BY Fast Company 4 MINUTE READ

Gone are the days of the to-do list. It’s all about working on your priorities. But with all the distractions in the world—social media feeds, kids, new podcast episodes, kids again—our priorities can often be shelved without us even realising it.

If you’re having trouble “prioritising your priorities,” you’re not alone. McKinsey asked some 1500 executives about the way they spent their time and found that just 9% were “very satisfied” with it, less than half “somewhat satisfied,” and about one-third “actively dissatisfied.” Only a little more than half reported that their allocation of time matched the strategic priorities of the organisations they lead.

Particularly during an ongoing pandemic, it may take some proactive measures on your part to keep yourself on track. As someone who has been self-employed since 2008, these three strategies have been incredibly useful in making sure I stick to my businesses’ priorities. The best part is, after some time, these techniques will become like automations in your workday. You won’t even have to think about doing them, you’ll just do them.

When an alarm goes off, our brain snaps to attention, no matter what we’re doing. In fact, researchers have proven that it’s actually impossible for our brains to ignore harsh, repetitive sounds. You can use this phenomenon to your advantage.

The execution is very simple: Set five to six alarms on your phone to go off at random times during the workday. Each time the alarm goes off, check in with yourself and pay attention to what it is you’re doing and how you’re feeling. Are you focusing on what you should be doing, or have you gone down a Facebook rabbit hole? Have you been working for several hours straight through and need a break?

If you find that 9 times out of 10 you’re caught in the middle of something unproductive or unimportant when the alarm goes off, that could be a sign you’re not doing enough to manage your distractions. Distractions can be a very slippery slope if you don’t keep them in check, so use these alarms as both productivity and mindfulness tools.

You can also use this technique as a transition ritual at the end of your day. With many of us still working from home, a daily alarm is a great way to trigger your brain into recognising it is time to wind down and shift into home/family time. Set an alarm for about 15 minutes before you usually wrap your day. When the alarm goes off, that’s your signal to start wrapping things up. Finish up that email you’re writing, or start winding down that meeting or call. Personal time is something that should always make the priority list, so let’s give it a standing daily alarm.

If I wanted to, I could probably find a new article to read or a new podcast to listen to every 10 minutes. It’s impossible to keep up with the amount of content at our fingertips on a daily basis. This is a great problem to have if you’re about to board a long flight, but if your daily content consumption is getting in the way of you and your weekly priorities, then Houston, we have a problem.

Jeremy Frandsen, cofounder of Internet Business Mastery, was the first person to clue me in to the idea of “just-in-time learning” (JITL). Just-in-time learning is when you only consume educational content that has to do with the priority project or task you’re currently working on. For example, if you’re trying to launch a new website, focus on consuming the content that pushes forward your learning on that topic alone. More specifically, Frandsen says when you’re in JITL mode, only consume information that is both:

Relevant: related to the next most important milestone along that path, and 

can be put into action in the next week or two

If it doesn’t fall into one of these two categories, then set it aside—at least for the time being. Your priorities will thank you.

It’s human nature to want to explore and try new things, and it’s actually good for your brain to do so. Most of us have that squirrel mentality, where we’re always setting our eyes on the next big idea: What if we tried it this way? What if I did this instead of that? You should explore these random musings, but it shouldn’t get in the way of tackling your week’s priorities. Luckily, there’s a way to do both.

I call it the 20% itch rule: Delegate 10% to 20% of your time per week to “scratch that itch.” For me, Friday has always been the best “play day” to set my sights on things that have not made their way on to my priority list yet. Especially if you’ve used Monday through Thursday to tackle your priorities, you won’t have to feel guilty utilising a few hours for deviation from your routine on Friday. In fact, I often use Fridays as a reward for my focus and productivity that week.

Free thinking is so important when it comes to creativity and innovation. In fact, mind-wandering has also been linked to better moods, greater productivity, and more concrete goals. By following the 20% Itch Rule, you’ll reap the benefits while avoiding the one and only pitfall—which is not getting your priorities done.

Start implementing these hacks into your workweek and I’ll bet you’ll start giving your priorities the attention they deserve.