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Lab Rat: Do Your “Most Important Task” First?

Matching our most focused time with our hardest task makes sense, yet most of us do the opposite. We experiment with the “Most Important Task” first approach.

If you’re like most of the working population, you check your email as soon as you get to work, if not immediately upon waking up. I must admit, I’m a reach-for-the-smartphone-upon-waking type, and as I lie in bed scanning emails, I get a picture of what my day will be like.

When I do sit down at my desk in the morning, my singular mission is to clear things out – emails, small tasks, phone messages – so that I can have ample mental and digital space to work on the big stuff. Of course, when I actually get to the big stuff sometime in the afternoon, my best focus period has passed.

Last week, I decided to experiment with Leo Babauta’s “Most Important Task” first approach (aka, MIT). Instead of devoting my mornings to “clearing space” by taking care of all the nagging little tasks, I would try to focus on my MIT’s first thing, shifting the small stuff to the afternoon.Identifying the right MIT is key. Choose something that requires a mental commitment, not just a time commitment. You don’t want to waste your best focus time on something mindless that will take just as long no matter what your attention level is. I chose a big project – creating a series of communications templates and writing year-end reviews for 20 people  – that I’d been working on piecemeal for weeks, making negligible progress.

The first few days, I got started on my MIT straight away, and wasn’t surprised to find how much easier it was to make headway on a larger project. The office was quiet, the phone wasn’t ringing, and best of all, I didn’t feel rushed. The whole day stretched out ahead of me, so I felt comfortable being truly thoughtful about my work, rather than working under a time-crunch.

Yet, even as I worked away, all of those unanswered emails loomed large. I dreaded finding out how many messages had piled up in my inbox. When I did finally tackle my email, it was a bit oppressive, and took far longer than usual to plow through because I had less mental energy.

The next day, I altered my regime a bit to correct for my morning anxiety and the afternoon energy slump. First thing, I took 30 minutes to quickly scan all of my emails to ensure that there weren’t any fires to put out. I also responded to a handful of key messages. When I shifted my attention to my MIT afterwards, I felt calmer, knowing for sure that I wasn’t neglecting anything urgent. After my MIT time block, I took a lunch break, which allowed me to return to my regular work duties in the afternoon feeling refreshed.

All in all, I was able to make substantive headway on the “MIT” project by the end of the week, at almost no expense to my regular work.

My Revised “Most Important Task First” Model:

Step 1: Spend 30 minutes scanning email and responding to urgent items.

Step 2: Turn off email and other distractions. Focus for 2-3 hours on completing your “Most Important Task.”

Step 3: Take a lunch break away from your desk. Leaving your computer and recharging is the key to being productive after your MIT time.

Step 4: Devote the post-lunch day to taking care of ongoing tasks and other “reactionary work” that requires less mental stamina.

The Caveat

Although tackling hard work first seems like a no-brainer, I did have to alter the model a bit for it to work for me, which made me realize that this approach really depends on your personality. For some, it may be an easy switch that will exponentially increase productivity, but for others, it might cause extra stress.

Is the “Most Important Task” First approach right for you? It depends on a few factors:

Are you more focused and energetic in the morning?

Doing your “Most Important Task” first assumes that you’re most focused first thing in the morning. The idea is to shift this big task to the time when your mental powers are at their height. If you’re naturally inclined to be more focused later in the day, this model might not work for you. You’ll want to calibrate your MIT time to your natural creative rhythms.

How much does “inbox zero” matter to you?

If having an empty inbox is really high on your priority list, you may want to sit this one out. The goal here is to harness your mental clarity to get a tough task done, but if it’s going to stress you out more to ignore your inbox for the first few hours of the day, you’ll probably want to stick with your current approach.

Can you stop when you need to?

When we’re on a roll with a big task, most of us tend to want to keep at it until it’s done. If you start a project late in the day, you can always just stay late to get it done. But if you start at 9 AM, you probably won’t want to work straight through normal business hours, ignoring other pressing concerns. In short, you have to be disciplined about your stop time.

One variation that works well for some creatives is blocking out morning MIT time, then doing an afternoon interval of less creative work, followed by a return to the morning’s MIT output for review and revisions.

What Works For You?

Have you experimented with doing your “Most Important Task” first? Was it helpful?

What other approaches have you found effective?

More Posts by Sarah Rapp

Comments (20)
  • Bijan Himself

    The “Spaces” feature on my iMac has really helped me out with this lately. I tend to open up things like email, calendar, and documents in the first space (all tabbed in Google Chrome). Then I switch over to a second space to get real work done. It sounds like it shouldn’t make a big difference, but simply by having things like email out of sight really keeps me from getting distracted. As an extra option, I keep a third space blank at all times so I have a carte blanche area that I can throw a single task to it and really focus.

  • Alicia Laing

    I was considering this strategy last night whilst working late (again) on a project. This was after reading one of your articles about reactionary work flow. I find that checking emails can often take up to 2 hours in the morning and this can drag the small niggly tasks out till 1pm. BY the time I get to my MIT’s I’m low on energy so this strategy might be the perfect solution for me. Thanks for another great article.

