By Dirk Zeller

After you identify the vital few tasks you need to accomplish to meet your top 12 goals, break them down a bit further into daily to-do items. Then prioritize them to make sure you accomplish the most important tasks first, identifying which ones you must do on a given day.

In that way, you progressively work through all the minor tasks that lead to the greater steps that, in time, lead you to achieving your goals. Here’s how:

  1. Start with a master list.

    Write down everything you need to accomplish today. Don’t try ranking the items at this point. You merely want to brain dump all the to-do actions you can think of. You may end up with 20, 30, even 50 items on your list: tasks as mundane as checking email and as critical as presenting a new product marketing plan to the executive board.

    Or if you want to fill work on your personal to-do list, the items may range from buying cat food to filing taxes before midnight.

    Remember to account for routine duties that don’t have a direct effect on your company’s mission or bottom line: turning in business expense reports, typing up and distributing meeting minutes, taking sales calls from prospective printing vendors. Neglecting to schedule the humdrum to-do items creates a destructive domino dynamic that can topple your well-intentioned time-block schedule.

  2. Determine the A-list.

    Focusing on consequences creates an urgency factor so you can better use your time. Ask yourself, “What, if not done today, will lead to a significant consequence?” Designate these as A activities. If you have a scheduled presentation today, then that task definitely hits the A-list. Same goes for filing your tax return if the date is April 15. Buying cat food probably doesn’t make this list — unless you’re totally out or have a particularly vindictive cat.

  3. Categorize the rest of the tasks.

    Now move on to B-level tasks, activities that may have a mildly negative consequence if not completed today. C tasks have no penalty if not completed today, followed by D tasks: D is for delegate. These are actions that someone else can take on. Finally, E items are tasks that could be eliminated, so don’t even bother writing an E next to them — just mark them out completely.

  4. Rank the tasks within each category.

    Say you’ve categorized your list into six A items, four B items, three C items, and two D items. Your six A tasks obviously move to the top of the list, but now you have to rank these six items in order: A-1, A-2, A-3, and so forth.

    If you have trouble ordering several top priorities, start with just two: Weigh them against each other — if you could complete only one task today, which of the two is most critical? Which of the two best serves your 80/20 rule? Then take the winner of that contest and compare it to the next A item, and so on. Then do the same for the B and C items.

    As for the D actions? Delegate them to someone else! Everyone likes to think he or she is indispensable, but for most people, the majority of their duties could be handled by someone else. That’s where the 85/10/5 rule — first cousin to the 80/20 rule — comes into play:

    You tend to invest 85 percent of your time doing tasks that anyone else could do, and 10 percent of your time is devoted to actions that some people could handle. Just 5 percent of your energy goes to work that only you can accomplish. But whether at home or at work, this doesn’t mean you can kick back and leave 95 percent of your responsibilities to someone else.

    It simply helps you home in on the critical 5 percent, allocate your remaining time to other activities that bring you the greatest satisfaction, and recognize those tasks that are easiest to delegate.

Now you’re ready to tackle your to-do list, knowing that the most important tasks will be addressed first. Don’t expect to complete as large a number of cross-offs as you may be used to. Because you’re now focused on more important items — which likely take more time — you may not get as many tasks completed. In my view, however, the measure of a great day is whether you wrap up all the A-list items.

Don’t assume that you just move the Bs and Cs up the next day. You need to complete the whole process each day. Some of the Bs will move up, but others will stay in the B category. Some of the Cs — due to outside pressure, your boss, or changed deadlines — may leapfrog the Bs and become the highest priority As.