Getting the Little Stuff Done First May be Satisfying, But It's the Wrong Road

Julie Morgenstern, in Never Check E-Mail In the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work:

Warming up your day by knocking off a bunch of quick, easy tasks is tempting, but it can provide you with a false sense of accomplishment.

The danger in this approach is that the bulk of your energy gets depleted over a bunch of insignificant tasks. First there’s email, then a couple of phone calls, then a meeting, then huddles with some direct reports and a quick sign-off on a project budget — then, guess what? It’s time for lunch!

To warm up after lunch, you start off with another round of email, then a client eats up your mid afternoon, and suddenly it’s 5 pm — and you never got around to, much less finished, the grant proposal — your day’s one-step-from-the-revenue-line priority. In fact, you can’t even remember what you did get done.

Solution: You must retrain yourself to choose the important over the quick, the tough over the easy, no matter how intimidating the project may be. Starting too far from the revenue line prevents you from producing the volume of revenue-generating work that your company actually relies on and pays you for.

Working from the bottom up puts you in a risky position — when that inevitable crisis appears, . . . how can you possibly handle it when you haven’t even gotten to your most important assignment yet!

Completely two or three tasks that directly make or save your company money far outweighs finishing twenty things that are three steps from the revenue line.

  • Rob

    Hey Matt,

    Quick question for you: This sounds like really good advice. But do I recall you mentioning on here sometime earlier that you disagree with Julie particularly on the point of handling email in the morning? That could be a figment on my imagination but if you do hold to a different practice on that particular point, could you share a thought or two about why you prefer to handle email at the start of the day? Thanks!

  • Roger Healey

    I have tried it both ways, doing the little stuff first such as email to get it out of the way, versus working on the most important thing of the day first. Doing the most important thing first works much better for me, so I agree with Julie. If you haven’t tried it, just give it a try for say, 2 weeks and see.

  • Matt


    I’ve done both ways as well. When I would do email first thing, my purpose would be to get everything taken care of in the first hour. Then I would focus entirely on my most important tasks for the next hour or so, without interruption.

    If you do email first, the key is to get your inbox all the way to zero such that everything is taken care of (or put on a list for later in the day), and do this within an hour or less. Then you focus without distraction on the most important tasks after that. It is only worth doing that way if you find you actually can — if it is too tempting to just move into the ordinary course of the day right after email, then it’s much better to do your most important tasks first, and then email. And I’d say that that’s the best approach in general.

  • K

    I don’t see how ignoring email for any stretch of time during the day is feasible, at least in my line of work. In fact, I have it open all day and at least read the subject line of anything new before completing my current task. With multiple parties discussing multiple issues simultaneously, doing anything less would mean my message will be out of date if/when relevant messages have come in during the day.


  • Loren Pinilis


    I do think that the overall concept that Morgenstern was getting at is a strong one – don’t start your day with the “small” things – but instead focus on the important things.

    But it sounds like, in your work, Email is not one of those small, unimportant things. For most people, Email is (to use Covey’s classifications) often urgent and rarely important. However, if Email is something that is truly important to your work, then you’re fine treating it like any other important task.

    A personal example: Email is something that I often need to respond to immediately. When I’m doing something that doesn’t require intense focus, I keep Outlook open and am notified whenever I get an Email. I glance at the subject and sender when the notification pops up, and I answer if I need to.
    When I’m doing something important where Email would be a distraction, I close down Outlook and open it up when I’m either finished or when I take a break.

  • Douglas

    I agree in principle with this article but at one point when I was really burned out, the bigger and more important tasks seemed impossible and just the prospect of facing them immobilized me. When I was in that state, focusing on the small “achievable” tasks got the momentum going and started building my confidence.

    I agree whole-heartedly that we may procrastinate important things by doing busywork and then use that as an excuse for why we didn’t accomplish a more important task – but for someone who is burned out and not accomplishing anything, not even the little things, those can be a great place to start.