The First Question to Ask Yourself When You Sit Down to Work

What would you get done if you only had until 10:30 a.m. to work today? Do that first.

Photo illustration; Image sources: © Eggy Sayoga/Francesco Milanese/Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush/EyeEm/Getty Images

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an incredibly useful thought exercise I’m calling “the 10:30 a.m. question.” It occurred to me when my part of Pennsylvania got hit with a heavy winter storm one Wednesday. The forecast called for snow, heavy winds, and ice, and the power company warned of potential outages. I worried I’d only have until mid-morning, 10:30 or so, to work.

Like most people who work from home, I rely on my internet connection. So, knowing I might be sitting unplugged and in the dark on Thursday, I approached my Wednesday with a razor-sharp sense of purpose.

I asked myself: “How can I plan my workday around a power outage?” I looked ahead and noted anything that had to happen over the next two days. I shuffled my calendar around to finish those tasks by quitting time on Wednesday. The pace was swift but — to be honest — not terrible. I spent less time in my inbox. I fended off distractions.

Then, miraculously, the power never went out. Thursday became a relaxed day with extra time for sledding with my kids. I realized that I could actually plan my days this way even when there’s not a snowstorm — and you can too.

“Power out” your procrastination

It turns out that when you tackle your must-dos with urgency, time can open up. Indeed, this winter storm suggested a sneaky but effective productivity strategy: Get in the habit of pretending the power is going to go out soon, and you can conquer some serious procrastination tendencies.

Procrastinating — as most of us know well — is putting off things we know we should do. Some surveys find that about one in five people are chronic procrastinators. But everyone delays tasks from time to time, especially when the tasks seem complicated, or the deadline doesn’t feel immediate. Creating some sort of more urgent deadline can nudge action.

Hence the power outage scenario. While I had 24 hours advance warning, this mindset can work for shorter stretches of time too. Ask yourself: “How would I plan my workday if I knew the power was going out at 10:30?”

Reconfigure the morning

Most of us start work somewhere between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. From studying people’s time logs, I’ve learned that we often ease into our workdays, checking email, reading headlines, and the like. We look over the day’s to-do list and tackle a few small, doable items — happily checking off these administrative tasks and to-dos. We’re working, but not on the tough stuff.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with clearing the decks like this. It’s just that this light procrastination (because that’s what it is, actually) is often inefficient. Few people know, at 8 a.m., everything that will land on their desks by the end of the day. Meetings can run over and new ones can land on the calendar. Client crises arise. Personal ones can, too. Even unexpected good things can blow up a schedule. Suddenly it’s 3:30 p.m. and you’re scrambling to get through the tasks that had to get done that day — at what tends to be a low-energy time.

Create urgency

Better to-do list prioritization can help, but it’s tough to feel that sense of urgency at 8 a.m. when it appears that the whole day is still ahead. Most of the day won’t actually be available for working, but it doesn’t seem that way when that first big cup of coffee makes you feel like you can conquer the world. Also, many people have long lists of important stuff. Even with the best of intentions, it’s hard to know where to start.

The beauty of the 10:30 a.m. question is that it cuts through all that noise. If you knew you could do very little after 10:30 a.m., you’d hone in immediately on the things that were important enough to do, and urgent enough to be done now. Whatever else the day might bring, at least those things would get done.

When you do your must-do’s first, the rest of the day can feel far more relaxed, and you’re less likely to have a late night catching up with work. And that equals more time for rest and sleep, that is, the grown-up equivalent of sledding.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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