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At the start of the day….

You get to work and sit down at your desk. Do you know what the most important thing is you should be doing right that second?

At the end of the day….

You are on your way home from work and reflecting on your day.  Do you have a big sense of accomplishment knowing that you made progress on what mattered?


Hopefully you said an enthusiastic “yes”! But if you’re like many people, you didn’t. Many people end their day not really knowing what they accomplished, or if the work they did really pushed their goals forward. If that sounds like you, well, it’s not hopeless. In fact, maybe some slight adjustments to your focus and prioritization skills could be the cure to your work-time woes.


You’re not winging it anymore

Over the last few weeks we have had over 100 people go through our Leadership Sparks. And many of these amazing leaders have been gracious enough to give us feedback – telling us the things they like, things they don’t like, and sharing suggestions for new courses.

One of things we have heard a couple of times is a request for help on prioritization.

And I feel particularly well equipped to write a post on this topic because this is something I have struggled with for years.

I am an intuitive person, and so “flying by the seat of my pants” is a strategy that has served me well for most of my life. I could always figure things out on the fly.  And in management roles, my meetings, combined with the constant influx of emails, always set my priorities for me (although once I learned how to really prioritize and focus I was able to get better results than I ever did doing things this way).

Now, being an entrepreneur my days are largely unstructured. With limited runway and limited resources, my ability to prioritize and focus is even more critical to my success.

Below is the process that works for me:


Step 1.  Establish your mission. 

What are you working towards?  What is the end goal you are working toward?

You can write this in any format you want: a statement, prose, or even a diagram.

The key here is to hone in on your main purpose in the different areas of your life – your work, your friends and family, your finances, etc.  You have to focus on what really matters.  You’re not just doing things because they come up anymore; you are doing things because they are what you have decided are the most important.

Having a firm, clear grasp on your vision helps your crystallize your focus when things do come up and threaten to get in the way. This strategy always enables you to ask yourself, of any task that pops up or inserts itself in your day: “Does this task align with my personal mission?” And then you can act accordingly.


TIP:  If you aren’t keen on mission statements, you can really replace this with anything that will establish a horizon for you. These can be your values, purpose, or even goals. The point is to know where you want to end up so you can evaluate your priorities and tasks against your desired results. You need to be able to make smart, informed decisions about your time.


Step 2.  Set up milestones.

You have probably used milestones in the context of projects, but they can be equally as powerful in your personal life too. I like to think of these as the steps you take to achieve your goals. These are the pieces of iterative progress towards the grand mission statement you established in Step 1.

And unlike goals, that often take a long time to achieve, you can set milestones that happen each and every month.

So why are milestones better than goals? Because you can schedule a meeting with yourself to review milestones (such as weekly and monthly), whereas goals aren’t always achieved on a pre-determined rhythm or schedule.


Step 3.  Get into a rhythm

Now this is the most important step of all.  It is the one that has made a huge difference in my ability to focus and prioritize.

Each month I establish and review my monthly milestones. And every Monday I set aside the first part of the morning to review my weekly goals.

In my weekly sessions, I organize the things I must get done, and the things I want to get done (if I have time). Then I set aside blocks of time on my calendar to tackle the must-do items on my list.  I never miss this appointment, and if I absolutely have to, I will do it on Sunday night instead. The key is that my week never starts without a crystal clear blueprint for my time. Ever.


TIP: During my Monday planning session I also make a point of establishing my goals for each of the meetings on my calendar.  What do I want to get out of this week? What are the questions I have that need answers? What is the ideal outcome for each task, and for the week as a whole? I find that this also helps me align all my meetings with my big picture goals, even coffee meetings and introductions (which always can be used for a customer interview).


Step 4.  Stick to it.

The thing that makes any system or process successful is sticking with it.

You stay on top of your milestones.  You refocus your mission.  And you don’t miss your Monday planning session.

In my Monday session, I always create a new Evernote note that I call my “Ninja Notebook” (since I like the idea of being a Ninja).  Every day, I work off my to do list, but I will also look at my Ninja notebook plan to make sure my daily to do’s align with it.  And as things come up (which they always do), I revisit my plan and adjust as needed.

As you add new goals, you can fit those into your planning process. For example, my friend who is a master networker has weekly activities like sending thank you notes to 3 people, and reaching out to old 10 contacts every single week.  She budgets those activities into her calendar during her Monday planning sessions.

This process has worked wonders for me, and I always make progress every week on the most important items on my list.


Do you have other ideas or systems that work for you to prioritize?  If so leave your tips, tricks and ideas in the comments.  We always love new ways to improve and make more progress on what matters most.

