Prioritize Your Day with MUST, SHOULD, COULD (Day 9 of 30 Days of Getting Results)


Day 9 - Get a Quick Handle On Your Day

“Good things happen when you get your priorities straight.” — Scott Caan

Your Outcome: Get a handle on the minimum you need to do.   Get the minimum out of the way and the rest of the day or week is yours.  By having clarity on what you MUST do, you can avoid getting overwhelmed by all the tasks and activities competing for your time and energy.  With clarity comes conviction and you set the stage for fierce results.  Or simply clear your plate, then do enjoy the rest of the day, Cool Hand Luke style.

Welcome to day 9 of 30 Days of Getting Results.  In day 8, we learned how to dump your brain to free your mind.    Today, we learn how to use some simple language to help us prioritize more effectively.

Prioritizing effectively is one of the most important keys to your success.  When you feel like you’re working on the right thing at the right time, it’s easier to focus and stay engaged.  Prioritizing is a continuous activity.  It’s about taking things on while letting other things go.  It’s about making trade-offs.  It’s also about finding synergies.   To prioritize effectively you need to be able to see the forest from the trees, and you need to be able to identify the minimum for success.  That’s where MUST, SHOULD, and COULD comes into play.

Rather than prioritize with priority 1, priority 2, and priority 3 (or p1, p2, p3), I’ve found it way more helpful to think in terms of MUST, SHOULD, and COULD.  If you need to use a prioritization system that is number centric, then you can still think of it in terms of MUST, SHOULD, and COULD.  If you get really good at focusing on your MUSTs, you’ll see immediate improvement.  Where people fall down is they mix too many SHOULDs and COULDs in their work each day and they don’t actually ever get anything done.  If MUSTS really are a problem for you, The Rule of 3 should help you cap and avoid overwhelming yourself.  Getting three MUSTS done each day quickly builds momentum.  It’s a sense of accomplishment.  You may find as you get more effective, you start to bite off more.

Getting a Quick Handle on Your Day

Ask yourself …

  1. What MUST I do today?
  2. What SHOULD I do?
  3. What COULD I do?

Whittle it down to three MUSTs for the day.  If you have more than three, then limit to three max.  You can always up level them or bubble them up into a higher-level outcome.  Capping it at three will help you focus and remember them easily.
Getting a Quick Handle on Your Week
Ask yourself, …

  1. What MUST I do this week?
  2. What SHOULD I do this week?
  3. What COULD I do this week?”

Carve out your MUSTs by weighting your window of opportunity, pain points, and best value.

Identify Your Minimum MUSTs for the Day
If you stay mindful of your minimum MUSTs for the day, then you’re in the driver’s seat.  At an instant, you know how significantly any quick trade offs are,such as doing this over that, hitting or missing a window of opportunity, and trading pain for pleasure. You have your three MUST results on the mind, which gives you a laser sharp path.  If your boss comes by and has something more for you to do, you can either push back or negotiate your success, “I can do that, if you want to prioritize it over XYZ …”

What if You Have fewer than Three MUSTs?
Good for you!  Don’t upgrade SHOULDs to MUSTs, acknowledge that you got your MUSTs done, and move on to your SHOULDs or COULDs.  Remember the whole point of MUSTs is not just to help remind you of what’s most important for you, it’s about survival

One thing to note is that if the word MUST for you creates a sense of heaviness or you find you no longer look forward to getting your results, then change your language.  Rather than your MUST dos, think of your CHOOSE TOs.  This puts you back in power and this simple reframing can help you get your energy back.

Why Priorities Matter
A laundry list of To Dos where everything is equally important is a recipe for failure.  Time spent identifying your three MUSTs for the day is more than worth it because it gives you flexibility.  Without knowing your three MUSTs, everything is mushy and you have nothing to steer by.  At the end of the day, you will likely wonder how you worked on what you thought were so many important things yet without anything important getting done.

MUST becomes increasingly clear under high pressure.  People who do their minimum MUSTs each day tend to do well.  When push comes to shove, these people pick one MUST each day for themselves, their job, and their family to keep things in check, when when chaos, pressure, and overload abound.

Why MUSTs?
There are many reasons for using MUSTs, but here are a few to consider:

  • MUST means something.  Contrast this with asking “What is Priority 1 this week?” Your mind has to translate what Priority 1 really means.  With MUST, SHOULD, COULD your mind can categorize the tasks much easier instead of translating into some other systems.
  • Nailing your MUSTs builds a rhythm of results.  Without your three MUSTs to prioritize with, everything looks important.  This is the source of overwhelm, shutdown, burnout, and lack of focus.   When you start with a firm foundation of MUSTs, then you can drive your day. You can prioritize incoming requests against your three. As you finish something, you can take more on. This is how you find your rhythm for results.
  • MUSTs help you put your most important issues out on the table.   It’s the heart of focus and prioritization and outcomes.  If you don’t know you’re on your best path, you can’t commit all the way.  When you know you’re working on the most important things right now in the moment for your most important outcomes, then you can fully engage and you’re no longer worried about all the other noise.
  • MUSTs help you quickly identify your minimum for the day.  The MUST is for brutal clarity around the minimum — I’ve never found a more cutting word to get somebody to absolutely focus on just that (and even with *MUST* folks still bite off too much or don’t prioritize their best.)   The commitment of MUST forces you to choose definitely doable in the available time and not overstep.  Taking on too much is where folks fall down.
  • MUSTs help you create a glide path for the rest of your day.  Take care of your basic needs and MUSTs first in the day so it’s a glide path for the rest.  A simple way to think about your day is MUSTs, then SHOULDs, then COULDs.
  • MUSTs enable incredible flexibility.  If you know your three MUSTs for the day, you then can prioritize against them.  If something more important comes in, you can bump something out as a deliberate trade, yet still remain agile.

