Want to get more done? Start with the most difficult or important task first.

Why is it Difficult to Start This Way?

It seems easy in theory, but if you’ve ever tried starting with the most difficult task, you know that it can be hard to stick to. You get in a groove where you are starting with the most difficult or important task each day, but then after a few days you are back to starting with busy work or what feels quick and easy. Our brains seem to be wired this way, especially if it allows us to check something off of our “to do” list. So, it can be tough to motivate ourselves to start with the hardest or most important task.

So Why Should We Even Try?

If we go with our natural tendencies and start with easier or more enjoyable tasks, it becomes even more challenging to motivate ourselves to tackle the big difficult task later. You may feel more productive this way in the short-term but accomplishing only quick and easy tasks is damaging to long-term, high impact productivity.

Conversely, if you start with the hardest task, you will get a boost from finishing it and gain momentum as each subsequent task gets easier to complete. Progress on our goals makes us happier. When we are feeling happy and positive, we are more likely to keep working hard and make continued progress on our goals. By starting with the hardest task we can build momentum instead of losing it. We are also doing what will require the most energy when we are at our best instead of saving it until the end when we are exhausted.

Who Does This Strategy Work For?

The strategy of starting with the most difficult or important task first is as effective for an employee or manager who is working on a list of tasks or projects as it is for a student who is completing assignments. You can apply the strategy to your task list as a whole, and you can also apply it to each individual task. Say you are a student who has multiple homework assignments, but chemistry is the most difficult for you. Start with the chemistry homework. For chemistry, let’s say that you have to study for a test and you have a few days to prepare. If the most difficult parts of the material for chemistry are the equations, start with those and leave the terms and definitions to work on once you’ve mastered the math portion.

What if You Have Trouble Getting Started?

If you have trouble getting started, it helps to break a difficult task into subtasks. For a big project, think about the smaller tasks that need to be completed. If you are studying, for example, what concepts do you need to understand; what do you need to be able to do; and what type of practice should you complete in order to be prepared? Thinking through a task and breaking it into manageable parts not only makes it easier to get started, it makes that task meaningful to you. We all know that meaningful work is easier to stick with when inevitably, at some point, you run into some sort of snag or difficulty.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC

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