Tags: goals, improvement, mission, productivity, reflection, success, time,

12 Responses to “Make sure the work you do actually matters”

  1. MajiD

    Thanks Kate for sharing this. It’s pretty valuable and practical.
    I was once reading the book “Getting results the Agile way” by “J.D. Meier”. It insists on Monday sessions and weekly/monthly milestones too.
    Your recipe is short and sweet and straight to the point. As you said the key is to stick with it.

    • katemats

      Thanks! I find that weekly milestones are definitely important for keeping yourself on track; otherwise it’s too easy to let little things get in the way. :) That’s why I try to keep the schedule simple, so it’s easy to carry out every time. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Dave Zapcic

    Nice post! The hardest part is sticking to it. It’s like a workout routine, only a mental one. When we exercise, we feel great and have that honeymoon period of a month or so. Then after a while, you start slacking off and before you know it you’re back to eating twinkies on the couch! Same case here. If you don’t stick to it, you’ll eventually fall back into your old habits.

    • Kate Stull

      I love that — it’s like a workout routine for your mind! :) Productivity definitely takes practice.

  3. Joe Zaynor

    Great post, Kate. It was a just the kick in the pants I needed to help me see that I’ve just been going through the motions the last few months and to get moving again.

  4. Nik Sumeiko

    Kate, the title of the post “Make sure the work you do actually matters” catched me up because I was thinking it’s going to tell us about doing things we love matters. Just like Steve Jobs was always siggesting. But the post is actually about productivity, what is stil great.
    I am using some of the aproaches you share for years already and they work quite precisely for me. However, there is one not really fixed thing I am time to time still getting in turbulence.
    I am a lead engineer in the startup where we are often working on tech experiments nobody yet worked on before (semantics, linked data engines etc) and so it’s also not possible to see if somebody built something similar to get at least a clue on what to start with. Therefore, we can’t predict how much time is going to be needed for delivery. For such a tasks we normally start with a research and small implementations tries. So before we announce deadlines of requested X functionality to our management, we set continuous milestones to research task (eg 3 hours daily to research how to build X functionality), but never more than we can afford without physical delivery (knowledge without implementation is not really a delivery in our case — it’s startup). Then on a daily tech team calls we’re discussing gained knowledge based on made research. And only when we are more or less clear on how the logic of the functionality has to be developed, we start with a real execution.
    Kate, if you would get into my skin, how would you set up milestones for completely “unknown” tasks and how would plan your time to stick to? Do you think there could be a better approach on performing such a tasks?

    • katemats

      Hi Nik,

      Thanks for the comment! And great question!

      I could probably write a whole post on the topic, but one thing I did when I was managing a data science research team (which is pretty similar in some ways, it sounds like) was we created a backlog of experiments. Since it wasn’t clear what would yield results and what wouldn’t, we couldn’t estimate “finish” times. However, we could show progress and work along the way by setting up our backlog to reflect the work that we were doing (data collection, experiments to test hypothesis A, analysis to confirm hypothesis B, etc.). This helped everyone understand the priorities and the progress, without having to set fake, non-sensical deadlines.

      The key was really about transparency and communication.
      Hope that helps! Let me know what works – we love hearing how people solve these types of process problems.

      • Nik Sumeiko

        Hi Kate,
        Yeah, I think you’re right it’s about transparency, communication and more important trust inside the team. In our small company we have trust on a very high level, but the trust has been build within time by delivering quality results, talk to each other on the meetings, plan further things together.
        The approach I am currently using (summarised in my previous comment) works good actually:
        1. Define the task (/functionality X to build);
        2. Start research on a daily basis (not more then affordable daily time, 3 hours for example) on how to complete the task;
        3. Report research results, gained knowledge in daily meetings (backlog in your case);
        4. When research results gives a clue (/functionality X logic), try to estimate needed time for development (setting up milestones only at this point);
        5. Execute the task (/develop functionality X) trying to stick to the plan.

        Interesting that while performing point 2 for maximum affordable daily hours, each tech team player is also working on other similar tasks that has a logic defined already (so research has been more or less finished for that one). By this way, we’re covering enough tasks in N period of time and management team sees we’re not only researching. But mixing daily research with execution (real implementations) – what really helps going.

  5. Rich Medica

    Thanks for Sharing a plan that has be proven to work. I will incorporate this in my Life and can see that Clarity is power.

    I have worked with multiple plans over the years non of them taking me to the desire place in my life I want to be.

    Thanks ever so much