Every day there’s a certain amount of adulting we all need to do. There are the minor things, like go to the bank, have dinner with a friend, and follow up with Sally about that one thing. Many more are major job-related tasks: write content or reports, email prospects and clients, redesign the website, don’t freak out, and on and on. And every day, you have to just figure out how to make sure all of those get done. Easy peasy, right?
It can be, once you think in terms of what’s important and also take advantage of when you’re most alert.
“What’s important”, however, is hard to recognize for most people–at least at first. And how I stay on top of all the things that need to be done without crying in the corner is via something I call the “Fresh or Fried” prioritization system.
Before I get to it, let’s first discuss why we, despite our super organized and neatly-written out to-do lists, have such a tough time deciding what truly deserves our attention in that moment.
Your Mental Energy Is Limited
There’s this long-accepted idea that we have a finite amount of mental energy for exerting self-control. Behavioral psychologists term this ego depletion, or decision fatigue. If you’re familiar with video games, pretend your mental energy has a depletable health bar.
At a full health bar, your mental energy is fine–fantastic even. You can put a lot of thought into problems or decisions and tell yourself to avoid Facebook to focus, focus, focus. As we make decision after decision throughout the day–wear the grey or the dark grey shirt, eat oatmeal or cereal, love cake or pie (trick question, PIE), etc.–this health bar takes a beating, bit by bit.
Some decisions hit the health bar harder than others. You can feel your willingness to tackle big decisions and problems just flicker away. And when the bar finally gets to zero, in rushes the impulsive desire to binge on junk, buy useless crap, procrastinate like procrastination champions of the world, and lie on the floor like a beached whale.
Although conversations around decision fatigue have changed a lot in recent years, the brain is complex. The fact remains that understanding ego depletion and the notion that you might have limited energy and attention can work to your advantage.
“But wait,” you say, “I have a to-do list to help me stay on track!”
To-do lists are their own sort of deep, dark hell. They can organize to an extent, but where they truly excel is reminding you that spending two hours to read about the mating habits of squirrels was a bad idea, and now you’re way behind and anxious as all hell. Thanks for the Xanax, to-do list.
The Fresh or Fried Prioritization & Productivity System
A major oft-ignored consideration is the amount of mental “freshness” we actually have left to be able to effectively do a particular task on the to-do list. That is, after a certain point in the day, your brain doesn’t quite have that spit spine to creatively attack problems any longer. The solution?
Introducing the “Fresh or Fried” prioritization system to help you whip the llama’s ass (sup WinAmp?) and make sure you put your best foot forward on the most important tasks. Here’s the idea behind it:
When you wake up in the morning, your brain tends to be the most “fresh.” In a fresh state, you can take on tasks that require high brainpower and loads of creative energy, like learning a new skill, writing content, solving world hunger, and taking on any other challenging project. This means that, within this prioritization system, the more brainpower a task demands, the earlier you need to make sure you can get to it–as early in the day as humanly possible.
As the day wears on and you feel like you need to scrounge up bits of mental energy like you do with peanut butter at the bottom of the jar, your brain gets “fried” in varying levels of crispiness. Though when you fry foods that used to be fresh, they’re still pretty damn good, right? In other words, you can still do things, just maybe not to the full capacity as when you’re fresh.
“Fried” is perfect for tasks that require medium to low brainpower, including checking Facebook, having meetings, planning, organizing, working out, answering emails, and finishing other administrative tasks. Your aim is to fence off these tasks that don’t require that much processing power and schedule those for later in the day when your brain feels more fried.
So as a quick recap, a fresh brain early in the day helps you do difficult and creative tasks. Later in the day (say, past 3 p.m.) your brain gets fried, crispier and crispier, but you probably want to still get things done. That’s when you do tasks that only need medium to low brainpower.
How to Apply This to Your Life
I recommend spending 15 minutes or so at the end of each day to reshuffle your to-do list as you might normally (and if you don’t already, I think it’s better to do this when your brain is fried). What you’ll do differently, though, is plan for the next day and mentally answer a couple of questions:
Is It Important or Urgent?
The two are often interchangeable, and technology has definitely made everything seem important, but there’s a subtle difference. Allow me to quote myself from another article:
“Important work is something that you know must be done; it will make a huge impact on your personal or professional life, but it may not necessarily nag at you in the moment. It pops up now and again as a little reminder while you’re in the shower, waiting in line for Chipotle, or stuck in traffic. Once you’re reminded, you think to yourself, Man, I’d really love to do that, but I just have no time right now.”
