preferred text editor or mobile app. What’s crucial is that you refer to this very short list of top three priorities as you navigate the day to ensure you’re not getting distracted by the urgent at the expense of the important.

For me, three is the magic number. Anything more than three items devolves from a list of priorities into a generic to-do list.  And priorities are different from tasks, requiring more reflection and usually filled with more meaning related to what you want to get done.

So my to-do list often includes mundane tasks like “do laundry” and “buy groceries”; my recent daily priority lists have featured items like “practice yoga”, “verify and close all outstanding QA tickets”, “review designs for [x feature]” and “call my mother”.


In fact, one of the priorities I set every Friday morning is “review weekly to-do list”. I take 30-45 minutes and go over what I’ve achieved (or failed to achieve) that week, which helps inform my to-do list for the following week.

In the vein of keeping my daily top three priorities separate from my to-do lists, I tend to default to writing these down in a notebook and having my to-do lists in Any.Do, which has excellent Gmail integration (if you use Chrome) and beautiful, simple apps for iOS and Android. My daily “dones” live in iDoneThis, of course.

Priorities Aren’t Goals

My daily top three priorities are also different from — and if I’m doing it right, complementary to — my goals. Some friends and I have a goal of running a half-marathon by December 31, which means one of my daily priorities really ought to be “run at least x miles”, depending on where I am in my training.

I also have “external” goals and targets, ones that I didn’t set for myself. These often arise in a professional context. Say you’re working towards “quarterly goals” or “team goals” or “company goals”. External goals like these tend to be set by your line manager or company founder, with or without your input.

You’re more likely to be motivated to achieve these externally-defined goals if you carve out something of your own within them. Perhaps you’re a sales person at a startup, and your company has set a goal of generating $x in revenue this year. You might set a personal goal of contributing $x to that number, complemented by establishing a daily priority of y sales calls before noon.

* * * * *

We sometimes fail to achieve our goals because they are too ambitious or too vague. Breaking them down into smaller, more specific parts not only makes them more manageable — it gives us many small wins to celebrate over time.

As I keep telling myself, what is a half-marathon but a series of 30 second intervals, after all?

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Image: Clemson/Flickr (tea)


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