Yesterday, I introduced the series of posts I’m writing about principles to help you accomplish anything, especially when you have little or no time.

In the first post, I covered a mantra I use (the only person I have to cheat is myself) to short-cut the decision-making process about what I choose to do, conserving the willpower I use to stay focused on the things that are most important to me.

How do I choose what’s most important? That’s the subject of today’s principle.

Prioritizing the Three Most Important Actions

Purpose: Free up time and increase effectiveness

Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek is loved by some and reviled by others. Part lifestyle choice, part time management, part promotion and marketing, and part entrepreneurship, the book advocates minimizing the time invested in traditional jobs.

One of the techniques Tim recommends is to start the day with a list of the top one to three most important actions for the day that lead towards your higher level goals. Focus on those actions until they are complete. Then you’re free to spend the rest of the day however you want.

Without clear priorities on what will achieve the most, most of us fritter away the day on email and menial tasks. All that busy work is procrastination that avoids the most important tasks.

I use this principle while working at my day job. Each morning I spend ten minutes thinking about the most important things I could do that day to achieve my higher level, most strategic and most impactful work objectives. 

I do the first task before I will even allow myself to check email for the first time. Then I work on the second and third.

By remaining truly focused on the few most important things, we can be far more effective than we are otherwise. During this period, I helped Hewlett-Packard save on the order of ten million dollars a year on customer support costs, roughly a 100x return on my salary.

This principle not only helps you be more effective at what you’re doing, it helps you free up the time to do more. When I finish the three most important things I need to do, and it’s only two o’clock in the afternoon, I’ve earned the right to choose how to spend the rest of my day. I might choose to fritter it away on menial tasks and email at HP, or I could choose to invest it in new interesting projects at HP, or I could leave early and go work on my own projects.

This principle works best when you have measurable, strategic level goals. For example, in my old job, my most important annual goal was to save a specific amount of dollars in warranty spend for the company. In this type of role, I had tremendous leeway in how I fulfilled my objective, so long as I met it. These are the best types of objectives for both employee and company because they are directly related to business goals, and employees then are incented to meet and beat the business goals.

By comparison, in my current job, I have tactical goals that are focused on units of work completed. In such a role, it’s very hard to use creative ways to meet business goals. (Gifford Pinchot III, an innovation consultant for big company, would probably say this is an example of centralizing creative thinking at big companies, when in fact, you want to decentralize thinking. Gifford famously said “The brains of the organization are widely distributed; one per person.”) For the sake of both excelling in your day job as well as freeing up the time to accomplish more, it’s worth turning tactical goals into strategic, business level ones.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about stacking functions, the permaculture principles.