Urgent matters, on the other hand, have a tight deadline and someone relying on you to get them done. But c’mon, everything CANNOT be that urgent.
Truly urgent stuff makes you think, “If I don’t do this right now, there will be immediate, real ramifications.” An example of this would be needing to take your friend to the hospital because you guys had just had to fend off a ninja ambush and he’s bleeding out from a sword wound.
An extreme example? Perhaps, but that’s definitely urgent and time-sensitive.
Based on these criteria, decide what is truly important and urgent. This is something only you can decide. These depend on your profession, of course. Getting a workout and finalizing your outline to get started on a book you want to write are both important (but one requires more mental energy than the other–more on that below). Responding to a request from your editor for extra sources or an edit within the hour is urgent.
Remember, you want to limit and push the non-important/urgent stuff as late into the day as you can.
Enjoy It or Hate It?
Among your important work that requires a lot of mental energy, you’ll find some things to be more enjoyable to do than others. You either love to do the thing or hate it.
Let’s say you have a very important presentation to make for a client, but you’d rather drop a 50-pound dumbbell on your foot than do a presentation. But you also have this huge video project that you’re really excited to get started on. Both are important, but you simply dread one and are stoked to do the other.
In this case, you should give priority to the thing you hate because, let’s face it, you’ll find every excuse to procrastinate it and waste more time and energy that way. Dedicate an hour to the thing you resist doing, then another hour to the thing you love, while you’re fresh.
Categorize Your Tasks According to Fresh or Fried
Based on all of this, categorize your tasks based on whether it’d require a fresh or fried brain.
- Important, creative work that you hate
- Important, creative work that you enjoy
- Urgent work that is absolutely urgent or time-sensitive
- Important work that is medium brainpower
- Anything that is routine or requires little mental energy that is unimportant or non-urgent
True, your brain isn’t necessarily fried by the time you need medium brainpower in the afternoon, but it’s still not fresh. Thus, it’s fried. Let’s take one of my busier days and look at how it all shakes out:
- Publish Wednesday’s PTDC article
- Call with PTDC social team 10 am
- Call with Jon at 7am
- Call with Melissa at 2pm EST (11am)
- Deadlift workout
- Email Allison about invoice
- Email follow-up with Sam
- Edit Kevin’s PTDC article
- Write 2 short Lifehacker articles
- Write a new FY!S article
- Come up with a pitch for Tim
That’s a lot of stuff to handle, so here’s how I’ve categorized them.
- Publish Wednesday’s PTDC article: Low brainpower, urgent
- Call with PTDC social team 10 am: Urgent
- Call with Jon at 7am: Urgent
- Call with Melissa at 2pm EST (11am) Urgent
- Deadlift workout: Medium brainpower, important
- Email Allison about invoice: Non-urgent
- Email follow-up with Sam: Non-urgent
- Edit Kevin’s PTDC article: Medium brainpower, important
- Write 2 short Lifehacker articles: High brainpower, important, urgent (deadline)
- Write a new FY!S article: Important, high brainpower/love
- Come up with a pitch for Tim: Non-urgent, important
Based on this list, this is the play-by-play of my day:
7 a.m.: Call with Jon
8:30 a.m.: Write 2 short Lifehacker articles (deadline)
10 a.m.: Call with PTDC social team
11 a.m.: Call with Melissa
12 p.m.: Write for 1 hour on a new FY!S article
3 p.m.: Edit Kevin’s PTDC article
4 p.m.: Go work out
7 p.m.: Publish PTDC blog post and emails
It’s a fairly aggressive schedule and doesn’t take into account the really small errands and minor things. But you can see how I shuffle the important/urgent and highest mental energy demands to the front of the day. This way when I need to start pushing things off to the next day I am at least happy that I got some important and truly urgent work done.
I will note, however, that you absolutely need to set a timer for some of these tasks. For things like writing, it’s easy to get so sucked into it that you end up spending way too long on it (unless that is how much time you dedicated to it) and fall behind.
Overall, visualizing my brain as being fresh and fried throughout the day has helped me prioritize tasks better. If you master this, you’ll be able to think more strategically about your day and not just be on fire throughout the day. Try it out. Hat tip to Mark Fisher Fitness for the inspiration to write this post. The guy is a productivity monster.