Balance Against What You Want
As you deal with your MUSTs, one thing to keep in mind is that you should balance them against what you ultimately want.  You can use three simple questions to help you checkpoint:

  1. What do you want?
  2. What do you want to accomplish?
  3. Who do you want to be and what experiences do you want to create?

Today’s Assignment

  1. Identify your MUSTs for the day.
  2. Identify your MUSTs for the week.

My Related Posts

Photo by David de Mallorca.


  1. J.D.,
    I like how these parts just wham! stood out to me today..

    # What do you want?
    # What do you want to accomplish?..

    I think I will shift my wants more to adding “what do I want to accomplish”.. it always encourages more depth of ‘the whole picture’, and not just a distraction and settling because of an emotional feeling. I still struggle with that mindset of looking way ahead as a feeler. Meanwhile, I am a visionary, I just need more grounding on getting there to the place I see in my mind! Such as keeping a positive mindset about myself, resources, and utilizing my best energies in the present, not in the vision before its time.

    thanks! ~Jenn

  2. Hey J.D.,

    I’ve just caught up on my commenting and realized you are on day 9 of this neat blogging series. Will cycle back and read the others.

    First of all, Cool Hand Luke is one of my favorite movies. Love to gab about that great flick. (hmmm. maybe I’ll do a movie series soon.)

    Yes, accomplishing even one “choose to” a day that will make a difference in my life makes good sense. Sometimes the secondary ones creep up the list because they intentionally distract us from the one we Need to do but don’t for a wild variety of reasons.

    Today I needed to work on a fun logo design and I did! Got a late start but the shortened window forced me to work smarter and more creatively.

    Makes a lot of sense to pay attention to several meaningful activities rather than dividing my attention over so many that I end up avoiding the long list.

    thx. G.

  3. @ Jenn — Yes — questions are the way to cut to the chase and get results!

    @ Giulietta — Cool Hand Luke rocks! If you stick with these 30 days, I can all but guarantee you will find a few gems that change your game along the way.

  4. Hi JD .. I like the way you’ve honed in on “Must” and that it ties in with your future .. the necessity of life .. getting past the must will give us freedom.

    It’s so easy to spend time on things we should do and could do rather than those musts. This was brought home to me with the house move – I had to move (and therefore sort things out) .. but the should of visiting my mother on one or two days got left out – not something I wished to happen – but needs must.

    Thanks for elucidating the message so clearly .. Hilary

  5. @ Hilary — Thank you. I’ve seen too many people and businesses fail because they lose sight of the MUSTs. They try to run before they can crawl, they over-extend themselves, and they fail at the basics instead of taking care of the basics, building a firm foundation, and working from there.

    I can’t emphasize the MUSTs enough. It’s about truly knowing the minimum you need to do, so that everything else you do, doesn’t suffer, and so that when you need to cut back or de-invest your time and energy in things, you can make better choices with skill.

  6. Day 9 – Prioritize Your Day with MUST, SHOULD, COULD – Sources of Insight « Things Cricket Wants on her RSS Feed

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  7. I love this! It is a great way to think about the things that really matter most, and the things that all too often I spend time on that really don’t. I just shared with my readers on a post about the power of focusing.

    Thanks JD!

    • Hey Liz — thank you!

      Our habits and practices, and especially our language, help us master the days of our lives.

      When we *choose* our MUSTs wisely, we make space for the right things, at the right time.

  8. Thank you for the kind reply for my post yesterday. I experienced the Zeigarnik effect for years. No wonder I wasn’t good at letting go or sloughing off at ease as I was so tired from “psychic weight.” I love Brain Dump Files…it’s like the bottomless box to keep our toys/ideas until we want to play with them again…

    I am going to review all the brain dump files (February-March 2014) tomorrow or this weekend to sort them into my Must/Should/Could file. Most probably lots of ideas would fall under “Could” but not Must or Should. I don’t mind if I am wrong… I want to do this more routinely instead of piling them up for long.

    • I really like your bottomless toy box metaphor.

      It rings true.

      I find it so much easier to let things go, by having a safe place to let things go, or at least set aside for the time being.

      One of the things I constantly remind myself is how I can generate new value on a daily basis. To do so, I need to travel light. If something in the past helps inspire action or clarity, great. Otherwise, I don’t want to get bogged down.

      Sometimes, there are things that I need to really keep track of, in which case, a simple, long list works fine. In most cases, what I’m really doing is creating a simple flow of “out with the old, in with the new” and creating more chances and opportunities to take action on things that matter.

      The real key in all this is using “time” as our friend. There’s only so much I can do today. There’s only so much I can do in this week. All my lists really ever need to do is to prompt or remind me “just enough.”

      And it’s that “just enough” support that frees me up to move up the stack and make the most of my moments, days, weeks, and more.

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