A better way for prioritizing business activities can help you focus on what's important.

Prioritizing for entrepreneurs is on the same level as breathing for all living things; it’s that important.

You are going to have approximately 1,385 things that need your attention, all at the same time, and if you don’t know how to prioritize those tasks, then you will sink. You’ll shut down your website, sign up for Indeed alerts, and sulk at what could have been. But, if you spend upfront time being clear about what is most important and worthy of your precious time, then you will not only have a clear strategy for success, but you will also be able to breathe and balance. So, where do you start?

Everything you thought you knew about to-do lists: forget it. Rip it up, discard your once-fond memories of neatly crossed-off tasks, and hear me out: you need to start with a not-to-do-list. What? Why would I waste my time writing down things I’m not going to do? Because if you don’t spend the time identifying those things, then you’ll probably end up doing them. Also, when you are clear about what you won’t spend your time doing, then you are free to focus your most valuable resource on things that really, truly matter.

Tim Ferris, author of The Four Hour Workweek, keeps it simple in stating, “What you don’t do determines what you can do.” Genius. It’s so simple, but so true. Think about the number one distraction that zaps your time away right now: emails, phone calls, high-maintenance customers? Start by figuring out where your time is being drained, and then make a commitment not to let that happen. For example, if you check your e-mails all day long…you’re doing it wrong. E-mails have become urgent and important, and we often feel pressure to reply right away- especially if it’s something good for business, right? If you check emails all day long, then you’re not going to get anything done other than emailing. It’s even worse if you run your business through a social media account where people can see when you’ve read messages. That is like an automatic obligation to respond as soon as you read it. You may even feel guilty if you don’t, as you don’t want it to seem as though you’re ignoring a potential client. If someone is interested in working with you, then they can wait 4 or 5 hours until your next message checkpoint. You need to set up a few times per day that are dedicated to email. I would suggest a mid-morning checkpoint so that your freshest, most creative morning brain is dedicated to critical tasks, and again in the afternoon, so your night can focus on unwinding and unplugging. You need rest, too.

Here’s another one to add to your list: do not schedule a meeting or attend a meeting without a clear focus and agenda. Even working lunches- especially working lunches, actually. Your precious time will get sucked dry if you don’t have a focus for why you’re collaborating with someone. You’ll end up talking about the weather, your kids, and why you feel overwhelmed as an entrepreneur. Avoid this scenario by creating a short outline that spells out the meeting topics and how long long it will last. You’ll be way more productive, and you’ll save yourself from the mental drain of non-stop rambling. Are you starting to see that prioritizing is all about getting clarity? Good! It is.

You can also go old-school and use Stephen Covey’s time management system by dividing your tasks into four quadrants:

evaluating business priorities
Prioritizing your business goals and objectives can help alleviate stress.

Your goal is to stay in Quadrant II, Not Urgent but Important. The chart above gives you an idea about what those tasks look like: planning, building relationships, seeking new opportunities, and improving capabilities. This may look like outsourcing menial tasks that frustrate you, networking at a valuable event, or planning a meeting agenda. You feel balanced and in control of your business when you’re able to focus on tasks that are important yet not urgent. Conversely, you lose all balance when engaging in all tasks that are important and urgent. That’s the constant email checking, putting out small fires, and trying to meet unrealistic deadlines. You’ll feel majorly stressed, and that’s not a sustainable way to run a business or to live. Most importantly, schedule time for Quadrant IV activities, which basically boils down to leisure time. Some think of leisure time as a waste, but to stay balanced, a little bit of mindless activity is necessary. Binge-watching a Netflix series, however, will not be useful in running your business. Keep small windows of time available to unplug and do things you really enjoy that have nothing to do with your business, and then you won’t feel an urge to be distracted by social media all day.

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all way to prioritize, and everyone is going to have different priorities based on the development of their business and what their personal situation looks like. You can be sure, however, that using basic prioritization and time management tools like a not-to-do list and time management quadrants will keep you afloat when otherwise, you may be overwhelmed and exhausted. Take time each morning to set your priorities, and watch how your business transforms. What is one thing you’ll add to your not-to-do list? Drop it in the comments below; we love to get new ideas!