Composing your to-do list: Tackle the bigger challenges earlier in the day

Jeff Davidson

This is a guest post by work/life balance expert Jeff Davidson.

The research is in, and homo sapiens are definitely more adept at tackling big challenges earlier in the day than later. Peak energy and alertness for most people is at 8 a.m. Also fewer interruptions are likely to occur earlier in the day.

That is not to say you can’t be effective handling large tasks later in the day, and sometimes you have no choice but to do so. However, the long-term odds of success are with you when you handle the day’s biggest challenge as early as you can, perhaps as the very first thing.

When composing a to-do list (regardless of what order you list the items) when you identify the vital challenge you face for the day, circle it and draw an arrow from it up to the top of the page, indicating that is the task you will tackle first. Then, clear away any minor hurdles that could impede your ability to start on the project.

Do you need to clean your workspace? Okay, go ahead and do so; not to stall, but because you will make changes to your workspace that will help you perform better. Do you need to alert others that you do not wish to be distracted? Okay, go ahead and do so, because clear stretches of time give you your best chance of being productive, especially when you are tackling a project that is new, requires highly creative thinking or is unfamiliar to you.

Each distraction, however fleeting, may turn into a full-fledged interruption. Interruptions in and of themselves are not so bad, on average lasting only three minutes. The problem, however, is that a typical interruption leads to other activities that can last 12 to 14 minutes. Therefore, any interruption could pull you from the task for up to 16 minutes.

You’re more prone to be distracted as the day goes on versus early in the morning. So you have a compelling reason to tackle the biggest and worst of the tasks before you as early as you can get to them. Thereafter, no matter how difficult the challenge was, once you finish it, the whole day tends to go better.

Early, major victories have a way of affecting the rest of the day. Freed from psychological baggage of handling the task, as well as the mental and physical effort necessary to do so, you then almost automatically consider, “What other great things can I accomplish today?”

Jeff Davidson is “The Work-Life Balance Expert®,” is a preeminent time management authority, has written 59 mainstream books, and is an electrifying professional speaker, making 806 presentations since 1985 to clients such as Kaiser Permanente, IBM, American Express, Lufthansa, Swissotel, America Online, Re/Max, USAA, Worthington Steel, and the World Bank. Jeff is Executive Director of the Breathing Space Institute.
Jeff is the premier thought leader on work-life balance issues and has been widely quoted in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and USA Today. Cited by Sharing Ideas Magazine as a “Consummate Speaker,” Jeff believes that career professionals today in all industries have a responsibility to achieve their own sense of work-life balance, and he supports that quest through his websites and and through 24 iPhone Apps at
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