  • Travis

    Thanks for sharing your actual schedule. I’ll have to try it out myself and see how it goes. I’ve been struggling to stay on task/focused because I always feel fried and tired- but in the morning I’m usually alert and ready to get things done. So this totally makes sense- 🙂

  • bahadir cambel

    My best productivity is between 5.30 and 11.30. If I can block that time and work on the MIT,
    it works quite well for me. Working 6 hours straight is enough to tackle the most important or
    the hardest task and it gives you a lot of room after lunch to be social around.

    The hardest part of this cycle is sleeping on time. I should be at bed around 11, otherwise inadequate sleeping hurts a lot.

  • Mark McGuinness

    “First thing, I took 30 minutes to quickly scan all of my emails to ensure that there weren’t any fires to put out. I also responded to a handful of key messages. ”

    Me too. The important thing is not to get sucked into answering all and sundry emails – only potential emergencies/really important AND urgent stuff gets answered first thing, then it’s on with the MIT!

  • Jpc

    As with writers, a routine for the big “daily write” is essential… You might also want assign this strict regime to only a few days a week, leaving other days to be a bit more flexible. When your time is assigned strictly, people will also respect your will power and (more or less) leave you alone.

    It is said that the Mayor of New York was once turned away at the front door by Jane Jacob’s child because her “mommy was writing” ..

    people become guardians of your time and assist you on your quest

  • George

    Interesting read. I think I fall into the “get small tasks out of the way first” category. My most creative time is around 4pm – 8 pm… I don’t know why but I just can focus better at that time. I also work better at night generally. I think it’s important to realize what your “creative rhythm schedule” is and follow it.

  • James Bonham

    I generally follow this approach, nice read. I do disagree with the caveat about inbox zero though. I thought one of the key goals of inbox zero was to spend less time on your mail program, and process your inbox in batches. Processing before or after lunch and not before therefore makes perfect sense.

  • Anoel

    Yeah I love this. Finally solved my exercise problems as I run the FIRST thing I wake up in the morning. My brain usually feels groggy first thing in the morning but after my run, I’m good and I start doing my MIT work tasks. I am an email addict but I almost never get anything super important so it’s been pretty easy to stop doing it.

  • Integer Man

    I do E-Mail / general windup first thing followed by either planning, meetings, or tasks I know I won’t have to be too creative for. I hit my MIT first thing after lunch.

  • Sore Tito

    Puto el que lee!!!

  • Bel J

    Great read – need a big shift in my working life/family life/social life – I need to learn how to separate them. Learning still – little steps

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    Very interesting information! Thank you!

  • Isaac Cady

    Man life sounds so stressful for some people. My routine is to procrastinate through most of the day. Make love and get some work done while I’m inspired. I like to cook. I don’t like reading emails and mark most of them as read if they don’t have a captivating subject (“no subject” usually means it’s important so I read those). And I usually read them throughout the day whenever I check my phone to see the temperature outside. I get all my work done. I’m successful. And most of all I don’t have to micromanage my schedule. There are more important things in life than stressing out about the most important time of day to do work. No wonder people can’t get any inspiration or work done. They’re too bust trying to figure out the best ways to get their work done. It’s like if you have to mow the law, but you spend all day deciding if you should mow it in a spiral, inwards or back and forth in strips. Just mow the damn lawn.

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  • Parin Patel

    Great example on taking some tips and adjusting to your specific needs. I’m a big believer in doing what works for YOU.

    Just because leaders say that it’s more productive if you wake up early and work on your MIT in the morning, doesn’t meet it’s a one-size fits all solution. Personally, I am more productive in the morning and do wake up early.

    I used to check my email first thing and found myself reacting to quite a few things, while my todo list was left untouched. I’ve changed my routine now. Focusing on my important tasks in the morning, and sometimes revisiting in the afternoon like you mentioned in the end of your article.

    What I find is really helpful though, is staying and being proactive in my projects. Taking the time to step back and review and create a todo list for the day/week.


  • Sinan Sakic

    There is even simpler and more natural way. Start day with the most unpleasant thing to do.

    I learned that from Get out of #Jail Free Card

  • SummerSundae

    I like to start my day by checking and replying to work emails while simultaneously browsing through the host of sites I am a member of. The mundane repetitive task allows my mind to decide what I should do today, sort of recap what I had been planning before I had left for home yesterday. I invest a maximum of 30 minutes to this at best as well.

    Following this, and if not swamped by meetings from morning, I spend my most productive hours before lunch. After lunch, I try to work on the “slacking off”, “chatting with co-workers” and attending to feedback.

    So yeah, I like your version of MIT. It works for me. 🙂

  • Dogs For Sale

    I used to check my email first thing and found myself reacting to quite a
    few things, while my to do list was left untouched. I’ve changed my
    routine now.

  • Ashley Andrews

    I’m the same as you, Sarah. I wake up and check my emails right away. Like you and SummerSundae said, it gives you a pretty good idea of what your day is going to be like and what tasks you should start with, even before you enter the office.
    I like to check my emails first thing and get them out of the way, so that I can focus the important tasks ahead – but (again), like you, sometimes I find it hard to focus towards the end of the day. I like your revised version of MIT because, if I left my emails to late afternoon, I know I would worry about missing something important. This way, you can start working on your MIT without fear.
    Great post!

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